Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Running to get to math class

How often do you see a student running back from a bathroom break to get into math class faster?
Or kids eating their lunch in their math class so they can do more math?
Or calling a math competition the most important thing that's ever happened to them?

I've seen it all. And I'm here to tell you the source is an educational mathematics game called Dimension M.

The Backstory

A few years ago, my director came back from an educational technology conference extremely excited about a product she saw featured by a company then called Tabula Digita. She asked me to check it out and see where we might be able to implement it in our schools. So began a very rewarding journey about letting kids play games in schools.

I first downloaded their single player game and tried it out myself. My screen became a 3D virtual world where I was on a mission and needed to understand square roots in order to reach my destination. I was clumsy and made lots of mistakes but I found it gripping, as I was sure my students would.

Sure enough when I piloted the game with a few students, they loved it. They even asked questions about the math so that they could be more successful. It was convincing enough for our school system to buy a limited number of licenses and see where this gaming thing could take us.

Letting the kids play

Then the fun really began. One of our middle schools identified a group of students that were predicted to be on the borderline of passing their state math test. We agreed that two times a week a science teacher would take them to the computer lab and play Dimension M. (The math teachers were spending this time with students that had previously failed their state math exams).

To get the kids started, I would show the game once on a large screen, mostly just to go over logon protocol and a few basics and then I'd send them off to play. The feeling in the room was electrical. Kids were focused, kids were engaged, kids hands were flying up for help with the math the game was asking them. Yes, kids hands were flying up so that they could get help with math.

Remember, these are kids that do not consider math their favorite subject.

When the first game ended (the games can be set at 5, 10, 15, and 20 minutes), there was a universal exhale. And then an immediate request to play another game.

So, are they doing any math?

Walking around the room when kids first start playing Dimension M will show you that some students are clicking on any answer to "get back to the game." But after "playing" this way a couple of times, these students quickly realize, they are not on the leaderboard, they are not winning the game. That's when the teacher gets involved.

As the kids are playing, a teacher can circulate and quietly offer assistance on the math questions that are popping up. Teachers can pause and watch how students are answering and offer different solutions, scratch paper, tip sheets. If the students believe it is math they can do, they will start trying.

Which brings up another brilliant part of this program: Dimension M games can be differentiated for every kid that is playing. Two kids sitting side by side in the classroom and play toe to toe in the virtual game world can be getting completely different math questions. One can be working on fractions and percents while the other student is practicing estimation. And they can be facing off students in the virtual world that are in a whole different school and might be working algebra questions.

So, yes. They are doing math.

Convinced yet?

We also launched Dimension M for a program that supports students that for a variety of reasons are not being successful in their home schools. In the spring of last year, Dimension U (as Tabula Digita is now called) launched a national competition where students scores were tracked as they plays and each week the top ten scorers qualified to go to a live competition in New York City.

Between students' success in the game and the motivation and dedication of their math teacher, we had two students qualify to go to New York. This was a tremendous experience for both of these boys. Neither had experienced this kind of success before in school. And neither had ever traveled for a school competition.

It was great watching them practice as the competition got closer. And to see their shy smiles as you asked about the competition. And to watch them stand a little taller when you reminded them that no other students in our school division had qualified.

The competition itself was intense and neither student did as well as he wanted to, but the experience was powerful. Both kids talked about it as the best thing that had happened to them. One is still playing Dimension M in school and was able to show off his skills during a division-wide principals' meeting. In fact, he took on one of the principals and trounced him flat. Talk about empowering.

But not every kid is going to go to a live national competition. What about other students? One time when I was visiting a class that was playing Dimension M, I asked a girl if playing the game was helping her in math class.

"Oh, yes." She said.

"Well, how do you know?" I probed.

"I got the highest score on our last math test. And it was because I've been playing Dimension M."

What's next?

I'm thrilled that we doubled the number of classes using Dimension M this year and that Dimension U has begun to offer more web-based games (check them out!). But I would love to see our division embrace this gaming approach more widely and more consistently. If we can get math teachers to see how a game like this complements their daily instruction and offers motivation in a way the best manipulatives in world can't, I think we could see tremendous changes in math achievement.

If we have a tool that engages students, differentiates, builds confidence and is supported by research, let's use it as much as possible!