No, learning mathematics is not the same as playing FIFA

What an EdTech CEO ignores about learning and teaching

Football simulation, yes. But learning? (source)

Did you hear the one about the EdTech CEO who thinks all learning activities should cater to low attention spans?

Digital maths content is at the heart of my work and FIFA football is at the heart of my play. The article hints at little understanding of either.

(Full disclosure: I work on a product in the same space as Mangahigh. The views expressed in this article belong to me alone.)

Midha’s first error is the deterministic assumption that we must pander to students’ diminishing attention spans. He would have us reduce learning to bite-sized tasks since students apparently ‘don’t have five minutes that they can focus on’. No credible maths educator would expect so little of their students, nor would they reduce their subject to short-form performance tasks. They would instead recognise that problem solving is a slow, deliberate activity that can excite our imaginations and hold our attention without time constraints. Mathematical thinking imbues us with a temperament that is lost in the rush for quick answers.

Midha also takes aim at pen and paper, suggesting it represents a traditional form of learning that we are ‘totally out of love’ with. Wrong again — I would challenge Midha to spend half an hour observing mathematicians. He would soon see that not only do we continue to rely on pen/paper, but that we relish this most simple medium of expression. Most mathematical ideas take route in the mind, are mapped onto paper, refined multiple times, and only digitised at the very last. Woe to those who would remove paper from the mathematician’s toolkit.

Next is Midha’s claim that instruction is unnecessary. Midha may not realise that he is fuelling the most frivolous of all educational debates, which centers on a false dichotomy between inquiry-based learning and direct instruction. The suggestion that you can do away with either may make for pithy tweets, but it ignores the obvious truth that elements of both must be woven together in one’s teaching. By calling for us to abandon instruction altogether, Midha implies an unattainable model for learning design. A maths game would have to be so exquisitely designed as to do away with any component of instruction — Midha’s own creation, Mangahigh, relies on text prompts that assume much of students’ language comprehension. Even FIFA comes with knowledge priors — good luck ‘discovering’ the intricacies of the offside rule if you have never encountered football before (let alone VAR, which is surely coming in the game’s next instalment).

It is not only FIFA that informs Midha’s understanding of education; he also derives wisdom from social media. Taking his lead from the viral appeal of Facebook and Instagram, Midha suggests that educators too must ‘look at what has disrupted the way these kids operate’. It makes me wonder how close a look Midha has taken — how does he reconcile the blatant intrusion of users’ privacy? Or the sinister design frameworks that prey on human vulnerabilities to hook us into never-ending cycles of clicks and shares? We need EdTech to mount a resistance to these platforms rather than slavishly emulate their toxic design principles.

As a medium of learning, video games carry massive potential. The potential will never be realised, however, as long as pedagogy remains an afterthought. Video games are there to be gamed, resulting in all manner of unintended consequences. Since Midha has cited FIFA as his exemplar for educators, here is the tale of how I earned my stripes on FIFA 18:

When the World Cup mode was added to the game back in June, I set myself the goal of winning the tournament on the game’s toughest difficulty setting, Legendary. My path to victory was marked with numerous failed attempts, including three losses in the final and more shootout heartbreak than I care to remember. My triumph finally came two weeks ago when I lifted the trophy playing as Brazil. In the knockout phases, the results were: 1–1 (won on pens), 1–0, 0–0 (won on pens) and 0–0 (won on pens). Only in a simulation are these results fathomable for the Brazil national team. The results reflect the playing style I was forced to adopt — dominating possession, keeping the ball in my own half to prevent the opposition from even sniffing an attempt on goal, and taking my chances in the shootout by diving to the right on every single kick. Neymar was reduced to playing as a deep holding midfielder and my strikers rarely earned a touch of the ball. By the time I had sussed out my path to success, the game had ceased to become a realistic simulation of the game proper. I’m not my gameplay is what the designers of FIFA 18 had in mind (though they would no doubt be consoled by my usage levels this summer).

Educators must not be willing to play fast and loose with instructional design. Every learning activity has consequences — some intended, most not. It is why we need instruction and why, most crucially, we need human educators driving the learning experience for students.

Education is not to be gamed, and certainly not in five-minute chunks, strictly on screen, for the sake of clicks and shares.

I am a research mathematician turned educator. Say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Mathematics. Education. Innovation. Views my own.