Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

What I Learned About Teaching While Playing Pokemon Go

“Whoever designed Pokemon Go is pretty smart.” This thought as I was standing in my socks throwing imaginary Pokeballs at this Charmander that was virtually standing in my parents yard. The technology was impressive, but what impressed me the most was how they made the game so darn playable. The only Pokemon knowledge I have is from overhearing student conversations, I don’t have any games installed on my phone and would not have heard about this game if it weren’t on the evening news (and everywhere else). If Niantic, the creators of the game, can get a mobile game recluse to spend their vacation trying to catch imaginary “Pocket Monsters” in order to reach level 16, they must be doing something good. After playing pretty consistently for the last 3 weeks, I found plenty of connections to teaching which are worth sharing here.

Wait, what does this have to do with teaching?

First, why is it so relevant to teaching. Pokemon, and the Pokemon universe is a rich established body of knowledge. There are books of Pokemon knowledge, published well before this game came out, that contain relevant information for any player. For Niantic to achieve mainstream success they needed to break this information down in a way that someone new to this world could slowly pick up, while also not boring experienced knowledgeable players. Don’t forget, they also had ensure understanding of the complicated nature of the game itself, whose mechanics and relationships are also things needing mastery. Niantic had to do a lot of teaching in order to get people in to this game.

Immediate immersion, immediate success

The teaching for this game gets started very quickly. After you install the app, before you even decide your username, the first thing the game has you do is go out and capture Pokemon. Before you know if the introduction has finished, you are out of your seat. In my case I was out of the front of my parents’ house. The task was very intuitive. By following the map a short distance and clicking the Pokemon that appeared on the screen I was all ready participating in authentic game play. I immediately learned to flick the Pokeballs at the creature to capture it and saw the animation which confirms that it has been added to my collection. The little Charmander that I captured was actually a real thing, and the process I followed in capturing it was one that I would repeat over and over again. By immediately giving players a real experience, and one that ensured immediate success, it created confidence and a desire for more.

It left me thinking, “How quickly can I get my class into a math task?” Do we have to get the seating chart figured out, hand out books, and talk about the cell phone policy? Maybe the icebreaker can be built into a group task and they can learn names along the way? Why not take Pokemon Go’s lead and throw students into an activity that is actually related to the content that they will be learning. Have them follow the processes for reflection that they will repeat over and over like using their math journals or engaging in a group conversation afterwards. The administrivia can get covered next class, or next week, and instead engage the kids in an interesting math task right from the start.

Low-entry, high-ceiling gaming

The big news stories about Pokemon go describe hordes of people in public areas going after certain characters. It’s quite amazing that Niantic was able to create a game that so many people can be engaged in. There is effort required to play Pokemon Go, but not much. Two days after signing up I joined my mom on her morning walk around the neighborhood. The goal was to catch up with my mom, and also catch some Pokemon.  The effort required to play the game was the same that my 73 year-old mother puts forth before her morning tea. Because of that, there is a very low barrier to entry for this game.

Once you’ve started there are things you can also do but they are different for each player. The app will vibrate your phone when a Pokemon is close enough to catch. On that walk it showed me a low-strength Pokemon that is easy to catch. If I clicked on it today, the game would show a Pokemon of the same species but one with higher strength that is harder to catch because now I have leveled up 16 times. The game makes the Pokemon capture experience seem the same despite being of different challenge for players at different levels. Similarly, if two players get supplies from a Pokestop, the game gives more valuable supplies to the more experienced player. The game builds in differentiation so that players of all ability can walk along together. Because of this, the game has a very high ceiling for participants to be able to play and be challenged.

Facilitate teamwork

After playing the game for a few days everyone playing must join a team. These teams really come in to play when players want to try to attack these gyms, something that I was never really successful with. For people who want to be victorious in these virtual Pokemon battle grounds it is directly beneficial to work with your team. When I first had one of my Pokemon in the gym, I could see the icons of other people’s Pokemon who were fighting along with me.

Protecting a gym requires contributions of multiple players. If you win a gym, the game lets anyone assign their Pokemon to the gym to defend it. Players can only put in one of their creatures, which forces cooperation. The strongest player can’t put all of their strongest Pokemon to protect the gym, they need contributions from other members of his team if they are going to be successful. Like with good group work activities, it’s a situation where everyone is able to contribute, and benefit.


Balancing highlighting progress and not over-sharing

Less than a month after it’s release, scores of fans threatened to quit the game forever. The reason? Niantic temporarily shut down the feature allowing players to track how close they were to nearby Pokemon. Players were ready to give up because of the lack of information about their progress when Pokemon searching. Then I wondered if students check out of my class because they similarly don’t see how they are progressing.

Niantic’s decision came from the desire to shut down 3rd-Party websites who used that tracking system to find Pokemon. These apps showed where certain creatures are likely to spawn and appealed to people who didn’t want to find out the hard way. Niantic was worried that their tracking system was giving too much away to the players, and preventing them from learning about the Pokemon themselves. It is one of the few non-classroom example of the struggle between giving feedback and giving away too much information.

Targeted, instructional, real-time feedback

One afternoon I decided to battle at a Pokemon Gym that I found across the street from my school. These battles are interesting examples of how real time feedback helps you learn. Firstly, you can find see your character or the opponent lose strength as you attack, as do most games. The game will also tell you whether the attack was “Super effective” or “Not effective”. You learn quickly to swap your ineffective Pokemon with one of the other ones that you have captured in order to finish the battle. Effectiveness is determined by a ridiculously complicated set of relationships between individual Pokemon of certain types. No amateur player is going to sit down and memorize or even consult these giant charts before killing some time on their phone. The timely feedback about the battle, that comes at the right time serves to instruct the person with enough information about this larger set of relationships to finish the battle. If a Pokemon you’re using is flawed, you know to replace it, if it is Strong, you can remember to use it for next time. It’s a nice recipe for giving students some feedback as they are working on a task. Just point out what they are doing that is effective, or maybe ineffective. When you catch your self giving them the information outside of the whole task, back away and let them figure out those larger relationships on their own.

Time Management

I learned a lot of things from Pokemon Go. Now that summer is ending and I have to get busy planning other things, I don’t have time to keep trying to “Catch ’em All” so I had to uninstall the app. This probably the most valuable lesson that I got from the game, your time is too valuable to waste.

Thinking about getting a PhD

I’ve been thinking about getting a PhD for a since before I ever stepped in a classroom. After completing a researcher preparation program, and doing work on work with various Math Education professors, I was convinced that I would only teach for 2 or 3 years before pursuing a career in academia. “Just as soon as I figure this teaching thing out, I’ll get a PhD, start a tenure track position, and use that position to change the way the world thinks about math instruction!”  After 11 years in the classroom and I still have so much to learn as a teacher I kind of have to decide to forget about this dream forever, or perhaps give it a shot while I’m in my 30’s. Merely having a dream is useless without a plan for being successful. So here is my plan organized by the most important questions I need to answer for myself. 

WHY? Why do I want to get a PhD?

This question is key as it’s answer is going to have to be good enough to sustain you through academic difficulty, economic hardship, and emotional strain through the process. Some people really want to prepare new teachers. Coaches or consultants may want to add the authority and expertise to their work. Others want to take the degree into the district or state administration to change policy or curriculum. And then there are people who are just going for the ride, who just want to get the degree and figure out their lives afterwards. From what I’ve heard in talking to people, those people in the latter category are going to have a bad tim

  • For me the answer has always been wanting to pick the research up where I left off and study math teaching practices in order to disseminate new, research-proven teaching practices, kind of like Jo Boaler did in her last book. I also thought it would be cool to operates in the chasm between the ivory tower and real classrooms, like Magdalene Lampert who wrote a book about her own teaching while an MSU faculty member and now prepares teachers outside of the traditional university structure. It would also be great to work with schools and districts to empower their teachers to take risks and leverage new resources in their teaching. I also think my personal experiences and perspectives could amplify some voices that are not frequently heard in Academia.
  • If I was proposing my dissertation right now, I think it would be something like this: “Teacher knowledge of instructional approaches and applications on student understanding.” I would measure the degree to which teachers take it on themselves to learn new approaches to teaching content and how their students understand those concepts. My time would probably spent doing a big review of all the ways teachers approach personal growth, and the different conceptual approaches for the specific math topics we will explore, and the most appropriate ways to measure student understanding of those topics. Then there would be a lot of travelling to actual schools to interview people and assess kids, before then parsing through teacher qualitative data and student qualitative data. Wouldn’t that be cool!
  • One thing I realize is that many of the things I want to do don’t really need a PhD, hence the decade or so of debate about pursuing one. There are loads of people who do amazing things without a PhD like Gail Burrill and Fred Dillon. However, if research is something that I value, then a PhD is really the only way to do that.
  • Walking away from the classroom to think and discuss schools abstractly, seems like taking off my pants to go run through a brush full of prickers. Being around kids and in schools gives me confidence as an educator and a person, while my ability to annotate research journals and finish grad school assignments on time makes me worried. Separating myself from the classroom for 4+ years makes me afraid that my understanding of what works for kids will rapidly decayed by the time I finish. At the same time, it also requires that I have a success with school that has always eluded me.

WHAT? What kind of program do you want?

Getting a PhD is more complex than buying a car, with much worse marketing materials to look through. Every program is different, most have crappy websites, and Math Ed isn’t listed nice and easy in the US. News and world report.

If you don’t want to do the research you run the risk of settling for whatever school is convenient. Without finding out what you want, you risk signing up for a PhD that isn’t in what you want, leading you to do research you don’t want, and maybe not getting to into the kind of work you’re interested in.

  • I’ve always thought about a straight Math Ed degree, firmly in the sliver of the Venn Diagram comprising “Mathematics” and “Education” programs. There are loads of Mathematics degrees. Something centered around topology, or field axioms, or abstract analysis for example. There are also loads of Education degrees. Perhaps centered around leadership, urban education, program evaluation and others for example. The intersection of these two sets isn’t easy to find, and ones that are around may not have what you want.
  • Some people may want to get an EDD, which is good for people in the field, not researcher. My principal is working on his EDD and when he finishes he can probably work in the superintedents office, for example. Some researchers get EdD (such as everyone graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Education).

WHERE? Where could you earn your degree from?

This question is important for a lot of people. But I’m trying to support my wife’s career and provide consistency for my daughter, so I’m in looking for driving distance from New York, if this thing is going to happen at all.

  • Like David, I’m interested in the program at NYU along with others that I found nearby. Columbia (possibly too mathematics-y?) CUNY Grad Center (possible too education-y?), Rutgers & Montclair State (possibly too far?).
  • So, my wife saw human feces on the street a block away from our daughters Day Care. Knowing I’ll have to explain this in a few years to my daughter is a sign that NYC may not be the best place to raise children. Leaving the city for grad school has been a discussion my wife and I have discussed. I will definitely apply to  MSU & UMich as they are close to my parents, and Stanford which is close to my wife’s family, but I could still look for other programs.
  • So, I didn’t really pick a lot of schools, and they are all insanely good. That’s because I’m taking the no-safety-school approach. The whole thing is kind of a pipe dream, so why not dream big? So I’m only applying to dream, schools and if I don’t get any, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

WHO? Who will you study under?

Who you work with is super important. Take this quote from Rutgers PhD description of their personal statement

  • …We are especially interested in knowing what your research interests are and with which faculty members you would like to work.

At the end of your PhD you will work on your dissertation very closely with a small number of professor at the university you are interested in. These relationships are so intimate you should take a minute too do some research on each of the actual people. Will learning and working with them on their research line up with the kind of research you want to publish? Will they be able to support you on the kind of research that you want to do? It’s worth thinking that through before you even apply.

  • I’d like to try to read all of the publications of the people in each program, but I’ve had luck finding people on social media and youtube. For example, here’s a really intresting lecture from Marty Simon (the NYU professor pictured in David’s tweet).
  • Reaching out to actual people is pretty cool and I’ve already asked professors, or people familiar with professors, to have coffee or a little email back and forth with good results.

WHEN? When are you going to make time for this?

So when do you want to start, when do you want to finish, and how long do you expect things to work out. A lot of people talk about taking 8 years to do a PhD. That scares the crap out of me, so I have to tell myself that the 8-year person didn’t do enough work on the previous questions before entering the program.

For me I plan to use a number of transfer credits to buy some time. Hopefully the credits will allow me to work part-time and go to school for the first year. I could hopefully take a full year of working as a student, finish my qualifiers and getting my dissertation idea off the ground. Since I may eventually want a University job, it kind of makes sense for me to be full time at some point to gain experience teaching college classes and doing research. After that, I would have 2 years to focus on writing, and maybe work in schools part time somewhere.

HOW: How are you going to do it?

If you figured out your five W’s the last part is the how, the actual doing it. Lots of little steps here.

  • What’s your GRE timeline? Most programs will want a GRE, and the preparation for that is best done in little bits overtime. If you’re trying to start that prep let me know and I’ll tell you what I’m doing.
  • Who is writing your letters of rec? Not all programs accept professional references. Some may want your undergrad/grad professors which may be hard to track down. I plan on preparing a little “remember me” packet for each with a little letter about my time with them along with my resume and personal statement.
  • What is your personal statement? This post is helping me think about the general themes of my personal statement which I can tailor for each school.
  • How are you paying for school? Most schools offer full time tuition for PhD students, but only give a 25K-ish stipend that you have to live off of.  I am hoping I can do the whole first year part time out of pocket while working full time to be able to put off the costs of the program. The struggle is real, but universities have financial aid departments that can help, and other things that may work.
  • Built in a long the way should be little reality checks so I know when to step off of this roller coaster and do something else. If my GRE scores are bad, if I can’t get positive letters of recommendation, if my personal statement can’t match what I want to do with what a school’s focus is, and if the money doesn’t work out then I know I’ll have to shut it down and say “at least I tried.”


It’s Time To Talk More About Mental Illness

Today is the last day in May, which means it would be the last of my #MTBoS30 posts, if I hadn’t missed like 17 days. My ‘drafts’ are full of posts of half written nuggets of ideas that didn’t make it into a full fledged post once life got in the way. There is one post that has been there longer than any of the others. It’s the one that is the closest to completion, and will probably be the longest and most personal thing I’ve written. It currently has the working title of “Bipolar post.” and it details my whole story with mental illness. This is not that post. My hesitation in posting about my mental illness is stems from my fear of the stigma our society has around mental illness.

May is also National Mental Health month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has been running a campaign all month about the importance of getting rid of the stigma surrounding Mental Illness. The stigma around mental illness shows up at the dinner table, in the halls of government, and in numerous places in our society. People seeking treatment for mental illness must plan as much for the negative labels around their condition as they do for the medication they will take to treat it. It’s a big problem, especially among people who deal with youth. Here is Mayim Bialik, former keynote speaker at NCTM Annual 2013, talking about the campaign:

Stopping use of harmful words is one thing, and it’s important. What I want to advocate for, is to take it a step further. If you’re one of the 1 in 5 people who are affected by Mental Illness, I would say that it would be good to share your story with someone. The most recent time I did this was with a student who we had admitted to the hospital and was returning to school. I also try to make it a point to do this whenever I hear someone use the term ‘Bipolar’ as an adjective. Whenever I have shared my story, I’ve found that it resonates with more than just 1 in 5 people, and it also leads to a good conversation, and a better, broader picture of what Mental Illness is.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Why is Carl advocating for this when he can’t even put his ‘Bipolar post’ live on the site?” I’m asking myself that too. I feel like I have a lot to talk about in terms of mental illness based on my experience, but then if I do I know people will look at me with ‘that look’. So sometimes throttling back and not telling the whole story is a good first step. It’s a start. That’s why this post is about starting. It’s not about putting yourself all the way out there all at once. It’s about taking one little small step.

This week: Let’s pretend it’s Monday again!

This is the post I was supposed to put out on Monday, but my face was attacked by pillow and I had no choice but to take a nap and then stumble from the couch the bed shortly after. I jotted down some ideas for this post, so I am going to carry it out now.

What I’m Teaching This Week

This week we are going to be reviewing standard deviation and working on a survey we are going to give to the school. (I have actually already wrote about his, here). Following this we will talk about how to avoid writing biased questions and we will talk about procedures for identifying outliers and also looking at the spread of data. It would also be good to plant the seed for a talk about looking at correlation and causation as that will be an issue next week.

What I’m Blogging This Week

Last week I made a post about the Shadowcon Calls to Action that I worked on. This week I wanted to look at Kaneka Turner’s talk, but I haven’t got very far (aside from a really awkward conversation with one student that left me filled with a lot of respect for how clearly Kaneka explained the concept). The concept of an “invitation” to be good at math is hard for me to get, because I don’t really know when I got the invitiation, or whether it remains in my posssession. If I can’t think of anything, I may just end up with a post explaining my largely ticket-less math history.

What I’m Thinking This Week

This week I feel really behind on a lot of things. Unfortunately, this feeling is not new for this year. If this chapter of my life had a title, the front runners would be either “Overwhelmed”, “Time-Managment Breakdowns”, or “New Wife, New House, New Baby, New Job.” So it hasn’t been good, however, it is getting better. Getting organized has been as illusive as finding a four-leaf clover, but I think I am more effective than I was a year ago, and I am probaly going to get a lot better. I usually figure things out at the end of the year, only to forget it all over the summer. Hopefully this won’t be the case this year, and writing can help with that.

CLOG: Google Sheets and Flash Cards

Yesterday in class we had a day of getting kids on board with the technology and ramping up for our final project. For this class, students write a little research paper about what their peers beliefs on, well, anything. Prior to this class I looked at the calendar and freaked out a little after realizing that we need to get this survey drafted and out to the school ASAP.

But Before We Start On The Project…

Before we get started on the project I want to bring back the conversation we have been having about outliers and review it a little. I had an idea for a review “game” that was slightly more interactive then asking kids to do a bunch of problems and could also serve as a reference for finding outliers with Standard Deviation and the IQR. I made little cards that kids could work in pairs to see if they could put the steps for finding those outliers in order. It was cute, check it out, let me know what you think in the comments.

Let’s learn spreadsheets!

The next part of the lesson was to have students learn how to do all of this statistical analysis we have been doing by hand on our good buddy Google Sheets. I asked the kids to learn average, median, mode, min, max, range, quartile 0-4, Standard Deviation, and Variance.

Whenever I do this kind of thing, flashbacks of the age old ‘calculator’ debate echo through my brain. Visions of my old professors glowering at me appear like a bad dream alongside images of students understanding withering from the glow of their computing devices. I’ll probably never get rid of the dirty feeling associated with replacing by-hand work with computing devices. I think when it gets down to it, kids need to be able to explain the purpose of all the statistical tools that they are going to use in the future. They will get to have more practice explaining if they do more calculations done on computers than if they only did work work by hand.

Starting the Survey Project

Once I finished asking students work on their spreadsheets I asked them to get in groups and talk about their potential survey questions. The kids decided on the following topics: Color/Haircolor, Music, Meditation, and (As always) Marijuana Legalization. They went on Gallup, Harris, and others to learn more about their topics. By the end of the period students had some ideas of things that are interesting about their topic that they can ask questions about. Next class we will write the questions down on paper and talk about biased questions, and also sample size.


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