Tag Archives: critical thinking

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

blogPic 236x300 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.

A Homeschooling Mama on a Mission!

I am thrilled to feature the following guest post written by Amy, a missionary and homeschooling mom of 3 who uses games to enhance her curriculum.  Amy is the fantastic mom behind the Missional Mama blog which I encourage you to check out – and you can follow her tweets here!

Here Amy shares the many benefits of game play:

It all started with Rush Hour Junior!

Another family, who was years ahead of us in the homeschooling endeavor, mentioned that Rush Hour was their family favorite.  We were convinced to give it a try.

My oldest was around six at that time and he would spend hours setting up the cars just so and working his way toward the conclusion of the puzzle.  It was mind work and he enjoyed every minute of it. Once the levels were completed, he moved on to Rush Hour leaving Junior behind for the siblings.

After this experience, we found ourselves drawn to the ThinkFun displays at educational stores to see what else could help us along in our learning. ThinkFun games are highly motivational and enjoyable for our multi-aged homeschooling classroom not to mention useful towards our educational goals.  Here are a few reasons we like ThinkFun…

  • Critical Thinking Skills – Forget the workbooks, my children enjoy the hands on mental and visual skills required by ThinkFun. It does not even feel like learning!
  • Competition with Yourself – Because most of the games we have are one player, they can work towards harder cards and skills trying to exceed themselves.
  • Math – Many of these games sneak in Mathematical Skills. Try the Math Dice game which promotes mental math, for example.
  • Creative Thinking Skills – We found that ThinkFun can be enjoyed “outside the box” for those children who are wired that way. My oldest likes creating new patterns and sometimes new games with ThinkFun products.
  • Working Together – The older kids enjoy sitting with the younger ones occasionally and showing them how a game works.  They become the teachers and learners.
  • Playing Together – It is just fun!

We keep our ThinkFun games in our homeschooling basket to be pulled out during learning time, down time, or when we need a break. It also has been used as part of the curriculum when we are working on a skill such as mental math. So whether you use the games for homeschooling, quiet time, or family game night, you cannot help but have fun while learning along the way.

Our favorites are Zingo and Rush Hour, what are you family favorites?

Jump Start Creative Thinking with Brainteasers!

In many classrooms, the day begins with “Morning Work,” an assigned activity to kick start the day.  I don’t know about you, but “Morning Work” doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting way to dive into the day.  Think about tweaking your terminology and see the response you get when “work” time is transformed into a Thinker’s Paradise!

Looking for ways to ignite your students’ minds in the morning?  Get their brains in gear with a fun brainteaser challenge!  Here’s a great example that would work well for a 4th Grade classroom:

Stacking the Dice Puzzle

StackingTheDicePuzzle 300x226 Jump Start Creative Thinking with Brainteasers!

Suppose seven dice are stacked as shown, and you can see all the exposed faces, including the Back view shown in the upper right corner.  Find the sum of the pips (black dots) on the hidden faces of the dice.

Bonus fun fact: The dots on a die are officially called “pips”

Want more?  Here is a fantastic collection of brainteasers sorted by grade that work well as solo or collaborative warm-up exercises in the classroom!  Once your students have completed several, have them create their own modified versions and challenge one another!

How do YOUR students begin their day in the classroom?  What do you call this time?  Please share your ideas by commenting here!

A Visit from Uganda!

In 2008, ThinkFun donated several sets of MathDice to the Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH), a US-supported primary school in poverty-stricken rural Eastern Uganda.

ts arlingtonacademy1 300x272 A Visit from Uganda!

We received an update and photos last year from an American volunteer teacher, and this spring we were contacted by Elisa Joseph Anders, a local parent who produced From One Village, a documentary on this remarkable school (video is embedded at the bottom of this post).

We were thrilled to learn from Elisa that AAH Headmaster Thomas Kisolo Kitandwe was planning a visit to the area, and even more excited to learn that he hoped to spend an afternoon at ThinkFun further exploring ways in which games like MathDice could be integrated into the learning experience of his students!

We spent a very productive afternoon listening as Headmaster Thomas shared both his desire to stretch his students’ critical thinking skills through game play and the struggles he faces in a country in which students’ future prospects are dictated by a their performance on a single, incredibly rigorous exam.  The Ugandan schools follow a rote learning model, in which students are to accustomed to having opportunities to explore and play as part of their learning.

AAH 300x225 A Visit from Uganda!

However, seeing the flexible mathematical thinking a game like MathDice can foster sparked an idea with Headmaster Thomas, and we spent a long time brainstorming ways in which his teachers could integrate more experiential game-based learning into the curriculum to stretch students and better prepare them to be problem solvers and creative thinkers in the 21st century.

Also as part of his visit, Headmaster Thomas joined us to celebrate the 7th Annual Arlington County MathDice Competition!

Arlington MathDice 2010 151 150x150 A Visit from Uganda!

We are very excited to continue to support the Arlington Academy of Hope and work with Headmaster Thomas and his staff to find ways to integrate thinking games into the lives of his students!

To learn more, here is the fabulous documentary which details the incredible work being done at this school! Enjoy!

Games Teach Life Skills During Play Time!

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Michele Wong, coFounder of HATCH, the company behind My Plate-Mate. This guard attaches to any standard plate to prevent messy spills at mealtime and promote independent self-feeding… if that isn’t real-life problem solving I don’t know what is, it’s no wonder her family is drawn to ThinkFun games!

Michele and her family are long-time ThinkFun fans, and I’m thrilled to have her as a guest blogger sharing her story!

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Michele Wong 300x200 Games Teach Life Skills During Play Time!

The Wong Family at Play!

Like most families, we seem to always be on the run from one activity to the next.  Our house is filled with constant chatter and movement.  Well, what can you expect in a home with 3 busy kids?  We do have moments of quiet down time.   This is the perfect chance to open up our arsenal of Think Fun Games instead of turning on the TV or Xbox.  Sure, I’m all for relaxing and having fun.  But while my kids are enjoying their game time, I am content knowing that the benefits of Think Fun games reach far beyond just having a good time.

I believe that learning is not merely about memorizing charts and tables in school.  It is also about creative problem solving – applying and modifying what you know to new and changing situations, looking for solutions from different angles.  All Think Fun games stimulate creative problem solving.  In the process they can also strengthen wonderful characteristics such as patience, flexibility, and self-confidence.  These are skills that will not only benefit my children in school today, but they are important life skills that I hope they will embody and carry with them through the years.

Now back to the fun.  As a Mom (family maid, referee, taxi driver, etc) I must comment on the other appreciated perks of Think Fun Games.  I LOVE that each game is housed in its own draw string pouch.  Finish the game, pile in the pieces, cinch up the bag and Voila!  Done!  These pouches also make games easy to pack and travel.  Our games have accompanied us (and saved my sanity) on an 18 hr road trip, camping trips, long airplane rides and even longer hours stranded at the airport.  The games work well played alone, collaboratively with a partner or in team competition form.

Our Family Favorites-

Rush Hour Jr. – A super fun and mentally challenging game that promotes strategy development.   It’s addictive to both children and adults alike.   And let’s face it, everyone wants to help rescue the Ice Cream Man.

Square by Square- A great game to build spatial relationships and pattern matching skills.  This is another hit for players of all ages.  Our family likes to play timed rounds in teams- kids vs. the adults.  It’s funny to watch the parents break out in a sweat as the kids “school” us in this game.

Block by Block- Another great game that promotes spatial awareness in a 3D puzzle format.  This is always popular with children who enjoy building activities.

River Crossing Jr. and Tip Over- Both excellent games that promote visual and spatial awareness as well as strategic planning.

Zingo- This is a favorite game for youngsters that involves matching as well as shape and pattern recognition.  Also promotes identification of site words and letters.   Just the sight of the “Stinky Feet” is enough to crack my kids up.

Keep up the great work Think Fun!  Our family can’t wait to enjoy and be challenged by what you come up with next.

The Wong Family

S’Match Supports Speech Therapy Sessions (say that 3 times fast!)

The following post is by speech-language pathologist Sherry Artemenko, featured on her Playonwords blog

smatch playing275 206x300 SMatch Supports Speech Therapy Sessions (say that 3 times fast!)

Strengthen language skills through play!

SPEECH THERAPY GAMES: S’ MATCH BY THINKFUN

I use fun commercial games for speech therapy all the time. Some are valuable as a reinforcer after a turn of saying a sound, practicing a language structure or using appropriate social language. It is helpful if they are fast paced and turns are quick to keep the session going. But some games have a bit of language learning embedded in them too. I have blogged about Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Mystery Garden for learning association and categorization.

A new game that just came out, S’ Match, by Thinkfun, can be used as a reinforcer or to learn language categories. You have to know the story behind the invention of this game. When I was at the Toy Fair, I spoke with Thinkfun’s Education and Curriculum Specialist and she said the Staples Easy Button and a salad spinner inspired the pop up spinner kids love that turns the dial to point to one of three attributes: color, number or category. Players turn over two cards and try to match images according to the attributes, making this a more complex memory game.

I first used the game with a little girl working on her /s/ sound. Every time we got a match we said, “S’ Match!” and each time we spun the wheel we said, “Spin the s’match.” When it stopped, we said, “I spun color, or category.” Interestingly enough, when kids didn’t make a match according to the spinner, they still called out the kind of match they got. For instance, if they had to match by category but uncovered two orange cards, they would say, “Smatch for color,” making a verbal note of where to find that match should they need it in the future. To reinforce categories, we would say, “a s’match for vehicles,” naming the category. Each sturdy cardboard card has the image as well at the words to encourage literacy.

Don’t forget to always look for a little language in a game.

Sherry Artemenko, MA-CCC, is a speech-language pathologist with more than 35 years experience and founder of Playonwords.com. The opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the author. “S’Match” was provided for review by Thinkfun.

How to Spice Up an Algebra Class? Just Add Games!

This post is courtesy of Lisa Kosanovic, a Math Teacher at Holyoke High School, Holyoke, Massachusetts

*Note: The GridWorks game referenced here is the precursor to the current Chocolate Fix game!

Lisa Kosanovic 300x225 How to Spice Up an Algebra Class? Just Add Games!
I teach high school math in the sixth poorest community in the nation, and for us, math class is too often about passing our state’s standardized tests. While many of my students lack basic skills, I often see a high level of reasoning and problem-solving skills that I want to develop and encourage.

Several years ago, I bought ThinkFun’s GridWorks game (*now Chocolate Fix) for my own children, who loved it. Soon thereafter, I was working through a state test problem with one of my Algebra I classes, and I realized that the problem drew on exactly the same skills that GridWorks did! After several attempts to recreate the game using overhead transparencies, I contacted ThinkFun and asked if they could send me sets of the GridWorks pieces. I knew that if I had a set for each student, I could simply put the challenges on the chalkboard using colored chalk, and my students could work the problems at their desks.

What a success! Even the most reluctant of my students enjoyed using this game, and several came up to me after class to talk about it. One of my Pre-calculus students said she was pleasantly surprised by how much she had to think on the most challenging puzzles (I put 10 challenges on the boards around my room, including the two most difficult), and by how much fun it was to think hard in that way. Another student with serious attention issues insisted on starting with the most difficult problem, and he worked diligently through an entire class period. When he did not finish the problem, he asked if he could come back during the next class to finish, and when he returned, he stayed with the problem until it was completed correctly!

My only regret is that there are not books and books of GridWorks challenges! With GridWorks, I saw many otherwise-unengaged students using math skills to solve problems, and enjoying themselves at the same time. I will use this with my students every year to teach them problem-solving skills and show them that math can be fun!

*Read how another innovative High School math teacher took this same game, now in Chocolate Fix form, and used it to teach his students to make geometric proofs!

Revisiting the Classics…

Need inspiration to start your spring cleaning?  Here’s a great reason to dust off that old collection of classic board games!

A recent article from KnoxNews takes a look at how classic games like Monopoly and Scrabble can serve as powerful learning aids!  In the hands of a creative teacher (or parent for that matter), a game like Candy Land is transformed into a tool to reinforce number sense, early math, and critical thinking skills!

Monopoly 300x198 Revisiting the Classics...

This teacher uses Monopoly to teach money management skills like budgeting and making informed spending decisions.

This article shares results from a 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon University, in which disadvantaged preschoolers played a simple numeric board game four times for 15-20 minutes at a time over a two-week period.  At the end of the two weeks, researchers found students’ knowledge of math greatly increased in four different areas of number sense!

School Counselor Vicki Hill uses games not only for academic support, but also to build social skills. “I use Candy Land for a self-esteem building activity,” Vicky describes, “If the student gets a double color card, he must tell something good about himself. ”  Similarly, with the game Sorry, “if the student has to send someone back to start, he must say something positive to the player that gets sent back.”

Have ideas for ways to revive an old classic as a learning tool for your children?  Please share!

Don’t Show Me the Money?

school money Dont Show Me the Money?A recent large-scale survey funded in part by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic Inc. suggests that teachers “value non-monetary rewards, such as time to collaborate with other teachers and a supportive school leadership, over higher salaries.”

Called “Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s School,” the  purpose of the survey was to keep teachers’ voices in the debate over education reform, said Vicki L. Phillips, director of Gates Foundation’s K-12 education program. “If you’re the heart and soul of this profession, you ought to have some say in it.”

Some interesting highlights:

  • Only 28% of teachers felt performance pay would have a strong impact and 30% felt performance pay would have no impact at all.
  • Most teachers said they feel students in their states are doing OK but believe fewer than 75% will graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and work.
  • Teachers don’t want to see their students judged on the results of one test, and they also want their own performances graded on multiple measures.
  • 71% of teachers said one of the most important goals of schools and teaching was to prepare all students for careers in the 21st century, while only 6% said graduating all students with a high school diploma was one of the most important goals.
  • A majority of teachers would like to see tougher academic standards and have them be the same in every state, despite the extra work common  standards could create for them. Fewer were in favor of having common academic tests in every state, which would presumably be based on the common standards, but more than half said common tests were a good idea.
  • The teachers are not opposed to standardized tests. However, instead of yearly tests, they want to see formative, ongoing assessments in class to help them understand how much their students are learning over time.

Overall, the response from teachers was an encouraging blend of acknowledging the difficulty of implementing true, meaningful reform with a loud and clear commitment to rolling up their sleeves and digging in.  I took away the overall message, “There’s hard work to be done… Bring it ON!”

“They are very, very invested in the subject of reform,” said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education Mayer. If you ask a teacher what they think, you’re going to hear what they think.”

So what do YOU think? Do the findings surprise you? As a teacher, what do you feel are the keys to job-satisfaction and thriving schools?

Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

The following is an article by ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie, recently published in ThinkFun’s bi-weekly Classroom Connection newsletter.  To receive these mailings, click here

This weekend I am off to volunteer as a judge at the FIRST Robotics New Jersey Regional Tournament, which I do every year. Founded by legendary engineer Dean Kamen, this is a wonderful program that teams high school students with adult professional engineers. Each team has six weeks to build a robot with special skills such as placing soccer balls into hanging baskets, and then we gather for a big weekend tournament and have a blast! The best teams move on to the National Championship.

FIRST calls this program “The varsity sport for the mind.” To be successful, teams must have strong engineering skills and be well organized. Most basically, though, successful teams are those whose members have learned how to be good problem solvers.

So what makes a good problem solver? For these kids, certainly it involves creative imagination. Should your robot have an arm to lift the ball or a leg to kick it into the goal? Do you focus on offense or defense? And once you decided the big directions, how can you tweak your design to ensure best performance?

first robotics 300x201 Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

A Robot on Display at the 2009 FIRST Tournament

As a non-engineer, I’m not qualified to evaluate the engineering choices teams make. Rather, I serve as a “Team Attribute” judge, which means I ask questions like, “What are you doing to make your community a better place?” and “How are you mentoring younger kids to understand your values and aspire to be like you?” The FIRST organization encourages teams to see themselves as leaders and innovators and to aspire to the strong FIRST value system, and the kids’ responses are just amazing.

Both through their creations and in speaking with these young engineers, I get to see what is in these kids’ hearts. With the most dedicated and inspired teams, I see the same problem solving skills at play. The choices are humanist rather than engineering, and they all involve creative imagination and a blend of strategy, planning, collaboration, and execution. At the underlying core of it all, the decisions these kids make all stem from passion and perseverance… Robotics with heart!

I spend a lot my time thinking about problem solving… and if you are reading this, I bet you do also. It’s a very hard thing to define, and thus a hard thing to measure or test. But it’s really important!

Here’s what I believe: Problem solving starts deep in the emotions. It starts with a drive, a desire to get someplace, a belief that you can achieve. From there, you gain experience, by observing, modeling, trying, stretching yourself. Through this you learn confidence and perseverance, and then you’re on your way!

What do you believe makes a true problem solver? Please share your comments and let’s get the dialogue flowing!