Method to teach math disguised as video game
The local creators of a new educational video game say they have sneaked the latest teaching research into a colorful, animated adventure...
Seattle Times education reporter
The local creators of a new educational video game say they have sneaked the latest teaching research into a colorful, animated adventure game so fun that kids will hardly realize they're learning math.
"At the end of the day, when a child sits down to play, the child thinks it's a game," said Lou Gray, co-founder and chief executive of Bellevue-based DreamBox Learning. "The parents know the kids are seriously learning, but the kids think it's a serious game."
DreamBox, which announced the game Wednesday, says it is filling a gap left between effective — but boring — educational software and engaging "edu-tainment" that doesn't really teach kids effectively. Experts say DreamBox did its homework, but there isn't research to show it boosts math skills more effectively than other methods might.
The company was co-founded by Gray and Ben Slivka, an educational philanthropist who helped create Microsoft's first browser. DreamBox is testing the Web-based software on kids at after-school programs on the Eastside and will sell online subscriptions starting in the fall. They say their program for students in kindergarten through second grade sets itself apart from the other educational products increasingly filling store shelves.
A team of three elementary-school teachers helped the DreamBox software developers build a system that teaches foundational math skills backed by educational research and is individualized for every child. It guesses what will keep kids engaged in the "gamelike adventure" the same way Amazon guesses what books you might like to buy: by keeping data on what you bought in the past.
Kids choose a character and a theme — pirates or pets, for example — and then play a scavenger-hunt-style game, "finding" things to help the characters. As they play, the game adapts to their level of math skill and the ways they learn best. There are more than a million paths through the game.
A University of Washington professor who helped create DreamBox's product said parents may be better off signing their kids up for that than sitting down to teach them math face to face.
"If you have a really, really good tutor or a very, very interested parent who knows the right kind of knowledge to teach about math, they may do better than any computer," said John Bransford, a professor of education and psychology. "However, most of us, the way we as parents were taught math, this starts with a different foundation."
Bransford didn't accept any money for his work with DreamBox.
John Chattin-Nichols, an associate professor at Seattle University's College of Education, raised concerns about the product, especially for such young children.
Working alone at a screen "is not ideal for the majority of kids. They should be working with their hands. They should be listening to stories or being read stories. They should be playing with other kids," he said. "It's not at all clear to me that this age group needs more time sitting ... looking at a screen."
He also worried it could alienate kids who aren't good at computer games. They'll think they aren't good at math, he said.
DreamBox instructional-design director Mickelle Weary said kids learn best if they have both hands-on and "virtual"opportunities to learn. Some kids are more likely to take risks on a screen than they might while playing with blocks, she said.
The company hasn't set a subscription price yet. At first, it will be sold to parents for at-home use. DreamBox says it is working on a strategy to give low-income kids access to its program.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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