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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2013 > Article Detail

MACROSCOPE

The Music of Math Games

Video games that provide good mathematics learning should look to the piano as a model

Keith Devlin

2013-03MacroDevlinFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSearch online for video games and apps that claim to help your children (or yourself) learn mathematics, and you will be presented with an impressively large inventory of hundreds of titles. Yet hardly any survive an initial filtering based on seven, very basic pedagogic “no-nos” that any game developer should follow if the goal is to use what is potentially an extremely powerful educational medium to help people learn math. A good math learning game or app should avoid:

• Confusing mathematics itself (which is really a way of thinking) with its representation (usually in symbols) on a flat, static surface.

• Presenting the mathematical activities as separate from the game action and game mechanics.

• Relegating the mathematics to a secondary activity, when it should be the main focus.

• Adding to the common perception that math is an obstacle that gets in the way of doing more enjoyable activities.

• Reinforcing the perception that math is built on arbitrary facts, rules and tricks that have no unified, underlying logic that makes sense.

• Encouraging students to try to answer quickly, without reflection.

• Contributing to the misunderstanding that math is so intrinsically uninteresting, it has to be sugar-coated.

Of the relatively few products that pass through this seven-grained filter—which means they probably at least don’t do too much harm—the majority focus not on learning and understanding but on mastering basic skills, such as the multiplicative number bonds (or “multiplication tables”). Such games don’t actually provide learning at all, but they do make good use of video game technology to take out of the classroom the acquisition of rote knowledge. This leaves the teacher more time and freedom to focus on the main goal of mathematics teaching, namely, the development of what I prefer to call “mathematical thinking.”

Many people have come to believe mathematics is the memorization of, and mastery at using, various formulas and symbolic procedures to solve encapsulated and essentially artificial problems. Such people typically have that impression of math because they have never been shown anything else. If mention of the word algebra automatically conjures up memorizing the use of the formula for solving a quadratic equation, chances are you had this kind of deficient school math education. For one thing, that’s not algebra but arithmetic; for another, it’s not at all representative of what algebra is, namely, thinking and reasoning about entire classes of numbers, using logic rather than arithmetic.




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