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Review of
Counting on Frank

Counting on Frank screen shot Published by: The Learning Company/Creative Wonders
Age Range: 8-12
Year: 1994
Platform Information: Mac or PC
Reviewer: Alana Parkes
Image © The Learning Company. Used with permission.

Is the Game Mathematical?

Counting on Frank offers a collection of word problems that deal with multiplication, division, fractions, percentages, and decimals. The game provides a good opportunity to practice this small slice of mathematics, but if you don't know how to solve word problems, the game will not help you learn. There is a help button that will walk you through a single equation that provides a correct answer but does not explain how to get that equation. Nor does the game explain the rules about order of operations in calculations, but they are necessary at levels two and three if you are trying to solve a problem in a single equation. There is an opportunity to engage in some good math in assembling the clues in levels two and three that is described below.

A typical question at level one is "How much will I earn if Dad pays me $.50 per bag and I rake 4 bags of leaves?" At level three a typical question is "How much will I earn if Dad pays me $.75 for the first three bags and $1.25 for each bag after that and I rake 7 bags?" A calculator is available to help solve the problems. Players can type in their answers, or they can type in equations that the calculator solves. For example, at level one you could just type "2" and then "=" to submit you answer or you could type ".5 x 4 =" and the calculator will compute the answer. Each word problem has several variations with slightly different numbers (e.g., you rake 11 bags instead of 7, now how much will you earn). In fact in order to find the required minimum of eight clues needed to complete the game, it is necessary to solve at least two variations of one problem. This is not obvious while playing the game; I only discovered it during a careful scouring of the manual after I got really frustrated.

When you solve a problem, you receive a clue about the number of jellybeans and record it in your notebook. The complexity of the clues varies with the level of the game. At level one you get clues about digits and maximum and minimum values (e.g., the number of jellybeans does not include the number 4). At levels two and three the clues involve number relationships and operations as well as maximum and minimum values (e.g., the number of jellybeans has a remainder of 6 when divided by 7). The game has a Solution Tester to help you assemble the clues and determine the number of jellybeans.

The Solution Tester consists of a number line (say from 1 to 400). As you check off a clue in your note pad, all the numbers that are ruled out by that clue are eliminated from the number line. For example if the final number does not have a 4, the numbers 4, 14, 24, 34, 40, 41, 42, etc. are not possible solutions and are blacked out in the Solution Tester. At level one, you can enter in all eight of the clues. This will leave you with one possible solution, so there is no math involved in determining the number of jellybeans. However, at levels two and three, you can only enter four clues at a time, so there is an opportunity for a lot more mathematical thinking. You need to use some of the clues to narrow down the set of possible solutions yourself. For instance, if you know that the number is evenly divisible by 3, learning that the number is divisible by 6 with a remainder of 3 doesn't provide any new information, because any number meeting the second clue is also evenly divisible by 3. In the same way, a clue that the number is less than 185 doesn't provide any useful information if you already know that the number is less than 157. Players wishing an extra challenge might be encouraged to find the number of jellybeans without using the Solution Tester.

There are four games in Counting on Frank that are unrelated to the jelly bean quest: Concentration, Magic numbers, Geometron, and Math Machine. Most of these games can be played alone or with another person. Concentration is the familiar game of turning over pairs of tiles to find matching items. In this version, what matters is the total number represented on the tile. At harder levels the expressions can be quite complicated, for instance a tile with "16/4" would be a match for a tile "2x8," so it is a fairly engaging way to work on mathematical equalities. In one version of Magic Numbers, Nine or Bust, players take turns rolling a die and placing that number on a three by three grid. The object is to complete a row that adds up to nine before your opponent. This game is similar to, but not as challenging or interesting mathematically as creating a Magic Square where all of the rows add up to the specified number. The object of Math Machine is to use a given set of numbers to create 10 equations whose solutions are the numbers 0 through 9. Even at the beginning levels this is a difficult game and players may not want to persist in playing it. In Geometron, players reason about spatial relationships as they try to arrange pieces on a grid is specified ways. I found this the most compelling of the four games as it requires more strategy than the others but it is easier to get good at than the Math Machine.

Is the Game Equitable?

Both of the main characters in the story, Henry and his dog, Frank, are male. There are a four other children in the game but only Henry's friend, Ginger, appears outside the general store. Ginger is intelligent and likes math but she doesn't have much of a role in the game beyond holding the Solution Tester. There is ethnic diversity among the children (one is Asian and two are African American) but all of the adults who appear in the game are white.

The themes of the word problems themselves are all pretty gender-neutral: buying dog food, growing taller, filling the bath tub, watching TV, etc., as is the underlying story of finding the number of jelly beans (or winning a trip to Hawaii, if you prefer). The problems often contain unrealistic numbers, for instance, Henry can grow to be 39 feet tall, but they are meant to be funny and are in keeping with the sense of humor of the game overall. There is no time pressure for solving the problems. There is no obvious way for two players to divide the work of searching for clues and finding the number of jellybeans, so in that respect it is a one person game. However, the Geometron, Magic Numbers and Concentration each have an option for playing a two person game or against the computer.

Is the Game a Good Game?

Counting on Frank is a fine game for practicing skills for solving word problem. Unfortunately, even within this narrow range of mathematics, the game doesn't offer much for repeat players: if you can play level 3, then level 1 would be too easy; if level 1 is challenging, level 3 would be way too hard. The game itself doesn't provide support for learning the math necessary to advance to the higher levels. If you play a level through a second time you get exactly the same word problems with the same numbers and the same silly comments by Henry. Only the number of jellybeans (and therefore the clues) changes. Even though you can change specific numbers in the word problems, you do not have the opportunity to create your own problems. The four strategy games hidden throughout the game might be compelling enough to draw a player back multiple times, but they may also be missed or avoided.

The underlying story of the game doesn't provide a realistic setting for the activities of the game. If I were really trying to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, I wouldn't expect to receive clues after solving word problems. I would however use math to estimate the volume of the jar, sample a small volume jellybeans, and extrapolate from my sample to come up with a guess. I like the idea that Henry just wonders about things and comes up with math problems he solves on his own, but set in this unreal context it makes for a mixed message. There is math that you can apply to problems you encounter in your life, but the game doesn't demonstrate how to really use math to solve the problem presented in the story.

A good strategy to get the most out of this game might be to encourage a child to play the game at the highest appropriate level and then put it away for a while until they are ready for the next level. Alternatively, children could focus on the four strategy games after they have exhausted the jellybean guessing activity.

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