Today, more and more campuses are experimenting with education technology (edtech) tools in an effort to improve engagement and instruction for their students. These technology tools can range from video lectures on particular topics like you’ll find from Khan Academy, to behavior management apps like ClassDojo, to full-fledged digital curricula. Approaches to edtech program design—and the resulting impact on student outcomes—can vary widely. What’s the recipe for making an effective edtech program?
At Reasoning Mind—an education nonprofit that develops blended learning programs for PK-8 mathematics—we’ve pioneered a unique approach to edtech design we call “Instruction Modeling”. Instruction Modeling is, in essence, a process by which we meticulously study the experiences of students in world-class math classrooms, and then build digital learning programs that replicate those same learning experiences. The idea is inspired by a concept in artificial intelligence known as an expert system, which is a computer program designed to replicate the thought process of a human expert.
Using this approach, a standard lesson at Reasoning Mind would be created as follows. First, we’d find an experienced master math teacher. Then, our Knowledge Engineers (the staff responsible for reverse-engineering the teacher’s practices) would conduct extensive interviews with the teacher, usually for more than five hours. Out of these sessions would come over fifty pages of detailed notes on everything from the lesson outline and content, to what the students should be thinking, to the hand gestures the teacher would be making. Next, our team of software designers and curriculum experts would use these interview notes and lesson outlines to design an animated, interactive computer lesson that reproduces the very practices used by the master teacher. And finally, because many essential aspects of education simply can’t be done by a computer alone, we partner with schools using our digital programs to provide classroom teachers with training, implementation support, and professional development throughout the year. To see what this ends up looking like in practice, view this short YouTube video.
So why do we go through the trouble of producing programs in this manner? Our philosophy is that technology itself should not be the focal point of edtech—rather, technology should be used primarily as a mechanism to deliver tried-and-true educational best practices to more students across the world. If edtech providers focus only on slick tech features, or use their platforms to replicate unproven teaching practices, they’re unlikely to produce much of a positive impact on student learning.
The process Reasoning Mind uses is one of the reasons our programs are lauded by professional mathematicians. Here’s R. James Milgram, professor emeritus at Stanford University, on Reasoning Mind:
“Virtually all the programs that the major education publishers have made available in this country are so filled with mathematical errors and flawed mathematical reasoning that they end up totally confusing both the teachers and the students. But Reasoning Mind’s programs are designed by real mathematicians and experts in child development. Moreover, Reasoning Mind’s curriculum follows the curricula of the highest achieving countries in the world, and is both mathematically accurate and entirely coherent. It allows the Reasoning Mind students to actually learn the mathematics involved … I believe that these two unique strengths are the main reason that the student outcomes with Reasoning Mind are so impressive. In fact I can be more definite. Reasoning Mind is one of only two math programs I’ve seen over the last 25 years that matches up in any sense with the programs in high achieving countries … In any case, it is safe to say that Reasoning Mind is the only program of any kind in this country that presents the mathematics of first through 6th grade in the same coherent, clear way that is done in the high achieving countries.”
For more on this approach, see a recent TEDx talk by our co-founder, George Khachatryan, below. And for an even more detailed analysis of Reasoning Mind’s program creation process, see this paper in the International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education.
Derek Hopf is a Communications Specialist with Reasoning Mind, where he works to share the organization’s story and approach to math education with educational stakeholders across the country. He graduated from Indiana University in 2009, and was a Chairman’s Award winner and Hutton Honors College Merit Scholar. Prior to joining Reasoning Mind, Derek worked as a software consultant for several large healthcare systems on the east coast. Derek is an alumni of the Leadership ISD Fellowship program, and chairs the Needs Assessment Committee for the Woodrow Wilson High School Community Foundation in Dallas. In his free time, Derek enjoys performing regularly in an improvisational comedy troupe, following Indiana basketball, and learning all he can about science and astronomy.