Friday, June 8, 2012

The Learning Game

Last weekend I went to a workshop on teaching and learning Latin called Where are Your Keys (WAYK). I had never taken a Latin class in my life, and I didn’t go to the workshop because of a sudden interest in Latin. I went because WAYK is a philosophy, a community, and a bunch of techniques for learning. Although WAYK is specifically for learning languages, I think that much of the philosophy and many of the techniques can be adapted to make learning anything more fun and more efficient.

I wish I could remember how I heard about them. It was in mid or late April, and I was  pretty excited when I stumbled on the WAYK site. I've been thinking about buying a Rosetta Stone language course (stopped by the high price). My son is most interested in Hebrew, and I'm open to learning any new language. I might have been exploring that sort of thing. I got on their email list, and found out about a weekend workshop in Santa Rosa. I was already booked that weekend, but I managed to squeeze in two trips up there, on Friday evening and Sunday morning.

I loved it, and met a young man there who is very involved with WAYK and loves math. He was wishing he'd had access to their techniques in his Calc II class. I took that as a good sign, and on Sunday night I started to make a handout to explain this to my students. I'm not sure yet how to modify it all for math class, but I'm hoping to test out some of my ideas this summer. (If you'd be willing to meet to try something out, let me know.) I thought I'd post what I have so far, in case anyone else is excited by this.

When I read John Spencer's post on the problems with gamification, I wanted to show this to him. I don't like gamification much either, with its emphasis on external rewards and its notion that video games are the games to imitate. I hadn't even thought about how WAYK is related to all that until I read John's post. WAYK treats learning as a game, but in a very different way than the gamification I've heard about. It's not about points, badges, or quantifying what you've learned, and it's not rigid. It does encourage 'small bites' (John's issue #3 with gamification).

Evan Gardner put together WAYK to help a native community with its language revitalization project. He used lots of techniques already used in language courses, combined with turning it all into a big game, and using sign. You can watch this video to get a sense of how it works.

The use of sign helps the learning process in a number of ways:
  • Since sign language uses a different part of the brain than spoken languages, it interferes less with learning the new spoken language. (In the case of math, I'm not sure how this benefit translates.)
  • Moving our bodies and associating each idea with a movement both help us retain our new learning. 
  • Communicating your needs with sign doesn't interrupt the flow.

The name 'where are your keys?' comes from the game's dependence on props. Keys are something almost any adult you talk to will have in their pocket. Great for learning language through conversation. Nothing to do with math. So I'm naming my translation attempt 'The Learning Game'.

Throughout the workshop, I was thinking about how each of the techniques would translate to math class. Some translate easily and some might not work at all. What I'm including below is a rough first pass. Some of it will be on a handout I give to students; some won't. The game has lots of techniques, too many to learn at first. (In fact one technique, 'small bite,' probably explains why Evan doesn't have lists of the techniques. It's too much at once.)

Philosophy & First Principles 
  1. The game: Learning is something our brains love. (Unless they’ve been traumatized by schools and tests.) We want to turn the whole process into a game. Some games are about who wins. This game is for everyone to win. Peek-a-boo is a game you play with babies. Everyone wins. Hide-and-seek is not about winning – it’s about playing. Think of this game as a treasure hunt or a scavenger hunt, where everyone who finds the treasures' hiding places gets treasure. We will play the game best (most fun and most effectively) if we turn this class into a community where each person figures out how to play the game in a way that helps them and those around them to learn efficiently (this means deeply understanding the ideas, connecting them, using them, creating your own, and communicating them). 
  2. The techniques: All games have rules. The rules of this game will be called techniques. Each technique is meant to be a ‘learning accelerator/deepener’. You might figure out a new technique (especially now, because the game is pretty new). If you do, please introduce it to the group / class / community - this game is meant to be modified. 
  3. Meta-Learning: Although you are officially learning _[algebra, calculus,...]_ in this class, any class is a chance to learn how to learn. What you learn from this game may be more powerful than the ______ you learn. Or, it may help you learn ____ much more deeply than you ever could have without it. 
  4. Signing: Each technique has a sign associated with it. We’ll also invent a sign for each concept we want to learn. Signing allows us to use a different part of our brain for the game, and it associates the new ideas with a physical movement, which deepens our learning. (Just moving helps the learning too.) To see how this works, watch this.
  5. Teach it: When there’s one teacher and x students (with x>10), we’re tempted to revert to teacher talking, students listening. But that leaves students too passive, which is not effective for learning anything. Nowadays there are fine ways to offer information to every student in the world through the internet; a class needs to do something better. We’re a learning community, playing together. We'll split into groups (of 3 to 5 people each) as much as possible, with students teaching each other. You’ll know you’ve learned it when you can teach it. Trying to teach it will show you what you need to learn. 

Techniques (aka Rules of the Game)
Remember, it's all about taking over the learning process, as a community. The leader knows a lot about math and about learning, but only you know what's going on for yourself at each moment. Use the techniques to make this learning community work for you.

There are too many techniques here to start out with. If you could only introduce 5 on the first day, which would you choose?

Changing the Pace 
You can use / ask for:
  • Technique: Slow when you want someone to slow down (sign: pull hand slowly up other arm) 
  • Technique: Again when you want something repeated (sign: tap end of fingers into cupped other hand) 
  • Technique: No pressure refresher to ask for a recap 
  • Technique: Need help when you're feeling lost
  • Technique: Meet me (where I am) when the level is too high (sign: I think it will be a modified meet sign (both hands have index finger pointing up), with one hand higher at first,  pulled down to meet the other. I'd like to get Evan's advice on this.)

[Note: WAYK calls this last one "Sorry Charlie," in reference to their name for the levels of proficiency, which is 'Travels with Charlie'. I didn't want to use a male name in this, so I've changed the names of both these techniques. I also wanted to emphasize that it's ok to be at any level. I wanted the name of this technique to have a zen feel to it. We are where we are, and we take our first step from there. In math classes, people have lots of baggage about being ‘behind’, not wanting to slow the class down. I want this technique to help them past that.]

Technique: How fascinating! We need to celebrate our mistakes. Noticing what we did wrong, and enjoying the process of seeing how that’s different from what really works is our goal. Also great to do this when you have a sudden insight, or love what someone else just said. (sign: arms high, wiggle hands) [I love that this celebrates both right and wrong answers.]

Technique: Show your level: Proficiency levels: In a language, you have an overall proficiency. In math, you have proficiencies with different topics. (sign: one hand held out with the four fingers spread out, other hand points to where you are on the scale) We'll start with this:
  1. I think I get (much of) what you’re saying, not ready to do anything with it yet.
  2. I’m ready to try the simplest case, if I can work with a partner.
  3. I can do this.
  4. I’m ready to teach it to my group.

[I've been using 'thumbs up-down-sideways' for years now. It will be hard to switch, but I think this will be more useful. Since I've modified this, it hasn't been tested. My students can help me improve it.

The WAYK version is all about communication:
  1. Tarzan at the party (or Sesame Street)
  2. Where is the party? (or Dora the Explorer and Mr. Rogers)
  3. What Happened at the party last night? (or  Larry King and Oprah)
  4. What if parties were illegal? (or Charlie Rose)
Charlie Rose gave this scale its 'Travels with Charlie' name, and the 'meet me where I am' technique its 'Sorry Charlie' name.]

Technique: Three times: Anything new is repeated 3 times. In math, it’s often one time where I do all the steps, a second time where I ask students to walk through the steps more with me, and a 3rd time where students do it in pairs. A student who wants to succeed will do the exercises again at home, where they do each of those 3 problems without looking at the solution, and then do similar problems on their own. Maybe that’s 3x3.

Technique: Full: Show how full you are. Be aware of when your brain needs a break. The idea here is that we take care of ourselves and each other. If many people are too full, perhaps we need a 'no pressure refresher'.

Technique: Mumble: It’s ok to do something that doesn’t quite make sense at first

Technique: Sidekick: If you're leading, you can get help from a friend.

Technique: Bucket brigade: Get the new stuff from the elder / ‘teacher’ and pass it along in buckets (groups).

Technique: My turn / your turn: If you’re the one doing the routine, use this sign to hand the floor over to someone else, who then repeats the process. Not sure how we’ll use this one for math, but I want to throw it out there in case we find it useful.

Technique: Set up: Finding props ahead of time that will make the distinctions clearer. For math, this may mean finding cool problems.

Technique: Limit: Limit how much you deal with at on time, aka
Technique: Bite-size piece

Technique: Hunting: We’re trying to figure out if we understand, so we hunt down something we can try to test our understanding. This is a way to take your learning into your own hands.
Technique: Prove it: Apply this bite sized piece to something new

Technique: Clear the field: If the board has too much on it, this is a request to erase the board

Technique: Let’s do it: To ask the leader to turn it over to groups to practice.
Technique: Share the wealth: Teach another what you know

Technique: Distraction: (sign: wiggle hand near side of head, point either to someone whose help you’d like or to the person who is distracting you) because it’s a game, it loses the tatlletale sting.

Can I do it?
This is an awful lot of not-math to be introducing to students who have an image of how math class works imprinted on their brains. But those images get us in trouble. For instance, students think "The teacher will tell me the right answer. " (Nope, says Kate.

I'm hoping I can get them working on a math problem the first day, and introduce this alongside it. I don't have it worked out yet...

What do you think? Am I crazy to load all this extra stuff onto a math class? Can it work? Want to play The Learning Game with me sometime this summer?


  1. Thinking about John's issue with 'giving challenges in incremental doses':

    Maybe language learning is more amenable to the small bites technique than other things we learn? But when I think about how I work on hard problems in math, there's a great Polya (George Polya, How to Solve It) idea for when you're stuck - you create a simpler problem with similar structure. That's a way to make a smaller bite.

    I've always loved Polya's ideas. And I think they're the 'techniques' of math. Maybe Avery's Habits of Mind are too.

  2. Ooh. I can see My Turn/Your Turn used if you have students doing problems on the board. Maybe one sets up the problem and does a few steps and then hands it over.

    Maybe in a Calculus problem, one does the Calculus while the next does all the algebra needed to get the "final" answer.

    Or one draws the picture and another "works" the problem.

    Or one solves geometrically and the next algebraically.

    Or one solves and the next checks.

    In integration, maybe one selects the technique and sets it up, and the next solves it.

    Not quite the same idea, but maybe one writes and the other narrates/explains the solution as it's being done. So, the writer isn't taking dictation -- both have to know what's going on.

    Just throwing out ideas....

  3. Thanks, Jo. Yep, we're definitely at the throwing out ideas stage here.

    And I hope I can find a way to go through a testing my wild ideas stage before fall semester starts.

  4. Interesting concept Sue, I had never heard of it before.

    My question is how is this a game? There does not appear to be winners, losers, goals, problems, or a strategy. It feels more like a technique to facilitate how a classroom is run, but it does not really feel like a game to me?

  5. I see your point. When I wanted to explain how it was a game, I resorted to comparing it to peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek.

    It felt game-like to me the two times I attended a WAYK session. The intensity of my engagement, the way we all worked together, ...

    I think one game aspect for the people very into WAYK is what they call language hunting, trying to learn more language from native speakers.

    I have a handout prepared on this, and am still meditating on how to introduce it.


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