I met Jean-Baptiste Huynh—the Vietnamese Frenchman living in Oslo who persuaded the entire country of Norway to spend a week solving algebra problems—a few months after his iPad algebra application, DragonBox, had gone viral in Apple’s App Store. Everyone I knew was asking me if I’d played it. One friend had breathlessly told me I had to get it. It teaches algebra to preschoolers, he said. It’s amazing! But as soon as I sat down, Huynh pulled a travel-worn iPad from his bag and he said he wanted to get one thing straight about DragonBox. “It’s not an algebra app,” he said.
I soon learned that Huynh had that trifecta of a great teacher’s personality: a passion for his students and his subject, a bit of a foul mouth, and a dry, balancing wit. During our conversation, I made the mistake of asking what he thought of the school system he’d attended in France as a young man. It had gotten him pretty far, I thought. “You know what? This is a f***ing prison,” he said. “Your brain is dead when you’re in prison. You don’t want to be there.” He may have sensed my shock, so he smiled and said, “I come with very strong words because I am French. I can do that.” Huynh explained that he and his colleagues at We Want To Know, the Norwegian game company he’d co-founded with French cognitive scientist Patrick Marchal, had been trying to decide whether to sell the game to schools, which were beginning to buy iPads at a steady clip. “That’s the natural place to play this game,” he said. “And we decided, ‘No, we don’t do that,’ because teachers are going to say, ‘You do that, you do that.’” In other words, he said, teachers would find a way to take the fun out of his fun little game.
So if DragonBox wasn’t about algebra, I asked, what was it about?
Speed and imagination, he said.
“Mathematics is creativity. It’s play. You take an object and you ask, ‘What if?’” But that’s not how it’s taught in schools. “We teach it as a dead subject—like Latin. A dead language. You have fantastic texts, but it’s a dead thing.”
Huynh is as responsible as anyone for the recent surge in interest, here and abroad, in high-quality, imaginative math games for children. For a while, before several equally offbeat competitors began appearing in the App Store, DragonBox was the go-to app that smart parents with iPads were recommending to their friends. Huynh started out as a stock portfolio manager, but then he and his wife, a child psychiatrist, began having kids. “I guess I got this crisis that any people working in finance hit at some point,” he said. “You want really to use your energy on something really useful. So I decided that I would do something for children.” He took a job teaching high school math and economics in Spain.
He was a miserable failure.
Huynh remembers spending 28 hours one time preparing for a two-hour lesson. The results showed that his students afterward were performing only “marginally better.” He decided he needed something interactive that would give students control of the experience. “My own children, I want them to learn as fast as possible,” he said.
He began to investigate games, but at a kind of arms-length distance. “I’m not a fanatic, you know, ‘Games, gamers, game-based learning.’ I hate this…” All he really cared about, he said, was putting the child at the center of the learning process. “It’s about experiences and not games.”
Huynh basically had to get his wife’s permission to develop the app. “I’m married to a child psychiatrist,” he said. “No screens at home! No TV. No Nintendo, PlayStation, name it—nothing. No- thing. When I say to my wife, ‘Well, I think I’m going to design some games because that’s the best way to teach,’ she says, ‘No!’ I have to argue. I say, ‘You know I’m doing that because that’s the best way—you have the prison which is school. Please, let me do that!’ She says, ‘Well, OK, show me what you have.’”
Huynh made her a promise: Whatever he created, he told her, it would get the job done quickly, with a minimum of screen time. When the game finally appeared, many users said the same thing, both in praise and complaint: DragonBox was strange, lovely, and engaging. It got their kids thinking algebraically in six minutes, five minutes, four minutes! And it was over way too fast. Shortly after the game appeared, Huynh met University of Washington researcher Zoran Popović, director of the university’s Center for Game Science. Popović adapted the game to offer more help to students who needed it while allowing those who understood a concept to move on. In an early trial, 93% of students mastered the basic ideas after only 90 minutes of play. In June 2013, he and Huynh persuaded more than 4,000 students in Washington State to spend a five-day work week solving algebra problems. The students continued after Friday rolled around, spending the equivalent of more than seven months doing math. In the end, they solved nearly 391,000 problems. In January 2014, in Norway, students solved nearly 8 million equations. Nearly 40% of the work, Popović’s team found, was done at home. “To us this is very exciting because it shows the engagement way beyond the brick-and-mortar school day,” he said.
The game presents players with an odd little scenario: a mysterious box arrives, for no apparent reason, with a wide-eyed, omnivorous baby dragon inside, packed in straw. Also for no apparent reason, the dragon wants to be alone. He must be alone before he’ll eat. Don’t ask, just play.
The game board is divided into two sides, with your little dragon-in-a-box on one side. On both sides are “cards”—random images of lizards, horned beetles, deep-sea fish, and angry tomatoes. Again, don’t ask. To win each level, you must touch and tap and drag the cards to get rid of all of those on the dragon’s side. Once you do, he noisily eats everything that remains on the other side and the level is done. “The box is alone!” the game declares. The game is strange, but you keep playing. On level 12, one of the animal cards has mysteriously been replaced by a little black “a.” Five levels later, there’s a “c.” Finally, on level 18, the little wooden dragon box is momentarily replaced by a floating letter “x.” You’re doing proto-algebra. It’s been about three minutes since you downloaded the game.
This strange procession continues through 100 levels, with no explanation or elaboration. Addition, multiplication, division, fractions—all of them appear, without fanfare or explanation. By game’s end, at level 100, you’ve moved seamlessly, baby step by baby step, from a cute baby dragon eating a spiky two-headed lizard, to this: “2 over x plus d over e equals b over x,” which you solve, fearlessly and perhaps even a bit impatiently, in exactly 14 steps. You are 4 years old.