Tag Archives: learning

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.

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

Are you ready for some… MathDice!!!

It’s almost that time… MathDice Tournament time that is!

Math Dice 2009 095 300x225 Are you ready for some... MathDice!!!

Every spring, ThinkFun runs the Arlington County MathDice Tournament (now in it’s 7th year!), a fun-filled event in which teams from all 22 elementary schools go head-to-head, with one school emerging victorious!

MathDice is a brilliantly simple game that uses just 5 simple dice to strengthen mental math and problem solving skills and reinforce students’ ability to compute exponents, multiply, divide, add and subtract.  The best part… students have a blast doing it!  Learn how to play here.

Check out these great photos from last year’s event… can you spot the student dressed as a Math Die?!

In addition to Individual Champions and Team Champions, Math Dice teams also compete for the esteemed recognition of “Best School Spirit” to win the coveted Rubber Chicken award icon smile Are you ready for some... MathDice!!!  Looking forward to seeing more wacky math costumes this year!

Math Dice 2009 051 300x225 Are you ready for some... MathDice!!!

Want to learn more?  Read about the skills this game builds in The Math Behind MathDice, by Tom Rowan.

Arlington Teams, including our friends at McKinley Elementary, have been practicing and training for months, and we’re looking forward to a fabulous event next Saturday!

Play Games to Feed your Brain… and the World!

Are you a fellow word lover?  Growing up with a grandma who kept an Official Scrabble Dictionary in her trunk at all times, I think it’s in my blood!  Still today I get a Word of the Day email and do my crosswords in pen (ok just early in the week– by Thursday I usually switch to pencil!), and editing ThinkFun’s What’s GNU? online dictionary was no small thrill icon smile Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

freeRiceLogo2 Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!As a self-professed word nerd, I was thrilled to learn about the Free Rice initiative!  If you are looking for a fun way to beef up your vocabulary… and do some good for the world while you play, check out www.freerice.com. Take a vocabulary quiz (no need to sign up/register), and for every answer you get right, FreeRice donates ten grains of rice to the World Food Programme!

freerice 300x125 Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

Feed your brain and the planet– what could be better!?

Take a moment to play a quick round… and leave a comment using your new word in a sentence (I know… once an elementary school teacher…) icon smile Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with Angie Knutson, whose My Four Monkeys blog reviews products through her unique lens as both mom and homeschool educator.  Angie’s support of ThinkFun games as teaching tools and eagerness to explore  new education initiatives led to her oldest daughter participating in a test of our yet-unreleased Brain Lab program! Caitlyn proved a fierce competitor, beating over 400 entries to win the Rush Hour Tournament 2 weeks in a row!  Below, Angie shares the creative ways she’s used the updated What’s GNU? game in her homeschool curriculum to build language skills. ENJOY!

Whats GNU review 300x225 Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

Learning with What’s Gnu? from ThinkFun

Homeschooling and educational games go hand in hand. It can be quite the challenge to make learning fun when the teacher is also the mom. To be honest, the kids get tired of listening to you day after day, all day long. So to make our school time less monotonous, we interject educational games and field trips to do the trick. Since we can’t afford to go on field trips everyday or even every week, educational games have become a very important resource in my bag of tricks.

Probably our favorite site for educational games, ThinkFun has become a household name here and we have such favorites as Rush Hour, Zingo! 1-2-3, and Clever Castle. We recently received a copy of What’s Gnu? to review, and I discovered just how helpful this game is for kindergarten aged children. What’s Gnu? is played similar to the Zingo line of games, and consists of 36 Word Starter Cards, 72 Letter Tiles (vowels are colored red), and a Letter Getter. The game is geared toward ages 5 and up, and you can play with as many people as you’d like. What’s Gnu? was created to develop skills including spelling patterns, reading, word recognition, focus, and concentration. The game was recently redesigned to better meet the needs of the parents and educators using it, and they did a fabulous job! The game now includes two sided cards that allow for two difficulty levels, and the three letter words are perfect for beginning readers.

Over the course of the last several weeks, I have played this game with my Kindergartner and my First Grader several times and have created several different ways to use What’s Gnu? as a learning tool. Playing by the rules is great of you have two children to play, but what if it’s just you and your child? Here’s some ideas for how to use What’s Gnu? in a fun and new way: Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

Rhyme Time: Lay out all the letter tiles in front of the child. Pick one card at a time and see how many rhyming words they can create with that one card using the different letter tiles. When they run out of ideas, move onto another card. The green side of the Word Starter Cards(with one missing letter) works great for my 5 year old, and the Orange side (missing two letters) works perfectly for my 7 year old. Word Starter Cards without a missing first letter don’t work well with this exercise of course.

Hurry and Spell: My kindergartner loves to play this version of What’s Gnu?! I stack the cards in a pile and then lay all the letter tiles out on the floor. I give him a certain amount of time and he sees how many words he can create in that amount of time. How much time you give them should depend on their ability, but 2 to 3 minutes usually works well for us. When we’re finished, he often wants to play again and see if he can break his record!

Read To Me: Spelling is fun, but reading the words is important too. Sometimes we just sit down with the game and do some reading practice. The Word Starter Cards are great for creating multiple words to have your child read. Kind of like flashcards, but a little more fun. Just use the Letter Tiles and the Word Starter Cards to create a word and see if your child can sound it out. If they do, reward them with a small treat. We use fruit snacks for this exercise and it’s like a snack and lesson all in one!

Casual Learning Time: It doesn’t always have to be about a game. My kids can often be caught just playing around with the Word Starter Cards and Letter Tiles creating words and trying to read them. Sometimes they will create words that aren’t real words and try to figure out how to pronounce them. This process is educational for them and relaxing. There is no pressure to perform, and they can go at their own pace. Don’t forget that a game doesn’t have to be played at a table or desk to be educational. We often play the games on the floor. The kids are more relaxed and comfortable, it seems more like playtime rather than school time, and it allows me to give some attention to my energetic toddler at the same time.

Want more?  Angie has also reviewed Zingo 1-2-3, Clever Castle, and Rush Hour!

How have YOU used games to enrich your homeschool instruction?  Please share your ideas!

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!

Attack of the Robot(ic)s!

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and his video camera have returned from the FIRST Robotics Tournament!

The energy in this video is just incredible (check out the line dancing!), and it’s clear these young engineers are prepared not only to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, but also to inspire the next generation of problem solvers!   For more on Bill’s experience as a judge, check out his new blog Bill’s Big Picture!!

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!

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!