The following is an edited excerpt from Greg Toppo’s new book, The Game Believes in You (Palgrave MacMillan) that posted at the Hechinger Report. Toppo, a former teacher, is the national education and demographics writer for USA Today:
I met Jean-Baptiste Huynh, the Vietnamese Frenchman living in Oslo who persuaded the entire country of Norway to spend a week solving algebra problems, a few months after his iPad algebra application, DragonBox, had gone viral in Apple’s App Store. Everyone I knew was asking me if I’d played it. One friend had breathlessly told me I had to get it. It teaches algebra to preschoolers, he said. It’s amazing! But as soon as I sat down, Huynh pulled a travel-worn iPad from his bag and he said he wanted to get one thing straight about DragonBox. “It’s not an algebra app,â€ he said.
I soon learned that Huynh had that trifecta of a great teacher’s personality: a passion for his students and his subject, a bit of a foul mouth, and a dry, balancing wit. During our conversation, I made the mistake of asking what he thought of the school system he’d attended in France as a young man. It had gotten him pretty far, I thought. “You know what? This is a f–– prison,â€ he said. “Your brain is dead when you’re in prison. You don’t want to be there.â€ He may have sensed my shock, so he smiled and said, “I come with very strong words because I am French. I can do that.â€ Huynh explained that he and his colleagues at We Want To Know, the Norwegian game company he’d co-founded with French cognitive scientist Patrick Marchal, had been trying to decide whether to sell the game to schools, which were beginning to buy iPads at a steady clip. “That’s the natural place to play this game,â€ he said. “And we decided, ‘No, we don’t do that,’ because teachers are going to say, ‘You do that, you do that.’â€ In other words, he said, teachers would find a way to take the fun out of his fun little game.
So if DragonBox wasn’t about algebra, I asked, what was it about?
Speed and imagination, he said.
“Mathematics is creativity. It’s play. You take an object and you ask, ‘What if?’â€ But that’s not how it’s taught in schools. “We teach it as a dead subject–like Latin. A dead language. You have fantastic texts, but it’s a dead thing.â€
Huynh is as responsible as anyone for the recent surge in interest, here and abroad, in high-quality, imaginative math games for children. For a while, before several equally offbeat competitors began appearing in the App Store, DragonBox was the go-to app that smart parents with iPads were recommending to their friends. Huynh started out as a stock portfolio manager, but then he and his wife, a child psychiatrist, began having kids. “I guess I got this crisis that any people working in finance hit at some point,â€ he said. “You want really to use your energy on something really useful. So I decided that I would do something for children.â€ He took a job teaching high school math and economics in Spain.
He was a miserable failure.
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