At El Sol Academy, a charter school in Santa Ana, the 4-year-olds are working hard at learning – by playing computer games.
At one computer, a girl tries to match up the numeral 3 with four trees. Three trees float away, but one remains – blocking a penguin's pathway. She tries again and gets it right. At another terminal, a boy adds the exact number of blocks he needs to level out a beam across two columns. When he's finished, he laughs because a penguin walks across it.
"I did it! Yeah!"
These students will understand mathematical concepts preparing them for geometry and algebra – before they enter kindergarten. It's a result of the latest phase of software developed by the nonprofit MIND Research Institute in Irvine, sponsored by a grant from the Children and Families Commission of Orange County.
Some of these students speak English softly, and it's likely they're more comfortable in Spanish, a language that's also spoken at this bilingual, dual-immersion program. But you can play these games without any language at all.
Matthew Peterson understands that words can be an obstacle to learning.
Words come at students in the typical classroom with the precision of a meteor shower. Unless you can speak or read them, words just bonk you on the head.
Peterson, who is dyslexic, didn't learn to read until fifth grade.
Seventeen years ago, he began to question why we teach math using words. It almost guarantees that if you have language issues, you're pretty much going to have math issues.
"Kids can't understand place value ... but it's so simple," he notes, riffing off an explanation.
"You see why they don't get it because of the way it's taught ... miserably."
Computer games teach students to drill or memorize facts. But they don't teach how math works.
Peterson thought, "Let's teach the why."
For a summer research project when he was still an undergraduate at UC Irvine, Peterson tried creating his own math teaching game. (Remember, when this guy talks about "playing," he thinks parabolas.)
"I thought it was going to be easy."
But as Peterson earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, he looked back at his early efforts and began to understand why it wasn't.
His game to teach place value was a "big, jumbled mess."
"Kids got even more confused."
Peterson became an expert in the neural basis of processing information. Still, he needed 10 years to perfect his game.
In 1998, he co-founded the MIND Research Institute, dedicated to applying brain research to educational software.
The software features an unflappable penguin named JiJi, who has a simple goal.
"We boil all math down to: How do you help a little penguin across the screen?"
The science behind the math has to do with activating neurons when a child thinks in order to build them properly.
Our brains create schemas, or cognitive frameworks, that help us make sense of it all. That's how, intuitively, I can calculate the sale price of a sweater.
You don't want kids to build the wrong schemas.
For example, teaching children that when you add, the number always gets bigger, goes dead in the water when you study negative numbers, Peterson points out.
No surprise, he's a big fan of the number line.
MIND Research has created thousands of software programs that prime the brain to make the connections necessary to understand math concepts and build problem-solving skills. Each student sets his or her own pace to work out the problems for themselves. Teachers are trained to explain the reasoning and why concepts work – after students try.
El Sol fifth-grader Milena Rey-Sanchez, who met JiJi in second grade, is learning about exponents.
"The teacher explained them," she says, "but we already knew."
The results are impressive.
JiJi the penguin has reached 475,000 students in more than 1,375 schools in 26 states. In Orange County, students using the software increased their math proficiency by 8.3 percentile points on state tests compared with a 2.5 point increase at similar schools without it. Schools starting below 50 percent proficiency gain an average of 15 to 20 points within two years of using the software.
Tina Earl, MIND's director of research and development, says teachers were pleasantly surprised by the impact of the pre-K lessons.
"The kindergarten teachers could tell who had been in our program."
MIND, which initially focused on elementary school, has added middle school curriculum. Now it's developing Algebra 1 in addition to preschool.
It refines the software by analyzing student data, watching children use it, and asking questions. Pre-K instruction started with one game tested in two classrooms three years ago. Each game includes three to eight puzzles.
At first, Peterson says, they had too many fun things happen after a wrong answer. They learned to make a right answer more exciting.
The software no longer offers multiple-choice answers, except on tests. Students have to construct their own solutions.
"They think more carefully if they build their own answer."
Games train students to be persistent as tasks become increasingly challenging. No pop-up tutor offers them help if they've entered wrong answers.
"We purposely want them to be stuck for a while and let them work on it until they come up with a solution. ... They have their own joy of figuring things out."
These kids aren't working for stickers.
Fifth-grader Daniel Balbuena plays with fractions, converting them into a whole.
"It's cool, but sometimes it gets hard," he says. "I keep on trying."
Peterson calls it intrinsic motivation: the reward comes from within.
"It's not easy, but once you get it, it feels great. It creates a thirst that stays with them for the rest of their lives."
In math – and in life – problem solving is a critical skill.
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