A Quest – Story, Problem-Solving, & An Award-Winning Video Game

“On a dark and stormy night…..”    So begins an incredible quest to save a lost pet.    Along the way, the protagonist must disguise herself as a monster in order to infiltrate the enemy stronghold.   She must solve a myriad of problems along the way in order to elude detection.    The farther she goes, the more challenging things become.     The stakes are high.      Time is running short.

This engaging story is at the heart of Lure of the Labyrinth, an award-winning video game developed by MIT’s Education Arcade.    The game addresses a fairly wide array of middle school math concepts (ratios, expressions, equations, integers, area and perimeter, linear relationships and slope).    It does so in a way that engages students in open-ended problem solving that enables them to construct a deep understanding of these concepts.    As is true of most video games, it adapts to match the player’s skill.     The game also incorporates a messaging system among players within a single team (a team consists of a subset of the students within the same class) that encourages mathematical discourse.    The game utilizes research-based techniques and is completely free.       The site also has teacher resources complete with fully developed lessons.

Lure of the Labyrinth is my all-time favorite video game.

  1. The game is engaging.   Its use of story is powerful to both boys and girls, but I think is especially powerful in drawing girls into the game and into mathematics.     Story is powerful for girls, I think.
  2. The problems that students encounter are very rich. They have multiple entry points and the level of cognitive demand grows to match the player’s problem-solving.   (This is not a skill-based game.)
  3. Progress in the game requires students to move beyond their comfort zone, to grow.
  4. The messaging capability in the game allows students to engage in mathematical discourse even when they are in physically separate spaces. Kids playing at home can discuss the math with each other as they play.
    1. The messaging capability is designed in such a way that students can only communicate with members of their own team (the teacher decides who is on what team when setting up the accounts).
    2. The teacher can see all of the messages. This ensures that the messages are appropriate (the teacher can block a student’s messaging capability if that student steps out of bounds).
    3. Because the teacher can read the messages, there is a documented window into student thinking.
  5. The messaging actually seems to develop perseverance in the face of challenge. To explain what I mean by this, I think the best thing is to tell a story about a couple of students.   I had assigned playing the game for homework one night.    A student was playing the game and got stuck.   He sent a message to his teammates asking for help.   They didn’t happen to be playing at that particular moment.    He kept at the problem while he was waiting to hear from someone.   Suddenly, his messaging changed.   He said things like “Wait, don’t tell me.”   “I think I’ve got it.”   He did get it, on his own.   Knowing there was support out there from another kid helped him to persevere and to eventually conquer the problem himself.
  6. The game gives an engaging context that can then be used to build lessons.   I have tried some of the lessons presented on the site and have built some of my own.   I’ve been really happy with how well they worked.


To use the game, I begin with game-play.   I usually start them with the game on the same day that I give a pre-assessment (I have to know what students know for their IEPs) for the year.   It is something they can begin as they finish the pre-assessment without requiring instruction or disrupting other students.   I then have them play the game a second day in the lab.    This time in the lab together is really important.   It gets them over the initial hump starting the game because they can talk to each other (there are no directions, students have to explore and discover how things work).    After they’ve had some time together, I can assign playing the game for homework (they’re favorite homework ever).   Once they have played the game a little bit, I can pull up one of the puzzles and we can play it together as a class.   As we play the puzzle, I have students direct the play and talk about their strategies.   This serves as a launch into a lesson on the concept addressed in the puzzle.

You can find the game here




Building Academic Vocabulary – Review Games Part 1

I’m not sure if there is a kid alive who doesn’t like to play games.   Granted, they like some games better than others.   Given the choice of a game or not a game, though, they always seem to choose a game.   Marzano uses that fact as a key component in his recommended systematic approach to building academic vocabulary in Building Academic Vocabulary .


As I said in my last post, I have been working to incorporate more instruction in academic vocabulary but need to do more regular review of the vocabulary.  To that end, I spent the last few days building a set of cards I can use in a couple of different games.  (You can download the cards by clicking on Charades )  I normally spend the last five to ten minutes of  class every day for some kind of review or as some kind of differentiated instruction.   These vocabulary games will go into that rotation.


Draw Me 

This is essentially a variation of Pictionary.   Students will work in table groups.  One student per group will be assigned to draw for a given round based on seat position.  ( I explain how I use seat positions in this post)  The drawer will get a cluster of terms that are related (eg., mean, median, mode).  He or she will draw pictures representing the words until the team guesses all of the words in the cluster.  When the team has guessed all of the words, the drawer stands and says “Got it”.   At that point, all other teams stop drawing.  The winning team gets a point.   Ideally, the game continues long enough for the drawer task to rotate through each member of the group.   In reality, I know there will be days when I just don’t have time for that, so the game will stop when time is up.   The winning team is the one with the most points.  (They will each get a piece of candy.)

I will have a set of cards for each table group and give the drawer the cards that are the cluster for their group.   I could do this by posting the words on the Promethean Board, but then I would have to ensure that everyone except the drawer was facing away from the board.   That seems like it would take more transition time than I want, so I decided to go with the cards.


This can be played with two different variations.

Variation 1:  

Students stand next to their desks and act out the word card displayed using the document camera or Promethean Board.   Students get “think” time after seeing the word and then are told to act it.   This feels more like an activity than a game to me, so I will probably use this when I am shorter on time.

Variation 2:  

Students work with their table group.   A designated group member is the actor (the actor will be determined by seat position within the group – e.g., Deltas do the first round, Sigmas the second, and so on).  Each table group will be given a set of cards.   The actors stand in front of their table group and begin to act out the term.   When the team has guessed the term, the actor raises the term card in the air to indicate his  or her team has correctly found the term.    The first team to identify the term gets a point.   The team with the most points at the end of the allotted time is the winner.



Tetris Jenga – Reviewing Nets, Surface Area and Volume


I make part of the review for the test on Surface Area and Volume a series of stations that review different concepts from the unit.   One of the stations is a Tetris Jenga game.     This is a variation on the traditional Jenga game in which the blocks are the shape of Tetris blocks.     The variation in shape lends additional challenge to the usual Jenga game.   It also provides some interesting 3-dimensional shapes to explore.


At this station, I have set up the Tetris Jenga tower.   A player draws a block from the tower and must perform the task on the block.   Each block has a label directing the student to make a net, find the surface area of the block, or find the volume of the block.    Because the blocks are 1/2 unit thick, the task also requires students to practice these tasks with fractional values.     I have an answer key at the station so that students can verify the accuracy of their work.

In a normal game of Jenga, successfully drawing out the block ends a turn.   I require the students to correctly find the net, surface area, or volume to keep the block.   I have an answer key with the station so that students can check their result.   If the solution is incorrect, the player must put the block back on the top of the tower.


I also change the winning criteria. Normally, the person who knocks the tower down is out of the game.   I don’t want anyone to stop playing  Instead of being out of the game, the player who knocks down the tower must put all of his or her blocks back and rebuild the tower.   The winner of the game is the player who has amassed the most blocks at the end of the game.  The prize is a piece of candy.

I bring this game out again from time to time after the conclusion of the unit to keep the concepts of nets, surface area, and volume fresh.   I have students play it during the last five to ten minutes of class every so often.   This keeps the concepts fresh for those who have mastered it and gives me a chance to do some re-teaching with students who don’t quite have full mastery at the end of the unit.