Blogstitute 2016: Unleashing the Power of Games

June 28th, 2016

In the next post in our Blogstitute 2016 series, we turn our attention to math and math games. Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch, authors of the Well Played series share with us what they learned when they examined how to make math games increase student learning. Be sure to leave a comment, ask a question, or tweet about this post using #blogstitute16!

Unleashing the Power of Games

Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch

Last week, we overheard a conversation between a second grader and his mother as he climbed into her car. His mother greeted him warmly and then added, “We need to stop for groceries on the way home.” The boy responded, “Oh no, I really want to get home and play the math game we learned today. Do we have to go shopping? I really want to play some more!”

More and more classrooms are offering opportunities for students to play math games, and students appear to enjoy them. Most textbooks now incorporate games into their lesson plans and, when teachers set up stations, a math game almost always is included. As we noticed this increased attention to games, we began to think about their use. We wondered about changes we could make in the games that were played or in the ways they were played in order to increase student learning. As a result, we spent eighteen months thinking and writing about math games, and we’d like to highlight a few things we learned.

Play in Partners

pairsOne of the most important insights we gained was that games offer more powerful learning opportunities when students play in teams. When one student plays against another, they rarely discuss strategy or what they are learning, perhaps because they do not want to give away an advantage. As a team of two or three players, students state their reasons for what move they want to make next. As they play, they coteach, practice vocabulary, create mathematical arguments, and critique their teammates’ suggestions. Over and over again, teachers have told us that this simple change has transformed the playing of games in their classrooms.

One of our favorite conversations occurred in a game that required students to match cards with equal values. Students could find matching cards in their hand or trade one of their cards for one in their opponent’s hand (cards are placed faceup) to make a match. Elly and Quinn were partners, and Elly wanted to take their opposing team’s card showing 5 x 9 + 3 x 9 to match their card showing 8 x 9.

Elly: We should take that card to match this one.

Quinn: Wait, wait—how do you know they match?

Elly: It’s that distribution thing.

Quinn: Huh?

Elly: You know, you split the eight nines into five and three of them.

Quinn: Oh yeah, it’s a property or something. We should look it up, but after we win.

They actually did go to the word wall after the game and identify the distributive property. Elly remarked, “I don’t think that’s what I called it, but good to know.”

Increase Time on Task

One of our least favorite games is Around the World. In this game two students are shown a math fact. The student who identifies the correct answer first moves to compete against the next student. The goal is to make it “around the world” by beating each and every classmate. As a result, the student who needs the least practice gets the most, and the student who needs the most practice likely considers only one fact. Most games are not nearly as problematic, but many can be altered to increase time on task. Sometimes we can adjust game rules so that the following occur:

  • There is an opportunity to trade cards (such as in the game described earlier), which increases attention to opponents’ decisions.
  • Points are awarded for finding a move worth more points than opponents found.
  • Both teams respond to a roll of the dice simultaneously and then compare their decisions.
  • Students play cooperatively, with both teams involved in all moves.
  • Students decide on a reward for finding an error in their opponent’s play.

Include Assessment

There are a variety of ways that we can include assessment within game playing. Here are a few:assessment

  • Think about what players might say or do to indicate their mathematical ideas, and make a list of these “look-fors” to focus our observations of students’ play.
  • Create recording sheets for students to complete as they play that we can look at later and that help students recognize that they are held accountable for their learning while playing.
  • Have students complete exit cards after they play a game that can help us decide who might need further instruction or who might need additional challenge. We can offer questions such as If you land on 24, what number would you like to roll? Why? or You were dealt cards showing the numbers 2, 4, 5, and 7. Where would you place these numbers in the equation ___ − ___x = ___ + ___x, to get the greatest value for x? We can also ask questions such as What did you learn from your partner as you played the game?

Games often engage students. With some simple changes we can greatly increase their educational value. We hope these suggestions lead you to identify other ways to unleash the power of games so that they are Well Played.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,math

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christie  |  June 28th, 2016 at 6:36 am

    I purchased this book midway through the school year and it was (pun fully intended!) a game changer in my Kindergarten class. My district insists in using a terrible math curriculum (which shall remain nameless) and I am constantly supplementing it with more powerful experiences. This book was a godsend! I completely agree about the partnership piece. To hear my students explaining their thinking to one another is all I could ever wish or hope for. The first game we played was “Count 20” and they all begged me for photocopies to take home so they could teach their families! Parents said, “I can’t believe my child, before rolling the dice, tells me what they want to roll and why!” Talk about higher-level thinking skills!

  • 2. Diane Anderson  |  June 28th, 2016 at 7:46 am

    It should be exciting to hear students talking over strategies to figure out the best moves. A great way to teach themselves and to practice their learning.

  • 3. Elisa Waingort  |  June 28th, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    This year I encountered a group of 5th graders who either did not like math or felt that they weren’t good at math. I started incorporating games into math sessions with a reflection attached at the end. I would introduce a game whole class by teaching the basic rules of the game and then challenged students to think of how they could make the game more challenging for them. It was after I started doing this that I came across the grades 3 – 5 book of the Well Played series and I love it! I am still reading it but it has already started me thinking of the changes I will make in the fall. Thank you!

  • 4. Lisa C  |  June 29th, 2016 at 4:58 am

    I love how your books encourage the conversation after the game. I tried that with my students and was amazed at the connections they were missing. I can’t wait to get into this book more deeply next year!

  • 5. Pat Peterson  |  June 29th, 2016 at 6:54 am

    I love using games I with my students and always include game strategy questions. They love it! Do you have a book for grades 5 and 6?

  • 6. Diane Anderson  |  June 29th, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Increasing opportunities to talk through strategies is especially important for ELLs. Cooperative play also promotes social skills for working together. Great ideas in Well Played.

  • 7. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 1st, 2016 at 6:29 am

    Games are a great way to keep learners engaged across all subject areas, not only math. I’m glad that the validity of practice using games is finally catching on and taking hold. I feel as if over the years, playing games was looked upon as a frivolous extra. I completely agree with Diane’s comment above about the importance of talk through games for ELLs. Great post!

  • 8. Teresa F  |  July 1st, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    Games are a good way to ensure student engagement. Having students work with a partner instead of one on one is a great idea to increase learning as the partners work together, reinforcing the skills they are learning.

  • 9. Julie O'Neill  |  July 6th, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Hi Linda, Karen, & Jayne! You’re right, there is power in including mathematical games in our classrooms. I also think they’re a useful, engaging, and non-threatening way for students to engage mathematically with family members at home. I can’t wait to pair students to play as team partners as you suggest in your post – what a great way to get students talking about strategies. Thank you.

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