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Why I’m angry about Angry Birds…

July 27, 2011

So, in case you’ve missed it, in my little world, a simple story about introducing projectile motion with Angry Birds has developed in to something of a media sensation this summer.

Here’s how it got started:

All of this hoopla leads me very puzzled, and here’s why. I think we’ve lost sight of the big idea of this story, and even more importantly, I’m concerned that the media isn’t picking up on the real story in education particularly in educational reform.

Here’s what I think the big story of teaching with Angry Birds is. Video games provide a mystery world where students can go out and cheaply and easily conduct experiments to determine the physical laws that govern those worlds, and then use those laws to make predictions. In this way, they are doing the very same things scientists do every day. Just this week, scientists used very feint measurements of the invisible submillimeter radiation coming from a quasar 12 billion light years away, to discover that the quasar contains 140 trillion times more water than our own oceans. They didn’t do this by snapping pictures of inconceivably vast oceans of water—the water exists in vapor form, so it’s invisible,and at 12 billion light years away even the most powerful telescopes in the world can’t resolve the quasar to look any different than a single spot of light. But here’s what they can do: they can separate the light from that quasar into its various components, and look at these components for the spectral fingerprints of atoms and molecules. These fingerprints are found by studying how water and other molecules absorb and re-emits radiation here in our part of the solar system, and if we then assume that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, and also constant with time back to 12 billion years ago when the light we are now seeing from the quasar was emitted, we can determine precisely how much water must be around the quasar. This, to me, is exactly the same as making the assumption that gravity for the Angry Bird’s world is the same as ours, and then using that to determine that the Angry Birds have managed to construct a 5m tall slingshot and have grown to be over 70cm in diameter.

Angry Birds is just one entry point into the larger physics curriculum I use, Modeling Physics, which is a wonderful research based physics curriculum that represents the very best in collaboration between college professors and high school teachers. Rather than teaching students to simply memorize equations, or classify problems along novice lines (block problems, elevator problems, angry birds problems, basketball trajectory problems), Modeling encourages students to view science through models—big ideas such as the Constant Velocity model, which can be used to model parts of our world (like the motion of an airplane cursing at 35,000 feet) but not others (the motion of the same airplane when it is landing on the runway). These models provide approximations to our world that we can always improve with better measurement (gps does a better job of measuring the velocity of the plane than simply sighting from the ground), but this improvement comes at a cost; there is always a limit as to how far we can increase this precision. Even though models aren’t perfect, they do allow us to make incredible predictions about the world around us (we can predict very precisely when the plane will land). In fact, it is the very imperfection of these models that make them so useful—they are simplifications that extract the most important details of a given phenomena and leave out the unimportant stuff (no need to worry about the motion of the people walking in the aisles on the plane when trying to figure out when it’s going to reach it’s destination). And finally, these models contain a variety of tools and descriptions that are critical to the insight they provide: verbal descriptions, diagrams, graphical representations, algebraic formulations and computational models (No doubt air traffic controllers use all of these to manage all of the planes overhead).

The real story isn’t getting students to learn physics from a video game that some dismiss as a waste of time. This is a silly cliche that has been explored countless times in the the history—there are now entire classes devoted to the literature of comic books—oops, I mean graphic novels, and genres like rap and hip hop are form of poetry and social commentary every bit as relevant and worthy of study as Yates and Shakespeare. I get why these stories occasionally need to be retold, especially when many school districts still ban Youtube, but I think most people in the know (and almost all kids) have certainly moved on from the silly tropes of thinking games have no educational value, or the internet is a danger-filled wild west with predators lurking around every corner.

The big story for education

Here’s the big story of education—everyone is learning every day. Students are learning that no one cares about what you really understand so long as you get good grade in the end. Teachers are learning that meeting impossible testing requirements is the ultimate goal, and cheating is an often accepted solution. Administrators are learning that turning a blind eye is the key to earning a promotion. Politicians are learning that they can be perceived as caring about education if they talk tough about “getting rid of bad teachers”, “racing to the top” and “not leaving children behind” without understanding the first thing about what is going on in the schools. Corporations are learning that there are billions to be made by peddling standardized tests to measure once and for all the “progress” that is being made, and then selling the latest technological gadgets to help achieve more “progress.” And everyone is learning how to game the system. Go back and watch the Wire if you need a refresher—how one show managed to capture the demise of cities, schools, and the media so perfectly still boggles my mind.

But there are positive stories of learning that are taking place in our schools and neighborhoods. True bright spots that should be celebrated, and the media should be doing more to find. No, not the fact that I’m using Angry Birds to teach projectile motion. But the fact that even in this severely messed up system, people are finding a way to fall in love with ideas and learn. You don’t have to look far to find examples of this: Brian Carpenter’s taking the extra time to teach integrated circuits to a student that led to a transformative mentoring relationship. Michael Rees, a student in Colorado figuring out the pointlessness of grading and discovering the beauty in biology experiments. Teachers from all across the nation gathering together online to share advice for new teachers in #scichat. Parents are pushing past the over-protective, helicopter-inducing scaremongering and letting their children play outside, get hurt and make mistakes like they did as children, and Vi Hart is making it ok to fall in love with math.

Now the real question is, how do we get the media to shift its attention from the bright shiny distractions like Angry Birds, Khan Academy, Standardized Testing and broom-weilding (former) superintendents, and instead seek out the deep narrative of learning that exists at a level below all this noise?[1]

Even though I consider myself to be a good student of journalism—I’ve taught it, advised the school newspaper, and been a longtime listener to On the Media, I think that this is a more difficult question to answer than fixing the debt crisis, which is yet another story the media can’t seem to get right.

But tomorrow, I’ll try to provide my best shot at an answer.

1. None of what I’ve written is meant to disparage the handful of outstanding reporters I’ve worked directly with this summer on stories about either Physics Teacher Camp or Angry Birds. To a reporter, they have been unbelievably generous with their time and worked hard to produce thoughtful pieces that I think did a tremendous job of accurately capturing the spirit their subject, operating under amazingly difficult constraints and deadlines. But I do want to step back and think about how we students, teachers, parents, administrations, politicians and reporters can work together to uncover, celebrate and improve the true narrative of learning.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 11:31 am

    John – Surely you are NOT surprised that for the media (and indeed the population as a whole), that the story IS, ‘getting students to learn physics from a video game’? Isn’t that the way of things?

  2. July 27, 2011 7:05 pm

    Beautifully articulated, John. Thank you. I love my job.


  1. More follow up on Angry Birds story « Quantum Progress

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