It’s easy to be depressed about the state of our educational system. Progress is often trapped in a political holy war between over-testing, which dulls curiosity and boil the humanity away from learning (the most human of endeavors) and those who fear any accountability that might demonstrate the incompetence of a policy, dogma, curriculum, or educator. There’s also a particularly American desire to make education facile and automatic, as easy as downloading kung fu knowledge into your head in the Matrix or posting to Instagram; a recent manifestation being Baby Einstein, which mislead millions of parents into thinking that 2-year-olds can learn from DVDs.
In my industry—learning games—there’s a destructive design pattern that attempts to make learning fun by the cheapest technique possible: inserting irrelevant math worksheet problems into the middle of a video game. For example, a player runs around a castle with a sword, when suddenly he or she is asked to answer: 3 + 8 = ?. No effort is made to make the math relevant, visual, or integrated. While these games may shore up a child’s knowledge of some rote math facts, they set up a false dichotomy that makes context-less, dry math the enemy of fun. In our own games, we aspire not to balance engagement and learning, but to fuse them together. We believe that’s the way games can best tap into the natural drive humans have to learn, explore, and be challenged.
Despite these challenges, we’re optimistic that a new wave of edtech startups will radically improve K-12 learning. New platforms and media present us with an incredible opportunity: to redesign learning, to redesign engagement, and to tap into the endless curiosity of every child. Fortunately, several technology trends hold the potential to keep the inquisitive spark alive in more learners. We’re at a tipping point in educational technology for several reasons:
Keyboards and the mouse prevented young children from having fluid, complex experiences with computers. In this sense, touch screens really are revolutionary. In our game Motion Math: Hungry Fish, players add numbers with the simplest mechanism imaginable: Just pinch two numbers together. In Motion Math Zoom, children directly manipulate the number line. New interfaces allow us to design experiences that make abstract concepts concrete and interactive.
Most of the kids we playtest with want to know: "How can I make a computer game?" New low-cost tools such as Raspberry Pi and programming languages like Scratch will let more children take the first step to explore their curiosity about technology.
Classrooms worldwide can share the mathematical whimsy of Vi Hart, and the math lessons of Mathalicious that are driven by real-world student questions, such as "What are the chances there are aliens?" Technology will broadcast the work of more great educators such as our favorite math teacher, Dan Meyer, whose smart, visual lesson plans are also centered on natural curiosity.
For more than a decade, Wikipedia has highlighted the absurdity of an education composed of memorizing facts. More exciting are computation engines, in particular Wolfram Alpha, that combine data sets so that children can ask questions about real-world data using natural language.
Great teachers have always connected field trips to the classroom and made learning relevant. Today, mobile devices can bring these situated learning experiences to children on a larger scale. The Simcalc Project project has explored teaching rate and variation with mobile sensors, and we’ve seen a brilliant science implementation by Project Noah, enabling children to send photos to a global community of citizen scientists and ask questions their parents can’t always answer: "What’s that animal? What’s this tree?" App-makers are only beginning to leverage the power of so many children carrying an Internet-connected camera and GPS.
It feels inevitable that the way children learn, especially the way they learn math, will soon radically change, in part because the economic incentive is so great. Math predicts academic performance, career advancement, and cognitive health; early math interventions have even been found to improve literacy, demonstrating the centrality of math to abstract thinking. While only a few students will become professional mathematicians, and some will enjoy careers related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), all students need to understand and visualize data, see patterns, and be patient, rigorous problem solvers. Dramatically, the recent financial crisis showed the disastrous consequences when citizens do not understand basic mathematical concepts such as compound interest.
Yet even if math didn’t have any economic or practical importance, it would still be essential to teach to students. Mathematics is a marvel, and especially when the diversity of math is presented to children (fractals, cryptography, topology, game theory, etc.), their curiosity and awe abounds. Math is both an invention and a discovery—a journey humans have begun and will never complete.