March 6, 2015

I am crazy about this game.

Manimals is a good educational game for several reasons.

First off, the rules are stupid simple. If you’re going to use a game in your classroom, it better have simple rules. I learned this the hard way last Fall when I tried to use Sid Sackson’s, Can’t Stop, to explain relative frequencies in statistics. (I stole the idea from this guy.) The lesson was a raging success, but the rules explanation was not. Think about how hard it is to teach the rules of a board game to friends who’ve volunteered to play the game, and imagine that confusion multiplied across 25 restless students who do not want to be there.

Picture of Sid Sacson's classic game, Can't Stop.

The board in Can’t Stop even looks like a histogram…this just screams relative frequencies!

But forget simplicity, the best quality of Manimals is that it’s actually fun! A lot of educational games feel like homework…this one does not. The artwork is also gorgeous, and it packs up compactly. Manimals has a real-time, “race to be first” aspect to it, which will appeal to some of your more kinesthetically inclined and/or competitive students, but you don’t have to be fast to be successful.

This game is a versatile, educational tool. Instead of animals, you could use any concept that you wanted to teach. I’m imagining cards with different representations of functions on them (graphs, tables, equations, a description in words, etc.) and on the back would be icons representing properties of this function like “is linear,” “has an x-intercept,” “is always increasing,” “is one-to-one,” “domain contains [1, 3),” “is transcendental,” “has a vertical asymptote,” and so on. The game would otherwise be played exactly the same way!

It even gets more interesting because sometimes the representation may not provide enough information to determine if the function has the trait or not. This could be indicated on the back of the card with a broken icon, and the student could get 2 points (rather than 1) if they explain why there’s not enough information. This chance for extra points starts a conversation. Your classmates want to win. They’re going to challenge your explanation, and you better be ready to defend it.

Another reason I like this activity is because it reminds me a lot of Bruner’s Concept Attainment, which is a well-tested and widely used technique. We also know from APOS Theory that students struggle to think of functions as objects. By printing a different function on each card, you are basically presenting the functions as objects out of the box. A student can pick up and manipulate this card like a real-world physical object. One of the main weaknesses of APOS Theory is that it really only offers one intervention (computer programming with ISETL) for moving students to an object understanding of functions. This could be another intervention.

A lot has been written about the gamification of learning. I won’t rehash that literature here, but I will say that you can get a lot of mileage out of a simple game and your students will engage in ways you never imagined. That lesson on relative frequencies that didn’t go so well? I was out at a bar one night when my colleague called me from the office. My students were there, and they wanted her to lend them my copy of Can’t Stop. They chose to play a math game in their free time!

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