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Teaching Math Without Words: Interview with MIND Research Institute

TeachHUB Interview

Teaching Math Without Words: Interview with MIND Research InstituteThe MIND Research Institute is on a mission revolutionize math education in America by helping elementary and secondary students excel to their full academic potential.  With help from their own JiJi the penguin, they are taking an innovative visual approach to teaching math concepts while aligning to state standards.

In this exclusive TeachHUB interview, get to know JiJi the penguin and learn how MIND Research Institute is teaching math without using words. 

How did MIND Research and the JiJi math program come to be?

Neuroscientists at the University of California identified a computer model of brain function which gave them the idea that we are all hardwired to recognize visual patterns, in space and in time. Dr. Matthew Peterson wrote visual game software to test out how well young children could do visual problem-solving. The findings were that they were surprisingly good at it, it was a universal skill, and it was trainable.

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The next step was applying this finding to help society, and the first thrust has been to provide a way for students to understand mathematics through solving visual “puzzles” via software and animating math concepts with interactive visual manipulatives.

How are MIND Research programs different from other online math games?

MIND’s programs are non-language based: they begin without any math symbols (like “+”) or math vocabulary (like “fraction”) or even any English words at all. This is the most simple, direct and rigorous way to introduce math concepts and problems. It thereby uses less working memory on non-mathematical abstractions.

The other difference is more subtle, but the instructional design has been honed through over 10 years of field-testing. For example, the real-time individual instructive feedback provided through animation is a common sense design principle which is not found in other software.

What kind of results have you seen with students using the program?

In trials at scale of between 600-10,000 students across the country, grade-average math proficiency growth has been double or more than those of comparable schools.

What are some typical responses from students and teachers?

Students become very engaged with computer games, of course, but the difference here is that they are engaged directly with solving a math puzzle – the game IS the math. The math is not an interruption to the game.

Also, the math puzzles become progressively more difficult such that they are multi-step thinking exercises which are challenging for any adult – so the adults are impressed. Teachers see some of their more challenging students engaged, making progress, and productively learning math.

What we call a “JiJi Culture” starts to show up at school: math becomes a competitive and fun focus. Teachers and students believe they can all “win” at math, and JiJi the penguin starts showing up everywhere.

What are some comment complaints?

We commonly hear the question: How can we make the time in our already full schedule to spend 90 minutes a week on supplemental math software?

What obstacles do you think stand in the way of dramatically changing how math is taught?

No one is looking for dramatic changes – they are essentially looking for how we can do more of the same, but faster or more cheaply or more cleverly. By definition, a dramatic change is unanticipated.

We thought: wouldn’t it be great if everyone had been looking for a way to continue use of math manipulatives past kinder or 1st grade, and then this approach in software satisfied that demand? So, we find ourselves needing to educate the market about what is possible, rather than satisfy an existing demand.

Teaching Math Without Words: Interview with MIND Research InstituteHow did you come up with the JiJi the penguin and his continual desire to cross the screen?

Dr.  Matthew Peterson was looking for a universally accepted animal “mascot” across ages and genders and cultures, and settled on JiJi the slightly befuddled penguin. The students think either they are helping the wordless JiJi to solve the math, or that JiJi is helping them. The consistency of removing an obstacle so that JiJi can cross the screen is helpful throughout the hundreds of games, so that the students recognize the game objective and when they have “won” – JiJi crosses the screen and gets to the next (harder) puzzle!

When doing the sample problems, I had trouble figuring out what I was supposed to be doing without any directions. Is this typical? What can teachers do to overcome confusion?

This is a typical problem for adults use to getting something right the first time. The children are in videogame mode- even if there are directions, they won’t read or listen, they just start playing the game. Don’t worry when they fail a few times along the way, they will get the impression for the rules.

That said, we often have an animated tutorial to explain gameplay, and the gameplay (like clicking on JiJi when you’ve selected your answer) becomes quickly known to students.

Finally, the games are designed to go sequentially through levels of difficulty (Level 1 before Level 2 before Level 3, etc.) and if you wade directly into Level 4, most anyone is at risk of not understanding what’s going on. So, start with Level 1.

What is the teacher’s role with this program?

The teacher has a vital and central role in the math education process. First, the games are challenging and students get “stuck” and fail. By design, the program alerts the teacher to excess stuck time, and the teacher then helps the student in 1:1 or small groups to think their way through the stuck point logically and mathematically.

Second, the teacher references the game during conventional math instruction (e.g. direct instruction in class) and helps the student make the connection between the math concepts they have learned and seen animated in the games, and those same math concepts underlying math symbol manipulation in a problem example in a text.

Third, the teachers talk to the students and get them to talk back about the games, symbols, and procedures to assess whether the students understand and can communicate about the math. When all of this is working properly, the teachers report they get through their conventional math lessons more quickly and with deeper understanding for more students.

How much do your programs cost?

There are various pricing models from subscription to full elementary school site license, along with continuing license renewal fees.

What advice do you have for teachers who don’t have the available technology or funding to buy your program? How can they integrate these concepts?

Our advice would be to try to maximize students’ visual reasoning skills to understand the math. For example, have students draw diagrams (more than just the one time the text showed a diagram) along with their problem-solving which illustrate what’s happening as they think their way through solving the problem.

Does anyone on staff at MIND have teaching/classroom experience?

MIND has a huge amount of classroom experience on staff. Virtually every field support person is a former classroom teacher, and some of the best district math talents around have found out about our mission and results and joined our staff.

What role does the Advisory Council have in your organization?

The National Advisory Council is primarily a way for MIND to keep key influencers and their organizations in the education space informed of the research, logic, method, progress, and results of this very different way for teachers to teach and students to experience math.

What plans do you have for new programs or future development?

MIND is currently extending its K-5 expertise up to higher levels and down to the pre-K level.

Has MIND considered expanding their offerings/programs commercially directly to parents or kids? Why or why not?

Of course we are often asked this. Our primary challenge is: we only put out programs that measurably work on accepted assessments, and we have been focusing on making them work on state math tests in an extremely well-disciplined environment, in this case that means schools where there are highly trained and skilled teachers.

We don’t know yet how to get robust consistent results without all this structure; especially consider that the teacher is central to our math education process to ensure the students realize the benefits of the software. Figuring out how to get what results with what process from a “retail” application is a future research challenge for us.

How are your educational partners involved? 

We have many wonderful partnerships with district partners, and they teach us a lot about what’s really necessary for program success in the real world. For one example of this, you can check out our recent video highlighting Leisha Morton of Anaheim, who taught us the importance and value of district-level collaboration.

Learn more about MIND Reasearch Institute and the JiJI program on their website.

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