To cure ADHD, kids play video games

Soaring through a jungle on a hover platform, the player must avoid roadblocks while collecting the red birds and ignoring those distracting blue birds. Instead of medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), some day doctors may prescribe specially designed video games, writes Lizzie Thompson on The 74.

Akili Interactive Labs’ Project:  Evo tries to help children learn to focus their attention and filter out distractions.

While guiding the Evo Explorer through an obstacle course, the player must “tap on the screen when a red bird appears, and make the decision not to tap if a bird of any other color appears.”

Once the child masters red birds, it’s on to a new challenge.

. . . no two games are going to be exactly alike. Rather, the game calibrates and changes the complexity, challenges, and difficulty at a pace determined by the data collected as child plays it in real time, adapting second-by- second ever so slightly to the player’s ability.

Test subjects play the game on an iPad five days a week, for 30 minutes a day, for a month. Then Akili evaluates any changes in their cognitive functions.

The goal is to get FDA approval and persuade physicians to prescribe the game to kids with ADHD.

Winning school

Shawn Young, founder of Classcraft, uses the game in his physics class. 

Competition shouldn’t just be for athletes — or brainiacs — writes Greg Toppo in Game Plan for Learning in Education Next.  Academic competition can engage and motivate students, writes Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Schools “use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions to get students excited about coming to school,” he writes, but rarely “use academic competition to improve instruction for more than just a few top students.”

That’s starting to change.

Shawn Young, a 32-year-old Canadian physics teacher, has created a peer-driven classroom learning and management system, dubbed Classcraft, that resembles a low-tech, sword-and-sorcery video game. In it, students work in teams to meet the basic demands of school — showing up on time, working diligently, completing homework, behaving well in class, and encouraging each other to do the same — to earn “experience” and “health” points.

Arete (originally named Interstellar) lets students compete to solve math problems with rivals anywhere in the world. Tim Kelley was inspired by watching the school rowing team compete to improve their personal bests in endurance.

Kelley began to wonder how one might replicate that fighting spirit in the classroom. He soon imagined a computer application that would use students’ day-to-day results to match them up with comparably skilled contestants in head-to-head academic competition — in everything from classroom pickup games to bleacher-filling, live-broadcast amphitheater tournaments.

Yes, Kelley hopes to make math a spectator sport.


Fun with slavery

Letting middle schoolers earn game points by stacking bodies in a slave ship turns out to be offensive, reports Liz Dwyer on TakePart. A Danish company has withdrawn the Tetris-style component of Playing History: Slave Trade 2 after a social media backlash.

“Travel back in time to the 18th century and witness the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade firsthand. In this episode, you will be working as a young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic,” reads the description of the game at the Steam store. “You are to serve the captain and be his eyes and ears—reporting any suspicious activities is your duty. But what do you do, when you realize that your own sister has been captured by the slave traders?”

Students could then earn points as the game took them through various scenarios of Africans being captured, held in cages, and suffering in chains on the slave ship.

Some want Serious Games Interactive to drop the whole game. “Gamifying slavery trivializes a serious time in history that shouldn’t be fun,” Rafranz Davis, a Texasbased educational technology expert, wrote to TakePart.

Last year, Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom, which features the escape of a 14-year-old slave girl, faced a backlash for turning slavery into an adventure. “Critics say the game . . . sanitizes the brutal institution,” writes Joseph Williams on TakePart. “By avoiding the perspective of Lucy’s master, they say, the game doesn’t compel students to consider how or why whites perpetuated the oppression.”

I’m offended by the slave trade game, but not by Flight to Freedom. What do you think?

Let ’em fail — or they’ll never succeed

“Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way,” writes Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.  “The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of the world.”

Writing as a mother and a veteran teacher, Lahey repeatedly admits her own mistakes to soften her message:  Let your kids (and students) take responsibility, accept consequences and grow up.

In writing recommendation letters, she’s seen “extensive accounts of the students’ commitment to service — time spent serving up dinner in homeless shelters, sorting donated clothing, building latrines in Costa Rica — yet I know for a fact that the child in question has never done her own laundry.”

Tell your kids that they’re expected to make “family contributions” — not “chores” — such as cleaning and cooking, Lahey advises. Don’t reward them for meeting their obligations. Competence is its own reward.

In early adolescence, children must develop “executive function,” learning how to “manage our time, resources and attention in order to achieve a goal,” Lahey. It’s not an easy process. Kids will make mistakes. But they’ll learn, if parents let their kids fail and “feel the pain and inconvenience of their mistakes.”

Parental pressure can backfire, she writes in The Atlantic. Earning straight A’s to please Mom can erode the student’s internal motivation to learn.

“One of the reasons kids love video games is because it is an environment with a much higher tolerance-threshold for failure than the average classroom or household,” says Jordan Shapiro in a Forbes interview with Lahey. “Kids learn the complex rules of the video game world by trying, failing and then iterating their approach.”

The kind of thinking is “a key part of the innovation and entrepreneurship narrative,” says Shapiro. “Fail hard, then get up and try again.”

Teachers also need to try, fail and improve, says Lahey. “I can assess students more frequently, use the information . . . about their mistakes and failures – and importantly, on my mistakes and failures as a teacher – to determine how I help my students learn skills.”

Minecraft in the classroom

Minecraft, the best-selling computer game of all time, is becoming a teaching tool, writes Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic.  Former teacher Joel Levin and his colleagues founded TeacherGaming to bring Minecraft into classrooms.

Levin played an early version of Minecraft with his 5-year-old daughter in 2010, reports Ossola.  “He was amazed at how much his daughter was learning from Minecraft; she solved problems on her own, developed a spatial understanding in the game, and accelerated her reading and writing skills because she wanted to be able to interact with other players.”

Minecraft is an open-ended game with a never-ending landscape and digitally rendered resources. In certain game modes, players have to gather resources to craft shelter, tools, and armor to meet basic needs and survive battles with one another. But the part that players seem to enjoy the most is the construction element, in which they build entities like functional computers or reconstruct landscapes such as the entire country of Denmark.

Levin designed Minecraft lessons for second graders at a private school in New York City, where he taught technology classes. They learned more than “hard skills,” he tells Ossola.

 “It led to conversations in the classroom about how we treat these virtual spaces that we all find ourselves in, especially the young people that are coming into this complicated world of social networking,” Levin said. “Are we going to treat our class’ Minecraft world as an extension of our classroom? Do the rules that apply in the school building also apply on our Minecraft server? What happens if someone breaks those rules?”

Minecraft Teacher has advice on how to use the game in the classroom.

No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

42 minutes to learn algebra?

It Only Takes About 42 Minutes To Learn Algebra With Video Games, writes Jordan Shapiro on Forbes, citing the Washington State Algebra Challenge, which used DragonBox App. According to Washington University’s Center for Game Science and the Technology Alliance, 4,192 K-12 students solved 390,935 equations over the course of five days in early June.

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.”

Shapiro downloaded DragonBox “and was astonished to see how quickly my son (then 7) learned to do complex algebraic equations.” Now his five-year-old is playing. “I watched him breeze through the first two chapters in about 20 minutes.”

Creator Jean-Baptise Huynh tells Shapiro that DragonBox teaches “the mechanics of algebra processes and abstraction,” but students will need teachers or parents to “transfer the knowledge to pencil and paper.”

Dragonbox2 screenshot

Darren, a high school math teacher, is skeptical that normal kindergarteners and first graders can learn algebra. “My experience is that there is often a huge gap between the game or manipulative and the transference of what’s learned there to actual algebra,” he writes on Right on the Left Coast.

Gates funds game-based learning

Kids’ enthusiasm for video games could be harnessed by the classroom of the future, Bill Gates told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Gates Foundation is investing $20 million in teacher tools, including learning games.

Students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.

Gates envisions games as “an adjunct to a serious curriculum.” His foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington to develop learning games, said Vicki Phillips, education director for the Gates Foundation.

 The idea is that in coming years, there could be a digital mall full of low-cost or free online games teachers could download to use with the entire class or individual students.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make more robust the array of things teachers have access to at their fingertips that are aligned to standards, that are high quality, that engage kids though technology and let [teachers] be the orchestra leader,” Phillips said.

“Motivation is such a huge part in what ends up differentiating student outcomes,” Gates said. And games are motivating.

Do our schools support innovation?, asks Aran Levasseur, a middle school teacher turned technology coordinator, on Mind/Shift.

Technology widens the spectrum of how individuals and teams can access, construct and communicate knowledge. Education, for the most part, isn’t creating learners along these lines. Meanwhile, computers are challenging the legitimacy of expert-driven knowledge, i.e., of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. All computing devices — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.

. . . Great teachers are needed now more than ever. But what it means to be a teacher and student is changing . . .

In the comments, Barry Garelick argues the “content of the future” will look a lot like the content of the past, at least in math. “The 21st century will require mastery of the same math skills needed in the 20th century,” he writes.

The Serious Play Conference next month in Seattle will look at measuring the effectiveness of educational games.

Science teacher: My class is a game

Paul Anderson explains how he designed a game to teach biology in a TEDx talk. Montana’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, Anderson teaches at Bozeman High. His science lessons can be found on YouTube.