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How a math challenge can teach more than just math

2015-05-13 18:12:20 GMT

Students celebrate at the LearnStorm finals

Students celebrate at the LearnStorm finals (photograph by Andrew Weeks).

Sherry*, a 5th grade student, didn’t want to come to Google. For months she’d been working hard on LearnStorm, the Khan Academy math challenge, and had earned a top spot on the leaderboards. For weeks our team had been working with Google to build the most epic final award celebration we could devise. We asked her teacher, Jen Ellison, what was up and the response was heartbreaking:

“I don’t ride in cars much.”

Ms. Ellison said Sherry’s response reminded her of the crippling effects of poverty. Sherry is ten years old. She doesn’t often leave her neighborhood. “Driving an hour away might as well be the moon.”

The thing is, this kind of self-limiting thinking is not only a problem for kids from underserved neighborhoods: most people are held back in some way by their mindset. Last year Edelman-Berland helped us do a poll that showed that the majority of people think their intelligence level is fixed. The research shows not only that this is inaccurate, but also that when students think this way, their test scores suffer, and they are less likely to take on the learning challenges that will set them up for future success.

We designed LearnStorm as a direct attack on these ways of thinking. We knew that to be truly impactful we would need to create a hands-on way to practice positive learning mindsets. Could we design a math challenge that taught a lot more than just math?

We launched LearnStorm in the Bay Area as a pilot. Based on what we’d learned from other math competitions, we aimed to reach at least one percent of students in grades 3-12, which is about 13,000. Three months later, over 73,000 students from about 1,600 Bay Area schools have participated in LearnStorm. They’ve earned points and prizes not only for mastering math skills but also for showing “hustle,” a metric we created to measure grit, perseverance, and growth. They competed over 200,000 hours of learning and 13.6 million standards-aligned math problems.

In addition, thanks to the generosity of Google.org, DonorsChoose.org, and Comcast’s Internet Essentials, 34 underserved schools unlocked new devices for their classrooms and free home internet service for eligible families, increasing student access to online learning tools like Khan Academy.

Bella Vista Elementary

Bella Vista Elementary, one of the 34 schools that earned new devices for its classrooms through LearnStorm

On Saturday, we invited the LearnStorm students who mastered the most math and showed the most hustle to a finals celebration on the Google campus. These students competed in individual and team challenges and earned educational prizes from organizations such as the Exploratorium, Ardusat, the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Tech Museum of Innovation, the California Academy of Sciences, NASA, NASCAR, and the San Francisco 49ers.

Thanks to the efforts of her teacher, Ms. Ellison, Sherry was there. Thanks to her grit, determination and growth in math, she earned a prize and was celebrated by 300 of her peers from across the Bay Area at the heart of Google. As Ms. Ellison put it:

“LearnStorm taught us about hope, endurance and grit… It taught us to encourage one another because everyone struggles. It taught us that you can learn anything. It taught us that we are capable of more than we can imagine…. Oh, and we learned some math, too.”

Teacher Jen Ellison tells Sal her school's story

Teacher Jen Ellison tells Sal her school’s story (photograph by Andrew Weeks).

At Khan Academy we’ve been inspired by Sherry and all the participants, volunteers, teachers and parents who made this LearnStorm pilot such a success. We’re working with the same hustle, grit and determination to make LearnStorm bigger and better. So stay tuned for updates later this year!

- James Tynan, Adoption Lead