11/15/2012 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

Mediocrity versus Mastery: The Case for Game-Based Learning

2012-11-15-Poonam_Sharma.jpgBy Poonam Sharma
Poonam Sharma is the Cofounder of Mango Learning, Inc.

Ask Serena Williams to describe every leap, twist and gesture on the court if what you really want is to see her stumble. Task World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand with explaining every slide of a pawn or block of a bishop and he might lose sight of the board. Force a pilot to narrate every bank, altitude adjustment, and unplanned course correction through this week's Frankenstorm -- and prepare yourself for a pretty bumpy ride. While it may seem counterintuitive, the fact is that experts are just people who have learned the basic facts of their discipline cold enough (they have developed a level of Automaticity with basic functions) that actually makes it distracting to consciously consider these details. And in the context of how best to educate our children, understanding this aspect of true mastery can lead you to only one answer to the most critical education question of the mobile revolution:

How best can we leverage the promise of mobile platforms to raise children who aim beyond mediocrity, and towards mastery in their learning? We can do it through adaptive, mobile, game-based learning.

Contrary to popular belief, experts don't know more about the basic steps than the rest of us - they just recall them more automatically. The Automaticity they've developed (the instant recall of the basic functions) frees up their conscious minds to focus on higher-levels of strategy. And that freedom is a key part of what makes them really good at what they do. So asking someone who has mastered a discipline to consciously focus on the individual steps actually distracts them from the engine of their mastery, and throws them off their game (pun intended). Many athletes recognize this. Most coaches understand this. But despite great effort, the educational system as a whole has been unable to apply this truth on a broad scale, to produce better results, until now.

Enter the mobile revolution. Digital learning for the K through 12 market has opened up a world of potential, vastly expanding our chances of truly democratizing access to quality instruction and learning opportunities worldwide. Now that tablets have proliferated widely both at home and in schools, and students really can learn any time, any place, so long as they are motivated, the next logical question becomes: How do we build content for mobile platforms that is personalized enough, engaging enough, adaptive enough, and rigorous enough to make kids the drivers of their own advancement towards Automaticity, and beyond?

In the context of foundational Math, for example, which has been correlated with successful outcomes across a child's future educational career: "If you only teach it through rote memorization, textbooks and lectures, you would be surprised at how quickly even otherwise diligent students will lose interest," explains Bob Collins, Former Chief Instructional Office for the Los Angeles Unified School District, "But when you meet today's students where they live, in the digital world that has been theirs for as long as they can remember...and you give them different ways to learn, and chances to perceive success, that's when you start to see them get really excited about learning."

This is not about teaching students through games in order to entertain them, or to distract them from the other media vying for their daily attention. This is about training them to get excited about driving their own education. It's about delivering the sense of incremental achievement that we know inspires people not to quit, and not to want to see themselves as quitters. Because in the context of the digital age, when the answers literally are at everyone's fingertips, success becomes a function of persistence and strategy - not memorization. And the importance of teaching for Automaticity becomes more important than ever, when even instant-recall is no longer enough to help our children to get ahead.

While e-books and online lectures have their place, stopping here would be like deploying the very first televisions into every American home...and then doing little more to leverage the promise of the medium than aiming the cameras at existing radio hosts. We can do better than that.

We can deliver the instant feedback of Math games which allow a student to advance at his own pace and earn the satisfaction of unlocking higher reward levels. We can provide adaptive in-game pre-tests to gauge student's knowledge and calibrate questions specifically for them. We can deliver tutorials with multiple methods of solving the same question and arriving at the same answer, to drill home the point that it is alright to take a different path to success.

Real life does not reward pure memorization, and elementary education shouldn't either. The promise of the mobile age for education is far more than a chance to teach our kids the same facts in a more exciting way - it's a chance to retrain our students to expect more from themselves. So if you're still on the fence about Game-based Math Learning then consider how immediately children take to games of any kind and then recall how quick you were at their age to dismiss your own abilities after receiving just one failed Math test. Now, what if Serena had done that?

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.