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Archive for July, 2012

Parents, Teachers, Schools – Make me happy!!!

Although all the learning and practicing and taking exams is done by the students, they do not exist independently. There is an entire ecosystem surrounding the student that wishes her to succeed, to be a better person, a good learner and have a successful career. Parents, Teachers and the school management all wish and in fact strive very hard for that to happen. So what tools can be provided to them to ensure their task of focussing on the bigger picture and ensuring success is fulfilled.

Let me put myself in their positions and think, I have played each of these roles at one point in my life.

Parent

As a parent, obviously I wish that my child succeeds and has an all-round development, I would wish for her to be equally good at sports, studies, music, foreign language or whatever else she likes and be the best she can be. I would not want to pressurize her on studies or other aspects but at the same time be able to keep an eye on what’s going on and how is she progressing. This has to happen without her knowing that I am keeping an eye, as that tends to turn the kids off. I would also like to see if she is actually learning the concepts and understanding it and not just memorizing and moving ahead and from time to time see how good she is compared to others in the class, in the school, in the neighbourhood, the state and the country.  I definitely want her to go to the ivy-league or one of the best colleges after high school.

So, coming back from the parent mode, as an entrepreneur what tools can I provide the parents to ensure all the above things happen? To ensure the parent can check her child’s progress we can always give them various reports, one giving a bird’s eye view and others giving more details, depending on what depth the parent wish to go to check the progress they can dive deeper. We can provide the parent tools to be able to communicate with the teachers and others in the school to ensure that she is progressing well, understanding everything and paying attention. So whenever there is some sign of digression, the parent can intervene and ensure that everything stays on course. Finally, I can provide tools to the parent to compare where her child stands compared to others in the school, community, state and the country. We also need to provide tools to compare with other countries to get a better feel of how my child will compete in the real world when she will be continuously pushed by kids from China, India, Russia and other countries.

Teachers

Putting myself in teacher’s shoes now. As a teacher I have 2 goals. The overall class to perform great and each individual student realize his/her true potential and maximize that. How do I achieve that? When I am teaching I have to ensure I teach considering the average of the entire class. I cannot be too fast or too slow and teach concepts that are too simple or too complex. It has to be average to cater almost the entire class. And I know that leaves out some brilliant students who feel they know this and want to be challenged more and a few students who need to clear their concepts before they can understand what I am teaching. I cannot stop for them to disrupt the speed of the overall class. I am in a dilemma here. I can always stay back and take sessions for the students who are lacking a bit behind, but sometimes they are not motivated enough to stay back and other times there is simply not enough time. Also, I need to ensure continuously how many topics in a particular year have I completed, how many more to go, will I be able to complete them, manage them, teach them the way they should be ? And there is always a comparison of how many class is doing compared to the other school just around the block or how my students and I are performing compared to a top charter school in Boston.

So as a product developer and trying to help teachers what I think is that I cannot and should not change or interfere the way the teachers teach. No videos can replace a real live teacher. They are doing what they are doing best; I should try to supplement them with tools that can ease some of their headaches. For starters, I can provide a tool to show which students are doing well and who needs intervention. That’s the easy stuff. Reports to get that information. Again, tools giving them the overall picture of the class and comparison with other classes and schools can be developed and given to teachers. But the challenge is to ensure that students take the practice tests, learn stuff and implement. They should be motivated and excited enough to do that. A tool to communicate effectively with the parents to ensure that they the practice at home so the next day when they are in school they are not behind the class.  Gaming thrown in to keep the students engaged also helps. The teachers have tons of first-hand experience in what the student will understand and what she needs to learn in increasing level of difficulty. Involving them in creating content builds a very powerful and active community. Finally, all this has to be wrapped up neatly and intuitively. Teachers are busy people and they should not waste a single second on figuring out how to generate report or communicate or find details for a student. All their energies should focus on building our future – our children.

Schools

This area is where I have minimum experience so I contacted a few principals, met a few people who have served as principals or in management and tried picking their brain.

Most of the principals are involved in 3 activities – Management, Development and Reporting.

Management mainly involves finances of the schools, supervision of the staff, recruiting new staff etc. Development involves professional development and improvement of teaching and learning in the school, encouraging activities and programs other than academia, enhancing the school image and reputation, monitoring and revising (if need be) curriculum etc. Reporting involves giving periodic updates to Superintendent of Schools or the Board involved.

Most principals would be worried about 2 things related to teaching – How effective are the learning methods and how to provide a favourable environment to the students to maximize their learning experience. It is also important to ensure the quality remains top notch to attract more students. In fact all public schools should be run as private organizations to ensure quality and discipline. But that’s a separate discussion.

So what can we do to help principals and management? We can provide them newsletters etc. to keep them updated on the education world. We can also provide reports to compare different classes so that they can intervene whenever quality drops in any of the classes. Reports to keep them posted on the progress of top schools will help them benchmark against the best and ensure they can keep on attracting good talent. Tools for a direct communication channel with parents will increase the confidence of the parents.

Armed with this knowledge and information we start architecting our software and equip it with all the necessary tools to help teachers, parents and schools provide the best education in the most effective way to our students and help them realize their true potential.

What to teach? So many options

Alrite, so we are going to help students learn, practice and understand Math and English as it should be. Pay equal focus on both Math and English and not be biased towards Math. Have everything in a gaming environment to engage them. Got it.  Now what.

Well, I had sleepless nights the past few weeks figuring out what should be the benchmark to teach Math and English. 50 states – 50 different curriculums – 50 ways of teaching. What is the best way to teach? What should be PracTutor’s curriculum? It definitely cannot be the 51st way of teaching or 51st different curriculum because if we do so considering that we are the champions and everyone should follow our curriculum just like others – in this battle the students eventually lose. They would feel disconnected and lost of what may be taught in the school and what they learn from us.

Then I came across something what is called as Common Core Standards – a very simple mission to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them – across the US. And how many states adopted it – 45 states and 3 territories. Wow. That’s a game changer right there. Imagine a country having same format and same structure to follow to teach all its children. And what standards does Common Core cater to – Math and English. There could not be a better match.

http://www.corestandards.org/in-the-states

So I started digging in more from there and started going to all individual state’s education board sites – CA, NY, TX, IN, KY, MA – almost all of them. Yes, most of them had adopted the standards and wanted to transition in 2-3 years time. But there was a twist. There is always a twist. Some of these bigger states had changed certain standards or added more as per their views. Hmm. So I started listing down the changes, the actual standards and comparing them with these variations. I did this for all the major states. The only real changes were seen in the states of CA and NY. Now, Why doesn’t that amaze me.

Texas was the major state that hadn’t adopted Core Standards (only 1 of the 5 states who didn’t adopt core standards for whatever reasons) so I had to go in great detail and compare Texas education and Common core standards. Although there wasn’t a huge difference Texas did have Statistics and Probability introduced earlier than Core Standards but everything else more or less was the same.

I must pause here and tell how impressive core standards are. They have very neatly divided each grade into topics that need to be taught, what college readiness skills are to be taught and what sub-topics to be taught in those topics and its details. Very logically laid out as it should be and the best part – they are all created by the educators from schools across the country. The teachers who actually teach in the classroom and know what the students need. English standard had defined the books to refer and the classroom lessons as well. Impressive and an excellent starting point for us.

So coming back to other states – CA, NY and TX were the only states who had major variations from the core standards. We just added those variations to our curriculum to give students the opportunity to see what is different that is taught in CA, NY and TX.

So now we have the curriculum to start from. NC state board gave unpacking tools to even understand those standards in greater depth. A very effective document.

http://www.ncpublicschools.org/acre/standards/common-core-tools/

So we put in a team of teachers in Math and ELA from elementary, middle and high school and started putting the content and other pieces together. How to get unlimited questions in Math and ELA with increasing level of difficulty so that the student always has a different question which challenges him was a software challenge to be solved another day. But as of now I could sleep for the next 6 hours since we had the right curriculum to follow.