A New Breed of Apps Puts Joy Back in Math Learning

Math should be fun – even when it’s stupidly hard.  Instead it feels grueling – even when it’s fundamentally a delightful puzzle.  This has nothing to do with our smarts or math aptitude and everything to do with how we approach it.  I’ve written previously about the dearth of excellent math apps and how disappointed I’ve been that the promise of achieving computational and mathematical fluency as a side effect of truly engaging work has been left unfulfilled.  Until recently, that is.
There is a new breed of math app, and just a handful of stellar examples serve as the proof of concept that an honest, real, non-hyped transformation of learning through digital tools is possible.  And this week another excellent math application, Wuzzit Trouble, joins their ranks.
Wuzzit Trouble is a true game, not a rote practice application or the so-called chocolate-covered broccoli that places a veneer of gamification over traditional drill.  The game is not a reward for correctly answering math problems, the game is it’s own reward and math skills are a mere side effect of play.  The game is based on integer partition, and the gamer needs to turn various gears in order to find the combination that lets the poor Wuzzit out of jail.  The combination is found by figuring out which combination of integers will rotate the main gear to a set of keys the Wuzzit needs to escape.  It sounds simple enough, and at first it is – so simple the game doesn’t even come with instructions.  But the challenges quickly become delightfully wicked.
What is important about this game, and the meaningful new math apps in general, is that players are engaged in doing math rather than performing for a test.  The problem, the puzzle, the challenge is primary and any approach that you use to find the answer is correct.  Contrast this to traditional math learning where students first learn how to solve a particular type of math problem and then practice that particular method until they can pass a test full of math problems of a given type.  They have been trained to perform, but not to appreciate and conquer a great problem.  Traditional math learning puts the cart before the horse, Wuzzit Trouble and the other best of breed new math apps don’t.
The gaming format is one that is familiar to students and it encourages a growth mindset.  As with every other game, no one expects to win on the first try or to beat all the levels in one sitting.  If a student is weak in computational fluency he or she can take as long as needed to solve a puzzle and inevitably gain that fluency as a side effect.  If a student is unused to abstract or algebraic thinking, trial and error, experimentation, repeated failure and eventual success will strengthen those skills.
Brilliantly, this game exposes computation and algebra directly to the problem-solver without the usual intervening abstract symbols and arcane processes that cause so many students to fail once they reach algebra classes in middle school.  By putting the problem first, and embedding it in a familiar casual gaming environment, Wuzzit Trouble gets to the heart of mathematical learning, develops positive dispositions, and strengthens basic skills through play.  Real play, not disguised drudgery.
There are tremendous opportunities for research with this elegant platform.  Innertube Games, Wuzzit Trouble’s developer, is staffed with and funded by mathematicians and researchers who fully understand the potential to gain valuable insights for students, teachers, and researchers in a digital environment where students experiment freely.  Although starting small, they have hopes to create a platform where teachers and parents can choose to share such data with researchers, while respecting student privacy – their privacy policy is explicit in demonstrating transparency and respect.
The ability to collect data from game play also enables one of the most compelling promises of digital learning – embedded assessments.  Rather than asking students to repeat what they’ve learned under high-stress, high-stakes testing, a more complete picture of what students know and are able to do emerges from watching them work on real problems.  Further, digital systems can provide immediate, real-time feedback directly to students and teachers that become a part of the “try, try again” mindset of gamers everywhere making learning all about mastering challenges rather than “quality control” that separates the good kids from the bad.
It’s a genuinely exciting time for math education.  There is no reason that math as a sport can’t be accessible to everyone, everywhere.  Wuzzit Trouble and its peers are proving that wicked challenge and joyful engagement are not mutually exclusive, but are actually linked in a virtuous cycle.  With the proofs of concept in place, the next steps are critical.  Do we admire these games as interesting curiosities or do we, as a society, begin to invest in the deeper, richer platforms that can give the gift of intrinsically motivated math to our math-phobic society?  I can only hope we choose the latter.

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