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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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