The psychological and social elements of good learning

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School children at a school in Oakland, CA, playing the BrainQuake launch app Wuzzit Trouble in class

One of the known benefits of game-based learning is that, providing the game is designed and constructed sufficiently well, it can help students adopt a positive and confident attitude towards the subject the game is intended to develop mastery in— in our case mathematics, with our particular focus being the hugely important general skillset of mathematical thinking and creative problem-solving capacity.

The importance of developing a positive attitude to a subject being learned was highlighted by the cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck in her ground-breaking book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first published in 2006, where she contrasted a growth mindset that can lead to good learning, with a fixed mindset that leaves students with a sense they are just not cut out to master whatever it is that is being learned. This idea was developed further in the case of mathematics by the math-learning scholar Jo Boaler in her subsequent 2015 book Mathematical Mindsets.

At BrainQuake, we took the importance of developing a good mathematical mindset very seriously from the start. Indeed, Prof Boaler has been an (unpaid) member of our Scientific Advisory Board since we began operating.

To achieve a positive attitude to math with a math-learning game, the game has to embody mathematical thinking in a fundamental way.

Good games engage players, often to an extremely high degree. (Popular talk of “video-game addiction” is overblown, with genuine addiction rare, but as I and my family know only too well, there is no doubt they can be hard to put down at times!) To take advantage of this engagement factor, the mathematics has to be an integral part of the game.

If the mathematics is simply spliced into a game as a sequence of hurdles to be overcome in order to proceed in a game that has little or nothing to do with the mathematics (and there are many examples of such games), the player may become skilled at the mathematics required to get past the hurdle, but the math is then experienced as an “arbitrary”—and from the perspective of the game pointless—obstacle that keeps interrupting their progress in the game they would otherwise enjoy. Under those circumstances, the game may in fact contribute to a negative attitude to math, or make worse an existing antipathy.

In our case, we start with a mathematical topic, create a puzzle that embodies that topic, then implement that puzzle as a video game. The result is that the math is the heart of the game. You can’t do that for all mathematical topics and end up with a game that’s enjoyable to play (well, we couldn’t and we tried hard to do it for many math concepts). But you can do it for some, and certainly for enough to be able to develop the all important, and universally applicable, skillset of mathematical thinking and creative problem-solving capacity I mentioned at the start of the post.

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The three puzzles in the current version of the BrainQuake app are representations of important mathematical concepts on top of which a puzzle game has been designed. Solving the puzzle is solving the underlying math problem.

But there is more to becoming a good, effective mathematical thinker than having a positive mindset towards math. It’s also important that learners come to see themselves as mathematical thinkers — as members of the segment of society that make fluid, effective use of mathematics when it is required. There’s a social aspect to learning as well as a psychological one.

The social aspect of learning is often overlooked when educational issues are discussed, particularly when dis­cussed by policy makers rather than professional teachers. Yet it is a huge factor. Humans are social creatures that need and seek membership in, and approval by the other members of, certain groups, and are strongly influenced by those com­munities.

The community may involve regular or occasional face-to-face contact, but it does not need to. It may have specific criteria for membership or it may be quite loose and organic. The key is that the individual sees him or herself as a member of the community and is acknowledged as such by other members. For example, people who pursue sporting activities, sports fans, fans of specific televi­sion series, members of clubs, members of political parties, and professionals in various domains all manifest the characteristics of this deep-seated human trait.

Young people in particular want to see themselves as part of a group. If we can get learners of math to view mathematics as a community membership issue, we are well on the way to producing good mathematical thinkers with a growth mindset.

Getting them to that point in the case of mathematics may involve them actually joining up with other mathematical thinkers, but it does not need to. It’s more an attitude of mind than anything else, though most of us find that it’s a lot easier to achieve when we do team up with others.

The centuries-old method of learning a craft or trade by a process of apprenticeship, leading to admission to a guild, was based on this idea. It’s extremely powerful; arguably the most effective teaching method known. (Also one of the most expensive in terms of human resource allocation.)

Experienced school educators know the enormous educational power of the social aspect of learning, and try to make use of it in the classroom (though the apprenticeship system is beyond their reach).

Video game developers in general (not just educational-game developers) also recognize the key role that the social activities associated with, and perhaps part of, a game can play in its success.

[More generally, marketers of various branded products sometimes go to considerable effort to create a social group, and a strong group identity, around their products in order to drive sales. The Harley Davidson motor cycle company is a great example of that.]

Video games can generate their particular communities, with committed players coming to view themselves, and act as, members of that community. This is particularly true for multi-player games, where the community interaction is an explicit and integral part of the game play. But it can also be achieved with single-player games, especially in an era when social media provide many opportunities for players to interact.

Because we set out to produce powerful supplementary learning tools that can be used in many different ways in different educational and recreational settings, BrainQuake’s games are designed for individual play. But by designing them so that each one provides challenges to players of (almost) all ages and all ability levels, members of a family or group can play at the same time, helping one another, discussing their progress, and showing off to one another.

Let me leave you with a short video clip of a father helping his young daughter to solve a BrainQuake Gears puzzle (in its original Wuzzit Trouble setting) that he had to play himself in order to help her. This is a modern-day example of the ancient apprenticeship process in action.

A father helps his young daughter solve a fairly tricky Gears puzzle

– Keith

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Developing children’s true math proficiency

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