Headlines over the past year have been wrought with people flouting public health guidelines despite thousands of deaths each day. It’s become obvious that many lack the fundamental understanding — that yes, even just 20 people getting together at a party can lead to thousands of new Covid infections and deaths. In theory, this shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone: everyone learned this concept, exponential growth, in high school Algebra. But in practice, too many were bored, confused, or indifferent, and were never sensitized to the importance of these fundamental math concepts.
Over the past decade, I’ve been convicted to solve this stubbornly persistent math learning problem, that has both turned away generations of kids in STEM, and significantly diminished our ability to collectively problem-solve. During my time in the Boston Public Schools, NYC DOE and Success Academy, I worked with thousands of dedicated teachers leading student-centered methods in their classrooms, district & charter leaders who are reimagining delivery of instruction to increase engagement & proficiencies, and Edtech tools that are automating timely feedback to students. Through these experiences, I learned that despite our country’s valiant investments into the math learning problem, there is a rather simple reason why interest and achievement in the applied mathematics remain largely stagnant: we teach to the wrong modality.
Learning science has validated that we all learn Math more fluidly and fluently when we interact with and experience via perceiving, touching, moving, and visualizing concepts within meaningful real world settings. Einstein, who was inarguably good at math often described his learning as experiential, and his thinking as muscular. He didn’t think or grapple with problems in words, no matter how abstract the idea. And Einstein isn’t unique (in this way).
Unfortunately, most learning tools and aids today don’t reflect this fact, so we’ve ended up sending our students and teachers to the Major Leagues with wiffleball bats in their hands.
THE OLD WAY
Think back to how you learned exponential growth in your high school Algebra class. This is likely to trigger memories of dull apathy:
This approach assumes that knowledge in Algebra is a disembodied abstraction, a reality independent of our bodies and brains. Though this model isn’t reflective of how we are wired to learn, we transcribed it into the digital realm, not because it worked, but because we could with the technology we had.
But today we are in a new moment in the use of technology in education. Given monumental recent advances in our ability to create authentic digital experiences, that engage with the student as a multimodal sense-maker, versus a computer intended to memorize and repeat procedures, we can finally implement a learning model that is aligned to…wait for it…how we actually learn.
So I founded Prisms of Reality to actualize a new learning paradigm for math, and break down the barriers that have weeded out some of our most creative learners since the advent of our modern educational system.
A BETTER WAY
How can students learn exponential functions, experientially?
Rather than beginning with an abstraction that doesn’t mean anything to them, students feel the exponential growth of a virus through their bodies.
They naturally begin to ask questions and take on their mission to determine how many weeks it will take for their city’s hospitals to become overwhelmed?
They analyze the growth rate through touching, moving and interacting with tactile sense making tools and mapping across different math representations.
They finally create formal math abstractions (tables, graphs, equations) that are grounded in deep structural understanding.
To be clear, problem-based learning in Math is not new. But experiencingthe problem, versus intellectualizing it, is. Experiences are inherently multimodal, not solely cognitive. By grounding math reasoning in such experiences and using multimodal thinking data to provide feedback during critical moments of struggle, our eminent hope is to nurture purpose-driven learning, emotional resonance with socially-relevant problems, and foster long-term persistence and success in STEM.
But, perhaps most importantly, we can ensure that our students walk away with a rock solid understanding of how mathematical modeling informs personal and collective decision-making. As one of our students put it, “doing math” in this new way made her want to do more math, and gain confidence to take on problems that she otherwise passively watched play out around her. And another student “finally” understood how people unknowingly spread the virus even though he’d read and seen countless videos and articles prior to experiencing the problem.
Prisms of Reality will be launching our first Algebra learning module on the Pandemic & exponential functions for teachers, students and parents on the Oculus App Lab, Sidequest and Steam platforms in February 2021. To learn more and join our movement to reimagine the K-12 STEM classroom, visit us at prismsvr.com.