Sunday, December 18, 2011

Update on Peaksmart: Good News!

Hello Peaksmarters,

Based on feedback from parents and teachers, we are exploring different options for keeping Peaksmart going, which may include a nominal subscription fee. We are humbled by the amount of feedback received from both parents and teachers on various forums.

Stay tuned for more information and keep learning!

The Peaksmart Team

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Forecasting the Future of Education and Technology

Recently, the Wall Street Journal featured an article, "The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform"[1], which detailed some of the way parents, teachers, administrators and politicians should be thinking differently about education:

"You don't get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that rewrites the rules of the game."

A non-profit organization in Ohio, called Knowledgeworks [2] is focused on driving positive change through technology in K-12 education - especially at the high-school level. Some of the foundational trends that Knowledgeworks believes the future of improved education relies on include:

Individualized Attention
Technology will provide teachers and parents with ways to customize curricula for each and every child. While most kids will probably still be taught together in classrooms, technology will allow enough variability and adaptation to enable students to complete lessons at their own pace. We're already seeing the beginnings of this revolution with products like Peaksmart for K-3 math enrichment. This trend is affecting all subjects and all learning levels too - from adaptive games for pre-schoolers, to adaptive coursework for graduate students in medicine and law.  

Metrics, metrics, metrics
Technology provides comprehensive ways of tracking students' knowledge and learning abilities in ways we're just starting to grasp. The idea that we only need to test our students every few years to measure the effectiveness of state-sponsored curricula is beginning to seem outdated to some educators. 

Of course, metrics can not only tell us how well our kids are doing at math, but how they compare with other kids from around the world. This is important because that second grader in Bozeman Montana won't be competing just with the neighbors' kids down the street.  She'll be competing to get into college and for the same jobs with kids from Finland, China, India, Russia, and Brazil.

Centralized curriculum and standards
Just as the standardization of the PC platform, wifi, and MP3 standards sparked avalanches of creativity in the world of technology, similar upheavals could occur in the education space. When educators and students start working off a common curriculum, expect to see more innovations sprout up in the ways we teach and deliver educational material and experiences.

"Anywhere" learning and collaboration
We're already seeing the wall between the classroom and home fall. Parents and teachers are collaborating through online classroom management systems as well as web-based learning and enrichment systems, like Peaksmart.

The team at Knowledgeworks has recently published a white-paper, 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning [3] as well as a map [4] which details how technological changes and external forces affecting education could drive positive changes for teachers and our students. The forecast helps parents and educators think about and plan for the future of education at a very high level.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Global Academic Successes (or, Why is Everyone Talking about Finland?)

PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment [1], conducts standardized tests of students at age 15, from countries around the world every 3 years.  Experts from around the world collaborate to write and administer the PISA tests, focusing on three core topics: mathematics, reading and science.  

The goal of the PISA tests isn't to determine whether the students can regurgitate information they memorized during their academic career. Rather, PISA attempts to determine how well their test takers can apply their knowledge and logical thinking. For example, a passage about Lake Chad in North Africa and its water levels throughout history was given to the most recent PISA test takers. Not only did students have to read and understand the passage, as well as the accompanying graph, but they needed to be able to think critically and draw conclusions based on the information.  An example of this question as well as a terrific summary of PISA is available here:

PISA is also focused on the demographic backgrounds of the students taking the tests. A country cannot rank highly in the PISA tests if only their most well-off demographics do well on the tests. Those countries that do well, especially more than once, are put in a spotlight by researchers around the world, hungry to figure out the processes and best practices that allow for such success. Many educators have been focused on one such success story: Finland.

The most recent PISA test [2], taken in 2009, shows Finland in 3rd place - right behind Shanghai (China) and Korea. A 17th-place finish for the United States and a 25th-place finish for the United Kingdom made many parents and teachers from those countries take notice. What was it about the Finish system that allows for such spectacular performance?

The Smithsonian magazine recently published an enlightening article [3] on the incredible academic achievements of Finland's school system. Some of the highlights for the Finnish system are called out:
  1. Finland uses a national common curriculum that is strictly followed.
  2. The funding of the educational system is of top priority and meant many sacrifices on part of the Finnish people, especially during the financial difficulties of the 1990s.
  3. Finland's teachers are encouraged to do "whatever it takes" to ensure each of their pupils are prepared for higher education - and life in general. If this means spending more time tutoring a child struggling with classwork, teachers will make time after school for those children.
  4. Finland's teachers are often picked from the top 10% of their universities. Being a teacher in Finland is a very prestigious and proud affair.
  5. Finland does not focus only on the metrics of academic success, which has been in vogue in the States for the last decade or so. Much attention is given to the human element - the stories behind the numbers.
  6. The people in charge of Finland's educational system are educators - not business leaders, politicians, or military brass. 
  7. The Finish education system is funded at the national level and the teachers all come from the same pool of high-achieving university graduates - quite different from the way its handled here in the States. This implies that a child raised on a farm or on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle or in the middle of the wealthiest suburb of Helsinki will all have a similar chance at a high-quality education.
Some critics of the Finnish educational system will point out that their system isn't perfect. For some reason, girls tend to benefit most from the Finnish system.  Also, the drop-out rate after 10th grade for boys is approximately 14% [4]. Despite these set-backs, the spotlight on the Finnish system does not seem to be dissipating anytime soon. Stay tuned.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

High-tech Jobs of Tomorrow: Are Our Kids on Track?

This week, during the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival [1], former Google CEO Eric Schmidt ignited a media frenzy in the UK when he suggested that UK schools and society have not been properly preparing their children for high-tech jobs in science, engineering, and media and entertainment industries.

Schmidt suggested this was not always the case, pointing out that during the 1980s, the BBC provided extensive lessons in computer programming through their BBC Computer Literacy Program, as well as computers, like the BBC Micro Model B [3]. He also emphasized the need to bring art and technology together again in peoples' minds. Lewis Carroll was used as a fitting example of the age when science and art were not viewed as separate subjects, since the Victorian writer penned Alice in Wonderland and many other literary classics in addition to being a renowned mathematician and logician [4].

Today, comprehensive computer-science courses in UK public schools are hard to come by for any grade level, which Schmidt views incredulously, based on the rich legacy of computing in the UK. While there are classes that help kids use technology, he doesn't feel that there are enough focused on how the technology works or is made by highly skilled engineers and designers.

For many reasons, science, engineering, and mathematics are often viewed as "geeky," "hard," or just plain "boring" by many in society today. Here in the US, we're seeing similar attitudes take hold over the last few generations. It's a shame on so many levels based on the excitement that the early personal-computing age generated. The legacy of that excitement now affects our everyday lives in many ways; think of your life without your laptop, smart phone, GPS navigation system, iPad, etc. Kids of all ages think nothing of being able to call up a 3D game, a video, or a refresher course for an exam on a machine in the palm of their hands that has more computing power than many supercomputers did in the 1960s [5].

While we're rolling in technology that improves our lives, there doesn't seem to be enough focus on the importance of math and science in elementary and high schools. Perhaps a little more emphasis during conversations with our kids on how much hard work, design, math, science, and engineering went into "Angry Birds" would do the trick?


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Learning in the Digital Age

For parents and teachers, technology can provide both relief and frustration, sometimes in equal measure, as we search for ways to help our kids learn. On one hand, the technological advantages the internet provides to our students is mesmerizing: we have so many more options than previous generations. If you need to learn something to teach a subject, Wikipedia, MIT OpenCourseWare, even Peaksmart's lessons are all available online 24/7, 365 days a year. On the other hand, there are so many resources available that it can be difficult to find the best ones for our kids. And how do we balance access to so many online educational opportunities while still keeping our kids safe online?

A substantial and lively study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, by Lori M. Takeuchi, called Families matter: Designing media for a digital age, [1] provides a few ideas for how families can and do use digital media to enhance their kids' education in today's world. The core of the study is a survey of 800 parents of children ages 3-10 that illustrates how parents in the U.S. feel about raising their kids in a world so rich in digital resources. Takeuchi explores the new resources and the ways in which we access them using new hardware (smart-phones, tablets) and software (social networks for parents, social gaming sites for kids).

Here are some of the key findings of the study.

Kids as teachers
How many times have you been taught how to navigate a virtual world or play a video game by your kids? The study found that kids are increasingly taking on the role of the instructor when it comes to these technologies. Much has been written about how quickly children can pick up new technologies relative to their parents or grandparents, and according to the study, allowing kids to teach what they know reinforces their own knowledge and inspires confidence.

Parents and kids do fewer digital activities together than traditional activities
Many parents still read, play board games, or watch TV and movies with their children, but according to the survey, most do not spend a lot of quality time with their kids in front of the computer, tablet, or smart phone. Results show that parents leave their kids to their own devices (pardon the pun) while playing video games or surfing the internet (with restrictions on the types of sites that can be visited or games that can be played), and that most parents are willing to purchase devices or software for their kids, but the purchases are considered more for entertainment and less about education. 

Parents views on different technologies' educational potential

Approximately three quarters of the survey respondents believe strongly that computers and technology in general are important to their child's success. Most parents also believe that certain types of video games will help bolster their children's knowledge of math, science, reading, and foreign languages. The majority of survey participants also feel that certain video games could help their kids learn or reinforce people skills, like cooperation, negotiation, and communication.

Digital platforms are not all created equal when it comes to education

The parents surveyed feel that their kids have the potential to learn valuable skills from computer-based activities performed on a laptop or desktop computer. While some parents feel strongly that video-game consoles have little educational merit, many are happy to allow their kids to explore online social sites for kids that include social mini-games that often incorporate learning activities. The majority of parents have a negative view of mobile devices as educational tools, but perhaps the market has not yet matured or a "killer" mobile educational application has not yet emerged.

The paper concludes with some suggestions to producers of digital educational tools and games. First, kids' needs and interests change as they grow, and tools must keep that in mind. According to Takeuchi, an online educational tool that takes into account a child's grade, their abilities at certain tasks, as well as their interests could keep their attention; a virtual world that takes into account a wider range of abilities and interests (but is still safe and age-appropriate) would be welcomed by many kids and parents that use these types of systems today. 

Finally, Takeuchi recommends that digital educational tools of the future take into account the child's ecosystem - that is, their family and friends as well as their schedules. By making games and activities that can be used and enjoyed by kids and their parents at any time, anywhere, learning becomes more fun and efficient.

The Peaksmart team has been focusing on these points and will continue to provide you with fun, useful, and ever-evolving ways to incorporate math learning into your students' lives.

1. Takeuchi, L. M. (2011). Families matter: Designing media for a digital age. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Early Math Skills that Matter

Parents and teachers spend lots of time helping children learn math at an early age. But what are the topics that really make a difference to the long-term mathematical ability of children? Are there certain math skills that should be learned earlier that would facilitate the learning process going forward?

Dr. David Geary, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri, thinks he has an answer to these questions. His most recent research has been focused on determining the "beginning of school" knowledge kids need in order to be successful through fifth grade. In an upcoming publication in the journal Developmental Psychology, Dr. Geary's paper, “Cognitive Predictors of Achievement Growth in Mathematics: A Five Year Longitudinal Study,” will present his findings about the math skills in first grade that have positive impacts on math learning through fifth grade[1].

His research--which was carried out by monitoring 177 elementary school students over a period of five years--suggests that first graders who have mastered the skills listed below will have a significantly easier time accumulating math skills up through the fifth grade:

Dr. Geary's research highlights the need for children to be fluent in simple math concepts at an early age. By highlighting the incremental nature of learning math, and the need to master the simple concepts early, Dr. Geary's team is helping teachers and parents focus on the skills that will pay the highest educational dividends for our kids.

    The Peaksmart team is here to help you focus on these critical skills with lots of quizzes, drills, practices sessions, and lessons.


    Saturday, July 16, 2011

    Treating All Students as Gifted Yields Surprising Results

    If you want your child to be gifted at school, treat them as if they are gifted. This simplistic approach has yielded surprising results in several school districts that have been testing this hypothesis.

    The U.S. Department of Education has studied a program in North Carolina called Project Bright Idea [1] that followed 10,000 kindergarten through second-grade students who traditionally would not have had access to gifted programs over a period of five years. The program, which was a collaboration between Duke University researchers and various school districts across North Carolina, helped train teachers to expect more from their classrooms - by treating students as gifted, regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status, or race.

    The results of Project Bright Idea are encouraging [2]. Based on independent assessments of the program's results, 15-20% of the kids who participated in the gifted classroom study were categorized as intellectually "gifted" after a period of three years; prior to Project Bright Idea, only 10% of the schools' students were eligible for this distinction. These results are encouraging, and especially so in low-income school districts where some schools had no kids included in gifted programs.

    By focusing on the quality of the curricula, instead of who should or should not be considered gifted, Project Bright Idea has shown that many kids are capable of so much more. By expecting our kids to perform at a higher level, we set a precedent and a way of thinking that many kids respond to positively. 

    The Peaksmart team sees this in the results of many of our students. Peaksmarters are not restrained from tackling more challenging work than what they would typically encounter at school. In fact, a handful of topics in each Peaksmart grade are advanced (beyond NCTM or Common Core standards) in order to challenge our students and give them a taste of what is awaiting them in the next grade level. Of course, the Peaksmart adaptive algorithms take care to introduce these topics gradually and ensure that the student is at the appropriate level of difficulty at all times.

    The Peaksmart team is inspired by the results of Project Bright Idea and we applaud the team behind it as well as all the teachers that made it a reality. We're excited to be able to provide math enrichment tools for teachers and parents that help them treat their students as gifted in math.

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