Computer games can help develop logical thinking

Opinion: We can introduce logic and the work of George Boole to students using games and puzzles

Logical thinking is a central element in the learning process. For more than two millenniums, logic has been the basis of rational argument. It is essential for learning, not just in mathematics and sciences, but in all parts of the curriculum. Being able to see when one proposition follows from another, to recognise correct or flawed logic, and to think critically, are vital not only to the school student but to the informed citizen.

This use of computer games to convey the fundamental concepts of logic has proved controversial, especially in the light of the recent OECD report Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection, which indicated Ireland, with its below-average computer time in school, has better learning outcomes in maths and literacy than in countries where computers were used for five or six hours a day. As the report suggests, "limited use . . . is better than no use at all, but levels of computer use above the current OECD average are associated with significantly poorer results".

Although no direct causal relation is claimed, it seems what counts is the quality rather than the quantity of interactions with technology.

I am not advocating that children should spend a lot of time in school playing computer games, although some computer games, such as Minecraft, encourage a high level of creativity in the player. But the OECD report suggests that we should embrace modern technology, and instead of “adding 21st-century technology to 20th-century teaching methods” we should explore how best to incorporate it into our classrooms. The presentation of logic in UCC Brings Boole2School, through the medium of computer games, is consistent with that.


Surf at will

Genuine incorporation of technology into learning, rather than permission to surf at will, requires a lot of work, and support for teachers and principals. The commitments in the government’s Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020, such as embedding the use of technology throughout teacher education, are welcome.

UCC Brings Boole2School is part of the programme of events developed by University College Cork to mark the bicentenary of the birth of George Boole, the first professor of mathematics at the university (then Queen's College Cork).

The idea is to introduce the basic notions of logic to schoolchildren, from late primary to Leaving Cert, using examples from computer games and logic puzzles.

Boole's translation of logic into algebra led directly to the creation of the computer via the work of Claude Shannon at MIT, who showed that the increasingly complex switching circuits required by telephone networks could be both analysed and synthesised using Boolean algebra.

The “switches” in such circuits became logic gates, which then became transistors, and the rest is a history of incredible ingenuity and creativity: Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, Turing’s machine, Gödel’s theorem, and the work of many others.

Until the early 1980s computers were large machines dedicated to solving complex mathematical and computational problems such as putting men on the moon. Then we had the advent of personal microcomputers, still used primarily for programmed computation. Only in the early 1990s, with the advent of word processing, spreadsheet and statistical packages, and later PDAs and digital mobile phones, did the “digital age” really begin. In the modern era we have microprocessors in portable devices to carry out an enormous range of everyday tasks. Progressive miniaturisation has been the key; today’s transistors are no more than 40 times the size of an atom of silicon.

Boole’s contributions to logic and algebra are the basis of these developments, and yet his name is not well known, even among engineers and computer scientists for whom the word “Boolean” is a familiar adjective. In this bicentenary year we seek to redress the balance and to tell Boole’s story. Along the way we have spoken to computer scientists, engineers, the IT industry and the general public, at home and abroad.

Boole2School is how we’re addressing the younger generation. Through age-specific lessons downloaded from our website, we are encouraging teachers worldwide to engage their students with Boole’s legacy by giving a lesson on logic on November 2nd , the 200th anniversary of his birth. More than 50,000 students from more than 30 countries have signed up.

The lessons will introduce Boole as a person, and the basic ideas of logic by explaining how the Boolean operators – “and”, “or” and “not” – are used. We use the games Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft as examples because the application of Boolean logic is close enough to the surface to explain the connection to children from age eight.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment plans to introduce a module in philosophy into the junior cycle in 2016. Ireland will be in good company: France, Germany, Austria, Italy and the UK have philosophy in school curriculums.

Philosophy depends on logic, and so perhaps our one-off Boole2School lesson on logic based on children’s experiences of computer games might point the way towards a foundational part of that new curriculum.