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STANFORD Magazine: Serious Games As An Apollo Program For Math Education

Via: STANFORD Magazine May-June 2010 – Teaching Math

KEITH DEVLIN is executive director of the Humanities Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute at Stanford.

His recent article Wanted: An Apollo Program for Middle-School Math, published under Farm Report News – Lecture Circuit, takes a stand for videogames adoption on a national level to produce a turn around in the mathematics performance of high school students.

Here is the full article:

“The United States ranks much worse than most of our economic competitors in the mathematics performance of high school students. That national slide begins in middle school.”

“We now have the knowledge to turn that around and raise the level of mathematics performance across the board, within a single school generation, so that we are No. 1 in the world. All it would take is a national investment of between $150 million and $250 million over a five-year period to build and put in place a system that could achieve that change with the existing school system and the existing teachers. The focus would be that middle-school math where the national slide begins.”

“That sounds like a lot of money for an up-front investment. But thought of as a national initiative, it's a tiny amount. The payoff for the nation's health and future prosperity is far greater than the long-term benefits we got from the far greater investment in NASA's Apollo Program to put a man on the Moon.”

“Admittedly, the comparison extends to the risk of failure as well. I believe we can do it because I've spent the last four years working with a large software company trying to do just that; but until we actually build such a system and schoolchildren start to use it, we clearly cannot be totally certain, any more than we were sure Neil Armstrong would complete the round trip safely.”

“Whether we actually will launch an Apollo Program For Mathematics Education I don't know. When the company I was working with realized it would cost several times more than the $50 million budgeted, they abandoned the project. From the standpoint of a commercial enterprise, that's absolutely understandable; but thought of as a national investment in our future, even $250 million is peanuts when you consider that this would be a onetime cost. Once the system is built, every child in the nation could use it, year after year, and the only recurring costs would be maintenance of the system.”

“What is this magic system? A simulator. In other words, we should teach children math the same way airlines train pilots, medical schools (now) train surgeons, and the U.S. Army trains soldiers. Sound crazy? If it does, it's because you probably have a false impression both of the technology we were trying to use and of what mathematics is.”

“The technology? Short of building the system and getting kids to use it, there is every reason to expect the approach I am advocating will be extremely effective. Why? Because today's students have a natural affinity for this technology. There is another name for digital simulators. We call them videogames. True, for some readers, probably most readers over 30, that word might evoke an image of fast-action shooter games. But remember, books range from trashy novels to great works of art and, perhaps more to my point, textbooks. The large software company I was working with was a videogame company.”

Math Is Not Something You Know, It's Something You Do

“And mathematics? Math is not something you know, it's something you do. At heart, mathematics is a way of thinking about problems in the world. Yet, almost all attempts to improve middle-school math education have ignored the thinking and focused on improving basic skills. Get that thinking right, however, and the skills—which are the scaffolding for that way of thinking—come easily.”

“Numerous studies, over many years, have shown that ordinary people of all ages can achieve mastery of middle-school mathematics when they need it to do something that matters to them. They master it rapidly to a level of 98 percent accuracy. The fancy name for this kind of process is "situated learning," and Stanford was one of the pioneers in this area, but in practice it's just something that evolution has equipped humans to do.”

“So why haven't we been teaching middle-school math this way for generations? Because it's impossible to provide full curriculum coverage this way, even to a single person, let alone to class-sized groups of children. With videogame technology, however, you can.”

“Our starting point was the hugely successful online fantasy game World of Warcraft, which currently has over 15 million players. That game is played in a fully immersive, 3D-rendered, virtual world. It took five years to build, at a cost of $50,000,000, which is where we got our initial price estimate. What we did not know at the outset was just how much more difficult (hence more costly) it would be to build such an environment that incorporates learning experiences covering all of middle-school math.”

“The cost is why I think it could be done only on a national level. But the payoff would be huge. As a nation, I don't think we can afford not to try.”