Tag Archives: Strategic Thinking

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!

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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!

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?

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.