Archives For March 2015

We left classroom teaching in 2007 to set up a tuition business in Bath. We taught from a converted shop, which became a small classroom equipped with the best maths resources I could lay my hands on. The business quickly took off, and soon we were teaching more students than we could manage, so the natural next step was to employ a tutor. And then a couple more. By 2008 the small classroom was full every evening and every Saturday morning, but parents were still knocking at the door.

We opened a second centre on the other side of Bath, and ran it remotely, employing tutors and a centre manager. Not quite as successful and the first, it still saw over 100 students per week pass through its doors. But by 2010, the business was stagnating. For a while we couldn’t understand it: we’d experienced 3 years of rapid growth, and we envisaged opening a third and perhaps fourth centre – after all, we were still only hitting 1% of the addressable market in Bath. Why had we stopped growing?

The answer is simple: the students being tutored in 2010 were receiving good tuition, but not the outstanding tuition that our first customers had received. As the business scaled, it became harder and harder to find really good tutors, and harder and harder to ensure our initial exacting standards were being met. And you are never under more scrutiny than when you are teaching a child maths. If we had opened a third centre, it could have been catastrophic for our business.

As I have said in previous blogs, the single most important factor when it comes to raising standards in maths is to ensure that every child is working at their threshold of understanding. And this is harder than you may think. Tutors do not do this reliably – even when you put processes in place, they need to be followed. The biggest issue we faced with tutors was the constant defaulting to teaching children what they were doing at school, which, by-and-large, was not what the child needed because it wasn’t their threshold.BIGENLARGEMENTS1

As we build DoodleMaths, the opposite is happening. Increased revenues mean we can invest more and more back in to creating the resources that work best for a child. The vast data we collect is vital to driving this: last month, 600,000 questions were answered. We know exactly what the average time taken to answer each question is, which questions are too hard, which ones are too easy. This allows us to refine our work program with greater and greater accuracy. And outcomes are immediately tangible: we can demonstrate progress transparently to parents, teacher and children in real time, so if a child is finding something difficult, there should be no reason for them to sweat on it for weeks at a time

As our technology-based tutoring system evolves, it will become better and better through scaling in a way that our human-based equivalent never could.

Threshold training is a common term in distance running. It’s one of the most productive types of training that an aspiring athlete can do. The proper pace for threshold training is about 90% of maximum heart rate, and training in this way can significantly improve a runner’s speed.

Martin Pettitt (CC2.0 Generic license)

Martin Pettitt (CC2.0 Generic license)

I sometimes like to think of maths, as a tree of increasingly difficult concepts. Every learner is at a different point in climbing the tree. Every learner has their own threshold, having made their way to a certain point up the tree. It’s vital they don’t forget what they learnt lower down the tree, else they’ll fall back down. And equally vital is that they learn what is next for them personally on the tree, so they are working at their own threshold.

If a runner took a light jog every day for 15 minutes, she’d never improve. But on the other hand, if she trained at 95% of maximum heart rate every day, she may suffer exhaustion, and injury or perhaps a crisis of confidence.

If our mission is to significantly raise an individual child’s standards in maths, the single most important task is to establish that child’s threshold. Set the work too easy and they won’t learn anything new. Set the work too hard, and they will be learning concepts that are not underpinned by the necessary pre-requisites, meaning there’s a danger of the child not fully understanding the concept and then forgetting it soon after. This is what made Kumon the most successful supplementary maths provider of the 20th century: every child entered the program at their threshold, and the curriculum was carefully constructed to ensure pre-requisites were always in place and never forgotten. Children learned through doing maths, always at their threshold.

We know what happens when a child isn’t working at their threshold. We’ve experienced it ourselves as either a teacher, a parent or from our own memories of school. A year spent in a maths group where a subject-enthusiast teaches to the top of the class with great enthusiasm but to the extent that most get left behind, or understand only in bursts and forget what they learned a few weeks later. Alternatively, perhaps less commonly, is the wasted term that a child might experience if they are placed in the bottom group by accident.

Image by Fir0002

Image by Fir0002

Finally, it’s worth noting that as maths branches out into different disciplines, children may have different thresholds for Algebra, Shape and Space, Number or Data Handling for example. It’s difficult for a teacher to keep track of these thresholds, let alone teach individual children at the right level for each. Luckily, that’s where technology can make a difference.