Can gaming help improve numeracy among young people?by Wendy Jones / October 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Education charities aren’t usually in the business of producing runner games—those mesmerising mobile apps that pit brain and finger against a series of breakneck-speed challenges and which kids seem addicted to, but which—as entertainment—are often lost on the rest of us.
But this week National Numeracy, the charity of which I’m a trustee, has done just that, showing off a new app called Star Dash Studios which gets players to rescue a film production that has gone over budget and behind schedule. And to do that, they need to deploy—you’ve guessed (though we hope they won’t do so straightaway)—mathematical skills and reasoning.
Maths by stealth then. No maths in the title. Hook ‘em in with a game set in the virtual world of movie-making and when they’re hooked, get them to do the sums (and other simple maths).
As we launched it, we were making the very serious point that traditional school maths just isn’t working for many teenagers and that alternative approaches are needed.
We know it’s not working because a YouGov poll this year showed nearly half of 18-24 year-olds who had taken GCSE maths saying it hadn’t prepared them for managing money and over a third of those in work saying it hadn’t prepared them for their job.
We know because, although two-thirds of young people pass GCSE maths at A*-C, less than a quarter of them can demonstrate practical maths skills at the same level. Because fewer than one in five of 17-year-olds who retake maths GCSE after failing to get a C first time round actually succeed on their second attempt. And because England is one of the few countries where on average young people don’t do better at maths than the over-55s.
This month the OECD threw yet more evidence into the mix—albeit about the skills of adults in general, not just those of young adults. The UK does poorly—24th out of 30 countries—in terms of financial knowledge, which includes understanding the concept of inflation and even knowing how to work out simple interest. (Yes, simple interest: “Suppose you put £100 into a savings account with a guaranteed interest rate of 2 per cent per year. How much would be in the account at the end of the first year?” Forty-two per cent failed to get that question right.)
Now what all this says—and I have made the point in these columns before—is that while GCSE maths may have been preparing young people reasonably well for advanced maths, it has failed to equip many of them for the practicalities of life and work. Maths may now be the most popular subject at A-level, but there seems no significant shift among those at the other end of the achievement scale: the young people who lack confidence and know-how in maths—and who in adult life probably won’t be able to work out simple (let alone compound) interest. What is needed is more exposure to real-life maths—that is, simple maths in complex (practical) contexts rather than complex maths in simple (abstract) contexts.
So, back to the app. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that embedding some simple maths in a mobile game is the answer to the UK’s number skills shortfall. That would be plain daft. But much has been written about how games encourage strategic mathematical thinking and there is some evidence of correlation between gaming and achievement in maths (although not necessarily causation). There is also the proposition—expressed notably by Dr Keith Devlin at Stanford University—that attitudes of mind required in gaming—effort, resilience, learning from mistakes – are the same as those needed to learn maths.
That may sound fanciful—and I wouldn’t push the analogy too far. But it is worth some thought.