Gameification: The Disruption of Math Education

For 20 years, I was a math teacher. My passion for the subject allowed me to present creative math workshops in so many different educational settings — schools, libraries, Faculties of Education, and even a Royal Conservatory of Music(Toronto).

I also have had the rare experience of teaching in very broad settings — from a poor, inner-city school in my hometown of Toronto to an international IB school in Switzerland. Both provided me with the richest teaching experiences of my life. The first gave me the gift of humility and resilience and the second gave me the gift of extraordinary travel and teaching — I took a math team to the British School of Paris for a European Math Competition in 2006.

My teaching career has been blessed with being in close proximity to the most innovative and rich mathematical pedagogy. And, in 2016, the math projects that occupy my time and energy are ones that uplift the prominence of mathematics in our society. The most notable is being a Lead Ambassador for The Global Math Project(www.theglobalmathproject.org).

While I have witnessed the beneficial changes to math education, I have also seen much inertia. So much so, that the way our children are learning and integrating the myriad of technological devices/services, is becoming a generational wedge in learning/teaching that the likes we have never seen. I some ways, it seems like digital kids are being taught by analog teachers. Worksheets and textbooks are still staples in many classrooms. This benign experience of learning mathematics when combined with students literally having almost zero time to incorporate automaticity into their recall of math facts — times tables, mental arithmetic, etc. — is leading to the collapse of mathematical fluency and interest all over North America.

Gameification is not only the solution here, it is the wormhole to bypass the drudgery of anachronistic approaches which often are encountered by children in their journey through mathematics.

One such marvelous game that has the potential to disrupt the current mindset of math education is something called Albert’s Insomnia.

Do not let the whimsical title or animated graphics fool you. The mathematics that is lurking below is deep and binding. Even better, the game is ridiculously addictive, naturally aiding the neuronal wiring of math facts and operations.

Another thing that I do on a regular basis is travel my province of Ontario giving Family Math Nights — fostering a community of educators and families in bringing joy to math.

Howard Public School: Albert’s Insomnia

My show generally consists of stations that are highly interactive — LEGO construction, Zome Tools, Cube-A-Links, etc.

The last two shows, I have set up tables for families to play Albert’s Insomnia. The response has been overwhelming. It has been the thing parents have talked and asked about.

A simple card game that has drawn the natural attention of so many.

But, because the game has a high intrinsic motivation factor, it must also have a high intrinsic attraction factor. It does. In so many ways…

The game, because of its structural simplicity of just cards, lends itself to an intimate huddle of participants, who are teeming with energy and excitement with the addictive gameplay.

There is an embedded philosophy in math education now — let mathematics serve the conversation; NOT the conversation serve mathematics. In Albert’s Insomnia, the critical mathematics underpins not only the peer-to-peer conversation, but it underlays the foundation of mathematics — number sense, recall, fluency, and automaticity.

And, it does it extremely well. The only other game out there that helps kids in this matter is the brilliant Kickstarter game called Prime Climb, created by Dan Finkel.

However, Albert’s Insomnia goes right back to the roots of math foundation. The simple cobbling together of numbers and operations to create a question is really what is at the heart of Albert’s Insomnia.

Students are not so much giving answers, they are creating questions to an answer. Not only is this a richer task, but it is the historic foundation of all mathematical thinking.

I have just submitted a proposal to speak at NCTM 2017 in San Antonio. The title of my proposal is:

The Domain of Curiosity: Start With Why and End With Why

Albert’s Insomnia is the much needed portal into lifelong exploration of mathematics. Here kids are not unsuccessfully memorizing facts. They are installing them with purpose and intention. And one of the real charms of the game for me is its built-in resilience — another important characteristic in sound and patient mathematical thinking.

For example, let’s say a target number is **unsuccessful** by a player. While they might not have gotten the answer, they will have used the cards in many other ways to create other answers. Even in **failure** there is success.

As a mathematics teacher who now will be entering the global platform in his career, I cannot say enough wonderful things about a game that resolves the problem of children being resistant to learning the general landscape of number sense AND fosters creativity and motivation to persist in finding answers.

This is what all math educators want at every grade level. But, to have it so accessible at such early stages of their cognitive development is extraordinary.

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Victor Hugo

Now is the time for Albert’s Insomnia…