I’ve loved mathematics for as long as I can remember. A “math geek” through and through, I would spend hours solving math problems.
So it’s no surprise one of my favourite quotes comes from renowned mathematician, Francis Su:
"We study mathematics for play, for beauty, for truth, for justice and for love."
Unfortunately, if you ask the average high school student to list the top five words that come to mind when you say “mathematics”, chances are you won’t hear any of these words.
A quick look at the participation rates for advanced maths in Australian high schools reveal an alarming reality… students are turning their backs on mathematics in droves.
This is particularly concerning because we’re living in an age where we need our young graduates to have strong mathematics skills. It’s no secret that with the advent of artificial intelligence the jobs of the future will require problem solving and analytical skills best learnt in the maths classroom.
So, how can we get more students engaged with maths at school?
The truth is, there isn’t one single solution. We need to implement a range of things, including curriculum reform, and putting an end to high stakes tests, replacing them with a mastery-based learning approach. We most definitely need to invest more in attracting and retaining excellent teachers.
But all these things take time, involve a great number of stakeholders and a great deal of bureaucracy.
I don’t have the patience for that, which triggered my journey towards becoming a maths educator.
This journey started eight years ago when I left my job as a derivatives trader to build a web app to help students learn maths. The app, called Mathspace, aims to personalise a student’s pathway through the curriculum with step by step guidance.
The challenge is the students who use Mathspace don’t use it regularly. And that’s no surprise when you consider every time you put a device in a student’s hands you're competing for a limited “attention budget” against the likes of Facebook, Snapchat and Playstation!
To earn an allocation of this “attention budget” we experimented with a variety of engagement tools before ultimately stumbling across a completely different idea. We discovered a study which looked at paying students to improve their test scores. The results were indisputable – financial incentives could improve student outcomes as long as they were immediate and were designed to reward effort rather than performance. In one test, they gave students $20 and said, “touch it; feel it; smell it - it’s all yours! But if you don’t improve I’m taking it away”. And that worked.
We were really excited about the potential of implementing this in Mathspace, but was this ethical and how on earth could we fund it?
Ethically, the mathematical purist in me was thinking about Francis Su’s reasons for studying mathematics and “money” wasn’t on the list. But as I thought about this more I realised that if everyone was studying mathematics for love, we wouldn’t have this problem. We needed a way to engage students with mathematics to kick start their love affair.
And how could we fund it? Naturally parents are most invested in their children's education, so our solution is to charge parents a weekly $10 subscription fee for their children to use the program. But if their child completes their weekly maths exercises, we refund the entire $10 subscription directly into the child’s bank account.
I remember when I first told my wife about this model she thought I’d gone completely mad. She said: "You realise that if everybody does their homework, you're not going to make any revenue. Great business model!”
I smiled and said: “True, if every student in the country joins and does their maths homework every week, sure we'd go bust pretty quickly but, hey, we'd solve the country's maths skills crisis!”
As a company, we’ve always run a double bottom line, looking to both improve student outcomes and make a return for investors. We know in the long run the value of our business depends on our ability to improve student outcomes and so we’re happy to sacrifice short term profit. Our dual objectives are never at odds.
Over the past six months we’ve been testing the model in Australia. About 75 per cent of students are completing their homework, which means, on average, we receive our weekly subscription fee once every four weeks and the other three weeks we're rewarding students. Now of course we’re leaving some revenue on the table here, so is it worth it? You bet it is! It turns out that students on the rewards program are 70 per cent more engaged than those not on the program. So if we can find a way to scale this then we’d be happily trading off lower revenue per user for a bigger and more engaged user base. Everybody wins!
This is an edited version of Mo Jebara’s TED@Westpac talk – the full talk is at TED.com. Mathspace was named a Westpac Business of Tomorrow and offers Mathspace Essentials for free as part of a partnership agreement with Westpac. For more about TED@Westpac – a partnership between Westpac and the TED Institute – read Lisa Choi Owen's article What TED's taught us about the power of ideas.