Learning math at home during the pandemic

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BrainQuake’s math learning products provide student-led, interactive learning experiences that are effective both in the classroom and at home. (Photo shows a child using our launch app Wuzzit Trouble.)

We launched this blog at the same time we released our new BrainQuake mathematics learning and assessment app. (Initially for iOS mobile devices, in due course also for browser access on the Web and for Android devices, both of which currently carry our launch app Wuzzit Trouble.) Not surprisingly, our first sixteen posts have focused on various features of the new app. And future posts will continue to discuss features of our product and ways they can be used, along with announcements of new features as we add them.

But we don’t see ourselves as just another company making and selling a product. All of our team has a background in education (two are former K-12 teachers, one a college math instructor) and we all have experience designing and producing educational technologies. We created BrainQuake because, with years of diverse experience behind us, we felt we had something of value to contribute to mathematics education. As such, we envisage our products being put to good use alongside other resources. Ultimately, this blog is intended to be one of several educational resources we provide. Our goal is to help make the entire system better. To that end, we are constantly examining how we fit in alongside, and both supplement and complement, other educational resources.

Here is how we see our role. Yes, we are an ed tech company, and we believe education technologies have a powerful role to play in preparing the next generation to lead fulfilling and productive lives. But we have no doubt as to the most important factor when it comes to education: a good teacher. Books and other resources, including technological products, can provide useful supplements to a good teacher, but in our view, nothing can replace a good teacher.

On the other hand, if suitably designed, technological products can, in addition to supplement a teacher, provide a resource that complements the teacher, by providing learning experiences that a teacher cannot, or at least cannot do as well. The previous posts in this blog looked into some of the ways our products can complement a teacher.

In partcular, digital games can, if suitably designed, provide student-led, first-hand experiences that cannot be obtained any other way.

For example, they can be designed to provide simulations, akin to flight simulators to train airline pilots or surgical simulators to train future surgeons.

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Flight simulators (left) and surgical procedure simulators (right) provide valuable, first-hand, experiential learning that cannot be matched by lecturing, reading, or even watching videos.

In normal times, then, well-designed technology products have a valuable place in education, to provide supplements to teachers. But right now, times are not normal, and it seems highly likely that, at least through the end of the year, schools in the United States will be physically closed, with students having to — at best — log in from home over the Net.

This means that technologies designed to be operated by the student, for the most part without ongoing guidance, have, for the moment, become particularly significant. Tools like the BrainQuake app, that not only provide student-led math learning experiences, but also give instant feedback and real-time formative assessment, can suddenly be seen as providing educational lifelines to students trapped in their homes.

Without the stimulation of a classroom of student cohorts and a good teacher, any well-designed learning product that excites and engages can become particularly valuable. Unfortunately, despite there being a vast array of technology learning products for mathematics, we have seen relatively few that can meet today’s acute need. In this week’s blogpost, we provide a few resources we are aware of that teachers and parents might want to check out. (BrainQuake has no business relationship with any of the providers.)

As noted earlier, video (puzzle-) games, in particular, can provide learning experiences that not only excite and engage, but, if sufficiently well designed, can also yield learning experiences that even the best teacher cannot fully supply. The reason the video-game technology is (potentially) so powerful in that regard was brilliantly articulated in two books, James Paul Gee’s classic What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and more recently Greg Toppo’s bestselling The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. Both are worth reading.

BrainQuake brings to the learning-video-game space a pedagogical principle that, to our knowledge, only one other educational technology producer does: breaking the symbol barrier. That other provider that takes essentially the same approach is the MIND Research Institute in Santa Ana, California. We love their products.

A Norwegian-based company, DragonBox has produced superb video games that, while not providing alternative representations of mathematics, make the standard symbolic representations far less threatening to beginners.

Also, a few university teams have produced some excellent math learning video games that also succeed in removing the obstacle to math learning that the classical symbolic language of mathematics is known to produce. One we particularly like is the fractions game Refraction, from the University of Washington at Seattle.

Leaving video games aside, there are some other tech products we like that seem of particular value at a time when students are having to do their schoolwork at home, especially if there is no one in the household able to provide the all important (for good learning) enthusiasm for mathematics, even if not the expertise. (That’s many homes, presumably.) Let me mention four other resources that parents or teachers of children faced with being schooled at home might find useful.

The London (UK) based Mathigon is in the process of creating a highly attractive and engaging interactive product they call “the textbook of the future”. We think this is definitely worth a teacher or parent pointing their at-home students towards.

Stanford math education professor Jo Boaler’s youcubed institute provides a wealth of math learning materials and advice. Start with the section “Week of Inspirational Math”.

Brilliant provides a steady stream of excellent math and science puzzles that will engage students to solve often quite challenging problems. (Though they may well need someone who can help them when they get stuck.)

Finally, the Toronto, Canada, based former math/physics teacher Sunil Singh has used the latest post in his regular blog for K-12 math teachers to provide an excellent online compendium of resources on the historical development of mathematics that can be used to arouse interest in mathematics. Singh’s resource is of particular value for any students from backgrounds that can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to the one-size-fits all US education system — which is why he put it together.

While all four of those resources were presumably designed with teachers in mind, to enhance their classroom instruction, they seem to provide excellent resources for teachers and parents to keep students engaged and eager to learn while they are having to study at home. I recommend that parents and teachers check them out, in addition to the video game producers (including BrainQuake) mentioned earlier.

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The BrainQuake app provides self-directed exploratory learning (with instant feedback and formative assessment) of three important areas of mathematics, designed to develop the all important, higher-level math skills of number sense, mathematical thinking, and creative, multi-step problem solving.

Here at BrainQuake, we believe in the power of well-designed education technologies. Unfortunately, right now, almost all school learning has to be conducted with technologies of one kind or another. So, whether you share our enthusiasm for tech or not, that’s pretty well all there is. In which case, it makes sense to use the best available.

– Keith

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Developing children’s true math proficiency

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