Problem-Based Learning Environments

I’m convinced kids will play with numbers and many other math concepts if you can just trick them into it.

I was astonished one morning this year to see one of my most reluctant learners approach another student, just before the tardy bell, and begin a little interactive “number trick” with him: “Pick any number between 1 and 10.  Add 2.  Multiply by 5…..”  He had a new toy to share, and he wanted to share it for several reasons:

  1. It amused him, and he thought it would amuse his classmate.
  2. Nobody was making him.

I felt like the worst teacher in the world when I interrupted their math discussion and asked them to take their seats so we could begin math class.

I know one day of intrinsically motivated math discussion, properly guided, is worth two weeks of painful lecture.  So, how can we trick them?

My proposed Problem-Based Learning Environment is a video game.  Students have missions.  To accomplish their missions, they must use the right mix of problem-solving, arithmetic, and familiar common-sense decision-making.

Problems appear as missions, plausible, and surprising, like some kind of weekly rescue-team/detective TV show.  (See “Numbers” on CBS on Fridays.)  There are always more missions, with a revolving core group of characters (good and bad) to interact with, and their content is of course based on the student’s level of proficiency in prior concepts.

The game is current and hip – not funky like a six-year-old educational game.  It has modern graphics and sounds, along with slightly edgy themes.  There might even be some threatening aliens to avoid, to provide a sense of urgency.

To help students accomplish missions, there is a set of tools: formulas, algorithms, identification challenges.  All of these are integrated within the game premise and are only named once mastered.  Once introduced and explored, these tools can (and will) be reused in later missions.

I’m extremely excited about the Algebra 1 concepts covered cleverly in the online games by Tabula Digita (see and  Students accomplish missions set on a coordinate plane – disguised as an alien landscape – and are even occasionally asked for “coordinates” of their location.  (It doesn’t sound like math this time.  It sounds like science fiction!)  This software is very similar too the ideal software I’ve described here.


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