Interview: Dr. Al Forsyth on Helping and Learning with FreeRice

When you answer questions correctly while playing FreeRice a bowl fills up with rice, which will be sent to hungry people around the world. (photo from author's collection)

When you answer questions correctly while playing FreeRice a bowl fills up with rice, which will be sent to hungry people around the world. (photo from author’s collection)

FreeRice is the amazing online game where you feed the hungry while answering questions in vocabulary and other subjects. Currently, FreeRice donations are going to Niger to help feed schoolchildren.

Last year I had the opportunity to collaborate with the FreeRice team at the UN World Food Programme (WFP). We were discussing a potential new history subject.

It was during those discussions that Dr. Al Forsyth, a retired Weber State University professor, came up with the idea of a world hunger section for the game. This week I interviewed him to learn more about how he took this idea and turned it into a subject now appearing on FreeRice.

How did you first get involved with FreeRice and creating the global hunger section?

I think the concept of FreeRice – learning and helping – is brilliant. As a retired professor of teacher education, [I thought] the concept was very appealing and I wanted to be involved. While contributing to a new FreeRice subject, History, it occurred to me that an important piece of FreeRice’s “curriculum” was missing. The existing subject area list offered players a standard selection of academic subjects, yet visiting the World Food Programme site opened one’s eyes to much new information about the organization’s focal issue, world hunger. Why not offer that as a FreeRice subject? A World Hunger subject would allow the player to not only contribute to reducing world hunger by correctly answering questions, but also to learn about this supremely important issue.

Perhaps a little new knowledge would lead to a desire for more, to exploring the World Food Programme website, and even to discovering new ways to contribute to solving the problem. Fun, learning, commitment, engagement – that’s the sequence that I thought a World Hunger subject area on FreeRice might lead to.

Fortunately the World Food Programme person overseeing FreeRice liked the idea as well, and after the idea traveled through the required channels at WFP, it was adopted. Using WFP’s site and related links for much of my content, I developed 340 multiple-choice questions. WFP then thoroughly reviewed these questions for relevance, appropriateness and accuracy, eventually reducing the list to the current 285 questions.

When you created the section did you learn some things that surprised you about global hunger?

The questions I developed were of four basic types: definitions of terms related to world hunger; geographic information (countries and regions vis-a-vis world hunger); numbers showing the breadth and depth of world hunger; and lists (e.g., 5 causes of hunger, 10 top causes of death by disease, #1 cause of mental retardation and brain damage worldwide). The content of the numbers questions was most surprising: I had no idea of the seriousness of the issue, the extent of world hunger. These numbers brought into sharp focus the close correlation between hunger and other factors such as poverty, population, infant mortality, life expectancy. In fact, these questions were very difficult to write, as the information was shocking – and I wanted the player answering the question to be shocked by their new learning, so the correct multiple choice answer was often the most outrageous one. These questions are easy to answer: just choose the most shocking answer.

How do you recommend teachers utilize the global hunger subject in their classes?

Obviously, there are few, if any, courses in World Hunger in pre-collegiate public education. It is not a subject in the standard curriculum. And yet it is an issue central to the human experience, and as such it touches many parts of that curriculum. Any subject relating to people and how they live relates to world hunger: social studies, of course, but also English, other languages (as they expose students to other cultures), science (biological, chemical and physical aspects of hunger). And math, as a tool for opening understanding via numbers, can certainly be applied to the topic of world hunger. So, the subject of world hunger can be a central theme that unites diverse curricular areas.

The teacher can choose the content upon which standard subject areas can focus: world hunger would be an excellent choice. It is knowledge that contributes to understanding how the world works and where each individual fits into the global picture. And applying knowledge about world hunger can lead to engagement with one of humankind’s most pressing problems, and to the personal satisfaction of making a positive difference in the world. In other words, the payoff for placing world hunger at the center of the curriculum and teaching English, social studies, languages, sciences and math using content related to world hunger can be tremendous, both educationally and personally.

Another question is how best to use FreeRice World Hunger questions in the classroom. It could be a required activity for students, to prepare them with a base of knowledge about the subject, gained in a rather haphazard way, before learning about world hunger in a more orderly, sequenced fashion. It could also be a review, after formal learning has taken place. Personally, I would recommend that teachers introduce students to FreeRice, then turn them loose. They are naturally competitive and eager for empowerment, for the chance to do something really important while also learning. Seeing that bowl fill with rice can be a powerful, powerful motivator for learning – and for doing good.

Article first published as Interview: Dr. Al Forsyth on Helping and Learning with FreeRice on Blogcritics.

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