Not long ago I spoke to a really angry mom at a business networking event. Somehow we got onto the topic of educational games, and this mom launched into a full-blown rant about technology in schools. She was convinced that her kid’s school had made a “stupid” decision to give students iPads. The iPad had destroyed her son’s stellar progress in math. Yup, the iPad did that.
Why? No more was the kid peacefully sitting at the kitchen desk happily laboring away on math problems with pencil and paper. Instead, he was using the iPad to “make PowerPoints all night…PowerPoints!”
I was skeptical about this mom’s belief that an iPad had destroyed her teenager’s academic progress. Nevertheless, her distress was real, and it really showed: she was red-faced and spitting mad at the school district. “What were they thinking?” she cried.
So, what were they thinking?
Well, they were thinking that nowadays there are better ways to learn than slaving away all night with pencil and paper. They were thinking that technology literacy is no longer optional. Tech literacy makes kids employable. And it makes our country stronger. Even the White House says so. Here’s a quote from a special report on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education: “Video games and detailed simulations have achieved levels of sophistication that make them into compelling tools for learning inside and outside of classrooms. They require and foster many 21st-century skills such as systems thinking, problem solving, information tracking and resourcing, collaborative information sharing, leadership, teamwork, and communication.”
Partially driven by the need for better STEM education, the latest trend is to stop requiring kids to leave their devices at home and to encourage kids to use technology in the classroom. The very latest trend is called BYOD—bring your own device.
BYOD to the Classroom? Horrors!
The Australian government is pushing BYOD, and Australian educator Chris Betcher thinks BYOD is a good option. He even advocates allowing some games on the devices kids bring to school.
Of course, BYOD is not a panacea. The use of technology in the classroom needs to be closely monitored by properly trained teachers, and that’s a tall order in a time of scarce resources and large class sizes. Classroom management, security, and inequality of access have to be addressed as well. Kids already have enough to be embarrassed about—they shouldn’t have to deal with being embarrassed about their devices.
Math Games in Particular
When kids have devices in school, they can use math-teaching games like Dragon Box, which teaches algebra (and now geometry) without being obvious about it. The headline on the game’s website is “Secretly teaches algebra to your children.”
I’ve played Dragon Box on my Android phone. It’s colorful and fun. I can’t say it’s more fun than Candy Crush Saga (it isn’t), but kids who play it for even an hour could very well realize that the algebra problems that strike fear into their souls aren’t so different from the levels in a video game. There are rules, and you move symbols according to those rules until you’ve got x “all by itself” on one side. Problem solved!
Journalist Jordan Shapiro, in an excellent interview with Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, explains why games may offer a far superior way to teach math: “Video games are a much better representation system for learning mathematics than are symbolic representations on a static page. If the technology had been available in 350BCE, Euclid’s Elements would have been a video game.”
Get Over Yourself, iPad-Hating Mom!
I’m more convinced than ever that the iPad-hating mom I met is wrong. Technology, all kinds of devices, and games do belong in classrooms. Parents should take the time and make the effort to understand all the reasons why.