Brain boxes: How digital technology can improve maths scores

Computer games in maths lessons? One school has found they bring dramatic results.
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It is a scene that's been repeated in primary schools across the UK, stretching back to the middle of the last century. Coats hang on hooks at the back of the classroom while cartons of milk sit waiting to be drunk at break time by the Year Seven class of 11-year-olds.

An air of calm pervades the room as 19 young heads face downwards staring intently at the maths problems before answers are quickly written down. Some children are counting on their fingers while a couple of boys have thrown protective arms across their work lest anyone see it.

But instead of working with books and jotters, the pupils at Hillhead Primary School in Kilmarnock are doing their sums on hand-held computer games consoles. This class was part of an experiment on 600 pupils in 32 Scottish schools, which found using maths problem-solving games for 20 minutes every day could improve maths performance to a significant degree.

The test group of pupils used the commercially available Nintendo's Brain Training from Dr Kawashima for nine weeks while a control group continued their lessons as normal. When they were tested again at the end of the period, the results found all groups had improved their scores but those using the game had improved by a further 50 per cent. The time taken to complete the tests also dropped by five minutes, with the improvement of the games group more than twice as much as the control classes. The idea to use brain training in the classroom came from Derek Robertson, national adviser for emerging technologies and learning at Learning Teaching Scotland, who bought a console for himself a couple of years ago and thought: "I bet this could work in a primary school."

He believes that the targets set within the games were one of the main reasons why the children improved so quickly at arithmetic. He says: "One of the biggest drivers was the self-improvement model; the children were also playing something they wanted to play."

He also offers another more surprising reason why these games, which cost less than a £100 a handset, have boosted maths attainment, seemingly to a greater extent than more expensive pieces of equipment; classroom teachers have embraced the handsets because of the simplicity of use.

"These games have a low technology-skills threshold – play around with it for five minutes and you are away, which means the teacher doesn't have to worry about anything going wrong and can concentrate on teaching," he says. "I really think that is at the heart of the success of this."

Robertson resists claiming that every school should buy into the technology. "But we are engaging in real research that is aimed at improving children's and teachers' experience with technology. There is academic rigour behind what we do and we can make a claim for a general rise in ability with our results. It's now up to teachers, schools and local authorities to say, 'Let's have a look at this.'"

The games have not only made the children better at solving maths problems, there have been other benefits more difficult to quantify. Lorna Neilson, a class teacher at Hillhead, has noted marked improvements in behaviour, class morale, time-keeping and even handwriting in a class considered very difficult before her arrival last year.

Although she believes the sense of achievement from by succeeding at something every morning has created a more positive mindset among her charges, who come from one of the most deprived areas of Ayrshire, she stresses the importance of her own role in the turnaround.

"It's a combination of good teaching and the impact of the computer games that has brought about the improvement, as success breeds success," says Neilson. "We still have a negative attitude sometimes, but it's much less prevalent in the class.

"A knock-on effect has been the improvement in behaviour, which I think stems quite a lot from kids feeling that they can't do something. But if you achieve something straight away in the morning there's less reason to 'kick off' during the day."

The time spent playing the games created a calm, productive atmosphere in the classroom, she adds. "They can be quite volatile children but because we are doing this as a routine, it sets the tone for the morning. I look at it as warming the kids' brains up and it settles them for the whole day."

One of the children in whom there has been a marked change is Lydon Winstone, 11, who previously could not have new work put in front of him without saying, "It's too hard", according to Neilson. Lydon himself says proudly: "I've moved up a group and my writing's improved because you've got to write stuff down on the screen. I used to be all bad and cheeky, but the Nintendo DS has helped me settle down and helped my brain a lot."

His attendance has improved greatly, too: "I come to school every day because of the DS. I don't stay off so I can play the game as it's boring outside of school."

Classmate Sophie McCabe, 11, has also noticed the benefits in her schoolwork. "The DS actually helped because I didn't think I was good at maths but I got the highest grade in my group so now I quite like doing it."

But the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, Nick Seaton, is not persuaded that computer games will make a big improvement, and he finds it significant that even the results of the control group improved: "It suggests to me clear teaching and lots of practice was the reason rather than the use of the computer game.

"Good teachers often operate at a fast pace and this speeds up the reaction of the pupils. You don't need a computer game to do that. It's fairly obvious that a maths game, whether done on a computer or done by paper and pencil, is going to improve their capabilities. There's quite a lot of research from America and the UK that is very ambivalent about whether computers improve performance"