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Learning math the gaming way

During the course of my career as an inventor of maths learning solutions, I have often been asked whether maths learning is important in the 21st century when most maths calculuses and formulae are readily available in digital form. My standard answer to such questions is that far from becoming obsolete, numeracy and maths learning has become even more important for survival and success in the 21st century than it was in yesteryear.

When students are numerate, they can reason, and apply various facets of mathematical knowledge, including computation, numbers sense, probability, statistics, geometry, algebra and measurement. As the world becomes incrementally more technological, our children must develop strong numeracy skills. In its report (2015) titled New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology, the World Economic Forum identifies 16 skills that are the prerequisites of success in the 21st century. “To thrive in today’s innovation-driven economy, workers need a different mix of skills than in the past. In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative.”

When children become numerate they acquire the capability to recognise patterns and understand how things are connected. The discipline that is mathematics trains the mind to think logically, persistently, with accuracy and rigour. Developing and strengthening these skills prepares children to successfully learn other vital competencies. 

The world is changing faster than our ability to keep pace. Today, traditional subjects of mathematics, such as algebra, geometry and calculus, are under pressure to be streamlined by groups like the National Science Foundation, OECD and the Royal Society, so that content can be rebalanced to make room for statistics, probability, computer science and mathematical modeling. That’s because in the unfolding future, nearly every career and vocation will require a strong grounding in numeracy. Therefore children’s math skills need to be continuously updated as the very definition of numeracy is expanding, even as the pedagogies and systems available for teaching this fast expanding discipline are almost static. 

Most math teachers are engaged in high-tech drilling for rote learning, providing digital textbook-style content, or using one-way instructional videos that fail to engage the overwhelming majority of children. Little wonder that math phobia is a rising phenomenon worldwide. 

It’s against this backdrop of rising antipathy to maths learning that several innovative educators worldwide, especially in the US, have developed new pedagogies centred around digital games. It’s now established that well-designed games can engage children in continuous hours of mathematical thinking. But the secret of inducing children to invest time and effort in maths learning games is to ensure that the games are presented to them in a gradient with increasing complexity as they move up from one level to the next.

Games that prescribe short durations of play often offer dynamic assessment of skills already mastered. Rigour is introduced incrementally to ensure that groups of students are continuously stretched just beyond their comfort level to develop logical thinking and mathematical discipline required to acquire problem-solving skills. To maintain engagement, students must feel that the challenge at each level is within reach. As a Japanese educator once said: “If you feel you have a chance to catch the bus, that’s when you make the effort to run for it.” 

Therefore a comprehensive 21st century maths learning platform should offer hundreds of digital games to induce children to develop a wide range of problem-solving skills through enjoyable play. However, a well-designed games-based maths programme must also build perseverance — one of the essential skills identified by the WEF report. Persistent effort becomes normative when games stimulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, resulting in long-lasting affinity for solving complex problems while learning mathematics.

Well-designed maths games also develop students’ self-regulation and metacognition, including critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning processes and capabilities. According to the UK-based Educational Endowment Foundation, metacognition is one of two of the most effective educational interventions it has tested. Students involved in programmes designed to sharpen their thinking skills accelerate learning by an average of eight months. 

Admittedly, there’s no magic formula for mastering maths. But providing our children contemporary digital gaming platforms and games that make maths learning enjoyable and mentally stimulating are inventive solutions that can bridge gaps in numeracy attainment around the world. The best that maths educators can do is provide environments that allow children to do what they do best — learn through exploration.

(Robert Sun is the US-based CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online programme)

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