Playing Angry Birds is not “Using Mathematical Thinking”

Posting my comments to a blog post on The Huffington Post titled “Frustrated With Math? Try Angry Birds!“, by Tim Chartier, associate professor of mathematics, Davidson College.   My viewpoint here may upset a few math cheerleaders.  While that is not my intent, I do bristle when someone comments that “math is fun,” or “What can we do to make students see how fun math is?”, or similar sugary sweet statements.  Call me the grinch that stole the fun from mathematics if you wish.  I just do not believe it is universally fun, which I believe those statements imply.  Math may be fun for some people all of the time, or all people some of the time, but math surely is not fun for all people all of the time.  Just ask my eldest son.

For what its worth, I blurted out “math is not fun!” in my mathematics curriculum and instruction (C&I) class while in ed school in reaction to someone’s comment that it is fun, or we need to show students that it is fun, or something along those lines.  My comment went over like a lead balloon, which lead to my writing about it to help clarify my point.

Lastly, I do believe that there are definitely opportunities to show students how math can be fun.  I just believe the number of examples where math is fun is very limited if we expect a diverse set of students to find them fun in any way.  This does not mean that I am against using Angry Birds (“AB”) or other games as hooks to draw in students’ attention, as long as there is no slight of hand or twisting of words in so doing.  As I mention at the end of my comments below, I am very open to seeing how I might change my viewpoint.

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I appreciate your sincere desire to use Angry Birds, or similar apps / games, to connect students with mathematics, Tim.  However, I struggle with comments like yours, or other claims like “math is fun!”, which require use of a reality distortion device, aka “wishful thinking.”  I believe most students see through statements that they are employing mathematical thinking when they play AB, even after seeing a teacher explain the similarity between the mathematics of quadratics and the trajectory of an angry bird.  The same is true with playing baseball, football, soccer, or horseshoes as well as doing just about any other action in life.

As a teacher, maintaining the trust of my students is critical; I believe making assertions that one does math when playing anything aside from Sudoku, Blackjack, Boardwalk, or similar is misleading at best, and incorrect at worst; even in the cases I mentioned, one may play them without necessarily doing math.

Fortunately, there are many true, real-world applications of math that exist all around us, which includes how the software programmer determined how to show the flight of the angry bird, or draw other objects on the display screen, etc.  Whether one actively ‘uses’ math every day is debatable though, unless you are redefining the word “use,” or its usage.  As a mathematics teacher with an electrical engineering degree, I explain how mathematics is used by mathematicians, engineers, computer programmers, etcetera in cell phones, smart phones, iPods, Wiis, etcetera, as well as how mathematics can model actions, or phenomena, within those devices.  I dare not claim they are ‘using’ mathematics, or ‘doing’ mathematics, in those situations since I do not believe that is factually correct, albeit they might be using or doing something that may itself be modeled, described, created, programmed, or conceived using mathematics.

If you can help me see your viewpoint, I will be most appreciative.  I do not want to be overly constrained by reality, or at least my perception of it.  So, please set me straight, or curved, as the situation may warrant!

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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17 Responses to Playing Angry Birds is not “Using Mathematical Thinking”

  1. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    It’s scary how similar your logic is to mine. Remember your prime (sic) goal is to stimulate interest and involvement by your students. You don’t have to lie to them but you don’t have to be totally anal either. Lay out the buffet table and give them a chance to fill their plate without overflowing.

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  2. Agreed. I think it’s a stretch to say that you are using math when playing Angry Birds, but you are using pattern matching skills and spatial skills, you are forming hypothesis, testing them, and iterating on them and you are exercising your working memory. All of these skills are applicable to math as well as Angry Birds (along with just about any other subject).

    I would disagree that math is not fun. Presented in the right way I think math is fun. In roughly the same way that Angry Birds is fun. If you want to see something that gets you closer to math as math than angry birds does but is also fun check out DragonBox.

    Feeling challenged, creating and testing hypothesis, and figuring things out are things that all humans enjoy. We’ve evolved to enjoy this process. Math, like many other things, can be enjoyable if presented in the right fashion.

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    • Thanks, Jared. I was going to include a comment about pattern matching, trial and error, etc, as practices or skills present in mathematics. However, I felt it was stretching the validity of the claim too much. In terms of math being fun, yes, it can be. And while I agree that many enjoy being challenged, creating and testing hypotheses, or figuring things out, I do not agree that everyone has these traits, interests, or desires. I also do not agree that it is just because it is not presented in the right fashion. In some situations, OK. But not for every mathematical concept or procedure. More accurately, I am unable to see how it can be fun, independent of topic. I am open to being persuaded otherwise though!

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      • Dave, you felt like it was a stretch to say that Angry Birds uses pattern matching, etc. or a stretch to say that that makes it a valid extension of mathematics? If the latter than I would agree, although I would say that exposure to those skills may make help develop the underlying skills that are useful in working with mathematics, as research is showing that spatial skills are an advantage in STEM fields.

        Although it’s impossible to prove that everyone enjoys being challenged, creating and testing hypotheses, and figuring things out, it’s debatable based on these observations:

        1) Every child learns to crawl, walk, and talk in this manner. You could argue that they’re not necessarily having fun, and that depends on the definition of fun, but they are doing it on their own, by their choice, and they aren’t crying while they do it, so I would argue that they do find it enjoyable at a certain level (and that is the level I am arguing about).

        2) The popularity of Angry Birds, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, etc. implies that the skills used to solve puzzles (hypotheses, trial-and-error, etc) are very close to being universal.

        Again, a lot of this depends on the definition of “fun”. I actually don’t like to use the word fun as it doesn’t really capture what I’m trying to describe. I’m trying to describe the feeling of engagement that might be described as “flow” where you get lost in the work and are deeply engage by it.

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      • It was the latter, Jared. Flow is a great goal, too, for those who engage deeply in mathematics, or any task of interest.

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  3. you dont need to post this one, fyi similar background as yours, created a company to make math games. DragonBox. Dont know how old your kids are, but would love to hear your comments about it, and the reaction of your kids. If you like the way we think, we could possibly do something together? you find my contact details on the net

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  4. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    It might be interesting to see if those who enjoy these games are also above average math students. There are also many who can solve many types of problems who are not into math. I think we can assume that if they voluntarily are doing these games, then these games are fun to them. The key is, are they willing to struggle and persist at a task that does not come easily to them?

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    • Good questions, I find most are willing to persist if the believe they can overcome a challenge in a reasonable amount of time, regardless of whether it is a game or math problem, However, so many do not believe they can overcome a math challenge that they give up too soon, or do not even try. That is where I focus much of my efforts with students, trying to boost their self-perception.

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  5. MrHonner says:

    I enjoyed and appreciated your post, which provoked me to think about several things.

    First, I think you greatly underestimate the presence of mathematics in games. You suggest that math is only present in Blackjack. But mathematical thinking, to various degrees, is used in virtually all card games and strategic board games. The ultimate examples of this (Bridge, Poker in cards; Chess, Go in board games), have, in some sense, been reduced to purely mathematical exercises.

    Second, while I agree that playing Angry Birds is not necessarily an example of mathematical thinking, the game creates a mathematical experience for the player. Through play, the user experiences parabolas and projectile motion in an engaging and meaningful way. At first, few users might be conscious of the connection, but I think the experience can be leveraged by teachers and learners to strengthen mathematical understanding. Now, just saying “Angry Birds is parabolas! Let’s find the intercepts of this parabola!” isn’t going to bridge that gap, but there is a connection to a meaningful experience that I think can be utilized.

    Lastly, the claim that “math is fun” is, naturally, subjective. We know that students have a remarkable ability to identify insincerity, and I, like you, think being sincere with my students is of utmost importance. But for many people, math is fun, and whether or not a particular teacher believes it, it’s important for students to know that, for many people, math is great fun. Maybe knowing this will provoke some students to find out more about why those people love math; or maybe it make some of those students a little more math-positive. The image of mathematics in society is largely negative–anything we can do to move that needle will help.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mr. Honner. I agree with you that mathematics is present in meaningful ways in many games, and all about us in life to include sports and even Angry Birds. My list of games was representative, and meant to capture board games, but admittedly it could leave one questioning my appreciation for logical thinking in other games and life situations. The specific point of my post is that few, if any, players of AB think about computing the vertex or intercepts before launching a bird, which you picked up on. Lastly, I agree that math can be fun for some, or possibly, many, people, depending upon the definition of many. And that highlighting that can be advantageous. Believe it or not, I let myself get carried away when explaining mathematical concepts to students expressing my appreciation for the concept, its inventor, etc. I just react strongly to blanket statements to which most students would question my sincerity if I said them. PS I like your gravatar. As a calculus teacher, it evokes related rates in me!

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  6. First, I apologize for not seeing your comment on my article for the Huffington Post. I check periodically but less often as the length of time increases. I ran into your comments via Twitter, which I check more frequently.

    I’m glad to see such thoughtful conversations about teaching and how to connect with students. Students benefit from thoughtful reflections by teachers and what works and doesn’t work in their instruction.

    My article was meant, in part, to demonstrate how Angry Birds has been successfully used within a classroom to teach parabolas. The game does use parabolas as the model, which for some students is both interesting and helpful. Students sometimes don’t feel connected to mathematics within the standard word problems and seeing that connection alone can be helpful. For this particular teacher, the ability for her students to view standardized test problems through the lens of Angry Birds was noticeably helpful. I saw and still see this as important to know, even if one discerns it not applicable for one’s own students.

    In terms of the equations and computations of parabolas related to the flight of an angry bird, I think people, rather than computing exact numbers, use both spatial thinking and approximation at various times in the game. These types of mathematical processes are necessary in life. They are not exact computations but can give insight even at broad levels. On the flip side, mathematics, even at a level not applicable to live play, can enable us to make predictions on the game.

    Regarding math being “fun,” I realize that part of this depends on one’s definition of “fun.” Even an amusement park isn’t really all “fun” as you wait in line, which can be fun, I guess, if you are with the right set of friends. 🙂 Math won’t be “fun” all the time but for many, they think it can’t ever be fun or even interesting. I think it can. Not all parts of math will be fun for everyone. Yet, sometimes, someone gets stuck on the progression of algebra to Calculus thinking these steps are all there is. As reflected in the popularity of Martin Gardner to Vi Hart to Scott Kim to Art Benjamin, math can capture one’s imagination — maybe not everyone’s but I strongly believe it can be a much, much larger set than many of our current methods do. Is it fun? Maybe not. But for some, simply not hating the math they are doing feels like fun…maybe because of what they were expecting.

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    • No worries, Tim. I’m all good with using AB as a hook related to parabolas, just not saying its ‘doing math’ per se. Your post sparked lots of great discussion, reflection, introspection, etc. so thanks! And, yes, simply moving someone away from hating math is an accomplishment in itself.

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      • You do make an important point that one isn’t computing the parabola. I think it is interesting though how often we estimate it’s path. I think we are doing more physics on that…but I often think of physics as super applied math! 🙂

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      • It is fascinating the extent to which our brains automate complex calculations such as projectile motion. This skill significantly benefits athletes, gamers, fisherman, hunters, warriors, and others. I’d like to learn more about how our brain subconsciously determines these outcomes.

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  7. Leah says:

    I’ve yet to met an engineer / techie turned teacher that was a very good teacher.  You two just solidified that thought.  Yes, math isn’t fun every minute of the day.  It’s hard work.  But, the least you can do is try to make your class fun so students love coming to it.  Then, not only do they not mind the hard work so much, they are happy to do it.  Great teachers can make almost anything seem fun (sometimes if only by the sheer force of their personalities).  Math can be fun, if you are doing it right.

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    • I think you missed the point, Leah. And sorry you feel compelled to judge me as a teacher, too. Math can be fun. Class can be fun. But life is not always fun, nor need it be. While I did not mention this in my post, I make class humorous quite often; I do so through satire, word plays, and other academic vocabulary twists, to include being able to laugh at my mistakes, and help students learn from them and their own. Whether that is fun for my students or not is to be determined, but many seem to enjoy it. I hope you open your mind to the distinct possibility that you cannot possibly know enough about anyone in such small observations as a blog post and/or comment thread to make such sweeping generalizations. BTW, you have not met me so I might be just overreacting. If you did meet me, and observe me for a long enough time to see me for who I am, truly, I do not believe you would say I was not a very good teacher. Peace.

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