When I was a teacher, this was a question I heard almost daily. I would imagine that has not changed much since I left the classroom five years ago, particularly when it comes to math. Students are naturally inquisitive about what they are learning and why, as they should be. However, as teachers continually make a concerted effort to connect mathematics and common, everyday occurrences in students’ lives outside of the classroom, this question will go the way of the chalkboard. So, to answer a question with a question: What are students doing when not at school?
Students don’t just play board games like they used to, instead they look to find those same “board” game in Web-based or app format to download to a phone, tablet, etc. While math has always been used in games like Monopoly or Life, today, more and more video games exist where math is learned in context as well. Games, especially educational games, should foster inquisitive, critical thinking in a way that is fun and helps to make the connections between what is being learned and where it can be applied.
Students using skills learned to solve word problems move the proof of learning from memorization to actual comprehension and application of the math subject. But even the most engaging, fun word problems can bore 21st century students. Real life nowadays isn’t going home and practicing your timetables or memorizing flash cards, it is watching videos on YouTube and writing insightful comments; it is applying critical thinking across multiple verticals. Well-made games give kids a platform to prove comprehension and allow practice that doesn’t seem repetitive but appears to be a reward for completing an assignment or finishing your class work.
When the shift to technology first began to happen in math class, I remember trying to integrate electronic spreadsheets into the lesson or using the Web to research a specific math subject. The reality is that most kids are not going home and learning new things on Wikipedia or playing with spreadsheet data. They are going home and social networking and playing video games, so why not help them make this connection in an atmosphere where they are comfortable?
By including educational games that are both intriguing and challenging, students are learning without knowing, practicing without feeling the repetition, and finding ways to connect and collaborate with others that have never existed before. For years teachers have dreamed of students calling each other to collaborate, getting help on their math homework and sharing ideas. By including math games that include collaboration features, this dream has become a reality. Additionally, math games have provided learners another avenue to connect what they are learning to real-life applications.
I post a challenge to creators of math learning games to go a step further in connecting math to students. Yes, it was great when we turned Pac-Man into a game where instead of pellets the Pac-Man eats numbers, but even those games are growing stale with today’s students. Math games today need to truly integrate math naturally, connecting a concept to where it would play a role in students’ everyday lives, like Monopoly has done for years. If a learning game is done correctly a student may not see the difference between the games they play at school and the games they play at home. Before we know it, the question, “When are we ever going to use this?”, will completely disappear.
Here are some online math games that represent the future of learning games and can help students make connections between what they are learning and real life application of a concept:
Michael Edlavitch, a former middle-school math teacher, is CEO and founder of Hooda Math, a provider of free online K-12 math games.