Five Lessons On Teaching From Angry Birds That Have Nothing Whatsoever To Do With Parabolas

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.

Featured Comments

Hemant Mehta:

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.

Chris Brownell:

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.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school teacher, former graduate student, and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

54 Comments

  1. Donna Gaudet

    October 3, 2011 - 3:17 pm

    As a teacher of college developmental math students (or, I prefer the phrase, “not college ready”), I think you provided 5 critical components of effective learning design. Bravo! I so often see instructors, especially in beginning level classes, that are so anxious to get to the “good stuff” that they completely launch right over (as if they were Angry Birds themselves!) the processes important to effective learning. Wow. If only we all could remember the 5 elements you defined in all of our activities…probably would be a lot more learning going on!

  2. John

    October 3, 2011 - 4:04 pm

    I realy like the approach the author has taken in this artical. I had math hammered into me by my grandfather who at the time was a Arospace engineer. I ended up hating math.

  3. CD

    October 3, 2011 - 5:10 pm

    I am a high school English teacher who is terrified of math, yet oddly attracted to the information in your thoughtful, student-centered posts on math instruction. This one, however, is truly universal and applies to pedagogy of any discipline. Thanks for posting!

  4. EmmaRae

    October 3, 2011 - 6:04 pm

    Hi Mr. Meyer,

    I am a high school student and future math teacher extraordinare. I am always inspired by how you manage to make math more accessible to every student. I am currently writing a college application essay about how I plan to change the way math is taught. I am stealing some of your ideas from your TED video as well as using my own. Hope you don’t mind! Thanks so much for all you do for your students. Maybe one day I’ll be half as awesome as you!

    Thanks,
    Emma

  5. Hemant

    October 3, 2011 - 7:09 pm

    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.

    Love the list.

  6. Colleen

    October 4, 2011 - 3:22 am

    I feel like I am running into this powerful message wherever I turn. Jane McGonigal’s book “Reality is Broken” expands on the idea that making education and social action more like video games could change the world. It also reminds me of Joseph Cambell’s work on the hero’s journey. He argues that there is a hero archetype that motivates us all, and the characteristics of this journey are so similar to your break-down of what makes Angry Birds so rewarding.

  7. Emily

    October 4, 2011 - 5:50 am

    I love it. Your analogies are wonderful and indeed, these five things are on my list of what I strive for in my classes. No doubt that the gaming industry is immensely more successful than the education industry in motivating young people and there are big lessons to be learned from that.

    I worry though about taking the analogy too far. Angry Birds (and other games) are really just teaching success through trial, error and practice. Trust me, I have no issue with this process as a mathematical strategy in my classroom, but I think it is a challenge to get students to move beyond trial and error. Because I’ve watched the parabolic arc of a bird across my screen hundreds of times, I am now pretty good at predicting how the arc will look next time. But can I take that knowledge and apply it to predicting the path of a satellite as it flies through the the earth’s orbit? Can I recognize a parabolic pattern from data gathered by the Center for Disease Control? Etc.

    One thing that video games are masters of that we as math teachers seems to be moving away from is the idea that mastery comes through inane amounts of repetition and practice. Homework anyone?

  8. David Stewart

    October 4, 2011 - 5:50 am

    I completely agree that lessons should follow the five principles you outline above; but I would add one or two more. Trying should be rewarded and success should be rewarded just a bit more. Many students, generally those who need the most practice, have no incentive to try. Expecting failure, they anticipate no reward for effort and are not interested in failing again. Angry Birds rewards even failed attempts with sound effects and falling blocks. It’s not much, but it’s enough to encourage another try. Once successful, a simple start rating rewards increased proficiency. This encourages repeat attempts and mastery of the level. The trick, as always, is to find rewards that encourage students without becoming the point of the lesson. The point of Angry Birds is always to knock down the pigs, the rewards are just encouragement.

  9. Christopher Danielson

    October 4, 2011 - 6:09 am

    Emily:Because I’ve watched the parabolic arc of a bird across my screen hundreds of times, I am now pretty good at predicting how the arc will look next time. But can I take that knowledge and apply it to predicting the path of a satellite as it flies through the the earth’s orbit? Can I recognize a parabolic pattern from data gathered by the Center for Disease Control? Etc.

    I think this is Dan’s point. He is using Angry Birds for its design, not for its content. When he writes:

    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,

    Dan is pretty clear that it’s not about the parabolas. Instead, the argument is that Angry Birds is very effective at getting people to do its tasks because of its design. And that’s the lesson he’d like us all to take away-that designing our tasks to be easier to get into and more motivating to continue with is something math teachers of all stripes could learn from.

  10. Climeguy

    October 4, 2011 - 6:27 am

    Nice! As Colleen points out these are some of the fundamental principles of game design. Jane McGonigal and particularly David Shafer in How Computer Games help children learn write about it. Shafer has a chapter on a simulated game called Escher’s World where Sketchpad is used as a design tool. Really cool.

  11. Emily

    October 4, 2011 - 6:36 am

    Christopher,
    Thanks for the push. Don’t get me wrong. I think Dan is spot on and I get it that it’s not about the parabolas. I just think we should recognize that one of the reasons that the design of video games is so effective is that the tasks they present are trial and error types of tasks. We have lots of those in the classroom, but there are other types too.

  12. David Petro

    October 4, 2011 - 6:40 am

    The idea of modelling student learning by using principles found in video games is the main idea in one of Keith Devlin’s (among other things he is NPR’s Math Guy http://www.stanford.edu/~kdevlin/) latest books:Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning.
    Most video games use this sort of idea to work players through more and more complex scenarios. One of my favourite games for this is Portal.
    Happy Gaming

  13. Climeguy

    October 4, 2011 - 6:46 am

    I forgot to mention that Keith Devlin’s “Apollo” video game project which I’m sure you’re familiar with is creating a video game platform for learning math which he discusses in much detail in his book “Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning”
    http://www.amazon.com/Mathematics-Education-New-Era-Learning/dp/1568814313

    I highly recommend it for those not familiar with it. Keith is really on to something very special. Here’s a link to a talk he gave about the book.

  14. Climeguy

    October 4, 2011 - 6:49 am

    @David Petro We were thinking the same thoughts at the same time! What’s the probability of that happening? :-)

  15. Carl Malartre

    October 4, 2011 - 8:08 am

    Hi Dan,

    “…missing the fact that it’s a marvel of task design. An utter marvel.”

    It’s good, but here’s some pitfalls.

    First, like many people, I liked Angry birds for a couple of subway transit, or about 30-45 minutes and then stopped my love affair. Google it:
    http://bit.ly/oav31N

    “Make it difficult enough”. I think my favorite and worst part is that it upsets me:
    https://twitter.com/#!/search/angry%20birds%20upset

    “Make my imagination works with a small set of parameters”. I’m in a separate world when I play this. I turn off some parts of my brain, forget about tomorrow, and focus on this particular set of challenge. Being able to concentrate on a small set of parameters is great.

    “Offer a different way to do the task”. A design formula is never for everyone. Maybe a type of people really gets addicted to that format, but not everyone and not for the same amount of time.

    Too repetitive. After “Complicate the task”, I would also “Change the task”.

    “Make it end.” It’s currently built as a never ending game and I think that’s an error.

    “Observe the student”. Angry Birds does not know if you feel stuck.

    “Have strategies if the student is stuck”. I’m not sure the feedback is useful enough in Angry Birds. If you are stuck, the best they came with was to allow you to pay for “Mighty Eagle” and allow you to jump over the level. Please don’t do that in class!

    “Make it – or part of it – social”. It’s not social. Social can be great if… you are stuck and this could maybe solve the “Mighty Eagle” problem.

    About the dangers of badges and points, here’s a really great “gamification” article, “Don’t Play Games With Me!” by Sebastian Deterding, see the slide-show at the bottom:
    http://codingconduct.cc/#1523514/Don-t-Play-Games-With-Me
    And his twitter:
    https://twitter.com/#!/dingstweets

    My quick and dirty list is:
    1. Select an appropriate task
    2. Make it easy to start the task.
    3. Show, don’t tell.
    4. Make my imagination works with a small set of parameters
    5. Make it difficult enough.
    6. Give useful and immediate feedback.
    7. Make it easy to recover from failure.
    8. Complicate the task gradually.
    9. Observe the student
    10. Have strategies if the student is stuck
    11. Make it – or part of it – social
    12. Make it end
    13. Offer a different way to do the task
    14. Or change the task
    15. Gamify carefully!
    16. And what about setting clear goals?

    If I had more time, this post would have been shorter, sorry :-)
    Carl Malartre
    http://www.twitter.com/malartre
    http://www.buzzmath.com

  16. Michael

    October 4, 2011 - 12:42 pm

    Should we be careful to not use this method too much? Is it possible that video games and this format of instant feed back cause people to become inpatient about natural things that can take a long time? How long did it take to show a^n + b^n = c^n is not true for all n?

    Some tough questions in life’s problems don’t have immediate answers.

    Here is a neat article about learning that supports the Angry Bird Model:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110829114908.htm

  17. Randy

    October 4, 2011 - 12:55 pm

    First off, let me say, I’m impressed with the analogy. Reminds me in some ways of Rick Wormeli’s “Sound of Music” analogy to teaching (if you haven’t seen this, search Teacher Tube for a video presentation). I have looked at the possibility of “gamifying” the classroom, but instead I’m neck deep in trying to flip my classroom, by moving the instruction to the home, and the “homework” to the class. Anyhow… I started to watch Keith Devlin’s 50+ minute video the video game platform, and after 15 minutes, my only conclusion is this: Why is that many of those that believe there is a better way to educate, continue to use the old “stand up and lecture with a pile of powerpoints” method? Somehow, I lose some of that convincing when your own presentation is about as boring as all get out. Maybe it gets better after the 15 minute mark, but he certainly hasn’t even loaded up a bird on a slingshot, let alone hit a pig.

  18. Randy

    October 4, 2011 - 4:16 pm

    Dan,

    Here’s one other Education Lesson from Angry Birds.
    Lesson 0: Set the Hook. (

    If you have ever seen the Angry Birds Cinematic Trailer, then you will see answer to the question Why are the Angry Birds so angry at the pigs. Thus now you have the “students” interest to pursue the “answer” get the pigs.

  19. joe b

    October 4, 2011 - 7:15 pm

    I just finished up a quadratics unit with having students determine the equation using a graph ans then asked them to model the path of a spring which I launched into a bucket in class. The goal was to then place the bucket in a new location along the path as deteemined by the equation. In a way this is angry birds except they couldn’t just keep launching, they knew the goal, I demo’d the task and they got feedback by it landing in the bucket and could correct and return if they missed. So many key elements but ultimately the students with a weak math ability found this nearly impossible, especially since they couldn’t just use trial and error. It’s a difficult balancing act of connecting to their world and embedding the curriculum. Maybe nextime i’ll launch a rubber ducky at some dominoes protecting little pigs.

  20. Jeff Catania

    October 5, 2011 - 4:31 am

    Great analogy … but … math class is more like a multiplayer game (where the ‘party’ has to stick together) than something each student experiences independently. The challenge is in helping students have move through “the game” at different paces/paths all in the same class.

  21. Georgina Little

    October 5, 2011 - 9:12 am

    And maybe the power of peer pressure is important, too?! After all, this is the straw on the camel’s back that is going to make me go spend $1 and purchase the game so I can start following all these cultural references…

  22. Noah

    October 6, 2011 - 12:28 pm

    I agree that all the features you’ve mentioned make Angry Birds highly engaging and that they should lead to learning, but after beating Angry Birds I’m not sure I’ve learned. That is, I’m not sure I’m any more skilled at beating any of the levels. Maybe I’m being too literal-minded about an analogy you are trying to draw.

    Still I’ve had my physics students explore this amazing game:
    http://theuniverseandmore2.blogspot.com/2011/09/super-ultimate-graphing-challenge.html

    I feel like it meets all the criteria you put forth and that the kids love it, but as they go to the higher levels they seem to develop a trial-and-error approach that I’m not sure has led them to improve their understanding. Maybe they need to be pressed to articulate why their solutions work.

  23. Susan

    October 7, 2011 - 6:00 pm

    I agree that so many people may look at the mathematics of Angry Birds and try to use it as a lesson in their class. However, those 5 observations can be applied to any lesson that is being taught in any class. This is not just a lesson in math using Angry Birds. It is a philosophy on lesson design and teaching strategies.

  24. Climeguy

    October 8, 2011 - 6:53 am

    @Noah your applet is great. Very useful in a math classroom as well. Have you done a lesson scenario (ala Dan) around it? I wonder if other Dy/dan readers would be willing to collaborate on something like this? It would be excellent piece of a larger video game/achieving-levels context.

  25. Chris Brownell

    October 8, 2011 - 7:03 am

    Dan I completely agree with these five points, when it comes to lesson design. Each are a necessary component and should be considered when writing lesson plans.

    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. Here is what I mean. I admit that I am at best a part time Angry Birds player, I own the App and have spent a total of maybe an hour maybe two in the year plus that I have owned actually playing the game. That is because I found a level that I could not surpass. Try as I may, I just could not get those fat birds to crash through the blocks to the massive pig. In my frustration, and admitted distractability, I wanted to leave that level. However the game will only let me go backwards not forwards, I don’t know what wonderfully interesting new scenes and vistas may await me at higher levels, I am stuck.
    And so it is in our mathematics curriculum, we force students to take and retake and retake and retake Algebra until they can master the stupid skills of that level holding in abeyance the wonders of higher levels of mathematical thought and reasoning. I know from experience that on more than one occasion that I have learned today’s lesson by tackling next weeks or years problems.
    So if we could seek ways around this problem of stifling our students and forcing them to take yet another shot at that massive pig under the ice blocks, that would be a nice lesson to learn in the negative from Angry Birds.

  26. Climeguy

    October 8, 2011 - 7:03 am

    Actually the last post was intended for Matthew Blackman who wrote the app. This is Matthew’s email address:

    blackmanm@madisonpublicschools.org

    in case anyone else wants to contact him about the app.

  27. Chera G.

    October 8, 2011 - 7:33 am

    I love this game and I have every version of it on my iphone and will be purchasing the games for my ipad so I can redo the levels, acquiring 3 stars on each level. I have been sucked in to this game from day one and I enjoy the connection that it has to education. I teach young kids and they love this game, my colleagues do not always view electronic games as positive, however, the strategy needed to complete this game is undeniable. I love the observations and how applicable they are to every lesson that I teach in second grade. It’s a true example of how to model and guide verses lecture. I love the connection!

  28. Climeguy

    October 8, 2011 - 9:08 am

    @Chris Brownwell Here’s a slide Keith Devlin used in his gaming talk at NCTM last April. It’s an example of how a flipped classroom approach could help with the problem with “getting stuck.”

  29. Chris Brownell

    October 8, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    @Climeguy,
    My appeal is a general one, in the sense that a very large portion of students are never “unstuck.” For them math class is a repeated morass of miserable procedures working with overly abstracted- read meaning stripped- devices. They seldom get to experience the good stuff because nobody or too few people believes they can handle it. This is a systemic problem, which is not easily solved.

    The idea of the slide I think is missing something due to a lack of context for it from the lecture. I trust that Keith Devlin’s talk was deep and more informative, I am familiar with his work and appreciate his insights.

  30. Climeguy

    October 9, 2011 - 7:02 am

    @Chris Your points are well taken. Devlin’s project/vision is not a cure all or panacea. What a video game (or as I prefer simulated world) platform can do is actually make many uninterested students want to actually do math. I’ve seen it happen in my own teaching and in the context of modeling lessons with students as part of the staff development work I’ve done. Right now its a rare phenomenon given that no matter how good some teachers become they all the face the same hurdle: teachers have to teach to what I call the haftado curriculum (following the royal road to calculus – in contrast to the wanna do curriculum which is mostly project based.) I’ve started working on a book that highlights this paradigm shift by sharing personal stories of how this could happen even within the context of the Standards driven curriculum.

    It’s a vision I have and when I learned of Keith’s “Apollo” project it struck a chord in me and made me think (or hope) that maybe there is a brigher future for the “average” student who believes that math is boring and for the most part is a waste of time. Math educators have been trying to solve this problem at least since I became aware it during the new math era in the 60s and 70s and things haven’t changed all that much since. Keith’s vision is now a real possibility because the tools needed to make it happen are now available.

  31. Mitchel Sherar

    November 16, 2011 - 7:12 am

    I love video games, and as a teacher I think that there is tons that we can learn from gaming to engage/perplex kids. I am reading the book “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal and she talks about how we can and how one school is tapping into video games. She talks about the Quest to Learn charter school in New York and I think they have great ideas on integrating and intertwinning games into and with learning.

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