Aaron Pinto, age 11, always loved math. He just wasn’t very good at it. He stumbled with multiplication, fractions and decimals, refused to use pencil and paper, and made mistake after mistake as he tried to work things out on his fingers or in his head. Frustrated, at times even depressed, he couldn’t seem to find a way forward.
But Aaron’s problems, if overwhelming, weren’t that different from many of his 28 classmates at the Jaime Guzmán School, located in a neighborhood of Santiago, Chile where gangs and drug dealers operate and where most parents work in construction or in the local market and have no more than a primary school education. With those kinds of backgrounds, kids, even when they like math, often find it a struggle.
An innovative experiment using computers in Santiago
All of this made the Jaime Guzmán School and 23 other low-income primary schools in Santiago ideal for a 2017 experiment in innovative computer technology that ultimately helped students improve their math scores on Chile’s national standardized exams by an average of 50% compared to a control group.
The experiment was developed through a collaboration between Cornell University, the IDB, the International Development Research Center, and the University of Chile. It sought to help students suffering from poverty who were lagging in learning and for whom the traditional modes of instruction were not working.
Critically, it did so by emphasizing group study and mutual support, rather than shunting kids into different groups according to ability and risking stigma for underperformers.
More fun and greater math success
For Aaron, for his classmates and for the participating schools in general, those aspects of the program known as ConectaIdeas helped make it effective and math fun. “Students loved it, and it boosted their abilities and self-esteem,” said Erika Zuñiga, Aaron’s math teacher.
ConectaIdeas is based on the idea that while providing personal laptops to students does little to improve learning, guided computer learning with well-staffed computer labs, interactive games, and competitions can entice them like few other things. Making math engaging, in this view, is essential. It can animate students to grasp math beyond formulas and memorization to a deeper conceptual level where they understand abstract concepts and can innovate to solve problems.
The core of ConectaIdeas consists of two weekly, 90-minute math sessions in a computer lab. This doesn’t displace the classroom teacher as the central actor in the student’s education. But a coordinator from the ConectaIdeas team is present to collaborate with the teacher, and an online platform, with thousands of creative math problems, reinforces classroom material.
Immediate feedback from the software plays a crucial role. So does real-time monitoring, allowing staff to identify students who are falling behind and provide extra support.
The key ingredient: gamification
But the critical ingredient of ConectaIdeas may be that it introduces games and competitions to stimulate learning. This approach, called gamification, has been hailed as a potential game changer in education. But until recently there was little rigorous evidence about whether it worked in practice. Our evaluation of ConectaIdeas changed that: It shows how effective gamification can be for math.
ConectaIdeas includes several gamification strategies. To start with, students can see on their computers a graph displaying their progress relative to other members of the class, and most importantly, to other schools — an essential element of group competition.
Then every two months, the program hits its high notes: the hard-fought math tournaments that features online games between classrooms from different schools. In the lead up to the tournaments, the kids help each other with math problems and train enthusiastically as a group. Then on the big day, an announcer broadcasts each advance and setback as if it was a soccer game, and classes erupt in shouts, fist pumps and applause when they pull ahead of rival teams.
At Jaime Guzmán, where Aaron’s class won three trophies, including one for first place, Professor Zuñiga credits the tournaments with boosting student’s math achievement. For Aaron, she says, the whole ConectaIdeas experience provided joy as he rose to become a math coach for his peers and a top math student.
Unfortunately, not all the experiences from ConectaIdeas matched those described by Professor Zuñiga for her class and, particularly, Aaron. Indeed, overall the program increased anxiety associated with studying math, perhaps because competition — the basis of gamification — can cause people to compare themselves too much to others. And it reduced student’s desires to collaborate in teams, because, as in all competitions, teamates performing poorly can throw the match.
Still the successes in improving math scores were impressive. Math gains were equivalent — when comparing them to the most frequently discussed types of school reform — to seven times the effect of lengthening the school day and more than four times the effect of reducing class size.
At the Teresiana San José School, an institution with its own share of social issues — including families suffering from poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence — teacher Gricelda Poblete has fond memories of ConectaIdeas, including how it inspired one particular child from a struggling home to stop missing school. “It’s a great learning tool,” she said. “The exercises are very creative and the kids never get bored. If kids had their way they’d be doing ConectaIdeas all the time.”
By far the biggest impact of the program, however, may be in how it changes lives; how it empowers kids in a world in which math skills can be a passport out of poverty and into highly skilled professions that provide lifetime satisfaction and boost productivity for society as a whole.
[Editorial note: Anybody can access the ConectaIdeas platform free of charge. If you are interested in exploring it yourself, you can create an account here. To download our study, please click here.]