A Surprising Benefit of the Common Core: Really Cool Video Games

Can new learning tools get World of Warcraft fans excited about math? Education technology companies are banking on it.

A screen shot of one of Amplify’s games in development (Amplify)

When I was in seventh grade—a year during which I considered it a fashion statement to wear cargo shorts with a Legend of Zelda t-shirt—my school tried to implement a statewide education initiative. The Georgia Performance Standards, as they were called, were designed to promote uniformity of “learning outcomes.” My social studies teacher began each morning by writing the words “TODAY’S LEARNING OUTCOMES” on the whiteboard, followed by a verbatim quotation of the state’s standards (a printed copy of which she kept in a three-ring binder). “Students will be able to trace the empires of Portugal and Spain,” et cetera. She would then proceed to give the same kind of meandering, anecdote-filled, and soporific lecture she always gave, which might or might not have been about the Portuguese and Spanish empires. Sometimes the writing on the board changed day to day; other times it stayed the same. We, the kids, whispered from desk to desk, trying to divine what purpose these oracular pronouncements were supposed to serve.

This sort of badly muddled implementation may be what some critics of the Common Core Stand Standards have in mind when they lodge their complaints. As Elizabeth Green noted in her recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, education reforms often start with the loftiest ambitions and noblest rhetoric, but collapse amid the nitty-gritty details and ingrained habits of actual teaching. There is, however, at least one respect in which this latest go-round may prove to be different: It has generated an unprecedented explosion in new education technologies. While new guidelines typically result in a windfall for the education industry—as textbooks are updated, test items redesigned, and new workbooks printed—it’s rare that these reorderings make much difference in the lives of students. The Common Core, however, has trigged a flurry of innovations that, at the very least, have some intriguing potential.

“What the Common Core does for ed tech companies,” said Shayne Miel, a vice president of software development at an education start-up called LightSide Labs, “is provide a common target. It’s been a huge boon for us, and that’s because it has allowed us to work to standards that are meant for everyone in the country, rather than state-by-state.” National uniformity, in other words, represents an opportunity for a company to expand its market.

Miel’s company makes a piece of software called Revision Assistant, whose purpose is to provide a reasonable facsimile of a compassionate editor and help students learn about the stages of the writing process. According to Miel, the Common Core has done two things for the team members at LightSide (at least one of whom must be a Star Wars fan). First, it has provided a wealth of already-graded student essays from which they can extract statistical data—including word frequencies, essay lengths, and other similarly superficial things—to build models of what “better” and “worse” writing looks like.

Second, it has provided clear rubrics from which the software can generate automated feedback. In writing, for example, the Common Core’s anchor standards ask that students provide evidence for their claims, express their ideas in clear language, and employ a varied vocabulary. “Our model,” Miel said, “highlights portions of the text that it thinks are high-scoring or low-scoring on one or more of the rubrics, and then associates an appropriate comment with it. The comments are drawn from a database of comments generated by education professionals.”

If your brow is currently furrowing with skepticism at the idea of a computer scoring essays, that’s understandable. It’s worth nothing, however, that—at least in the eyes of its makers—Revision Assistant isn’t meant to substitute for feedback from a corporeal teacher. Rather, it’s intended to help ease student jitters about the dismal process of being graded by allowing them to work with the program on their own, perfecting their fledgling drafts before turning them in and being scolded over comma splices. It can be used in class or at home. Generously understood, it offers the kind of individualized feedback and intellectual nurturance that large classrooms so often strain to provide. It just so happens to be a computer algorithm. (For the record, this article was written without the aid of Revision Assistant.)

It’s not just start-ups that are getting involved. The titans of the education industry—companies like Pearson and Scholastic and McGraw Hill—are rolling out a series of “digital curriculum” updates aligned with the Common Core standards. Witness, for instance, McGraw Hill’s partnership with StudySync, a company whose software suite incorporates digital libraries of famous literary works, along with Common Core-aligned assessments on them and (creepy, Brave New World-ish) videos designed to model what “good” literary discussion looks like.

StudySync is just one example of a whole class of programs that strive to address one of the teacher’s perennial problems: Students come to class with different ability levels. In other words, every student comes to class with a particular array of attentional and attitudinal biases, rooted in genetic predispositions, home lives, socioeconomic conditions, psychological needs, and basically everything else that makes us each who we are. The warm promise of the digital curriculum—meant to be delivered to students on iPads or laptops or even accessed on their smartphones—is that they will be able to work at their own paces, self-identify the causes of their mistakes, and get personalized guidance (albeit from a machine). When the classroom falls short, technology steps in; so the thinking goes.

Perhaps the frontrunner in this Common Core-driven gold rush is a company called Amplify, whose executives include Joel Klein and Larry Berger. When I visited Amplify’s headquarters in Brooklyn, they were keen to share with me all the exciting new features that their digital curriculum, called Amplify Learning, had to offer. I was escorted into a big, glass-walled conference room where flashy audio and video presentations were waiting. Some examples: During a unit on Shakespeare, a student can watch a short video of actors performing the “out, out, damned spot” scene from Macbeth, which appears side-by-side with the passage’s text. Or the student can have the software quickly provide the definitions of unfamiliar words in reading assignments, which are added to a custom database of new vocabulary. A teacher can replace a traditional classroom module with one of Amplify’s customizable “quests,” in which students—guided by their iPads—may, for instance, enter the home of Edgar Allen Poe and work together to solve the mystery of a beating heart under the floorboards. I could go on, but Amplify’s basic pitch is that these flashy enhancements will deliver something that many teachers find elusive: real student engagement.

Whether Amplify’s products live up to that promise has been the subject of debate, though so far, that debate has not been especially interesting. On the “con” side, The New York Times has suggested that the company’s tablets may distract students; that Joel Klein, a News Corporation VP and former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, is untrustworthy; and that flashy digital tools may serve to undermine teachers’ authority. On the “pro” side, Amplify has pointed to its successful pilots; insisted that it’s adapting to the inevitable cultural changes from kids who’ve grown up around smartphones; and pointed out that it’s replacing some of the tedium of worksheets, drills, and statewide assessments with captivating bright lights and pretty colors. These arguments, on both sides, are still speculative, however, since so many of Amplify’s products are in their early stages.

What is interesting is that, for all their bells and whistles, these digital curriculum products fit right in with the current educational paradigm—namely “generating improvements by setting clear standards.” In many ways, they’re part of the same thinking that drives programs like No Child Left Behind. For instance, Amplify’s stated goal—as exhibited on its prepared PowerPoint slides—is to get kids to read and write three times as much as they currently do. It’s a laudable ambition. But embedded in this line of reasoning is a failure to examine why students aren’t reading and writing to begin with, to look at the social and economic conditions that make students wonder why they should care about school in the first place. That’s not to say these shiny tech products won’t do some good; it’s to say that viewing them as a solution to the root causes of student disengagement is, at best, wishful thinking.

There is, however, a more subversive effort afoot under Amplify’s own roof. The company also has an educational video games division, headed up by Justin Leites, who met with me during my visit to Brooklyn. Earlier this week, the company released a challenging math-based game called 12. The plot is that the universe is under attack by the largest known prime number, and the player, assuming the role of the number 12, must battle to save it. In order to do this, the number 12 must combine itself with other numbers using “operation gates,” which look like sci-fi warp portals, representing +, –, ×, and ÷, and reach a desired result.

For instance, suppose the desired result is “54.” The player can track down a 4, go to a multiplication gate, become 48, and then track down a 6, go to an addition gate, and arrive at 54. This system can present puzzles as simple as order of operations and as complex as differential equations.

There’s also a literary game called Lexica, which is based mostly on 19th-century works (since the copyrights for these are in the public domain). The game is multiplayer, which is supposed to encourage students’ social interaction. Each player assumes the guise of a strange animal, exploring a beautifully designed game world that looks and feels a lot like World of Warcraft. By talking to the game’s characters, who are drawn from famous books like Jane Austen’s Emma, the player becomes involved in various quests. Completing the quests requires knowledge that can be gained by reading the classic books, which are available in the game’s massive library. One doesn’t have to read the books to beat the game, but it helps a great deal, and the game’s characters will talk to you about what you’re reading.

Unlike many “ed games,” which often feel like tests in disguise, Amplify’s games are created by leading video game designers, like Pittsburg’s Schell Games and New York’s Highline Games. Moreover, there’s a critical reason to think that these games really do represent a break from the bleaker realities of K-12 education: They aren’t required.

“With homework,” Leites said, “once you get to a certain age, most kids just don’t do it, whether they’re rich or poor. Once you’re an adolescent, anything that you regard as a compliance activity, you resist. So we tried to create a part of the school experience that’s entirely experienced by the student as playful. If you force someone to play games, it’s no longer experienced as a game. It’s the difference between recess and gym class.”

Moreover, according to Leites, the games’ alignment with the Common Core is really an incidental feature. If students engage in reading and writing and get feedback, it’s inevitable that they’ll make progress toward the Common Core’s targets.

Leites likes to think of school itself as a badly designed game: “It’s competitive; there’s a way of keeping score; there are ‘levels’ you have to get through. But it’s a game that, for a lot of kids, is deeply demotivating. It has the disheartening consequence of reducing interest in things that should be inherently interesting to them, things like reading and writing and math and science.” When Amplify’s games launch widely this fall, it will be intriguing to see whether students really will get absorbed in playing. Perhaps a quiet upheaval will begin.