Teaching the physics of ‘Angry Birds’

Video games have become teaching tools, reports the Wall Street Journal.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

Teachers are using games such as “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach “math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion,” reports the Journal.

In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

Video games let students try, fail, reassess and try again, says Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

Games “provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies,” advocates say.

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Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, uses “Minecraft” to build virtual cities. He learned the game in an after-school club but it’s now used in his architecture class. The game lets his “imagination run wild,” says Villasenor.

Not everyone is happy to see video games in the classroom. “Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning,” reports the Journal.

The newest games are “aligned” with Common Core standards — or so the makers claim.

Home computers don’t help kids in school

Giving kids a home computer doesn’t improve their “grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance” or behavior,  according to a new study in the American Economic Journal.

Researchers Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson found California students in grades 6 to 10 who didn’t have a computer at home. Half were given one at the start of the school year; the other half got one at the end of the year. The study found “no effects on any educational outcomes.”

. . . Students without a computer at home (the “control group”) reported using a computer (at school, the library, or a friend’s house) about 4.2 hours per week, while students who now had a computer at home (the “treatment group”) used a computer 6.7 hours per week. Of that extra computer time, “Children spend an additional 0.8 hours on schoolwork, 0.8 hours per week on games, and 0.6 hours on social networking.”

It’s possible there’s some long-term effect that the study missed, writes Tim Taylor, who blogs as the Conversable Economist. “Perhaps in the future, computer-linked pedagogy will improve in a way where having a computer at home makes a demonstrable difference to education outcomes.” But, so far, nada.

Touch-screen kids

In The Touch-Screen Generation in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin visits a Monterey conference for developers working on phone and tablet apps for children, starting with babies and toddlers. Some brought their own children.

The 30 or so children here were not down at the shore poking their fingers in the sand or running them along mossy stones or digging for hermit crabs. Instead they were all inside, alone or in groups of two or three, their faces a few inches from a screen . . .  A couple of 3-year-old girls were leaning against a pair of French doors, reading an interactive story called Ten Giggly Gorillas and fighting over which ape to tickle next. A boy in a nearby corner had turned his fingertip into a red marker to draw an ugly picture of his older brother. . . . Some of the chairs had pillows strapped to them, since an 18-month-old might not otherwise be able to reach the table, though she’d know how to swipe once she did.

Rosin, the mother of three, worries that digital technology will turn out to be bad for children’s development. The developers worry too, she discovered. A mother of four, who helped develop an app that teaches spelling to preschoolers, said her children don’t play many games.

“We have a rule of no screen time during the week,” unless it’s clearly educational.

. . . “On the weekends, they can play. I give them a limit of half an hour and then stop. Enough. It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.”

Other developers who were also parents had similar restrictions. “One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home.”

Yet interactive games can help children develop skills, writes Rosin. And they can be a lot of fun. She likes a Swedish game called Toca Tea Party, which lets kids throw a party for their dolls and stuffed animals, spill all the tea they want and wash up afterwards.

The game is either very boring or terrifically exciting, depending on what you make of it. . . . Maybe today the stuffed bear will be naughty and do the spilling, while naked Barbie will pile her plate high with sweets. The child can take on the voice of a character or a scolding parent, or both. There’s no winning, and there’s no reward.

When she let her toddler son play with the iPad as much as he liked, he devoted three two-hour sessions a day to it — for 10 days. Then he forgot about it for six weeks. “Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often.”

School trip shows ‘i-Combat’ to kids

New York City students visited a simulated shooting game facility on a school day, reports NBC.  Bronx High School of Visual Arts students, led by a teacher, had a chance to see a new shooting game for children called iCombat at Indoor Extreme Sports.

 iCombat outfits children like SWAT officers and lets them pretend to have shootouts in an indoor fake village . . .  The level of the realism in the game has sparked concerns in the law enforcement community and among child psychologists.

Students were members of a school club, said district officials. “A mistake was clearly made,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott told NBC.

As digital gap closes, poor kids waste more time

The “digital divide” separating affluent and low-income children is closing, reports the New York Times. But access to technology hasn’t helped poor kids learn more. It’s made it easier for them to waste time.

. . . children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show.

According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, children of parents who don’t have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from college-educated families. That’s up from a 16-minute gap in 1999.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering spending $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. Trainers “would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers,” reports the Times.

Let’s say Juan is killing zombies and texting his girlfriend when he could be researching the Industrial Revolution for a history paper. Is that because he doesn’t know that a computer can be used for research? I doubt it.

New standards, new tests — and new schools

“The standards-and-testing model of school reform is far from dead,” writes Paul Glastris in the kick-off to Washington Monthly’s look at  The Next Wave of School Reform.  Common standards and far more sophisticated testing will transform what happens in the nation’s classrooms, he predicts.

Transcontinental Education by Robert Rothman argues for the powerful effect of common standards.

Teaching to a well-designed test that requires students to analyze and interpret is fine, writes Susan Headden in A Test Worth Teaching To. The problem is that schools rely heavily on cheap, multiple-choice tests of basic skills that cause “shallow learning to crowd out the deep.”

In America, high-caliber tests like AP exams are usually the province of elite, high-achieving students on the college track. And so you might think that this two-tier assessment system is an inevitable result of inequality—that underprivileged kids wouldn’t have a prayer on these more demanding tests. Yet the industrialized nations that consistently outshine the United States on measures of educational achievement—countries like Singapore and Australia—have used such assessments for students across the educational and socioeconomic spectrum for years. Although some are multiple-choice tests, most are made up of open-ended questions that demand extensive writing, analysis, and demonstration of sound reasoning—like AP tests.

In Grand Test Auto, Bill Tucker writes about “stealth assessments” that “are embedded directly into learning experiences and enable a deeper level of learning at the same time.”

In this vision, students would spend their time in the classroom solving problems, mastering complex projects, or even conducting experiments, as many of them do now. But they ’d do much of it through a technological interface: via interactive lessons and simulations, digital instruments, and, above all, games. Information about an individual student’s approach, persistence, and problem-solving strategies, in addition to their record of right and wrong answers, would be collected over time, generating much more detailed and valid evidence about a student’s skills and knowledge than a one-shot test. And all the while, these sophisticated systems would adapt, constantly updating to keep the student challenged, supported, and engaged.

We’re not there yet, Tucker writes, but we will be.

Read the whole thing.

Touchscreen toddlers

Interactive screen time can be educational for toddlers, writes Lisa Guernsey in Slate.  But . . .

Seventy-two percent of iTunes’ top-selling “education” apps are designed for preschoolers and elementary school children, according to a recent report.  Yet we don’t have much research on interactive apps for preschoolers.

A 2010 Georgetown study found children 30 to 36 months old were better at remembering where puppets were hiding if they had to touch a space bar to spot the puppets (or saw a live puppet show), compared to toddlers who watched a video of the puppet show.

In earlier studies, slightly younger children—24 months—struggled with these “seek and find” tasks after watching non-interactive video, unless they had a guide on-screen, a person or character, whom they felt compelled to respond to or communicate with. Even easier tasks, such as pointing to an object introduced a few minutes before, are more difficult for very young children after watching video compared with being taught face-to-face. It is this “video deficit,” which has cropped up in numerous other studies with infants and toddlers, that partially informed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation against screen time among children younger than 2. (The AAP has other concerns, too, such as whether parents are replacing human-to-human connections with screen time.)

The pediatricians were focused on “passive” media, such as TV and videos, not interactive media, Guernsey notes.

Still, interactive may be more distracting than educational, Guernsey warns.

. . . the wow factor of the device and the presence of interactive “hotspots” on e-book pages may interfere with children’s ability to recall the story line of the book. This isn’t just a problem of electronics. Even traditional print-and-cardboard pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have otherwise, according to research at the University of Virginia conducted by Cynthia Chiong.

Most education apps now on the market dictate how children will play, Guernsey writes. Instead of exploring, kids must follow the program. However, new products are being introduced that encourage creativity, such as “DoodleCastItzaBitza and in-development computer programming software for preschoolers called Scratch Jr.

This is off-topic, but fun:

Brain training: Can it make us smarter?

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? asks the New York Times. Research suggests that training “working memory” and attention carries over to other cognitive skills.

Working memory is more than just the ability to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it; it’s the capacity to manipulate the information you’re holding in your head — to add or subtract those numbers, place them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an analogy is equally dependent on working memory; you can’t follow even a simple statement like “See Jane run” if you can’t put together how “see” and “Jane” connect with “run.” Without it, you can’t make sense of anything.

“We see attention and working memory as the cardiovascular function of the brain,” says Susanne Jaeggi, whose research has challenged the consensus that “fluid intelligence” can’t be improved.

Training the brain has shown results for preschoolers, elementary students, college students and the elderly in a variety of studies, reports the Times.  There’s no proof yet that the training leads to “real-world gains in schooling and job performance . . .  but already, people with disorders including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) and traumatic brain injury have seen benefits from training.”

There are skeptics:

. . . the most prominent takedown of I.Q. training came in June 2010, when the neuroscientist Adrian Owen published the results of an experiment conducted in coordination with the BBC television show “Bang Goes the Theory.” After inviting British viewers to participate, Owen recruited 11,430 of them to take a battery of I.Q. tests before and after a six-week online program designed to replicate commercially available “brain building” software. . . .  “Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained,” he concluded in the journal Nature, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

Others say brain training transfers to other skills, such as reading comprehension for college students.

A Berkeley researchers, Silvia Bunge, compared disadvantaged children who played a reasoning game with those who played games designed to boost response times.

After eight weeks of training — 75 minutes per day, twice a week — Bunge found that the children in the reasoning group scored, on average, 10 points higher on a nonverbal I.Q. test than they had before the training. Four of the 17 children who played the reasoning games gained an average of more than 20 points. In another study, not yet published, Bunge found improvements in college students preparing to take the LSAT.

The Times story is “a bit — but only a bit — too optimistic,” writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

  Fluid intelligence is one’s ability to reason, see patterns, and think logically, independent of specific experience. Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is stuff that you know, knowledge that comes from prior experience. You can see why working memory capacity might lead to more fluid intelligence–you’ve got a greater workspace in which to manipulate ideas.

“There are enough replications of this basic effect that it seems probable that something is going on,” writes Willingham. But it’s not clear that training working memory will improve performance on a variety of cognitive tasks.

 

Serious about gaming

The Serious Games Association has formed to sponsor conferences, training, research and other programs. The group is recruiting members. “Serious” games or simulations are designed for learning or training, not purely for entertainment

Questing in Digiton

Last week, I visited the brand-new ChicagoQuest school, created by the Institute of Play, as part of a Digital Media, Technology, Children and Schools conference organized by the Hechinger Institute.  The learn-by-gaming charter school started this fall with sixth and seventh graders and will add a high school.

We walked into Code Worlds, which teaches both fractions and grammar as codes, and were greeted by a petite, very self-possessed seventh-grade girl, who explained the class was trying to restore rationality to the town of “Digiton” and compete to help farmer Al Gorithm calculate his harvest. A very articulate boy joined us, displayed his map of Digiton and joined the discussion.

The school tries to create narratives and games to motivate students to solve problems and think in terms of systems. Students — nearly all are black or Hispanic — range from way behind academically to advanced.

We tap into kids’ natural curiosity by giving them a “mission” — a hugely complex task that they can not solve with their current knowledge and understandings. These missions create reasons to learn. Students actually do something with their learning, right on the spot. Our approach sparks the drive to think critically, to keep trying, to persist for solutions.

We also visited a lab where students can play physical games: I tried moving mirrors with a partner to direct a laser to the target. Allegedly, we were learning geometry and maybe physics. Maybe, maybe not.

I liked the school’s very thoughtful curriculum design, which includes teaching the Common Core Standards and “21st century skills.” Game designers work with teachers to come up with ideas, look at what works and redesign curriculum.

In every room, students were working — or faking it convincingly.  One class was looking up an article on Aristotle on their iPads and taking notes. Not very gamey, but ambitious for middle schoolers. I told a girl that Aristotle had been Alexander the Great’s tutor — and then explained Alexander the Great. She looked interested.

When we talked to four students — including the very articulate boy from Digiton — we asked what was different about ChicagoQuest. They didn’t talk about the games or the technology. They said they liked the fact that there’s no fighting or cursing.  One girl said teachers at her old school had walked by a fight, pretending they didn’t know it was happening. One of ChicagoQuest’s “core values” is “Nobody walks by.”

Other core values are: “Respect all things,” “Be tenacious,” “Win and lose with grace” and “Get in the game: Play fair, play fully.”

Digital learning will prove itself — or adapt — argues Katie Salen, a game designer and DePaul professor who co-founded Quest to Learn two years ago in New York City.

. . . video-game companies develop products with users. They might issue an early version with kinks or bad ideas. And then it’s a dynamic process where user feedback helps the designer improve a game. There’s constant fixing. The video game is ever evolving.She’d like to see schools experiment with education software in the same way, rather than waiting for definitive proof that certain products work. The more students play with educational games, the more game designers can make them effective.

The MacArthur Foundation folks, who are providing most of the money, sounded offended by questions about effectiveness. I agree it’s too soon to tell, but it’s a valid question. (Reading and math scores for the New York Quest school are average for sixth graders and above average for seventh graders.)