I’ve been thinking a lot lately about developing soft skills in my students. Although I think it is tremendously important to teach my students a lot of math, I think it is equally important to help them develop into well-rounded human beings. As an added bonus, these softer skills are in most cases essential to further academic development.
I’ve often struggled with the disconnect between how students confront their lives outside of school versus inside. Most of my students seem to treat school as a mystical place where learning happens completely differently from outside of school. I think it’s as a direct result of this that many students struggle in school, even as they are successful learners in the “real world”. I want to help my students see that good learning frequently looks the same, no matter where it happens.
Enter the video game.
Most of my students play video games. Even if all they play is casual iOS or Facebook games, my students understand games and what it means to be successful in them. And the thing is, the same skills that allow players to be successful in video games allow people to be successful in life. Games encourage perseverance, learning from failure, critical thinking and problem solving, cooperation, goal setting and follow-through, exploration, experimentation, intrinsic motivation, and playfulness—all of which are associated with real-world success. If you have any interest at all in the intersection of video games and learning, I can’t recommend enough Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken.
I really want to spend a whole period or two in the beginning of the year playing a game and explicitly linking it to the process of learning and developing a growth mindset about math. I’m still looking for the perfect iOS game, because in a perfect world, none of my students will actually know how to play the game when we start. Which means no Angry Birds, Candy Crush, etc.
If I was still in a computer lab next year, I’d use Perspective. This game is especially nice because it’s short—about an hour and a half, depending on your puzzle solving skills—and radically different from most other games. The point of the game is to lead the blue man to the goal by manipulating the camera perspective. Blue areas are safe for the blue man, and orange areas kill him immediately on impact. If the camera is closer to the man, he appears smaller; if it is further away, he grows in size. The concepts of foreground and background, safety and danger, are always in flux, as they depends entirely on how the camera is oriented. It is a very difficult game to describe, but is entirely self-consistent and makes more sense as you play and make sense of the game world.
Here’s how I envision class going. Students open the game and have no idea what to do. I invite them to play and try to beat the game, and then set them free. After a short time, I ask students to stop and reflect for a moment, in writing, on their thoughts as they’ve been playing. We might talk about our thoughts so far, and then I’d let them go again. I am 95% sure that this would eventually involve students asking each other for help and guidance. I would make sure that this looked more like guiding and teaching than taking-the-controller. We would stop again as the average student was about 50%–75% done with the game to write and share more reflections. As students finished, I would ask them to reflect one last time and then write a little on what they think this has to do with math. Then we’d talk as a whole group about learning in the game, learning outside of school, and learning in our math classroom. As the year progressed, we’d have a shared, successful learning experience in the game that we could go back to whenever learning math became difficult.
Enter the Common Core.
Here’s what students are doing as they play the game: making sense of problems (and the game world) and persevering in solving them; reasoning abstractly; constructing viable arguments, critiquing the reasoning of others, and attending to precision as they work together; and using appropriate tools strategically as they learn to make use of the tools the game provides to solve each puzzle. If two days of class time can impress upon students the importance of these skills the way I think they can, then I can’t think of a better use of that time in the beginning of the year.