Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

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Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

The following post is shared by speech-language pathologist Eric Sailers of Expressive Solutions, a company that develops apps for learners with special needs.  In this post, originally posted here, he shares some phenomenal insight about the power of game play to target and support specific communications skills.

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If you are looking for a fun way to target social communication skills, as well as beginning computer programming, Robot Turtles is a great new board game you can play with your students (with or without autism). Robot Turtles requires players to use simple commands to move their turtles to capture a jewel on the game board. When students give commands, they are replicating the process computer programmers use to give instructions for a computer to execute. Games, in general, provide opportunities for social communication; Robot Turtles in particular involves specific interactions between the game players that enable more opportunities for social communication. For students who show an interest in games and computers, playing Robot Turtles can be a highly engaging way to practice social communication.

During game play, it is easy to provide students with opportunities to practice five different social communication skills:

1) Perspective taking

As turtle masters, students take the perspective of their turtles on the game board in order to decide which way to move. If they were to take their own perspectives, players may not move in the intended direction; success in the game depends on the ability to make decisions based on a different perspective.

2) Turn taking

Students also actively take turns throughout the game. Not only do they have to wait for the other turtle masters to complete their turns, but students do not actually move their own game pieces. The adult overseeing the game, otherwise known as the turtle mover, is in charge of executing the moves on the game board based on student commands.

3) Eye contact and body language

Since turtle masters don’t move their own pieces, they must clearly communicate their commands to the turtle mover. This offers a good opportunity to practice politely giving directions, as well as utilizing eye contact and body language to effectively communicate and acknowledge the turtle mover.

4) Following directions

In return, the turtle mover may communicate directions for the turtle masters to follow. The turtle mover also ensure players are aware of and adhere to the rules of the game.

5) Making comments

Throughout game play, students can be encouraged to make positive comments directed specifically to other turtle masters. For example, a student could say, “Nice move. I like how you did that!” when another player makes a good move in the game. In Robot Turtles, the goal is not to have one winner; all students keep playing until they achieve the goal for that specific level. Establishing a positive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be successful creates a great opportunity for modeling and practicing comments.

Robot Turtles can be played with children as young as four, all the way up to middle or high school. The game has several levels so it is easy to adapt game play based on student age and experience with the game. The upper levels of the game require sophisticated logic and analytical skills to complete the challenges, while the simple levels introduce children to basic logic. Either way, social communication skills can be targeted in various ways throughout the game.

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The Gift of Coding

Since ThinkFun announced the launch of Robot Turtles – the board game that teaches coding to preschoolers – some fantastic conversations have emerged about the importance of coding literacy for the very youngest learners. The theme that’s tied these discussions together has, interestingly, been less about the hard skills of coding, and more about the thinking processes that develop organically as young minds are taught to think like a programmer.

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I love this quote by game’s inventor Dan Shapiro, who explains that learning to code is like a gift we can give our children:

“There are two types of people in the world. People who think of computers as their masters and people who think of computers as their helpers. The future is going to be written by programmers and read by everyone else. I want to give my kids the gift of being able to express themselves through programming and the power that comes from being able to write software.

It’s not that I want them to be programmers. Being able to program will make them better at whatever they do. Having that skill is like being a great writer, having a love for learning, or having a deep foundation in mathematics. No matter what you do, programming unlocks doors for you, helps you express yourself, and helps you become more successful in anything you decide to do. It’s a gift you can give to your kid.”

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As we’ve worked through what coding means in the context of game play, it’s become clear that Robot Turtles supports critical thinking skills that go way beyond programming. Through play, children learn how to break a big problem into small steps, make a plan, work backwards, find patterns, and identify and fix “bugs” – these life skills will serve them far beyond game play!

To help clarify the links between playing with Turtles and learning to program, this document breaks down the ways in which this game teaches code – and a heck of a lot more!

 

Robot Turtles are on the way!

I am SO excited to share that the much-anticipated Robot Turtles games are on their way… we’re counting down the weeks until they arrive!  The best-selling board game in Kickstarter history, Robot Turtles is designed to teach coding skills to preschoolers.  Check it out!

Haven’t ordered your copy yet?  Get on it!  All pre-orders receive a *free expansion pack* that features:

  • 12 Pre-set Frog Favorite Cards
  • 32 Bonus Collectible Jewel Tokens
  • 10 Adventure Quests

Order now, and here’s a sneak peek at the package that will be headed your way in June… opening up a box of awesome is a pretty sweet way to kick off the summer!

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TED Talk Friday: Kids detecting cancer and playing dangerously

This month’s installment in our TED Talk Friday series featured two fantastic talks focused on kids…

First up, 15-year-old Jack Andraka spoke about his innovative new approach to detecting pancreatic cancer in a cheaper, less invasive, and more effective way than previous technology ever imagined… incredible.

Next, we listened to Gever Tulley talk about 5 dangerous things parents should let their kids do. As the founder of the Tinkering School, Tulley speaks passionately about letting kids take risks and exposing them to new opportunities to push boundaries and explore.

A little danger may be good for kids… grown-ups too!

Scenes from Toy Fair 2014

ThinkFun braved the elements and headed to New York for Toy Fair! Once again, the team was undeterred by an ill-timed snowstorm (the weather gods must not like toys!?), we had a blast sharing our new 2014 games with retailers and media for 4 fun-filled days!

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Toy Fair started with the Toy of the Year (TOTY) Awards ceremony! While we didn’t have any big wins, we were thrilled to celebrate our THREE nominees!

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Laser Maze looks good with the other Innovative Toy of the Year nominees!

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WordARound poses with other “Game of the Year” nominees

ThinkFun’s amazing product development team and founders Bill Ritchie & Andrea Barthello got dolled up and enjoyed the night’s festivities too!

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After the TOTY Awards, the show began! While the event is closed to the public, I thought you might enjoy a sneak peek inside the ThinkFun booth… here are a few shots taken during our set-up… 

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We were so excited to see the booth come together – our 2014 games looked fabulous in their displays!

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Once we had everything ready to roll…. we celebrated!

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Meet the Zingo inventors!

The newest additions to the Zingo! family have arrived: Zingo Word Builder and Zingo! Time-Telling… and the inventors of the original Zingo! game give them a thumbs-up from their home in Israel!

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Theo and Ora Coster created the original Zingo! Zinger… did you know they’re also the inventors of the classic game Guess Who?

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What is love?

What is love? (I realize it’s impossible to ask that without your head bopping… SNL-style)

But seriously… my wonderful friend Amy who teaches 1st grade asked her students to share their definition of Love. These responses are just perfect.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

TED Talk Friday: A Virtual Choir

Here at ThinkFun we talk a lot about thinking skills… what they mean, what they do, and why they’re so darn important. While we often think about these in terms of major academic arenas (mental math, spelling skills, etc.), we recognize the multiple types of intelligences that resonate with and support a range of thinkers.

Musical intelligence is something I’ve had many conversations about lately, so I was thrilled to share this talk from 2011 by Eric Whitacre. Here’s Eric presenting A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong – You’ll have goosebumps, promise.

Turtle Power!

The turtles are coming… Robot Turtles to be exact! I’m beyond thrilled to share ThinkFun’s latest game designed to teach coding literacy and early programming skills to preschoolers.

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The daughter of a programmer, I grew up sitting on dad’s lap playing Logo, so it’s no surprise this game hits particularly close to my heart (See Exhibit A below!)

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Me, age 2, coding like a boss!

For those unfamiliar with this board game sensation, here’s a quick history. Released last year on Kickstarter, Robot Turtles is a board game created by Dan Shapiro, a programmer dad who wanted to share his love of coding with his 4 year old twins.

Playing on the Logo programming language, this clever game captured the enthusiasm of thousands… the inventor’s goal of $25,000 was quickly met, and the project closed with over $630,000 in funding, the must backed game in Kickstarter history!

When funding closed, the turtle frenzy was in full swing. Learning that no additional games were planned after the initial print run for Kickstarter backers, ThinkFun reached out to the inventor to share our excitement about continuing the Turtle movement – and we were thrilled to work out an arrangement to bring the game into the ThinkFun family!

Here’s a fantastic video introducing Dan and showing the game in action:

 ThinkFun made a few modifications to Dan’s phenomenal game, including improvements to the instructions, storage box, and card design. While the game doesn’t ship until June, ThinkFun is accepting pre-orders now and including an expansion pack with new challenges and ways to extend the fun and learning!

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As a child, there was nothing better than spending an afternoon sitting on my dad’s lap and playing on our (gigantic!) desktop terminal. He shared his love of programming, I got to control the actions of the little Turtle and get special time with dad. To me, Robot Turtles represents the opportunity for families to share that same learning and bonding experience – in a board game!