Exit 32. Welcome to Warp Zone.

I recently returned from attending the California Mathematics Council North conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.  This really is an amazing place: a conference grounds built right next to the beach, in a forested area where deer occasionally are spotted running around, in a town full of big trees and old houses that is one of the best places I know of to take a walk.  But as much as I love talking about different parts of northern and central California, that’s not where I’m going with this today.

A few days before the conference, I asked the principal and the other math teachers I work with if there was anything specific they wanted me to look for.  No one said anything in particular, although one coworker asked if Dan Meyer was speaking, since he is one of her favorite speakers at events like this.  (I have not had time to properly vet Mr. Meyer’s blog, so if you click the link, be aware that the content belongs entirely to Mr. Meyer, and Highway Pi does necessarily endorse any of the opinions or writings shared my Mr. Meyer.)  I was planning out my weekend, and I saw that the title of Mr. Meyer’s talk was “Video Games and Making Math More Like Things Students Like.”  With a title like that, how could I not attend this talk?

Dan Meyer is an alumnus of UC Davis, my alma mater, and he is currently working on his Ph.D. at a major private university in Northern California which (no disrespect to Mr. Meyer) I dislike so strongly that it shall not be named in this blog.  He is a young guy, probably younger than me, considering that he received his B.S. from UC Davis a full five years after I did.  He does a lot of these talks, apparently.  I went into the talk willing to put aside my bias against his affiliation with Voldemort University (I did not know at the time that he also had a UC Davis connection).  I was expecting something that looked a bit like what I already do in the classroom, where I’ll make up word problems on quizzes about Mario and Link to get the students more engaged in what they are doing.

That is not what the talk was about at all.

At one point, Mr. Meyer was talking about real-world relevance of mathematics tasks.  This is a big thing with textbook writers.  The example he gave (probably from a high school pre-calculus textbook, although considering he’s from Voldemort University and the Silicon Valley, where so many people are so well educated, his classes probably do this in Algebra II) involved graphing fourth-degree polynomials.  This is normally a pretty dry topic, so the textbook he was citing from as an example had a picture of a snowboarder and made the graph be the number of Americans who participated in snowboarding.  Now, all of a sudden, according to textbook author logic, fourth-degree polynomials are cool… but that doesn’t really help students who don’t get it in the first place.

This was humbling to me, because what the textbook author did here is pretty much the same thing I do when I retype quizzes and make them about Mario and Link.  I’m still going to keep doing that, because the students seem to enjoy it, and those problems are still less dry than the ones that come with the textbook.  I still believe that these make my class more enjoyable for students.  But the point that Mr. Meyer was making was that this is not the kind of fundamental change that brings student success.  And those are not the connections with video games that he was there to talk about.

The talk was not just about connecting video games to the classroom; the point Mr. Meyer was making was about how video games engage students, and how we can engage them in math the same way.  For example, real world relevance the way textbooks do it is not what determines students’ engagement, because video games are much more engaging, and they do not take place in the real world.  Video games capture students’ attention despite the fact that none of these students have ever seen a portal gun, a Goomba, or an angry bird with a slingshot in real life, so contriving real world situations like the snowboard example above doesn’t help students.  Video games (at least most of them less than 30 years old) leave the path to the goal open-ended, so we should construct math problems that give students multiple options for how to reach understanding of the topic.  Video games deal with failure by giving you another chance, so we should give students multiple chances to demonstrate their learning rather than base their entire success or failure on one test.

This talk, as well as many other things I heard this weekend, drove home the point that I really have a lot of room for improvement in my teaching.  With the new curriculum standards, the focus is turning from students’ ability to get the right answer to students’ ability to reason and understand concepts.  I’ve always treated reasoning and understanding as an ideal goal in my teaching, but in the past, students have still been able to get by in my class by memorizing and getting the right answer.  The new standards and the new curriculum are forcing me to bring my actual teaching in line with those ideals.  It’s difficult, and I’m having to do a lot of things differently from what I’ve done before, but it’s exciting too.

One of my favorite books is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  This 2011 novel is set in a dystopian 2040s, in which society is falling apart, and everyone escapes from their reality in a giant virtual-reality video game called OASIS that had grown over the decades into a social network, an operating system, and so much more.  (Imagine if World of Warcraft and Facebook had a baby.)  The OASIS’ late creator, who was born in 1972, was obsessed with the popular culture of his childhood, and he hid a series of very difficult puzzles in the OASIS, essentially a treasure hunt, that will lead to fame and fortune for whomever solves them first.  Wade, the protagonist who tells the story in first person, is trying outwit a bunch of shady corporate bigwigs, who form the villains of the story.  The puzzles make reference to early video games and 1970s and ’80s music and movies, which is what made it such a fun book to read.  I’m glossing over a lot of the back story; you’ll just have to read it yourself.

At one point, everything looks hopeless, and the corporate bigwigs appear to be winning.  It is in this hour of darkness that Wade says my favorite quote from the entire book: “Like any classic video game, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level.  A new level often required an entirely new strategy.”

Sometimes, playing video games as a kid, I would get to a level that was really hard, and I would find some way to skip it.  Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind, with the cloud, or the warp zone whistle, or the P-Wing that would give me the power to just fly over all the enemies.  My career is at a new level.  The last level got really hard, so I got a new job; this is analogous to using the warp whistle, to escape to a different level.  And this new level is harder.  Welcome to Warp Zone.  There are a lot of new challenges before, and what I did before may not get me through them.  But I’m working on a new strategy.  And every day, I have another chance to try new strategies for the challenges I face in life.  It’s like getting an extra life.

(P.S.  Because I know some of you are curious, here is a link to the same talk that he previously gave at a different conference: http://vimeo.com/113714091)

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