A PhD in Mathematics says “Play more games!”

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Dr. Gord Hamilton, a.k.a. Math Pickle, is offering a new way to approach mathematics. At least in early elementary. I had a chance to sit down with the guru of math puzzles to get his thoughts on how to approach math skills for homeschoolers. And a cool new game he designed too!

I interviewed Dr. Hamilton and got a handle on how he came to be the brains behind Math Pickle.

Why use games and puzzles in learning?

Engagement is the number one priority to get children to learn and games have a way of transcending poor teaching quality. One good example is the ancient game Go. With a sentence you can describe this game that is complex and beautiful with no limits to the time spent. Why does this link to math specifically? In elementary it’s problem solving not arithmetic that matters. If by grade 6 you can beat me in a strategy game that’s exciting – not reciting multiplication tables. Problem solving is the most important aspect of mathematics. I’m all for abolishing mathematics in elementary school in favour of problem solving. One of the best ways to teach problem solving is through games. Beating that person across the table is not only about math but about winning and losing, and is as important as reading. Different from computer games you build socialization skills playing a board game with others.

What have you noticed about the difference in mathematical understanding between kids that play games and those that don’t?

I don’t have enough consistent interaction with one group of children but I watch and see what I predict is valuable learning going on. I predict that it is of enormous benefit just by why they play the games. There are studies done but they are using games like Snakes and Ladders which isn’t a good choice to determine skill development. If I were to advise school boards I would want to replace half of the grade 2 or 3 curriculum with Go. Focusing not on arithmetic but on problem solving through game play. Go, Santorini, chess – no attempt to do curriculum for half a year and within 5 to 6 years I think you’d see an increase in mathematical understanding far beyond the control group doing standard curriculum. The focus is on problem solving as the side effect. It must be fun with the side effect of problem solving so find a game you love and your child loves. Do not pursue an educational game. Most of them are miserable.

Long before Math Pickle you were designing games. How long have you been designing games?

I started at age 9 and I did it, not designing my own game, but adapting a game called Cosmic Encounters. I created my own aliens. That’s the best way to start; is to take an existing game and add quality to it.

Why choose this career with a PhD in Mathematics? Was it the game designing that led you to education or an interest in teaching math to children that sent you down this path?

I completed my PhD here in Calgary in Mathematical Biology. I was an academic and had no idea about education. The birth of my son brought me to a math fair as the ‘token’ mathematician and I walked around with kids showing me math problems. It was a grade 2 student who presented me with her puzzle and I couldn’t solve it! I walked away realizing the gift I gave her by failing to solve her puzzle. She was so excited and encouraged by this experience. This sparked a new path using my board game creating skill set. I used it to create puzzles for the math classroom and knew I could be world class at it. A couple of years later I started Math Pickle. It doesn’t pay well but I knew I had to do it. I got as much joy from creating a beautiful puzzle as I did creating a beautiful game. My new project is developing my game Aggression. It is the best math class game I have seen and I have been reworking it to publish it.

Where does this all fit in the classroom?

From a classroom perspective you as a teacher want to engage the full spectrum of abilities from struggling to gifted students. These are tough math problems and gifted kids can take it home and work hard on them. The lower end of the student learning spectrum can see in small parts the joy of solving pieces of every problem. This addresses those with math phobia because everyone is going to fail at this and it’s part of the learning. It feels like the bottom of Everest, but in the classroom you can show kids the limit of human knowledge and that’s cool.

What about your newly published game Santorini?

All the way through (my university years) I designed Santorini starting in my undergraduate degree and I knew it was excellent. It bugged the heck out of me that I couldn’t published it. So 2016 was an excellent year after 31 years! I’m very happy with it.

You noted in a blog post that games should be a welcome inclusion to any home for mathematics, not more worksheets. This advice is clearly for schooled children. As homeschoolers should we still include repetitive practice in our math teaching? Explain where the line is drawn.

Especially elementary school, up to grade 3 for sure, you can replace mathematics with problem solving and you will be fine. All the way through math you should be focusing on problem solving but you need to work on skill acquisition. But I’m not an expert in that. The part of the puzzle I bring is to look at a way to include problem solving, and should be child specific. Memory work, skills and content still need to be a part of any math program. Most people think of problem solving as word problems which are painful, messy and have convoluted thinking with difficult wording. Mathematics should be beautiful with a minimal number of words. That’s where the focus should be. Many of the math problems that no one has ever solved could be used in a grade 2 class with simple mathematics. That’s the focus of Math Pickle; that unsolved problems belong in the curriculum starting at kindergarten. However they need to be properly managed so there is success in small amounts so they can see the potential of solving the problem.

You’ve created an award winning game called Santorini. I’m certainly going to buy it – it looks amazing! But why should we include this in our homeschool math learning? (Available on Amazon)

Go, chess, Urbino, Dvonn, Stratego, Santorini. Include them all. And play them daily!

It was a pleasure to spend the morning with Dr. Hamilton and I encourage you to seek out his new game Santorini and roam around his Math Pickle site for free math resources.

Please consider supporting him on his Patreon page so he can keep puzzling on and inspiring young mathematicians! Dr. Hamilton is looking for funding to continue his work. From 2015 to 2017 Math Pickle was funded by the American institute of Mathematics but he has been doing math education as an in-school resource since 2005.

But now it needs to go beyond local school boards and there is something I want to show the world. Funding is the only avenue so each child can, and should, experience one unsolved problem a year.

Become a Patron!

Be sure to catch Dr. Hamilton at the conference for his workshop Saturday afternoon.