Jordan Shapiro

Jordan Shapiro I write about game-based learning, technology, depth psychology, philosophy, and life. View full author page



Tech

Learn Algebra in Under 45 Minutes with Video Games


On average, it took 41 minutes and 44 seconds for students to master Algebra skills during the Washington State Algebra Challenge using the DragonBox App.

The Challenge, co-sponsored by Washington University’s Center for Game Science and the Technology Alliance included 4,192 K-12 students. Together, they solved 390,935 equations over the course of 5 days in early June. According to the Challenge’s calculations, that’s 6 months, 28 days, and 2 hours worth of algebra work.

What’s even more impressive, “of those students who played at least 1.5 hours, 92.9% achieved mastery. Of those students who played at least 1 hour, 83.8% achieved mastery. Of those students who played at least 45 minutes, 73.4% achieved mastery.”

Why didn’t this exist when I was a kid? I hated algebra. I was terrified of variables. I avoided it at all costs. Now, I find myself playing DragonBox for fun.

The original DragonBox app is one thing that initially sparked my enthusiasm for game based learning. Long before I had ever heard the term “joint media engagement.” I wrote a post on Forbes entitled, “Why Playing Video Games Makes You A Better Dad.” I drew from my background in Jungian and Archetypal psychology to explain what seemed intuitively right to me: it is more important to make sure you ARE playing with your kids than it is to worry about WHAT you’re playing. Among the many responses to that piece, I received an email challenging me to play DragonBox with my kids. I downloaded the app and was astonished to see how quickly my son (then 7) learned to do complex algebraic equations.

I was blown away. I felt like I glimpsed a future in which kids love to learn. I imagined schools full of enthusiastic kids discovering that both life and work can be play. If DragonBox could make algebra exciting, what else could we expect from interactive learning? I’ve been exploring the space ever since, meeting some incredible people with big hearts and huge dreams for the future of education.

Jean-Baptiste Huynh, the creator of DragonBox, emailed me a few days ago. He wanted me to know about the new updated version of DragonBox 12+ and to direct my attention to the impressive results of the Challenge.

DragonBox Algebra 12+ updates the original with some new graphics, new music, improved feedback, a faster pace, and more levels. Now there’s more fortified feedback encouraging learners to eliminate unnecessary operations, more dynamic positive and adaptive reinforcement, cooler dragon artwork, and more equations to solve. The updates are impressive, showing me that Huynh is a fantastic teacher. He took an already impressive learning platform and updated it to make it even stronger. He’s incrementally improved the app in the same way that I update my curriculum and lesson plans after each experience in the classroom at Temple University. This is one of the criteria of good teaching: ongoing assessment not only of your students, but also of your own performance–self study.

Now my five year old is playing and he’s mesmerized by the goal of feeding the dragon. He’s learning the rules quickly and mastering the game. I watched him breeze through the first two chapters in about 20 minutes.

Soon, however, I was wondering about why we value Algebra in the first place: abstract thinking, problem solving skills? Were my kids simply learning mechanical processes, algebraic procedure? Or were they also gaining the kinds of cognitive skills that led educators to value algebra class in the first place?

I quickly typed an email to Huynh to see what he thought.

Jordan: Broadly speaking, why is algebra important?
Jean-Baptiste: Algebra is important for MY kids because I want them to be able to understand how the world works: physics, science etc. You need algebra to understand the math behind these disciplines. Also, I want my kids to make good decisions–economics, finance, statistics all require algebra.

I’ve seen that DragonBox teaches my kids the mechanics of algebra processes. Do you have any sense of whether or not this translates to development of abstract and critical thinking skills? DragonBox does 50% of the job. We need to teach the rest. For example, we’d need to set up an equation from a given situation to complete abstract thinking skills. 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 (we have a pdf for teachers and parents describing best practices for transitioning from tablet to paper). Honestly, I’ve yet to see a kid sit down with DragonBox and not learn some algebra.

If kindergarten kids can learn with DragonBox, should we be teaching algebra earlier than we normally do? We should create tools that children can use when they are ready and mature enough to use them. These tools should be available from a very early age. We are too much focused on teaching and not enough on learning. Teachers teach, learners learn. Two different perspectives, two different worlds.To teach people is to my mind not effective. On the other hand, inviting people to learn when they are ready and motivated is extremely effective. Motivation from learners should be key in school. And there is only one thing you can do there: listen to kids. It will create a much better society if we do that and kids will learn much much faster!

How do games like DragonBox fit into the future of curriculum development? Games like DragonBox will be must-have for any educator that is learner centric. For 3 reasons: 1) they 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.

What do you think game-based learning means for the future of education? DragonBox questions the whole system. DragonBox implies that grade and age-level thinking is archaic. Why do we learn stuff at a certain age? Why should it take this amount of time to learn it? Who has decided that? Is it scientific? I think DragonBox helps us shift from the question “is individualized learning possible?” To the statement: “let’s individualize learning!”

 

Jordan Shapiro is author of the pop philosophy treatise: FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss and co-editor of Occupy Psyche: Jungian and Archetypal Perspectives on a Movement. For information on his upcoming books and events click here.

 


  • Michelle Riverson

    My six year old and I play Dragonbox all the time, she loves it! Great article!


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