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How can you use educational games to improve learning outcomes?

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Games foster engagement – a necessity for any learning experience – but how can you transfer knowledge acquired through gamification to the classroom?

When math teacher Jean-Baptiste Huynh noticed many of his bright students struggling with algebra, he figured there was a problem with the way the subject was taught, not with the students themselves. Because of this, he created the game DragonBox.

Award-winning game

DragonBox is a popular multiplatform math game which has won numerous international prizes. When President Obama asked his digital media advisor Mark DeLoura what his favourite educational games were, Dragonbox was at the top of his list. “Obama wants to see Sasha and Malia playing games that teach them something,” Mark says, “DragonBox is awesome. After 90 minutes of play, 93 percent of kids could solve algebraic equations.”

The game hides algebra behind what looks like an ordinary puzzle, complete with friendly monsters and animation. According to its website, DragonBox “secretly teaches young kids the basics of algebra by making it a game.” Numbers and letters are initially represented by colourful objects, and are gradually replaced with mathematical expressions. Through trial, error and constant feedback (an important component in learning), students learn algebra concepts.

Game maker Jean-Baptiste explains, “Some parents have the impression that DragonBox does not teach mathematics. On the contrary, the game is focusing on mathematical rules from the very first level to the very end of the game. The secret is that we don’t try to make algebra concrete. Instead we start with the abstract, which is how PhD students and mathematicians tell us they experience math. For them algebra is objects, not numbers.”

The language of mathematics

Kit Eaton, App Smart columnist for The Times says, “What impresses me about DragonBox is that its clever design can teach all sorts of complex algebra concepts without making children feel as if they are learning mathematics.”

But is that a problem? If students don’t feel like they are learning mathematics, will this be of value to them in the classroom and their future jobs? When students try to express what they’ve learned in DragonBox they often find that they don’t possess the proper mathematical terminology to do so. Students know how to solve equations in the game, but they don’t learn the language necessary to demonstrate their knowledge (through terms like factoring, exponents and ratios).

Math terminology is necessary in order to communicate with fellow mathematicians and future colleagues. In many countries, grade school students are now expected to be able to communicate their mathematical understanding using words, as well as numbers and equations. It’s wonderful that DragonBox improves students’ attitudes toward algebra and secretly teaches math, but how can the knowledge acquired in the game be translated to the classroom and future careers?

That’s where teachers come in!

“DragonBox is about the mechanics of algebra processes and abstraction. It is 100% algebra math skills, but it doesn’t replace teachers. It requires help to transfer the knowledge to pencil and paper,” admits Jean-Baptiste.

Teachers need to explain a few concepts to students to help them apply what they have learned while playing DragonBox:

  1. The dividing line between the two sides of the box in the game represents the equal (=) sign in equations.
  2. All operations (additions, multiplications, etc.) have to be made on both sides of the equation.
  3. Teachers must help students apply the appropriate mathematical terminology to what they have learned.

The DragonBox website is full of pedagogical resources. There are practical guides and worksheets for teachers to use when moving from the game to traditional equation solving:

A test performed at Nedre Bekkelaget school showed that, after two hours of playing, almost 80% of students were able to solve equations containing a combination of fractions and addition. Teacher Linda Tomtsveen tried the game with her students for 90 minutes and reported, “The students think it’s really fun. They were very good at making connections from the game to working on paper later. This won’t replace traditional teaching, but it can be a very important supplement.”

Jean-Baptiste discusses the future of gamification, “Games like DragonBox will become a must-have for any educator that is learner centric, for three reasons:

  1. Teachers can deliver a learning experience which is fine-tuned for an individual.
  2. The feedback loop in a game makes it possible to achieve formative assessment and learning at the same time.
  3. Social elements can be easily incorporated.

This is the holy trinity: individualized learning, non-intrusive assessment, and socialization.”

Read more about DragonBox here.

We’d love to hear from those of you who have tried gamification at your school! Please share your experiences in the comment section below.