Playing computer games at school

Starting this year, there’s been an increase in the number of computer games at school. They’re called “educational software,” but that’s debatable. Honestly, I think my kids are learning more from games like Katamari and Plants vs. Zombies.

Here’s an example. Go to ABCya dot com and click on sugar_sugar.htm. It’s a “physics game.” Basically, sugar comes down from the top of the screen and you have to divert it into the right place. That does sound fun and interesting, but marginally educational. I didn’t appreciate my kids coming home from school and wanting to play it. I don’t appreciate having their valuable school time being used playing games, especially when the time they spend in “technology” class is time they used to spend in gym – which is now two days a week.

Here’s something that’s educational, but the ratio of wasted time vs. learning time is too high. STMath dot com. Our school district spent money on it. It’s an “intervention” for struggling students. It teaches math using visual concepts and lets kids progress to the next level when they have “mastered the concept” as measured by their success at correctly answering ten questions with one or fewer mistakes. So, for instance, you know carrying in addition? (That’s now called regrouping, by the way.) It used to be so simple. You line numbers up in neat little columns and follow a pretty simple process that works just as well for ten-digit numbers as for two-digit ones. In this game, though, it’s all based on flower petals. Flower petals represent the ones place, flowers represent the tens place, and bundles of flowers represent the hundreds place. To do the regrouping correctly, you have to count the petals and flowers and bundles accurately and “regroup” them into one number. Now, my second grade daughter knows regrouping. But she can’t “master this concept.” Why not? Because it’s hard to count flower petals that are scattered all over a computer screen!

Meanwhile, I doubt it’s helping the struggling students. They could probably shuffle flowers around, but without direct instruction it can’t be easy to translate this into a concept that can be done with pencil and paper in neat little rows. And if you’re going to have a teacher who can do the difficult job of translating the visual concept into the numerical one, what do you even need the computer program for?

The claim on the website is that “schools which implement more than 50% of the program get fewer students at the lowest performance levels, and more at the highest performance levels. Schools below 50% proficiency to begin with have averaged 15 to 20 point gains in proficiency within two years.” Hard to say what that means. What does it mean to implement more than 50% of the program? How much time is involved? What is the scale being used for this “15 to 20 point gains”? In other words, is this real, or is this rhetoric?

Delving more deeply, I clicked on the page that discusses research done with Arizona schools. (By the way, was this research vetted by a Human Subjects Research committee?) Here’s what it says:

“The grades implementing ST Math on average grew 6.9 points in the percentage of students at level MS or above (student passing standard), as compared to an average increase of 3.6 points for the comparison group (p-value = 0.28).”
So okay, there was a gain as measured by the company that sells the project. Hooray. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that there was no test bias or cheating and that this gain is higher than the standard measurement error and that the company is reporting all the research studies, not just the ones that showed positive results.
That still doesn’t prove the software works, because these studies involved not only the software, but also teachers who were specifically trained in mapping these visual concepts to “connect to the conventional language-based instruction.”
Is it possible that the software had absolutely nothing to do with the gains, and it was the instruction instead? Having an entire school trained in one type of math instruction is rare.
How many hours were put into this software, and how much did it cost, and how much did the trainers cost?
With that money, how many tutors could have been hired? 
Our school districts and school administrators need to be asking these questions. But I don’t think they are. I think they’re looking at glossy charts and making decisions based on numbers that look good. And if that’s true, then it’s up to parents to monitor what kinds of software the school district buys and why. 

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