Smart move

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Playing against a computer sharpens thinking, say Jenny Houssart and Claire Sams

The teacher poses a difficult question: "How are we going to outfox this computer?" The lesson is part of a project which uses SMILE software alongside an approach known as "thinking together", aimed at encouraging children to work together in a collaborative way. The children in this lesson are playing the game Three in a Line against the computer.

This game requires players to make a line of counters on the screen before their opponent, in a similar way to noughts and crosses or Connect 4.

Children place their counter using co-ordinates, both in this game and in a variation, Lines. A similar game, Tenners, requires players to capture a square by carrying out a calculation involving multiplying or dividing by 10, 100 or 1,000.

These programs contain some obvious mathematics in terms of co-ordinates and calculation as well as offering opportunities for mathematical language, for example "horizontal, vertical, diagonal". But they also encourage children to think logically to develop winning strategies. As one of the teachers puts it: "It's really, really hard to beat the computer.

You have to think really carefully." Playing against the computer also proves a motivating factor, with children delighted and often cheering when they win.

Video recordings drawn from the project include evidence of children checking their co-ordinates and calculations to avoid defeat. The recordings also give some clues about how Year 5 and 6 children viewed their electronic opponent. The computer was seen as a male person, and a fairly cunning one at that.

In the early days, some children hoped for a less challenging opponent.

Once, when the computer was in a potentially winning position, one of the boys playing against it crossed his fingers and said, hopefully: "He needs to be stupid." Sadly, this proved not to be so. Children soon became used to their opponent taking every opportunity to win and accepted it as the way computers behaved. Timothy, who presumably has a computer at home, summed this up. Following a cunning move by the computer, he remarked: "He does remind me of my computer." After a pause, he added for emphasis: "A lot."

This acceptance that a computer would do its best to win is accompanied by the realisation that the children would have to work hard to get the better of it. An important part of the "thinking together" approach was that they should discuss and agree moves together and give reasons for their suggestions. This resulted in discussions about where to place the first counter and whether it was more important to try to win or to block the computer. Increasingly, the discussions showed that the children were predicting and considering alternatives.

As well as forcing the children to raise their game, the computer performed another important role in showing them the expert at work. Some children admitted to picking up tips from the way the computer played. For example, in a plenary session, Craig explained: "It was thinking about what your enemy did... you should do it as well."

In defence of the computer, it is worth mentioning a positive feature remarked on by one of the teachers. "The computer's very kind, it always lets you go first." This turned out to be an important advantage. Some children chalked up the occasional win, others went further and found strategies that would ensure victory every time. With perseverance, the computer could be outfoxed.

Jenny Houssart works at the Centre for Mathematics Education, the Open University. Claire Sams was project officer on Thinking Together with SMILE

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