The Biggest Story Problem, a independent documentary film aimed at examining the decline in math proficiency in the U.S. with global solutions, was produced this year. The team at Imagine Education, a multimedia group capturing stories in education, dove into the decline of math learning in schools across the country and explore insights from abroad that have attributed to higher rankings and scores in math proficiency.

The film evaluates the effectiveness of educational approaches such as pretend play and game-based learning in improving math proficiency and understanding. It leverages Ko’s Journey, a game-based math program targeted at meeting critical areas of the Common Core State Standards, with several classrooms across the country.

New Mexico’s teacher-turned-game designer and creator of Ko’s Journey, Scott Laidlaw, joins us today to share insight into The Biggest Story Problem.

Sarah Cargill: In the film you talk about “Pretend Play” to engage students in learning without consequence. At Getting Smart we often discuss the loss of fun and interest in STEM education when taught in traditional classrooms. What are some effective tools and ways teachers can apply today to engage students in math?

Scott Laidlaw: Pretend play is very, very old. Sixty million years if we include mammalian play. It can be thought of as an architecture of the mind that drives our learning in childhood. Combined with basic conditioning, it’s the most powerful mechanism in all of human learning.

We have the potential to use pretend play in teaching math. It can be very simple in the form of a story (adding characters & plot to otherwise plotless word problems), or more complex in the form of role playing games.

The main way for a teacher to start is to start slowly. Have students create their own word problems. Build them out a little bigger than expected, developing art, character and plot. Include a single mathematical component. Revise them until they are beautiful, something that students can feel proud of. Then ask them to translate those stories to a math problem as you might see on a standardized test. Then students can present these problems during a celebration of learning, and possibly have some sort of review.

Ultimately, as a teacher you end up having students “build” problems like we see on big stakes testing. But this method avoids the negative emotion which sometimes occurs when students cannot see purpose in the problem.

SC: The film also discusses the power of real-life environments and learning in engaging students in the usefulness and value of math. Should we be teaching students math outside of the classroom, providing real world connections to math learning? How would you envision/create this lesson plan?

SL: Absolutely! We should be looking at real issues in our world, and bringing them into the class. But these have to go beyond questions like how many miles a car can go on 6 gallons of gas. It’s real world problem. It’s also a really boring real world problem. Get into big oil, and then it might start to get to be fun. So we need to be asking bigger questions. I learned from a teacher about creating an experience where his students studied the radon levels in homes in his area with original data. Radon is the #2 cause of cancer in the US, just a stone’s throw behind smoking. So his students learned some basic math, like finding the mean, and more complex math related to proportional relationships and the volume of basements, and then mapped the results. They came up with an unbelievable finding that showed high levels of radon in one area. They then had to make a decision,  publish the results which might cause a crash in housing prices, or go door to door. I won’t tell you what they decided, but that’s the real kind of math we need.

SC: Your classroom used game-based learning to embed math learning. How can blending game-based learning with group work and 1:1 teaching time improve a students’ success in math learning?

SL: Games were not the reason my students showed an average year after year 80 percent growth on state tests. They were a catalyst to see math differently. We trained them like you might train athletes for state tests, with group work, individual tutoring, and about every configuration of classroom style you’ve ever seen. But it all worked because the students learned to collaborate through the games. We were then able to have students teach other students. Then you start to have power in transforming a classroom. It’s not fast. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it works much, much better than lecture, homework, lecture, homework formats.

SC: You spoke a great deal about motivation and reward. How are games valuable in generating the motivation to continue to learn math?

SL: Well there are two areas of rewards to understand. One is the metaphorical carrot for doing something, like giving a chocolate or piece of candy for completing something. This is a destructive reward and lowers intrinsic motivation in the long-run. Even online digital badges fit into this type of reward. Do this, get that. It builds a neuron network that destroys other more complex networks in the brain.

But the other type of reward is authentic. In games, this might be an advantage that is related to understanding the math. In our game, Ko, for example maps the North Star and so is able to travel at night. It’s coherent with the story and the purpose of the math, so learning is deepened.

SC: The film identifies teachers as one of the most important factors in student math learning success. How can we better prepare and qualify teachers to teach math to students? Should the same game mechanics be used in teaching programs, nixing teacher textbooks?

SL: Nixing textbooks is like saying we should throw away our dictionaries. They have a purpose, but that purpose is for reference, where they are used diligently. Teachers are still the most important factor in a classroom and the more we can treat them as true professionals, the better off we will be. Game mechanics probably shouldn’t be an architecture for teaching programs, but they should be taught in teaching programs. The current toolsets for teaching math are abysmal. Textbooks are generally not well prioritized and over-bloated. Now we have fancy software that adjusts to a students ability level, but underlying that it’s a problem they don’t really care about and gives them a non-relevant reward when they complete the problem.  It’s not o.k. for the big online publishers to be producing work like this.

SC: The video touches on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the excitement teachers share about it’s innovation in math learning. What elements of the CCSS will change the way math is taught and evaluated in the future?

SL: The Common Core is absolutely amazing when we really understand what it’s about. The authors took the most disconnected curriculum in the world and created an absolute focus. For example, they defined four critical areas of learning math in the 7th grade. Four!! That’s incredible, given that most states were pulling from almost a thousand disconnected standards.


Educators can obtain preview copies of The Biggest Story Problem through our Sponsor-A-School program. A gift of $25 will send a copy to a school of the donor’s choice; for $40 they can send a DVD to the school of their choice and receive a copy for themselves. Gifts can be made online at – follow the Sponsor a School menu.



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