Mastery Learning and Gaming in Education: DragonBox

Today I want to write about something very near and dear to my heart, Mastery Learning. For those who are unfamiliar with Mastery Learning, it is a term that was coined by Benjamin Bloom (yes, that Benjamin Bloom) in 1968 and 1971.  So it’s been around a while.  Mastery Learning is based in the philosophy that every child can learn, given the appropriate learning conditions. It describes a process whereby each child must master a given learning unit before continuing to the next, more advanced learning unit.

In Mastery Learning the objectives for each unit are well described.  The task the student must perform is defined; the skill to be acquired and performed is clear. Large units are broken into subunits and subtasks.  Frequent, formative assessment occurs, not for purposes of evaluating the learners, but to allow the instructors the opportunity to adjust the instruction. Mastery Learning can be used in group, peer, individualized, computer-based, or any other kind of instruction.  And as far back as 1984, Benjamin Bloom found that “the average student tutored one-to-one using mastery learning techniques performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods” (p.14) and “the average tutored student was above 98% of the students in the control class (p.14).

And yet, Mastery Learning has been very controversial in education during the ensuing years. Critics who oppose it sometimes suggest that having broad “coverage” of material is more important the deep “mastery” of fewer topics. Others resist it because of the intensive time and labor required to adjust the instruction for each learner. Still others seem to feel that students who get more time or more opportunities to master the material are somehow cheating the more advanced students out of their victory.

But you know where Mastery Learning is treated as the norm? In gaming. We think nothing of playing Wii or Kinect games that require us to complete one challenge before “unlocking” the next level. Kids and adults alike play games like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja with wild abandon, striving to reach the next, more difficult level. And oddly, if you’re like me, earning one or two stars to level up in Angry Birds isn’t enough.  I want to max out at three stars, dammit, and I’m not going to that next level until I do!!!

How weird would it be if these games were not mastery-based?? If we, as players, could just meander around, picking a level haphazardly without a solid grasp of the entry-level skills? Do you think the games would be anywhere near as much fun? On balance, we’re unlikely to do well because there may or may not be correspondence between our entry skills and the level of difficulty of the level.  And guess what? If you think Level 12 of Cut the Rope is difficult, imagine how difficult it would be if you hadn’t mastered Levels 1-11!  Honestly, wouldn’t you just quit playing out of pure frustration??

And yet, this is exactly what happens in education every day.

So here we have this strange dichotomy.  We have a bunch of stuff we’ve decided as a society that kids should learn to do. We call this “education.” And we have a bunch of other stuff that is…dare I say, frivolous…that kids LIKE to learn to do. We call these “games.” And somehow games are doing a better job of building interactivity, creativity and problem-solving in kids than education is!

Enter DragonBox.  DragonBox is an algebra app that combines the two…educational material presented in a gaming paradigm.  (You knew I’d get here eventually….afterall, it’s right there in the title!) It has levels and the pages showing the levels look very much like the Angry Birds levels pages…it’s clear what levels have been unlocked so far and how much progress has been made overall. (Geek Dad‘s Jonathan H. Liu has a nice review of the program and its progression here, so I will not repeat it.) DragonBox is a product of the We Want to Know company, based in Norway.

DragonBox teaches kids to solve algebraic equations for x.   The program starts with pictorial representations of variables and gradually builds to numbers and letters, which makes it a little bit difficult for adults who have already taken algebra.  I downloaded DragonBox and stayed up until 2:30 in the morning playing it. My intention was just to try it out. But it was fun, so I kept going until I had finished the entire thing. (I’m a mean “solve for x” pro now, just sayin’!)  I asked three friends to try it as well and we all struggled because, instead of just playing the game, we were busy trying to figure out what, exactly, the first few levels had to do with algebra. The nine year-old who I asked to try it had no such hang-ups!  The designers did a brilliant job of laying out the level sequence to start with something that is very simple for kids who aren’t overthinking things!

But algebra notwithstanding, the point is that those of us who are struggling to bridge the gap between education and gaming can really learn a thing or two from what DragonBox has done here.  If you thought that an app that is truly both educational and really fun, DragonBox is here to prove you wrong.  And they’ve helped the industry take a giant step forward, paving the way for others to follow.

Not to mention that, according to Geek Dad Liu, downloads of DragonBox are now surpassing downloads of Angry Birds in the App Store.

Download it, see what you think, and report back here. Are you inspired?

DragonBox is available for iOS and Android devices.

To read more about Mastery Learning, I recommend the following readings.

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), 112.

Bloom, B. (1984). “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring”, Educational Researcher, 13:6(4-16).

Bloom, B. S., Hastings, J. T., & Madaus, G. (1971). Handbook on formative and summative evaluation of student learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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