July 24, 2013

Gamification of Homeschooling


I've been on the fence about technology in the classroom for along time.  Specifically educational gaming.  It's so pervasive that this might sound like a weird thing to say, but researching random studies on child development is a hobby of mine now that I'm no longer officially in the wide world of professional education and there's a lot out there on the damaging aspects of technology that's pretty convincing.  That said, as a homeschooler, I'm constantly asking myself, What world am I preparing them to be a part of?  And the answer to that is that it's a tech world.

I want them to have the benefits of educational technology and gaming without the big downside.  Maybe that's possible.  Maybe it's not.  But I've taken what I know about recent brain research and used it as a lens through which to assess cutting edge educational gaming and designed a plan that feels like home for us. I've designed a school day that alternates between heavy tech periods and full on pencil to paper,no tech times so that they are still working on the ability to concentrate on something that doesn't change in a flash before their little eyes every 3 seconds.  I think we're finding something that feels good.  Something that gives them the fun and advantages of new roads in gamification, without sacrificing the long, drawn out periods of stillness and self control.

I have read and watched and listened to as many "experts" in the fields of educational technology and brain development as I could.  A few themes seemed to surface time and again.  And many of the recurring themes are found to have opposing information depending on which camp you're listening to.  I've pretty much found my camp.

***If you're interested in my thoughts on what I've read and learned, read on.  If you want to skip to our top picks for educational gaming, by all means do scroll down to the heavy purple words nearer to the bottom.  

Developing Multitasking Skills  Proponents of gaming consistently bring up this idea that kids who game are developing expert multitasking skills.  They are surveying the visual field, watching their "energy level," avoiding bad guys, shooting weapons, using a controller and avoiding taking out the trash all at once!  When you listen to a gaming guru, they make this sound like a feat of a highly refined brain.  They go on to point out all of the ways that multitasking skills will benefit them in the workplace someday.

But when you listen to scientists who have made multitasking the focus of their research, they claim that brain scans of people who claim to be excellent multitaskers show that they are absolutely less effective at all of those things that they are doing than the person who does those things one at a time with focus.  When you read interviews with MIT professors, they say that scores have gone town since laptops were allowed in classrooms, that the students are less present, less respectful, and that the idea of multitasking has become an excuse for lack of eye contact, reciprocal social behavior, and a shelter for the tech addict.

I tend to believe the brain scans over the gaming guru.  Maybe that's a bias on my part, but brain scans speak to me.  I'm going to work from the assumption that multitasking is a myth, and not let that argument sway me as I evaluate games.

Gaming Prepares Kids for Careers in the Tech Industry  This one is cute.  It makes sense on the surface (for about a second) in that video games are a technology and your child is becoming familiar with the use of that technology when they play.  But playing a game is way different from understanding how the game was made, how the technology was developed, and what's going on inside that magic box from whence cometh the game.  I personally know plenty of gamers who couldn't get a job pouring coffee at Adboe if their avatar's life depended on it.

I have no expert research to back this opinion up.  It's just my gut and string of lame high school ex-boyfriends that lead me to this conclusion.  LOL!  Gaming does not equal tech career.  I'm not saying it's bad.  Just saying that the connection isn't there.

Games Allow Kids to Learn Effortlessly  This one I buy into.  Research demonstrates that well designed games give us those little hits of dopamine and all of it's cousin feel-good biologically embedded drugs.  Just like crack, we can get hooked on that little hit of happy to our pleasure center that we get when our little Mario grabs a mushroom.  If you're getting that hit from an educational game, you're effortlessly learning.  You're trying to learn more, to perform better for the game and get your little happy drug.  So no more begging your kids to learn their times tables.  You can, in effect, get them hooked on a game that will do that for you and they will happily play until the cows come home.  When they learn their times tables and it's no longer a challenge, in theory, they'll need a new challenge to get the same little dopa-fix and you'll have the challenge of finding the next generation of graphically satisfying brain food.  I'm cool with that.

All Educational Games Are Worthwhile  I'm pretty sure that I don't have to say this, but not all games were created equal.  The perfect educational game has to be fun enough that the kids actually want to play it, it has to be well designed so you get that feel good chemical response, and it has to be challenging.  You can hate me for saying this (I know some of you will) but things like Starfall are not educational if your kids is 4 or older.  It's feel-good, it's wholesome, and it's adorable.  Those are all nice, and because it's wholesome and cheery, I let my kids use it from time to time.  But it ain't educational, folks!  I know families with kids who can multiply multi-digit numbers in their heads, and they still consider starfall educational gaming.  It kills me.

The perfect educational game has to pose some sort of challenge.  The world is full of people, institutions and legislation specifically designed to make us feel good about what we already are.  As a parent, I do want my kids to feel good, but I also want them to feel challenged.  Singing along to Little Boy Blue is sweet, but the fact that I could choose to read along with the words at the bottom does not qualify it as a language arts activity.  To qualify, it must be challenging.  And the challenge has to be perfectly measured so that it is attainable but not without effort, otherwise it just equals misery and frustration.  I have gone to so many sites claiming to offer educational games and just thought, "Oh jeez.  This is lousy.  These are either mindless, or  hammering home a skill that the kid must already have acquired in order to play."  The challenge aspect has to be coupled with a teaching aspect.  Something to make the new skill attainable.

So those were my thoughts and considerations as I waded through the wild world of gamified school and decided which ones would be allowed to grace my children's computer screens and which ones were just mindless fluff.

Okay, you've waited long enough!  Here are our favorite finds for games that actually, really build relevant academic skills.  Ready?

Reflex Math  If you've been reading this blog long, you know that we love it.  It teaches fact fluency in a super fun way and the kids are making rapid progress!  It's not free ($38 per student per year) but I think it's well worth the investment.  What gives it a leg up on other fact fluency programs is that it teaches with fact families, so your kids aren't just learning addition and then subtraction OR multiplication and then division.  They're learning the fact family together.  It's great!  And it has a multi-stage approach to each session, in which the kids have to complete a race to get to the game venue, then they can choose from a variety of fun games, and then, when they get their green light, they can shop for their avatar, build it a park to play in, and populate the park with all manner off irritatingly loud wildlife.  It's a trip!  The last thing I will say about reflex is that it has a wholesome quality about it.  The games are sweet, but still fun enough to keep the kids coming back for more.  This is a unique charm in the gaming world.  2 thumbs up!

Big Brainz Timez Attack  If you don't want to pay, Timez Attack is the next best thing.  The graphics are more sophisticated and it presents more like a grown up video game than reflex (although, the childlike feeling of reflex appeals to me as a mom) so kids are easily drawn into it.  It teaches the same skills, but not in fact families.  You elect to learn either multiplication or division.  Not both at the same time.  Still really effective and fun, though.  As a parent, I sat down and felt like, What the heck do I even do here?  But the kids have some sort of super power that allows them to sit down with Timez Attack and intuitively know what to do.

Flower Power  This works on the specific math skill of ordering fractions and decimals and it's way fun.  Addictive even.  Big fans!  You can play Flower Power Lite for free on Manga High - which I will discuss more in depth in a second - but this game deserves its own shout out.  With the lite version, every time you'll get interrupted after a few minutes with an ad that tell you to go bug your teacher to buy a membership to Manga High for you, and then you have to start all over.  Even with that interruption, the skill of ordering mixed fractions has been made very accessible to them through this super cute game.  LOVE IT!

Manga High  This is home to Flower Power and there are tons of fun math games here.  I haven't played them all, but the ones I've looked at and watched the kids play have looked great.  Intuitive and repetitive skill building here.  You can play the Lite version of all of the games for free (which is plenty for us) or buy a class subscription.  This may be worth the investment.  I'm still weighing the pros and cons there because it ain't cheap.  My kids are happy with the freebie versions so far, but an upgrade may be in our future.  I did the free teacher trial month, but couldn't figure out how to set up all of the student accounts.  It certainly wasn't hassle free like using the lite versions is.

Fun to Type  This site has lots of typing games.  Some can be broken down into only home row letters, while other focus on typing complete real words.  There's a  lot there worth trying.  I will warn you that a few of the games require the kids to watch a commercial first and it's not always a kid focused commercial.  We avoid those when we can.  Also, some are pretty violent.  Out handy man was cracking up one day as he listened in on a little argument between me and the kiddos.  "How are we ever going to learn to type fast if you won't let us shoot down the airplanes or kill the zombies?" they pleaded.  "Well, I think you can learn to type slicing fruit just as well as killing zombies.  Sorry.  No spearing natives, shooting down planes, or killing zombies," I replied.  "But there's not even anyone in the plane!  Why can't we shoot down an empty plane?"  I was dying here. "Planes don't fly empty.  We're not shooting down planes," I said.  "Well, then we're not going to learn to type!" they stomped.  "Fine with me.  Your school work will just take you twice as long when you get to high school.  But that won't be my problem.  If you don't want to play fruit ninja typing, I won't make you.  Your call."  Seriously, our handy man. had tears in his eyes, he was laughing so hard at their persistence.  If zombie killing is good to go at your house, you're fine.  But if you like to avoid all forms of shooting, stabbing, spearing, and face eating, play through them each yourself and make a list of approved typing games.

Hakitzu  (as in Hacking and Jujitsu) I've never used this, only because we don't have an iPhon or iPad aymore, but I'm sold on the concept and have almost no doubt that this is a spectacular tech-learning tool.  Apparently you can play this video game only by learning little bits of coding to make changes to your combat robot, and then your robot battles it out with other people's robots.  You can't just click on options to customize.  Rather, you actually learn how to change the code to change your dude.  How awesome is that?  And from what I read, they've magically made coding a really easy skill to learn even for young ones.  I can't wait until my contracts on current technology run out and I can snag something we can use Hakitzu on.

Duolingo  So, I'm on the fence about this one, but we pull it out every now and then in a language learning pinch.  Duolingo is a free language learning platform that is fairly intuitive and easy to use.  No bells or whistles.  Just the basics.  Not even so much a game unless your kids is highly motivated by badges.  Mine?  Not so much.  We seek the action, baby!  And action, there is not when it comes to Duolingo.  As soon as our Song School Spanish arrives in the mail, we may say goodbye to Duolingo as a part of our regular studies.  I post it mainly because there is also a phone app, and this might be a productive use of phone game time while you're stuck in a waiting room or something.  Right?  Better than Candy Crush, at least.

So those are our current favorites in the world of edu-gaming.  If you have found something awesome and education, please drop me a note!  I'm happy keeping us around the 50/50 mark with our tech time versus traditional, slow paced learning time.  Btu you know how kids are.  We're loving these games right now, but if something better comes along, they're usually happy to move on to the next thing.  So send me your tips!  I love to hear from  you!

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