Friday, February 17, 2012

C21: The Sumdog Bug

For some reason, I have resisted the urge to post the weekly column I write for our school newsletter on my blog as well.  As this week's column relates directly to our Curriculum21 Initiative and involves a resource that may be of interest to other schools, I'm going to take the plunge and post it.  Here it goes:

A contagious bug has infected our lower school.  Mrs. Gersten started it when she shared a post she saw on an educational listserve with her faculty.  Mrs. Massey then spread it to her 6th graders.  From there it exploded and before we knew it kids in all grades, 1st through 6th, were smitten with it.  The bug is called sumdog.  It’s math, from counting to Algebra.  And it’s a web-based video game.

Each day this week, our elementary students went home and did hundreds of math practice problems not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  We know, because we get reports detailing how many they have done, in what areas, and what percentage they got right.  In truth, though, all you have to do is listen in on a conversation at lunch or at recess these days, and you are bound to hear the word “sumdog” being mentioned.

Of all of the various techniques and approaches that are being promoted today as part of 21st century learning, “educational gaming” as it is known, is the one I have been most hesitant to embrace.  Others have been championing it for quite some time.  There’s a charter school in Manhattan called Quest2Learn that is based solely on gaming.  Well respected professors from well respected universities have recommended it strongly.  But it just didn’t feel right.  Until now.

When educational video games were first introduced, some twenty five years ago, the pitch for using them was rather simple: video games are fun, kids like to have fun, let’s get kids to have educational fun.  The argument for gaming in education today, however, is far more sophisticated.   With the explosion of online gaming in recent years, researchers have begun studying why it is that people  - of all ages and genders – are so drawn particularly to multi-player, web-based games.  Amongst the various things they have learned is that those who seriously engage in gaming are also seriously engaged in learning.  No, they are not putting down the controller for Shakespeare or a Bava Kama, but they are driven to complete the board, or stage, or level that they are on and the only way to do so is to try new things, make mistakes but don’t repeat them, figure out problems, and build certain sets of skills.  That is education in its most basic form.

What’s more, if aliens visited from another planet intent on researching this global phenomenon called gaming to which half a billion people devote at least an hour a day and to which the average American youth will have devoted 10,000 hours prior to his or her 21st birthday, they’d undoubtedly hypothesize that there was some material reward – money, food, a cruise in the Bahamas– which was motivating this craze.  Yet, we know they’d be wrong.  The overwhelming majority of gamers play for nothing more than the thrill of gaming.  Researchers break that thrill down into three component parts:  our innate desire to compete, our innate desire to be social, and our intense longing for immediate, positive feedback.  Online gaming does all three.  It allows a person to compete and to keep competing (usually at no or very minimal cost) until he or she succeeds.  It allows people to share their success with others, and offers the opportunity to build self-confidence and a bit of pride in doing better than others.  And, the minute a gamer does well, bells start ringing, lights start flashing, confetti starts falling, and a silly little man runs across the screen, does an acrobatic flip and yells “GREAT JOB!!!”

Proponents of educational gaming contend that for this reason, multi-player, online gaming ranks amongst the most powerful educational tools the world has ever stumbled upon.  If we, the educators, can borrow the platform and take control of the content the potential for learning at all levels and for all students, they argue, is unlimited.
The theory is powerful.  Clearly, there are dangers there too.  For our purposes, though, we are going to watch this sumdog experiment and see how it goes.  What we know right now is that our students are amongst the 1,342,484 worldwide who are playing its games and building their math skills in the process.  They are also amongst a far smaller group who are enrolled in a statewide sumdog math competition this coming week.  Their excitement is palpable, the learning is real, and those are exactly the results we all want to see.

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