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Teach kids to find the math in video games

By Nicole Krueger 10/22/2013 Gaming STEM

Imagine: Students take turns bowling a frame on the Nintendo Wii. The teacher then asks how the score can be represented as a fraction. As a class, they discuss what each digit in the fraction represents and reach the conclusion that the numerator represents the number of pins knocked down while the denominator represents the total number of pins.

“Essentially, you’re looking at a game and asking, ‘Where’s the math in this game?’ You’re trying to get kids to find the math in whatever they’re playing,” said Matthew C. Winner, co-author of Teach Math with the Wii.

Video games are loaded with opportunities to teach math and myriad other STEM-related subjects, Winner said — if only educators would take the time to discover them.

“In grade school we’re always trying to relate math to the real world. Some kids have been good at video games their whole lives and never realized they were doing math the whole time,” he said.

A teacher librarian who was raised on video games himself, Winner began using the Wii as an instructional tool and discovered it’s not only an effective way to obtain student buy-in, but it also helps bolster those who struggle in school.

Deepening student engagement

There’s no question that kids love video games. When they play in Winner’s library, “they’re engaged, activating parts of the brain that are normally inactive,” he said.

By tapping into that passion, educators achieve more than simply getting kids’ attention. They’re also validating something that’s an important part of students’ lives.

“These children have been playing games all their lives on consoles and handhelds. We can’t say video games are separate from what we’re doing because when we teach, we need to be teaching the whole child,” Winner said.

Building confidence and skills

It’s easy to assume that video games are just a useless distraction. But kids are actually building skills while they play — often without realizing it.

“The average gamer will log so many hours into playing video games that by the time they’re in eighth or ninth grade, they’ve hit 10,000 hours,” Winner said.

That’s enough time to qualify for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” for mastery of a skill.

“What do all of those hours logged into video games mean? What exactly are they good at? How does this skill lend itself to the learning process?”

Finding and leveraging those skills in the classroom can help boost student confidence.

“In math class we have a ton of kids who have no confidence in what they’re doing. They’re in a low-performing group, and they know they’re in a low-performing group,” Winner said.

“You’re building confidence for those kids who aren’t good at anything. This is a chance to show them that they have a strength and that it connects to a lot of things. They’re doing a lot of math, but they might not realize it’s math.”

Getting parents involved

The math lessons available in video games aren’t limited to what happens in the classroom. The key is to teach kids how to relate their hobbies and passions back to the learning they’re doing in school.

“We have effectively told children they need to go home and play video games while thinking like a mathematician,” Winner said. “This is a currency we can use with kids. It’s not only motivating, but it’s really, really effective — just as we tell kids to go home and read books at night.”

That’s why it’s important to bring parents into the conversation to help continue the learning at home.

“Talk to parents and kids about how they can all be gaming together and having these conversations together. Raising awareness is good advocacy. It helps parents realize there’s another way to approach this. Are you letting your child just play video games all by themselves, or are you having a conversation about what’s going on?”

Teachers who are hesitant about introducing video games as a way to teach math and other subjects should keep in mind that it’s not necessary to be good at video games yourself to use them as a teaching tool, Winner added.

“For the people who have never done it before, know that kids know how to play video games, so you don’t need to worry about that. You don’t need to worry about being good at video games yourself. You’re a teacher. You have the skills to help kids understand what’s going on in the game.”

Matthew C. Winner is a teacher librarian, ISTE award winner and co-author of Teach Math with the Wii.

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