Tag Archives: critical thinking

Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

Here’s a photo of a real-life Rush Hour traffic jam sent to me by Laura Efinger, a pediatric occupational therapist (and big Rush Hour fan!) in Cairo, Egypt.  Laura writes, “I have attached a picture of some Cairo traffic, which may explain why we love Rush Hour in Egypt! icon smile Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!  Some is parking and some traffic, but it probably is the worst in the world, and no one follows the lines in the road and rules!”

cairo traffic jam Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

A Real Life Traffic Jam in Cairo, Egypt

All that’s missing is the Red Car!

Picture 24 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

A much more enjoyable "Traffic Jam" challenge!

For several years, Laura has used many ThinkFun games, including Rush Hour (which she reports is the hands-down favorite!) in her occupational therapy sessions with children in  Cairo, Egypt.  Laura writes, “I love them [ThinkFun games] as they develop the children’s visual motor/perceptual skills, fine motor, memory and planning skills.”

At a 2008 Occupational Therapy Conference, Laura presented a therapy-based workshop called “Recipes for Fun” in which participants were shown ways to use games like Rush Hour as tools to help children develop academic and sensory motor skills.  Looks like fun was had by all!

Cairo RH 300x225 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH2 300x225 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH1 225x300 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH3 300x280 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

Laura is preparing for this year’s Conference which will take place at the end of the month. Here she plans to host a workshop focusing on the benefits of using card games to help children with skills such as attention, sequencing, memory, fine motor, etc.   Stay tuned for an update!

For more on Laura and her work, please visit her Occupational Therapy in Egypt blog!

Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Here’s PROOF!

The following is a post by guest blogger Sean Gregory, a math teacher at Napa High School, Napa, CA

fix 006 300x199 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!Games are a normal part of my classroom. I have always loved games personally and believed that I would be a better teacher if I put a part of myself into my teaching. My students from the past 20+ years will remember playing all sorts of gambling games, Jeopardy!, and treasure hunts. I’ve even adapted several off-the-beaten track games like PitchCar, Hamsterolle , and Elchfest into full-room class activities. While these games were vehicles for fun, they were more a source of diversion from the mathematics problems that I loaded the play with.

As a teacher of mathematics, I know that some games come with built in traits that I would love to exploit in class. So, like many others before me, I have incorporated games like Mastermind and Clue into my room to build my students’ deductive skills. I was pleased by the opportunity that I gave my classes with these games, but I also felt that the games did not play well given my restraint on time and my large number of players.

fix 004 200x300 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!I wasn’t really looking to replace Clue or Mastermind when I went to the ThinkFun workshop at the 2009 NCTM National Convention but that is exactly what happened. ThinkFun’s Chocolate Fix puzzle was a clever, compact, pure deduction puzzle. While its appeal to most people might be the fun that they would have with cute little plastic pieces of chocolate, I saw my opportunity to use it as an aid to my Geometry students who believed they could never produce a deductive proof.

Perhaps I would have seen Chocolate Fix’s application to my class on my own, but the workshop offered  ideas on how to implement the puzzle in a classroom. The activity that spoke the most to me was ThinkFun’s idea that we should not only complete the puzzle, but also share the order in which we used the clues to figure  out the solution. Suddenly I wasn’t playing with a puzzle but was seeing a plastic chocolate manipulative that could help my students prove triangles congruent.

People are natural problem solvers, but in a math class students suddenly lose their confidence, ability, and desire to work things out. Surely if I can finish a Chocolate Fix puzzle and know that I used the clues in the order 3-5-2-1-4, then I can form a geometric proof with vertical angles, SAS, and CPCTC. I was determined to convince my classes that the puzzles they were completing in Chocolate Fix were harder than many of the proofs that they could barely start.

fix 005 300x199 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!

From 9 plastic chocolates, a mathematical proof emerges!

I had no money to put into buying Chocolate Fix games, so  I passed out scissors and had the class cut out pieces to make their own games. It is a tribute to the kids’ desire to play that they eagerly cleared all these hurdles without complaint! The class finished their hour happily working the puzzles.

The next day, I encouraged the students to solve the puzzles with their cut-out pieces. About half the class gave up on the pieces and just made it a pencil and paper thing. Towards the end of the day, desiring some product, I challenged the students to pick a puzzle and share the order that they used the clues AND write about why they made their choice.

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A student's written proof provides a map of his problem solving steps!

After school I was shocked at the quality of the written explanations (often with diagrams) I had collected. My Geometry classes do push written explanations but I had never seen such quality so early in the year. It was clear I was on to something.

The class’s excitement for the puzzle grew and grew. They looked forward to our days with it and showed their enthusiasm by giving me frequently spectacular written explanations of their puzzle solving. I put Chocolate Fix questions on exams. I dazzled the class with my own (real) set of the puzzle, and by the end of the first semester had convinced the school’s parent club to buy a class set of 36 puzzles.

As the semester ended, I put my last Chocolate Fix problem on the final exam right next to questions about trapezoids and triangles and nobody seemed to think it out-of-place. I know that I have found the game that will be part of my deductive math classes for the rest of my career.

Three months later my students and I think of Chocolate Fix as “our puzzle,” a game we enjoy playing in class knowing that other math students are not so lucky.

The Power of Praise… is “smart” a bad word?

baby genius psa The Power of Praise... is smart a bad word?According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.  To a parent looking to help a child reach his/her potential and feel confident, this seems both a natural and a surefire confidence boost.   However, research in the New York public-school system by psychologist Carol Dweck strongly suggests it may be the other way around.  Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

For the past ten years, Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth grade students in a dozen New York schools.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into NY fifth-grade classrooms. Researchers took a child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the student finished, researchers told each his score, then offered a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence and told, “You must be smart at this.” Others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first.

Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

In my own classroom, inspired by my Responsive Classroom training,  one strategy I found helpful for delivering “better” praise was to post sentence starters and key phrases on the walls, both as personal reminders and to help students talk to one another in specific, respectful ways.  These phrases encouraged both teachers and classmates to use encouraging, descriptive language when speaking to and praising one another, such as “I like the way you…” or “Show me how you…”  Here’s another teacher’s account of how changing the way in which she and her students spoke to one another changed the dynamic of the classroom in noticeable and powerful ways!
What are some strategies you’ve used or come across to help deliver effective, genuine  praise?

Read more on this study in Po Bronson’s article: The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids

We Hold These Truths…

Given the current state of education, it’s easy to understand the frustration teachers feel as they are stretched thin and given increasingly mixed messages.  Forced to “teach to the test” while still focusing on differentiating to meet the needs of individual learners. teachers today often find their jobs precariously tied to student test results and feel their instructional freedom slipping away.

These challenges can stack up and feel overwhelmingly discouraging, which is why a recent conversation in a Teacher Leaders Network discussion group was both timely and uplifting.  Bob Williams, Alaska’s 2009 state teacher of the year, commented “It feels unhealthy for me to become defined only in terms of negatives or things that I am against. I’d like to propose that we list up to three things that we support and are convinced will help improve our schools and our profession. ”

From here, the open question was put out to teachers: “What do we believe in?

I found it incredibly inspirational to read these responses. Some that stood out to me:

“Education should honor and prepare students for their own lives in the world of today and tomorrow—not mimic the past educational experiences of policymakers and other adult stakeholders.”

“The single most important thing a teacher can do is to ignite the fire of intellectual curiosity in children, encouraging them to continually ask, “Why?” “So what?” “Now what?” “What if?””

“Children rise to meet our expectations. Children come to us believing in us, trusting we will teach them and help them grow. We must honor their trust and set the bar high for each and every one of them and ourselves.”

“Genuinely hearing, respecting, and incorporating student voices into schools is the single most important thing we can do to help them learn to be good citizens in a democracy… and to acquire other skills they will need for success in school and throughout life.”

“Learning is best when it’s absorbing and enjoyable, and that kind of learning sticks to brains. Learning is meant to be fun. Small children come to us in kindergarten, excited about learning to read, to draw, to add and subtract, to talk about their communities, to sing, to touch frogs, and to play games. We turn all of that natural enthusiasm and curiosity into “subjects.” Shame on us.”

“Our students need to be creative problem solvers. They need to be active collaborators with their peers. They need to be critical thinkers. They need to be challenged to do their very best, and what they can do will expand as their work is shared with peers, critiqued, refined, and reflected upon.”

“I believe in inspiring children at the earliest stages of their education to explore answers to their questions. As they seek answers, children learn to reflect analytically on the world around them… It is this experience that does not just lead them to answers but ignites a proactive energy and an eagerness to know more.”

As a teacher or parent, what do YOU believe in?  Please share your thoughts!

For excerpts from the original discussion, see the summary blog post by John Norton, co-founder and moderator of the Teacher Leaders Network.

If You Give a CEO a Camera…

bill ritchie 150x150 If You Give a CEO a Camera...

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie in his Super Solver cape!

This is as good a time as any to introduce ThinkFun CEO and co-founder, Bill Ritchie!

Over the last few weeks, Bill has been jetting all over the country, stopping in Berkeley, CA to visit the folks at the Bunge Lab for Cognitive Control and Development who are gearing up for a new study measuring the impact of our Rush Hour Brain Lab program on reasoning skills!

Bill made his way through Seattle to brainstorm with a designer and meet with the programmer who generated over 20,000 new Rush Hour challenges!  Next, he and his wife, ThinkFun co-founder Andrea Barthello, went to LA for the TED Conference… Here he purchased a Flip video camera, and the rest is history!  Bill and his new gadget made the rounds at TED, then came to NY Toy Fair to document the events and people with whom he met!

This one minute video of Bill’s whirlwind tour gives a great sense of the incredible people with whom he and ThinkFun have connected.  Enjoy!

Extreme Makeover… ThinkFun Edition!

Two ThinkFun Favorites Get “Gnu” Updates Based on Player Feedback!

Over the years we’ve gotten LOADS of fabulous suggestions from parents, teachers, and kids for ways to improve our Zingo! and What’s GNU? games, and we’ve listened! Last year, we went through massive amounts of player feedback, including online reviews, customer emails, and letters from kids, and we found several recurring themes! To share a few:

“Make Zingo! tiles double-sided!”

“Loading the tiles back into the Zinger is a pain”

“What’s GNU? is too tough for the youngest players”
“There is often no way to make a word in What’s GNU?”
“What’s GNU? Cards scattered everywhere make it way too overwhelming for my 5 year old!”

Using these suggestions and more for guidance, the product development team explored all possible updates, and, having tested countless prototypes and ideas firsthand, I can confidently say that the refreshed versions of these two games are greatly improved as a result!

Updates include:
Zingo!

  • Double-sided tiles!
  • Zingo! Zinger now features easy reload slots that let players pop tiles back in as they play! No more tiles littering the floor means fewer missing pieces… and makes clean up a snap!
  • New tile and image distribution means a winner every time!
  • Instructions feature new options for game play!
  • 2-sided cards offer 2 distinct levels of play. For beginners, the green side is less competitive. If all tiles are used, every player will fill his/her board. The image distribution on the red cards brings a much more competitive element to game play, and players must be quick to call for tiles to have a shot at victory!

Zingo 7700 HiResSpill 300x300 Extreme Makeover… ThinkFun Edition!

What’s GNU?

  • Now features 2 levels of play! For beginning readers, green cards feature 2 printed letters, meaning they must only fill one missing sound to complete a word. Advanced players can flip to the red side and play with 1 printed letter.
  • New letter distribution on the Word Cards and tiles for maximum word building opportunities!
  • New rules for younger players make the game less overwhelming, and instructions offer loads of play variations!
  • Red vowels highlight spelling patterns and help young readers learn word-building conventions
  • More word learning opportunities than ever with a new online 3-Letter dictionary (see the link below)!

*See some of these “GNU” updates for yourself in our online What’s GNU? game!*

What Gnu cards 300x300 Extreme Makeover… ThinkFun Edition!

"Gnu" word cards and red vowels help early readers build words and learn spelling patterns

For these and all products, making sure we get things exactly right before launching them is about the truth of the game play itself. Obviously packaging, graphics, color scheme, etc. are vital to a product’s success, but the most stunning box in the world means nothing if the game inside doesn’t inspire players to stretch their thinking and grow as they play! It is this commitment to ensuring every game is not only as fun as possible, but also genuinely fosters the development of critical thinking and social skills, that drives our rigorous testing process conducted “in the field” (aka classroom!) by yours truly!

What makes me so proud of the games we produce is the incredible amount of research and testing that go into each product, particularly games targeted at the very youngest players. As you can see, feedback from our teacher partners and their students drives the development (and re-development) of everything we do, so your ideas and comments are ALWAYS welcome – please feel free to email me anytime!

And finally… a HUGE thank you to the many teachers and parents who tested these new games!

Can Playing Rush Hour Make You Smarter?

Can playing games make you smarter?  This is the kind of question that causes many traditional educators to roll their eyeballs… and the kind of Holy Grail dream that drives companies like ThinkFun to develop our new programs and continue to innovate!

Last month, I was contacted by Allyson Mackey, a doctoral student who works in the Bunge Cognitive Control and Development Lab at UC Berkeley. She and a team of researchers had just finished a pilot study in which elementary school students engaged in a program playing Rush Hour, Chocolate Fix and several other games over the course of two months… and they measured an average increase that was the equivalent of thirteen IQ points from beginning to end!

The implications of these initial findings are huge, and we are thrilled to be communicating with this team and exploring possible larger-scale research in the near future using our new Brain Lab online program!  Read more about this exciting study!

brainlab Can Playing Rush Hour Make You Smarter?

A Brain Lab Tester Hard at Play

There is increasing evidence that playing the right kind of games with the right kind of structure and incentives can effectively teach content and improve thinking skills, and this is precisely what we aim to do with our new online Brain Lab program. This program takes games students already know and love like Rush Hour, and structures game play in such a way that players stretch their thinking, build their arsenal of strategies, and ultimately become more effective in their reasoning and problem solving!  Initial testing showed players eager to engage and hungry for more challenges, and we are currently in the midst of a second round of testing.

Playing in the “Just Right” Zone

The following is an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs Unwrapping the Gifted. I finally had the pleasure of meeting its author, Tamara Fisher, last fall at the NAGC Annual Convention in St. Louis!

In her recent post All in the Name of “Fun,” Tamara asked her gifted students to respond to the following prompt:
“When I say that something in school or GT (Gifted and Talented) is fun, what I mean by fun is…”

The following are student responses from 1st through 12th graders (all names are student-selected pseudonyms):

“It’s really thinkable.” ~Cal, 1st grade~

“It’s fun when you’re solving. It’s fun because it’s a hard job.” ~Tallen, 1st grade~

“If everything you did was easy all the time, you wouldn’t learn anything. But learning is fun, so being challenged is fun.” ~Dorothy, 1st grade~

“Fun means you get to learn something that is outside of the school box.” ~Bubba, 5th grade~

“What I mean by ‘fun’ is it’s challenging.” ~Sally, 5th grade~

“If something is fun, it’s mind-boggling, awesome, and hard. You get to use strategic thinking to solve things.” ~Margaret, 5th grade~

“Fun to me really means that I like the challenge of something. I like knowing I’m not as smart as I seem and that I can get things wrong. That’s the best part! Yes, finding my limits is fun!” ~Laine, 5th grade~

“Fun means I’m actually challenged. In other classes I’m basically automatic, which is very boring” ~Lillian, 5th grade~

“To me, if something is fun it means it is a challenge that I can enjoy, not like the challenge of doing loads of easy work or the challenge of staying awake in boring parts of school.” ~Jelly, 5th grade~

“Fun means it’s challenging and you’re going to have to think.” ~Goldilocks, 5th grade~

“When I say that GT is fun, I mean that it stretches my mind and lets me be myself. It also teaches me that it is okay to make mistakes so I don’t get frustrated and can relax and learn at the same time.” ~Onyx, 5th grade~

“Fun means it’s challenging but not too challenging. It means something is in my ‘just right’ zone.” ~Annie, 5th grade~

“If something is fun, it means it challenged me in a fun way or proved my ability or showed me a different way to think about something that I hadn’t realized before.” ~Michelle, 7th grade~

“It means it is challenging, enjoyable, and worth the time I put into it.” ~Ailie, 7th grade~

“What I actually mean by ‘fun’ is that it was challenging. When I get it, I have a sense of victory and growth.” ~Keegyn, 8th grade~

“I am happy that I can achieve what is set in front of me and this in turn is fun to me. Normally this involves a challenge, which makes me strive to beat the challenge. In essence, it’s just proving to yourself you can do it.” ~Andrew, 10th grade~

“Fun means that it is something that makes me think. It’s a puzzle, situation, or debate, etc., that challenges me to look at something in a new way. It also encompasses looking at something through another person’s perspective.” ~Stewie, 11th grade~

“Fun is a rating of accomplishment. When an activity is fun for me, it is usually a challenge that I had to think through and defeat. Doing 40 math problems with little change between them, though accomplishing something, is drab and not fun because I didn’t have to think and therefore did not feel challenged.” ~Garrett, 12th grade~

The student quotes shared here on the meaning of “fun” are fantastic, and very telling.  Interestingly, these gifted students who range from ages 6-18 almost all use the word “challenge” when describing their idea of fun in school.  I’d argue that for ALL learners, having opportunities to explore and muck about in that “just right zone” is the best way to build confidence and stretch to new challenges organically– and what safer way to stretch the boundaries of one’s thinking than through play?

When new challenges are presented in the context of a non-threatening game, students are compelled to push their limits because, let’s face it, winning is fun!  And on the flip side, if you don’t nail it this time there’s no penalty, no failure, because it’s just a game!

Giving students these opportunities to stretch their thinking in this safe “play” space allows them to, as “Bubba” so eloquently puts it, “think outside the school box” … what could be more fun!?