Oregon Trail at 50

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For those of you who have been around instructional technology for a while, this may offer some warm, fuzzy nostalgia: the classic game Oregon Trail recently celebrated it’s 50th birthday.

Game Over?

Government is not a game. But for as long as I can remember, the news media has framed it that way. As result, we’ve elected far too many game-playing politicians.

Good government requires many smart people committed to building a better society. But this administration dismissed as many who fit that description as they could find, replacing them with unqualified hacks working only for themselves. Continue reading

Math Is Not The Same As Math Class

On a recent edition of his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin1 discusses why math in the real world doesn’t line up with the subject taught in school.

In his monolog, Godin argues that everyone is good at math since most of us use the concepts everyday without necessarily thinking about the “math” involved. He illustrates his point using the Monty Hall Problem, a probability puzzle related to simple choices, based on the game show Let’s Make a Deal and named for its long-time host.

The whole episode is worth a listen2, but, as a former math teacher, I found his introductory remarks about those math classes particularly interesting.

Math class might be hard but math… math isn’t what we think it is. One reason that math class feels hard is because math isn’t what they teach in math class.

It may be that you think you are no good at math, but you are probably mistaken. You might mean that you are no good at arithmetic, because arithmetic is boring and you know how to arithmetic with a computer.

It might be that you’re no good at memorizing formulas that make no sense to you. And that’s probably a good idea, because of all the things to be good at, memorizing formulas that make no sense to you is not one of them.

School was built to create people who could do well on tests, and so quote math unquote educators (also in quotes) decided that the easiest way to have people do well on the tests was to teach them arithmetic and have them memorize equations that they didn’t understand.

I’m not sure I agree that the concept of school was built around testing, even though that’s what it’s become.

However, his assessment of the content of math class is far too accurate. The math curriculum used in most schools really is based on arithmetic. It’s repetitious, most of the problems done on their smartphone, and it is pretty boring.

When students get to high school and the titles get narrowly specific (like Algebra), the formulas become more complex but the process is still mostly a matter of arithmetic (we just stick letters in place of the numbers) and memorizing. And also still largely boring for most kids.

Let’s face it, there is much about K12 education that is out of date and in need of a complete re-think. The concept of “math class” would be a great place to start.

The picture shows Monty Hall with his famous three doors (occasionally curtains) that were incorporated into the problem. Although he was going strong as host of Let’s Make a Deal when I started teaching math, I didn’t learn of the problem named for him until much later.

1. Godin is a popular business writer whose daily blog, books, and other work often include some insightful observations that apply out here in the real world. I find his writing on education is sometimes too simplistic but it still provides some good thought material.

2. The math discussion is in the first fifteen minutes. You can probably skip the question and answer section (plus a promotion for his online course) in the second half.

Recently the British Ministry of Education released a draft revision to the elementary curriculum which would require students, among other things, to “master Twitter and Wikipedia”.

As you might expect, there are some who don’t like the idea.

Like England’s “foremost neuroscientist” profiled by the London Daily Telegraph.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying games. But don’t you think it’s strange that people are engaging in activities that have no purpose? Spending their precious time and money sitting in front of a screen in a make-believe world when they could be out there having love affairs and doing things in the real world?

“And that’s what worries me. That we are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate, hedonists with the attention span of a gnat. Because they spend the majority of their time in front of a computer screen. A whole generation that can’t interact because their skills are limited to inhabiting a fantasy world on a screen.”

Wow!

Would someone else like to comment?Â  I’ve been staring at the make-believe world of this blog for nearly an hour and can’t think of anything to follow that.

[Update: Sorry for leaving out the link to the Telegraph article, now corrected.]

Then and Now

One of my favorite movies of all time is Quiz Show, a story based on the scandals surrounding the 1950’s television show Twenty-One.

Directed by Robert Redford, with excellent performances by Ralph Fiennes, John Tuturro and Rob Morrow, the film centers on Charles Van Doren who became a celebrity through his success on the game until it was revealed that it was all rigged.

Great movie. See it the next time it rolls round on TNT or HBO.

But also read the fascinating account of the events and his life since by the real Charles Van Doren recently published in The New Yorker.

As with many other adaptations from real life, the truth is even more interesting than the fictional version.

One stark contrast between then and now: on the Today show of the late 50’s, Van Doren “read a great poem or two every Friday morning and talked about its author”, a popular segment with viewers.

Fridays in 2008, Today features a song or two by a current pop music phenomenon.

Another is that game shows today are rigged in more transparent ways and rarely involve asking anyone to demonstrate knowledge or intelligence.