I want to talk a little more about why I am so excited about X BLOX, which you can now download on the Apple App store (for the ipad). Or you can just click the hyperlink on the name to get an app store preview.
The way we teach math is a complete disaster.
I could go on for a long time on this topic (and I often do). But let me just give you the (sort of) short version:
Kids are hardwired to learn stuff. They love it. They are so intent on learning that if you leave them to their own devices they will make up games that teach them important things they need to know as adults.
Instead of letting kids play games, we force them to sit still for hours on end and comply, comply, comply.
The result is that a lot of people develop weird anxieties about learning.
They also rebel, but they do it inwardly. What we get is a bunch of people who are outwardly compliant and inwardly hate what they are doing. I think this is a pretty bad mental state for people to be in, but it is basically the norm for society. This is terrifying.
You can force people to work, but you can't force them to think.
The way kids inwardly rebel in school is by not thinking. They do the work they are expected to do, but we can't make them like it. They don't explore and the learning doesn't transfer because they aren't there to learn. Their goal is to rebel while making it seem like they are complying.
The solution is to free kids from coercive schooling. If we want them to learn something that they won't naturally learn in the games they make up, we should take it upon ourselves to make a game that is engaging enough for them.
I have played a lot of interesting games that improve physical fitness, or that teach economics and history.
But is it possible to make a game that effectively teaches math?
This is my goal. I think X BLOX is a good first step. I don't think it is the end of the road but I know two things: it has the potential to be addictively fun (my model is tetris) and the rules of the game are the rules of algebra.
So how can X BLOX be fun? I think a game needs a few basic components to even have a chance. It has to be challenging at the right level. It has to have feedback, and it has to be intuitive.
Is X BLOX challenging at the right level? Try it. I am still tweaking it. But there a re bunch of levels that have a very wide range of difficulty levels.
Does X BLOX have the right kind of feedback? Again, you need to try it. But the whole basis of the game is moving blocks around, seeing when they "stick" in various combinations, and seeing what happens when they do. This is a lot more feedback then doing a worksheet. I think computers offer a potential level of feedback in for math games that is impossible with worksheets, and the potential is as yet unharnessed.
Is X BLOX intuitive? At a basic level, I think it is. It is explorable by physically manipulating blocks. All of the algebraic rules are represented visually so you can see what is happening in real time. You can do stuff, and then undo it and try to figure out why one thing worked and another thing didn't. Again, it might not be all the way there, but it blows worksheets out of the water.
Can you actually learn algebra by playing X BLOX? A wide variety of algebraic rules are represented as game rules, from 1 + 1 = 2 to solving quadratic equations by completing the square. It will be a slightly different sort of learning. That is, the "knowledge" will be intuitive and visual. I think it will run a little deeper than the kind of knowledge people get by learning algebra the traditional way. But it won't look exactly the same and there will be loss in transfer (to pen and paper algebra) if you try to learn algebra exclusively this way. But the rules are there, and you have to learn them one way or another in order to progress in the game.
Note: you have to have an ipad with ios 6.0 or later to try X BLOX.