Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Math Was Never This Much Fun Back When I Was Young

My son just turned five and has deep and heartfelt longings to start Kindergarten. I think, if I could get the information out of him, that a large part of what he longs for is a day at school during which no one forces him to lie down on a cot to take a nap.

But we did have a very telling conversation a few weeks ago, when he was complaining yet again about getting ready for preschool, and I asked him why he didn't like school. Eyes blazing with indignation, he turned to me and said forcefully, "They shouldn't teach you what you already know!"

My boy, he likes a challenge.

I know that what I do with him at home doesn't make up for what is not being done for him at school, and yet, I do my best to come up with fun projects and challenging games, and to offer up a little bit of teaching wherever I can. He loves learning new words or working out little puzzles in his head. Back in December, our car trips were all about what my old math books used to call "word problems."

If Santa has eight reindeer who like apples, but he only has five apples, how many more apples does he need to get, so that each reindeer can have one?

Son loved this stuff.

So when a representative from DreamBox Learning contacted me and asked me if I'd like to try out their online math program (geared towards grades K-3), I jumped at the chance. I figured that no matter how good it was (or wasn't), it might provide some interesting distraction for my son. I had no idea what we were in for -- and I mean that in the best possible way.

Trust me, if you have a child somewhere in the range of 4-9 (though it's dependent on math skills more than age), you really want to know about this system.

Here is what I absolutely LOVE about the DreamBox design.

* There is a parent dashboard that tells you not just how much time your child has spent online, but precisely what skills she has been working on. It tell you what her progress is, where she is advancing, and provides you a graphic image of her abilities relative to average curriculum goals for the grade level(s) at which she is working. (She can be, for example, at a first grade level for counting skills and still at a Kindergarten level for addition.) All of this makes it very easy to see what conceptual elements of math your child has or has not grasped.

* The system is astonishingly responsive to a child's current knowledge. Although it's set up like a game, the initial tasks clearly set a baseline to establish what the child already knows. Then, the math tasks he is asked to do set accordingly. Son, for example, can count to 100. The system very quickly figured out that he didn't need to work on counting objects, and it moved on to higher concepts like recognizing how many objects are in a set if you don't have time to count them. (e.g. You know the "five" on dice because of the pattern of the dots, not because you recount them every time.)

In addition, as a child encounters a new skill, the system adjusts. One addition/subtraction game he played was too difficult, and he missed the first three questions, with two tries for each answer. So the game changed to make the challenge easier, while still working on addition/subtraction. For example, it set all the problems to add/subtract for numbers 10 and under (hence, he could use his fingers for help). It also offered him ways to get clues to answers that would begin to help him grasp the concepts without simply doing his work for him.

* There is just enough narrative to the system to keep a child engaged. The "gimmick" is that you have entered an amusement park and have to choose an area in which to play. There is a dinosaur area, a pirate one, a house, and a garden. Each area has eight games available. In the dinosaur area, for example, one game is to free a triceratops that is stuck in the mud. You do this by completing a whole series of math tasks, each set of which garners you one more tool to do the freeing.

The tasks are set against a backdrop of jungle and hungry pythons, flowers you can make bloom with enough correct answers, and other interactive pieces that keep a child engaged. I cannot stress enough that these are nothing like the worksheets we remember from school. They are graphic and interesting, varied and fun.

* You can move back and forth between different kinds of problems -- visual ones, counting ones, ones with numbers, ones with objects -- which seems to me to address different learning styles. And, again, the dynamic system adjusts to a player's skill level.

* There are very clear explanations and directions for the tasks. Potentially unfamiliar words are defined ("'Equal to' means the same as. Which number is equal to the dots you see here?"). Then, if the child misses several problems that are working on that concept, the definition will come up again as a gentle reminder.

* After an initial set-up of about 15 minutes, he was able to play on his own. I watched over his shoulder for more than an hour, fascinated by the game itself, but the directions were so clear that he didn't need my help.

* Games are very long, but the system saves your child's place automatically, so that when she comes back in an hour or three days, all the work she's done up to that point is still recorded. This is really important as Son has played for five hours and is just nearing the end of his first game in his first area, which means that there are potentially 31 other games he could play. That's a LOT of math. But because the games are dynamic and adaptable, I can already see that whatever he chooses for game 2 will pick up where game 1 left off, with him more advanced at some skills and a total beginner at others.

* Parents can actually log on and play the game to see how it works without affecting the child's games. Parents are reminded that it is counter-productive for them to give their children too much help solving the problems in the game, since the system bases the tasks it asks of children on how well they've already done. So if mom answers all the subtraction problems daughter can't, daughter will be given harder ones, rather than easier ones.

This is an intense, thorough, and long curriculum, which would be great if your child needed tutoring help in math, or if you wanted something to supplement a home-schooling plan. The one downside to this tremendous thoroughness is that, five hours in, my son is eager to try a pirate game. He's had enough of dinosaurs for a while. But he can't get into a pirate game until he completes this one. So he's taken a break for a little while.

I have nothing but tremendously positive things to say about DreamBox. It was certainly designed by a fleet of brilliant educators. There are obvious teaching strategies at work, clear goals being tracked, thoughtful sequencing of skills in all the games. On top of that, they have managed to make the games walk precisely the right balance between fun and challenging. Just as it gets frustrating, the game senses the child's uncertainty and adapts (it even notes when the pauses for answers are taking overly long). And there are moments that perfectly hit the kindergarten funnybone: for example, the serpent grows with every answer you get right, stretches his neck towards what he thinks is a flower, only to get a pie in the face. Bwahahahahahah! if you are five. (I don't know if the jokes get more sophisticated as the child moves up in grade level, though I wouldn't put it past DreamBox.)

And do you want to know the best part? I loved DreamBox so much that I asked if I could give some of it away to you, and they obliged with a free one-month subscription to DreamBox for one lucky reader who wants to try it.

DreamBox is really doing things right by offering ALL families a two week free trial. (Plans cost as little as $8.33/month, so it wouldn't break the bank if you got hooked.) Even if you don't win the month here, you and your child can try it out for two weeks to see if you like it. If you are already signed up for the free trial, and you win this giveaway, that will add another month. If you aren't already signed up for the free trial, then you will only get one month free. Still, in a month, your child could get hooked on math. I know my son is loving this.

He told me this is "even better than Noggin's game of the month" -- which is high praise from him. And I love that when he plays it, he is actually learning something.

If you have children the right age for this system, do yourself a favor and check it out. And if you'd like to be entered into the drawing for a free one month subscription, just leave me a comment below -- including a valid email address. Drawing will take place on Monday, March 9, with the winner announced Tuesday morning, the 10th.