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Dr. David Dockterman is chief architect, learning sciences at Scholastic Education and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an educational software pioneer and has designed dozens of award-winning instructional technology programs.
A recent Joan Ganz Cooney Center survey of 500 educators found that half of all kindergarten through eighth grade teachers are now regularly using digital games in the classroom. Nearly one in five are using them
every day. It’s clear that in the age of the iPad, digital games are opening up a world of new possibilities for teaching and learning, and for increasing engagement in the classroom. But teachers must be reassured that the games they are using are connected to instructional goals.
As part of my work to develop educational math games, we established a process for creation and educational integrity. Here are the five areas we evaluated that teachers can also consider when trying to determine what games to offer their students.
1. Define the Learning Objective
For the math games we started with the Common Core State Standards(CCSS) for Math. Specifically, we looked at what math students need to know well by the end of third grade. The standards ask students to know how to identify any unknown in a math problem (3×4=? or ?x4=12 or 12÷?=3) and to be able to solve a math problem that uses multiples of 10 (3×4=12 or 30×4=120).
Sadly, research shows that many students don’t achieve these fundamental third-grade fluencies, even as they enter middle school and high school. To address this issue we created a learning objective: Build student speed and accuracy with different combinations of addition and multiplication problems, as well as computations with multiples of 10.
2. Describe the Learning Mechanic The learning mechanic represents the actions we want students to take that will reinforce the learning objective. If our primary learning objective, for instance, is improved speed and accuracy, then we might want the learning mechanic to include an element of time.
In our case, we wanted students to make choices about different combinations of numbers. We determined that a fixed pool of options would be the best way to push that decision-making process so we opted for a count-up timer rather than a countdown timer. This let the students take as long as they needed to figure things out. As they get better, they’ll see their times decrease.
3. Imagine What Students are Thinking
This element of the design might be the most critical. What do we want going through students’ heads as they are playing the game? Is it a quick retrieval process? 80 + 70 is 150. Got it. Is it about recognizing a pattern? If 10 x 30 is 300, then 100 x 30 must be 3,000. We use this articulation as a test against the final game design to make sure the child tester is thinking those targeted thoughts.
4. Pick a Game Mechanic
What’s the difference between a learning mechanic and a game mechanic? It’s important to the know the difference. Professional game designers have a lexicon for gaming elements that’s incredibly robust. They look at a learning mechanic of, for example, selecting the correct objects from a pool to match a target and come up with dozens of games built around that action. The games might include timers and a goal of clearing a board. Or they might involve collecting as many matches as possible while avoiding unwanted objects. We chose a clear-the-board game mechanic as the central focus.
5. Create a Theme Where the Mechanic Can Exist
Clearing the board can happen anywhere. It can be a somewhat familiar space, like an arcade where you pop balloons with a BB gun or a dirty floor where you mop up selected tiles. On the other hand, the space where the learning action occurs can be inventive and strange. Angry Birds being catapulted into space is not based on a familiar and real setting. It’s invented, and its originality is part of the draw.
The early prototypes of our game were called ADDitude and MULTItude. We had completed steps one through four. The games worked from a mathematical perspective and our student testers seemed to enjoy them. They were thinking the thoughts we wanted them thinking. However, we wanted more engagement, and a bit of whimsy to bring a smile along with mathematical challenges. Our creative artists threw out a bunch of wacky ideas. The great game designers at BlockDot also helped. One crazy notion led to another, and somehow we ended up with the game, Sushi Monster.
What does sushi have to do with arithmetic? Nothing, but it also doesn’t interfere with the math tasks. Sustaining the learning objective, mechanic, and thought processes are the driving forces of our development. Everything is subservient to those first three steps. We’re working to build educational games, not games with some education tacked on. Keep that in mind as you look at the educational game options for your students and children.