Written by Kira Gavalakis
What did a failed math test look like when you were in school? For some, it was a harsh scolding. For others, it was being grounded for two weeks. And sometimes, if you were lucky, it was just a brief conversation following a regular old day.
Whether we realize it or not, emotions are attached to math in most -- if not, all -- families. And that’s the biggest problem of all; attaching meaning to learning.
Think about if you were a coach for young basketball players. This player made a silly mistake that you know they wouldn’t make if they were paying attention, but you see that in between plays, they’re on their phone and talking to their friends instead of getting in the zone. Now, they try to shoot, and they miss. You might feel a whole ton of feelings; frustration, anger, disappointment. But at the end of the day, neither of you can deny that the ball didn’t go in the hoop.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get upset at getting Sudoku wrong. Why? Because they know it’s a game! But all of a sudden, if a child fails a math test, it’s no longer a game. It’s their intelligence. It’s their ability to graduate high school. It’s their potential to get into college.
So, there’s punishment. They get grounded, or they don’t get ice cream that night. But the problem is that a child’s understanding is being overshadowed by their parent’s feelings. The meaning is getting behind the conceptual understanding of math.
So, what’s the solution to this? Gamification. Logistically, what gamification for education does is eliminate the meaning in math, and instead turns it into a simple pass/fail experience. If they get a problem wrong, so what? It’s just a game. Now, what a successful gamification tool does is keep kids sitting in those problems long enough to actually get a solution. That way, kids are focusing on the problem and the understanding, instead of getting a passing grade so they don’t get punished.
So let’s get a little bit into what exactly is taking the meaning away in gamification -- the score.
If a student has a score around a math exercise instead of a grade, they’ll naturally focus on their understanding of the concepts rather than how many questions they’re getting wrong. They’ll be less in-their-head about what their grade will be and more determined to get an overall higher score so they can continue improving and getting into the next level.
The problem is, when kids take tests, they try to avoid feeling bad from getting a question wrong. The attention is solely around not getting punished or getting a certain letter grade, thus, they start blaming the problem.
“This was a trick question -- not fair.”
“She made this problem extra hard for us.”
“That problem wasn’t on the study guide!”
When the focus is on the problem, it’s about justice, emotions and meaning. But when the emotion is taken away from the problem, it’s about the solution.
But what really should be happening is to let a child sit with themselves in the problem. Give them the muscle and mind-memory to understand how that problem is solved so no matter how it’s presented to them, they understand what it’s asking, and how to answer it. And conceptualize how to solve the problem not just in one situation, but in every situation.
When we talk about gamification for education, we’re talking about a method that’s taking away meaning from math, so instead of seeing meaning from a wrong answer, we’re seeing growth from a wrong answer. But what we’re also seeing is a process that’s conceptualizing ideas into tangible pieces.
When a child is learning math on a piece of paper, they’re seeing solely numbers. It’s no wonder that they’re just trying to memorize concepts and terms but not the actual way things are done.
In a proper gamification app, the tool is helping supplement the child’s learning in a way they can understand; a tactile, hands-on approach. They’re counting actual objects, not just seeing numbers. They’re putting their concepts into play and seeing how it relates to real-world settings, even though it’s in a virtual one.
Gamification for education is really taking anything that somebody wouldn’t consider a game and turning it into a game. But gamification is in fact a broad term. Many different companies can use it to describe all sorts of platforms, whether they’re successful or not.
So, what you need to look for in a gamification platform is a tool that won’t sacrifice the integrity of the education for the sake of being fun. There are a lot of companies that will boast great parent and children reviews, saying that kids love the platform and that it’s teaching them. But if it’s not strategically placing problem after problem there for kids to uncover the actual solution and not just the surface-level problem, as well as a score that they can focus on, you might as well be giving them Angry Birds.
When I developed Elephant Learning, I made sure that we’d never sacrifice the actual educational aspect of the tool. That’s why the tool is used to continuously expose its users to the very problems that they’re struggling with, while also keeping their eyes on their Elephant Age, so they can work on a problem while also making it engaging, challenging, and detached.
So moving forward, how can we start looking at our kids’ math performance in a new light? Eliminating the emotion. Seeing our kids’ performance as a statement of fact, not a conscious decision on their part. And using a gamified tool like Elephant Learning to help them supplement their math understanding in a way that is both engaging and holistic, teaching your children how to get a problem right, not just what the answer is.
Our children’s learning can start with us and our attitude. And with gamification, it’s about getting rid of the attitude!
Math anxiety — a fear of getting math concepts and problems wrong and the resulting avoidance of math because of that — is something I’ve seen many times over my life and not just in children. It’s just as prevalent in adults and, believe it or not, despite my PhD in math, I experienced math anxiety as a child, too. While some children allowed their math anxiety to grow into a lifelong avoidance of math, mine fueled my competitive spirit and led me to push ahead of my peers, learning advanced math concepts even when I wasn’t able to get into the advanced math classes my middle school offered.
It is never too late to understand math. At a young age, many of us had the experience of being told that “we are just not a numbers person.” Books have been written on this social phenomena, and half of all Americans report Math anxiety. As it turns out, mathematics is really about learning jargon, a jargon that is so fundamental to humanity that we consider it vocabulary.
At the end of the day, algebra comes down to these three steps: define, recognize and produce. No matter if your child is in middle school or a PhD math program, it’s all about defining (can you understand it?), recognizing (can you identify it?), and producing (can you use it to produce results or new research?). If you can help your child with these three aspects of algebra at home, they’ll be better set up for success in the classroom and the future.
Most students learn to multiply in school by memorizing their multiplication tables. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing multiplication tables, but a child must know what the multiplication tables mean. If they’re multiplying seven by six, they need to have that picture in the back of their head of six groups of seven or seven groups of six. If not, they don’t have a true understanding of what multiplication actually is and it won’t serve them later on in life. Take, for example, a child who knows that five times four is 20. She can solve the multiplication problem with ease.