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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Thinking Games…or Just Thinking

In a post I wrote about this time last year, I described a part of our day that we planned to have this year, and hoped it would be time to explore passions in school. While my dream for this time hasn’t quite come to pass, it has settled into a somewhat reasonable routine for the 40-50 kids I have each day for 40 minutes and my kids are experiencing a part of the day where they have some control over what they do and how they do it.  We have some interesting activities going on, and today I decided ask my kids how they would plan out their week if they had total control over it.
I was fascinated by the responses and may go into more detail about that some other time. What surprised me was how much my kids like to play math games, as most of them asked for at least one day to play math games–either online, OR from the collection I have in my room.

(You have to understand I collect interesting math games that work on skills other than rote computation–and I have some rather hard-to-find games, as well as unusual ones, in my collection. So when kids come to my room and I give them games to play, they are strategy games-games that work explicitly on skills like understanding and using probability and/or chance, reinforcing computational skills in context or building visual-spatial orientation and envisioning.)

The kids today asked for time to play those games, such as

  • Yahtzee Free For All–which adds the strategy of taking points from others to the simple reinforcement of multiplication skills
  • Skip Bo Dice-which requires students to constantly assess whether it is worth the points they have earned to continue rolling the dice on a turn or whether they should pass the cup.
  • Blockus Trigon, which requires kids to think Blockus with triangles and triangle-based shapes
  • Shift Tac Toe-which pushes kids to think in three dimensions as they can shift the tokens left to right.
  • 3-D Tetris, which is just downright HARD for me–and kids love the challenge of moving an object virtually to fit into what I refer to as a rectangular tunnel.

And there are my iPod apps as well–Math Tables has a twist, where both the problem and the answer are provided, and you just need to match the answer to the correct problem. Number Line asks players to place fractions and decimals in a continuum–from least to greatest. It’s pretty tricky, in that the line moves as you put the  quantities in place. Both of these are games where kids compete against themselves–both are timed, so they can aim to beat their own time, but we talk smart moves–and how to play so that the interplay between time and increasing accuracy is maximized.

But what brought me to thinking in depth about these games was a tweet from a friend earlier today that made me think about why my kids like these kinds of games so very much. I have an advantage over most teachers in that I get to see kids from all grade levels, K-5, so I can see how kids of varying ages and levels approach the same games. I see, if you will, a progression of what kids think is important in games as they gain more sophistication and mathematical understanding.

What I see from kids who are thoughtful about their learning is a focus on the strategic thinking and sharing ways of working to play the game more efficiently or effectively.  For example, as kids play Number Line on the iPod, I hear them say things like “I place the ones I know are close–like .4 and 1/2 –first .  Then I scan the others quickly to make sure there are none between them.” Or, “I place the biggest one and the smallest one first, if I can see them quickly.” “I also look for ninths and single digit decimals.  They’re usually easy to place because the ninths are just the double digit of the numerator.”  As kids share strategies they use, they also help others with clues to converting decimals to fractions and vice versa.

Inexperienced kids playing a game are usually incredibly competitive–so they think about winning.  For them, it’s not about the game, or HOW they play it, but about who wins (and loses.) Then, as they gain more experience in my room and see older kids play the games–or they are in games with the older kids, they hear the sharing of strategies.  They realize the “big kids” aren’t there to beat them, but instead to try to get better at the game.  So the emphasis changes from winning to figuring out how to play the game more effectively. They see that the game is simply a means to thinking.

When are we going to look at school as a means to thinking?  How can we foster this kind of learning/sharing/thinking in our classrooms around content more, and more naturally?  How can we support learning that isn’t about a grade or an outside evaluation, but about getting better at what you’re trying to do?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


2 thoughts on “Thinking Games…or Just Thinking

  1. We’ve started a design thinking workshop during faculty meetings to figure out how to end our year and balance our goals, vision, and mission against testing and prep. One of the brainstormed items we came up with was to ask kids to choose a project that they could play with and explore throughout the rest of the year without finishing or necessarily producing a product for summative evaluation.

    I have some students who do this anyway – I often have to run interference for them against myself.

    My favorite thing about watching gamers mature is their shift from frustration, trial and error, and the pursuit of stuff to flow, intentional steps towards mastery, and the desire to set their own goals inside a game-like environment.

    I have two students who have abandoned Minecraft to use MCEdit, which makes Minecraft into a kind of AutoCAD tool.

    They are playing the metagame to finish projects they started inside the game. They evaluated the game as too limited to accomplish their goals and downloaded a mod that let them manipulate the game to meet their goals – not to cheat or exploit a goal to win – but to complete scale models of the Parthenon and Colosseum.

    I think games are an overlooked and essential diagnostic tool for students’ cognitive, emotional, and social development. Kids’ difficulties in games mirror their difficulties in learning, socializing, and navigating their lives, and we can use them as diagnostic tools in the classroom.

    I probably ought to write some on that this Summer, if not sooner. Thanks for the prompt, Paula –

    What games have the kids brought to you? We’re going to see what kind of learning we articulate from Portal 2 tomorrow thanks to mine.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 20, 2011, 7:08 pm
  2. What I really hear here is, when given free choice, opportunities to grow and explore, and in a supported environment of mixed levels of expertise:

    “the emphasis changes from winning to figuring out how to play the game more effectively.”

    Kids share strategies and work cooperatively. As you say, why not the whole school designed much more in this way? Can you make it happen at your school?

    And Paula, what did the kids say about what their week would be like if they had total free choice?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2011, 9:46 pm

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