October 3rd, 2011 by Dan Meyer
I’m extremely happy for all the buzz my blogging brethren have received for their work integrating Angry Birds into the math and science curriculum. No doubt there are intriguing applications of engineering and parabolic motion all over the game. But we’re in the Sistine Chapel here, marveling at the refrigerator magnets on sale in the gift shop. We’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon as the sun sets, eager to get to a hotel and find out what’s on pay-per-view. We’re focusing on the applications of parabolic motion to Angry Birds, missing the fact that it’s a marvel of task design. An utter marvel.
Here are five observations about Angry Birds which are immediately applicable to the tasks you assign your students, though the applications will vary from class to class and concept to concept. If you want to kick those around in the comments, or add your own observations, I’m game.
1. Make it easy to start the task.
There’s a huge button that says “Play.” By contrast, how often do your students point to their assignment and say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
2. Show, don’t tell.
Angry Birds was designed in Finland. It’s sold around the world. That’s an enormous design challenge.
Similarly, there were thirty languages spoken at my first school. The difference is that I was guaranteed a market for my product. Kids had to take my class. No one has to download an app they don’t like or understand. Even free apps get ignored. But how many millions of people around the world have paid a dollar for Angry Birds?
So imagine your math class was an elective. Imagine you had to make math clear to students who didn’t speak your language. How many students would take your class?
Now imagine they had to pay a dollar first.
3. Give useful and immediate feedback.
This, not parabolic motion, is what we should learn from the trails the birds leave behind. When you miss, you can easily re-adjust. The trails help you quickly learn the power of the slingshot and the mass of the birds.
What kind of feedback do we offer students while they’re learning math? Is it useful and immediate, or blunt and delayed. (PS. In this regard, Sal Khan’s analogy is spot-on.)
4. Make it easy to recover from failure.
After your birds get defeated, you have to wallow in your failure only as long as it takes you to press the huge undo arrow. Once you’re successful, that’s all the game remembers. Your losses aren’t stored anywhere. They aren’t weighted against your successes when the game tallies your final score.
5. Complicate the task gradually.
You’re always flinging birds at pigs. As you master one kind of bird, though, you get new ones with different capabilities. The levels get harder. You can get away with a lot of imprecision in early levels but later on you have to be accurate down to a few pixels. This all happens gradually, with enough overlap that you head into each new task with a sense of confidence and determination.
I realize I have readers for whom any connection between games and education simply won’t scan. To them, I’m debasing a discipline that’s older than the pyramids, pandering to students with entertainment and titillation. Look closer. Consider how silly and un-titillating the premise sounds: “How do you help some birds knock down some pigs?” It isn’t much more titillating than “what’s the least I can tell you about two triangles before you know they’re the same triangle?”
Certainly, the metaphor is too complicated for a single blog post. The path between games and education is fraught with all kinds of danger. (There’s a reason I haven’t gone near points or badges.) Please consider this my initial contribution, then, and an invitation for your contribution in the comments.
There’s also more than one approach to solve every level — but there may be one particular approach that is the simplest/fastest way to solve the problem. Doesn’t make the other ones wrong, though.
However there is something from Angry Birds that ought not to be emulated in schooling. And that is the way in which you can become stuck at a level and not moved forward.