The Role and Pitfalls of Games in Elementary Mathematics

Throughout educational history, teachers have created learning games to complement their lessons, using play to stimulate student interest in different subjects.  In the past, this typically signified a break from daily routines and/or a reward for good student behavior.  Recently, however, games have emerged as a preferred method for facilitating learning.  This trend has come at an enormous cost to mathematical education.  Too often, games mischaracterize the subject, mislead children, and provide ineffective student practice.

Mathematics is an intricate composition of levels and connections.  Learning the subject is most dynamic when pupils master a skill or concept before moving on to a more challenging one that extends, but doesn’t overstretch their understanding.  Few games feature this laddered design.  Guiding students through topics of increasing complexity requires skilled teaching that gamifies student learning.  It also informs children that succeeding in the subject doesn’t come cheaply.

At its best, mathematics can be transformative, but reaching this euphoria sometimes requires frustration and tedium.  Many of us associate the subject with the latter, having rarely – if ever – experienced its beauty.  Too often, teachers address this reality through instructional activities that don’t match the subject’s nature.  Unwilling to risk student discouragement, they fill class time with games that create illusions of learning engagement at the expense of academic rigor.  Seeing their students happily participating in math games, teachers feel accomplished and assume the following flawed logic:

 

  • When children play Math games, they have fun.

  • Fun leads to further mathematical engagement.

  • Engaging with the subject equates to learning.

 

What they fail to account for is that much of their students’ enjoyment emanates from the game’s extrinsic distractions (dice, colorful cards, working without teacher supervision, etc.) rather than its mathematics.  The former dominates the experience, while the latter is only tangential to the activity.  While games can be valuable, they’re rarely the best tools for practicing skills and internalizing content.  More often, they create alternative learning experiences that are mathematical in name only.

Childhood memories often shape teachers' professional beliefs and choices.  In the past, math instructors commonly addressed the subject through massed practice, occupying significant amounts of class time with calculation and procedural repetition.  This method of burning concepts into memory was largely ineffective and led to a generation of math haters, many of whom became elementary school teachers.  Eager to provide their students with happier mathematical experiences than they received, some teachers overuse games as a learning tool.

Practice, of course, is essential to mastering basic skills and internalizing concepts, but the adage Practice makes perfect is a false proverb.  Becoming proficient in the subject requires perfect study habits paired with deliberate, carefully scaffolded practice opportunities.  Games usually provide repetitious, randomized drill work that over or under-challenge the majority of its participants.  Math is most dynamic when students pass through stages similarly to a video game, i.e. mastering one skill or concept before moving on to a harder one.  Few – if any – games appropriately progress through nuanced levels.

Characteristics of Good Math Games:  The best math games are those that teachers invent (or carefully select) to address specific skills and/or concepts that their students are learning.  They require few materials with easy-to-follow instructions, so that children can play without teacher supervision.  If children can’t teach a friend or parent the game, then it’s probably an inappropriate learning activity.   While participating, students need to experience consistent success but also challenges, so that they’re invigorated to play and learn more.  If they don’t eagerly participate, class time would be better spent doing a different activity.

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Math is Fun.

The words appear in classroom posters and educational websites often enough that they more resemble propaganda than an educational belief.  I agree with the phrase, but am discouraged when I read it, simply because I never see similar claims made about other subjects.  Therefore, I’m left wondering if teachers who boast the slogan actually believe it, or are merely trying to convince themselves of its validity.

Juxtaposing Fun before Math is unfair to the subject, because it simultaneously under and overstates its truth.  Fun tends to imply lighthearted engagement and low stakes activity, not intensive focus and profound pursuits.  The semantic tug-of-war often implies that mathematics isn’t interesting enough to engage children without facilitating games.  It also suggests that there is no joy in simply mastering skills and concepts before engaging in more challenging ones.

Reversing this approach requires teachers to deeply understand mathematics as a complex discipline that is most appreciated through heightened concentration and industriousness.  Only then will games resume their proper role as an occasional, not routine, mode of instruction.