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DragonBox

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DragonBox is a game designed to teach people algebra. The website is dragonboxapp.com. The game is available for different devices, including Windows PCs, Macs, and various phones and tablets. It seems very well-suited for use on tablets, making it great for young children.

Interesting features

  • The initial levels of the game require no knowledge of arithmetic. In fact, they don't even require familiarity with the symbols for numbers (though knowledge of the numbers can help with understanding the scoring system). The game developers say that their vision is to teach algebraic thinking before arithmetic, and they do so successfully.
  • Each level of the game introduces a few algebraic rules and people are judged with how they apply the rules to successfully solve equations -- except that the equations and rules are framed in terms of manipulating widgets on screen rather than symbols on paper. Gradually, the widgets are replaced by numbers.
  • Higher levels of the game feature fairly difficult challenges for users.

Transfer to paper-and-pencil algebra skills

In this PDF (see here) the game creators identify two additional skills to teach in order to transfer learning in the game to paper-and-pencil learning:

  • The game semi-automatically enforces balance (for instance, if a quantity is added to one side, the game forces the same quantity to be added to the other side). For unaided paper-and-pencil problem-solving, people have to be careful to remember to do this themselves.
  • The game automatically maintains the state of the system with each manipulation. When solving an equation with paper and pencil, the equation needs to be copied down every time a manipulation is performed.

Reviews

Caveats to use

The discussion here is speculative.

The following are some possible caveats to the otherwise impressive success of the game.

  • Short-term mastery followed by fadeout: A person may master the rules using short-term memory and stimulus-response patterns rather than internalize them in a deep manner. Therefore, if there is a significant gap between playing the game and learning algebra formally, the game may be useless to learning algebra.
  • The why is unclear: Since the rules are introduced externally, the motivation behind the rules is not always clear. People may therefore fail to appreciate why the rules are true.

Possible ways of overcoming these:

  • Overcoming the problem of fadeout: Play the game regularly over a longer time period, and use spaced repetition to increase time intervals between successive plays, to make sure key techniques stick. Also, start learning paper-and-pencil algebra shortly after achieving mastery with the game.
  • The why is unclear: Make sure to learn algebra formally soon after, or combine with other learning techniques.