The Impossible Problem: Tricking Kids Into Liking Maths With Video Games

“Just go,” Mark says, “it’ll be fun.” He’s trying to convince me -- placate, really -- about the merits of going to Luna Park for a potential story. I hate Luna Park. It's dreadful.

But this is not a story about Luna Park. This isn't a story about rollercoasters or terrifying clowns. This is a story about children and mathematics. More specifically, this is a story about the 8th World Education Games.

Microsoft pitched it as a feel-good story. The World Education Games: an event where hundreds of children would gather to flex their proficiency in the maths, sciences and literacy. An opportunity to explore how technology is being used in schools. An opportunity to talk to some of the next generation's best and brightest.

“I bet something weird will happen,” Mark added, speaking from experience given his little one’s reputation for being a menace. I’m far less fond of children. Children are selfish, ruthless and cruel; often harsher than adults, particularly on the playground or in competition. Respect for others’ dignity isn’t a commodity children trade in very often.

I don't like children, but I have a history with maths. I developed a fondness for times tables and simple arithmetic early, thanks to some musical tapes that my mother repeatedly played whenever humanly possible. Back then -- and it might still be the case -- having those basics down pat was a big deal. It was enough to convince the school put me into its version of an accelerated learning program.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to be an astronomer when I was little; even then, and now, there’s something powerful about staring into the cosmos. The reality of learning science was markedly different, but then so was the excursion I was about to take to Sydney’s Luna Park.

The 8th World Education Games: it was a lot smaller than I expected. But that was quickly explained. Rather than being some kind of national face-off, each school took turns competing against each other in a series of quickfire, minute long battles of arithmetic. With Surface Pros. We've come a long way.

The children competed using a game called Mathletics, created and published by a company called 3P. Matches took place in a series of rounds, which became gradually more complex as students progressed. Initially levels were basic: the first is single digit addition -- it wasn’t uncommon to see students be presented with 1 + 1 or 5 + 5 multiple times.

Every correct answer gets you a point, and your overall score is combined and judged -- first against your classmates and later against other students from around the world. It’s almost like matchmaking in a video game: students can track their performance and that of their opponents as the timer ticks down.

It reminded me of Kumon, an extra-curricular maths and English program for children that focuses on learning through repetition. Kumon was a lot more old-school: it’s paper based and a lot more inconvenient than 3P’s digitised offering.

And it’s also significantly more expensive. The website lists Kumon as charging initial fees of $70 per child and a monthly stipend of $120 per subject and student. Mathletics, on the other hand, is $30/year for each student, with discounts offered if an entire school is signed up.

It’s no surprise that 3P claims 50-60% of schools in Australia have access to the IntoScience, Spellodrome or Mathletics. They could certainly roll the cost into parents’ school fees without too much trouble. I asked one parent, watching her cub eagerly, about the cost and she assumed it was passed on through the school fees -- but had no idea what, if anything, she was being charged.

The principle of Mathletics -- cost-effective, repetitive learning with technology -- is all well and good. As a game, however, Mathletics doesn’t stand up. It’s certainly more practical than the copy of Myst my primary school installed, but it’s nowhere near as engaging as, say, The Incredible Machine or as varied as the Dorling Kindersley educational software. But it does certainly expose teachers, institutions and parents to more efficient education system. Students can go home, login online and have their progress tracked through 3P’s servers, which teachers can then follow to keep a track of everyone’s performance.

It’s a neat idea that plays into the standardised testing mentality. But that -- for very different reasons -- has been criticised heavily over the years, coming under fire for being ineffective and instilling a mindset that concentrates on assessments rather than outcomes.

I put the question to Tatiana Devendranath, a World Maths Day and 3P ambassador, as well as a world champion herself in 2008. If Mathletics, and the World Maths Day as a competition, revolved around giving students instant feedback on their results and live comparisons of those results against their peers in Australia and abroad, was that not also feeding into the same results first, outcomes second model that some educators say is failing kids today?

It wasn’t a fair question, in hindsight, and she understandably wasn’t sure. It’s also worth pointing out that not criticisms of standardised testing in Australia aren’t universal. It’s not as if the style of education doesn’t have powerful advantages.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Mathletics was the way teachers and schools could access a variety of maths curriculi from all around the world. That access could then be opened up, which could serve as a handy band-aid for under-resourced schools and overworked teachers struggling to stimulate pesky overachievers.

Not being an educator, I couldn’t say whether being able to compare Year 4 homework from Sydney Grammar to a school in Stockholm or New York would be of any actual value. But it struck me as interesting: how do we compare, what ideas work across cultural boundaries? Math is, after all, a universal language.

One advantage of the old-school extra-curricular programs I attended as a child was the ability to bring like-minded students together under one roof.

I hated it. Any reasonable child would, but it at least introduced a social element the digitised classroom can't offer. I loathed every second of Kumon and every dollar my parents invested into the program, but it did afford me the opportunity to be in an environment where I could bitch about the program with my peers.

And as rosy as Mathletics and 3P likes to paint the future, it won't change the reality of maths as a subject. It might make maths more accessible to students and educators, but it won't make Maths cool.

I garnered as much when I spoke to two students -- a young girl named Miriam and a Year 8 boy called Mekail. They were nice kids, but they were also the most coached interviewees I’ve ever encountered, singing little else but the praises of the event and the software. Kudos to Microsoft and their teachers in that regard, I guess.

Fortunately, years of bullying and ridicule was fresh enough in my mind that I had this overwhelming sense: maths probably didn’t make one any more popular in 2015 than it did in the 1990’s. I asked the pair whether having your inner nerd exposed had a social impact. They tacitly agreed that clever students had to account for a certain buffer in their results.

"You can't be too good, because then you're a nerd. But you can't be too bad," Miriam said, jokingly adding that you "had to win from a safe distance".

The maths and sciences need their bright sparks to soar. But from what I could gauge, that subtly regressive culture against excellence still exists. Aiming for the stars isn't cool if you're the only one who gets to fly.

But some of these issues are ones facing the education system more broadly. Maths in particular has been stigmatised for an eternity. Peter Westwood wrote back in 2000 that “many intelligent people after an average of 1500 hours of instruction” in maths still regarded it as a “meaningless activity for which they have no aptitude”. (Thanks to Edith Cowan University and Paul Swan for the quote.)

That’s not a problem 3P can fix on their own. What Mathletics provides is the opportunity to connect hundreds, thousands -- maybe more -- students who at least have some affinity for maths. After all, the World Education Games thrives on the concept of friendly competition: why not create a community out of it as well?

At a minimum, it’s a chance to create an environment where students can interact with others who share the same interests. Online communities form around interests all the time. If part of the problem facing maths is the poisonous mentality around it, then grouping more active Mathletics users through the software could, theoretically, at least build another positive connection with maths that might prevent students from disengaging with the subject earlier than they otherwise would.

Back at the office I came across a BBC article on World Maths Day. The national broadcaster interviewed Rock Tsui, a 17-year-old who incidentally finished behind Devendranath in 2008. The format was substantially different back then; to finish second, Tsui answered more than 40 questions a minute on average over two days, with 62,273 correct answers at the end of it all.

"I managed to keep myself awake by drinking lots of Red Bull so didn't feel too sleepy - the excitement of the competition also kept me alert," Tsui told the BBC. "My teachers kept on emailing me to tell me to sleep but I was so determined to do my best I didn't listen to them."

It was a pretty marathon effort, and one that can't be replicated thanks to a restructure of the event. But it got me thinking, so I followed up with Devendranath. She answered 65,199 questions over the course of the two days. How much Red Bull did she need to stay awake? Surprisingly, the answer was none. Devendranath was a smarter competitor, and simply opted to make a final charge at the very end of the competition when she knew her opponent would tire out.

Devendranath and Rock Tsui kept in touch afterwards through Facebook, as rivals often do, but were only able to do so after 3P passed their details to each other. I can understand why that layer of security would be necessary. The information of minors needs to be protected, no question, but society also needs more minors to retain their interest and passion for maths, particularly those entranced by the Mathletics environment. "Kids don't have the same enthusiasm when it's not a game," Miriam said pointedly.

Harnessing that enthusiasm is the tricky part. Whether the creation of a secondary surrounding, online or otherwise, will work I cannot say. But given the declining interest in STEM, and the challenges that dearth poses for society more broadly, surely the onus is on someone to try.

As I stepped outside, away from the pop music blaring over the speakers, I couldn't help but consider my own past.

What would have happened, I wondered, if Mathletics and other digital offerings were available when I was at school? The most my primary school could accomplish was regular trips to the principal's office to fix her word processor. High school had plenty of computers, but the use of educational software never quite surpassed the beautiful simplicity of the Mind Maze in Microsoft Encarta.

There was a time when I was considered "good" at maths. I have sincere doubts my skills would have held up at a more prosperous school, or with more rigorous competition. But would I have abandoned the subject so easily in high school? Would things be different if the physical torment of one or two evenings a week were replaced with quick sessions online?

Looking out a window towards Sydney's grey skies, I wondered: perhaps reality is different for these students. Perhaps, despite the simplicity of its deployment and its immaturity as an application, the presence of Mathletics would transform the lives of the next generation.

And then I saw what, deep down, I always expected to see.

I remembered one moment.

Amidst the intensity of the minute-long rounds, a student looked up, searched around for a teacher and -- after a fruitless scan -- gave up and began playing with her iPhone. She looked at me, I looked back. A split second. Her texting continued without fault. I wasn't the teacher. I wasn't the figure of authority she needed to placate.

There will always be stars like Devendranath, Miriam, Mekail and Tsui. There will always be a laundry line of students like myself, what-ifs whose lives could have been remarkably different.

But most will be like that girl with the iPhone. Most will look at Mathletics, or any application, as another tool or exercise to avoid. And try as adults might those kids will keep a watchful eye, waiting for those lapses in concentration, those brief moments of inattention, so they can resume enjoying themselves in the ways that children so often do.

Children are the smart ones. They always were.


    You know what is the easiest way? Make a simple RPG game that each monster kill is X gold and to upgrade your sword you need XX gold. They will think for themself how many monster to kill to get XX gold for the sword.

    You will slowly develop their mind for arithmetic and once they start studying, it will not be an impossible wall since they already know the basics.

    I taught myself really complex excel stuff by making games and silly programs when I was bored.

    Next thing you know those same excel formulas are the ones I’d use to do like 99% of my workplace reporting.

    You don't like children?! You monster!!! *clutches pearls*

    But seriously, Adventures in Math is the only way to go. It got me into maths back in the Olden Days.

    Any RPG game with property ownerships, stock markets, gambling, and small business developments would probably suffice.

    Thrall has 50 orc officers in the battalion. 50% of them need new uniforms.
    Each uniform requires 3 pieces of snapjaw shell and 2 pelts of Tundra Rhino.

    Bring me the exact quantities needed or I will take everything and you'll have to start again

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