Why Kids Master Insanely Hard Video Games but Struggle with Basic Math

Think for a moment about how a kid learns to play a video game. Gameplay begins with an understandable situation in which the kid learns skills to solve specific challenges, by trial and error. Successes are immediately apparent, as are failures – and the reasons for both are obvious.

Gameplay progresses until the kid has mastered the skills – and the situation is no longer challenging. The kid bumps up a level, to a new, but related, situation. New skills must be mastered, new challenges must be met. In time, the kid masters these skills and meets the new challenges, then gets rewarded and bumps up to another level.

And so on.

The kid is now addicted.

Why? Because the successful application of a hard-to-acquire skill to a hard-to-beat challenge provides the brain with a hit of dopamine. This hit feels great, so more are sought. But there’s a problem: the old challenge is no longer a challenge. New challenges must be sought, along with the new skills required to meet them. The new challenges can’t be too challenging, though; when they are, we simply give up. And they can’t be too easy either, or we become bored and find other things to do.

Game developers know this, of course, so they purposely design their games to stay within what psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi termed the flow channel, the zone where there’s a constant and addictive balance between skill and challenge levels. When we manage to stay within this zone, we enter into the brain state Csikszentmihályi called flow, a state of complete absorption that produces a deep sense of enjoyment – and even alters our perception of time; hence kids playing video games for hours on end with no letup.

You could also call this channel “the Goldilocks zone,” for obvious reasons. It’s illustrated below.

How does all of this relate to math?

Well, for one thing, it explains why most kids don’t learn it. Too often, kids are given math tasks that are too hard or confusing (so they give up, and don’t learn anything) or too easy (so they get bored and zone out – or misbehave – and still don’t learn anything).

It also provides us with 7 guidelines for successful math instruction:

  1. Tasks must be self-explanatory. This is most-easily accomplished by providing fully worked-out examples for students to refer to. It is not accomplished through written instructions, which students don't read – due mostly to the fact that written instructions can be ambiguous and confusing. Ever notice how few written directions accompany IKEA or Lego instructions?
  2. Tasks must be within the Goldilocks zone (flow channel). They can’t be too hard or too easy, and students must always have the tools to accomplish them.
  3. Tasks must contain instant feedback. Students must know exactly how they’re doing at all times; successes and mistakes must be immediately apparent. This is most effectively accomplished via answer keys with the fully worked-out solutions.
  4. Tasks must build on each other. Tasks should be related and sequential (similar to video game levels).
  5. Tasks must increase in complexity over time. The overall challenge level must remain high (just not too high).
  6. Overall instruction must be self-paced. Students should never be rushed toward new “levels” without having mastered prior ones.
  7. Overall instruction must be open-ended. There must be no “ceiling” to the instruction; students must be free to advance toward new levels of achievement (and even new topics) at will, limited only by their individual work ethics and interests.

Kids need to do a ton of math in order to master it. They’ll never get there if they don’t find learning it to be at least slightly addictive.

Thanks to Frogger, Fortnite and Final Fantasy, we now know how to make that happen.

Steve Hare

Math-Whisperer. Humanist.
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