Real Feedback vs Artificial Feedback

Math Blaster was the biggest hit educational product in the 1980’s, the first decade of the personal computer age. Flying saucer like objects would vaporize before your eyes when you solved a simple math question. It thus gave you immediate feedback and like pinball, it kept score. My friend Jan Davidson designed and built this first in a lineage of educational products.

Today, most of our digital learning programs pretend to be more sophisticated. They deal with multistep problems and less rote practice. Their feedback is less shoot ‘em up, and their interactions are no longer pure gamey response. Yet they remain wedded to the same kind of “artificial” feedback where the computer knows the answer and students guess it. Students may look like they are doing authentic problem solving, but they expect their computers to check each step they take, and with the same artificial feedback keep them on track to solve the problem. The computer now knows not only the answer, the product, it knows a particular process as well, and it tries to ensure that students get the problem right by following that process.

Unfortunately, in the real world outside of schools, we seldom get artificial feedback to help us solve problems. We must learn to use real feedback to keep us on the right track, to help us solve real problems, especially those requiring creative solutions. We need to learn to build real feedback into spreadsheets to catch selection and rule mistakes, so we learn to build in redundant calculations as checks. We make graphs to give us feedback, to see whether all our numbers fit the pattern. Though spreadsheets may seem intelligent, we have to constantly find ways of assuring that we have not made mistakes in the models we build, so if we are good spreadsheet developers we us headmath to check whether our algorithms make sense.

Students need to be learning to build feedback skills into their problem-solving processes and strategies. Artificial intelligence may be an interesting arena today, but our kids need to learn to create and use real feedback and not rely on any program’s artificial feedback if they are to become good problem solvers.