Cell phones & everyday objects to revolutionize math learning

By Jillian Slutzker

November 5, 2015

Combine the world’s 7 billion mobile devices with some simple household objects—from spoons to rocks—and they add up to an early grade math learning revolution.

With the debut of the “Math Everywhere” early grade math application, personalized and adaptive math learning activities could be at the fingertips of parents and learners. Math problems would come to life as learners use everyday objects (shoes, sticks and more) to solve hands-on math problems.

Children who master basic math skills at an early age have a greater chance of success down the road in school and, ultimately, employment, explained Ayan Kishore, Senior Technology for Development Associate at Creative Associates International and co-creator of the Math Everywhere app.

“Kids learning math will lead to better economies. It all starts right when they’re kids because the return on investment is highest,” said Kishore, who debuted the app at the annual MEducation Alliance Symposium in Washington, D.C., Oct. 29.

On a smart phone, the Math Everywhere app generates simple math problems, in a local language, that can be performed and solved using everyday objects like stones, shoes or grains of rice for counting, multiplying and more. As a child masters one skill, the app adapts to more challenging equations—advancing his/her game.

“Math is inherently game-based,” said Kishore, explaining the logic behind taking problems from the screen to a real life math challenge. “You don’t need to gamify it.”

Another key to the method, he said, is its hands-on approach.

“Kids learn by actually touching things and playing around with them. However, much I like mobile phones and all other ICT devices, unless you touch and play you are not really going to learn,” he said.

Math Everywhere follows Creative’s 2014 rollout of MStories, a mobile storytelling model bringing crowdsourced local language tales to communities, parents and children via SMS in Zambia.

Mastering math early equals better life outcomes

The challenges that inhibit a child’s progress in math—a lack of materials, community engagement and relevant out-of-school content—are very similar to the barriers impeding reading, said Kishore.

Yet, while early grade reading has garnered much attention from educators and donors, performance in math at an early age actually proves a stronger predictor of a child’s later achievement in both subjects, according to a study by Greg J. Duncan, Ph.D., at the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Mastering numeracy in childhood also leads to better lifelong economic outcomes, as Math Everywhere co-creator and math education expert Deepa Srikantaiah explains.

“Mathematics is an important mechanism to further education, enabling individuals to improve their job market potential, and making citizens better problem-solvers and critical thinkers,” she says.      

In many developing countries, however, math achievement lags behind performance in developed countries. An average student in lower-income countries performs worse than the fifth percentile of students in higher-income countries, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Play & learn anywhere

The core idea behind Math Everywhere is that regular items in a child’s environment can become powerful learning tools, and that parents and community members can help their children learn basic math skills without a classroom and without high-tech tools.

For the world’s more than 61 million out-of-school primary school-aged children, according to UNESCO, and potentially millions more as refugee populations swell in parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Math Everywhere is a chance for children to learn basic numeracy skills that will reap life-long benefits.

“People are eager to have access to educational content on their mobile devices in their own language,” says Jacqui Deelstra, app co-creator and Technology for Development Associate at Creative. Deelstra says Math Everywhere brings that content to children—even those in vulnerable contexts.

A math data opportunity

With high rates of absenteeism and unreliable education data reporting systems in many rural communities, collecting accurate information about student math achievement is a challenge for many governments.

“The lack of research and data in early grade mathematics in developing countries, or low-income contexts, exposes a critical gap in the importance of education indicators for development,” says Srikantaiah.

The Math Everywhere app could unlock a wealth of information on math learning in hard to reach areas, say its creators.

Through the app, demographic information, location and rates of learner progress can be aggregated and analyzed to help education officials identify key data points to guide policy and curriculum.

“Just imagine if something as simple as this was out in a community, you would quickly have information about math achievement,” said Kishore.

Kishore said the app presents new possibilities to gather insight into how kids learn math and to reach millions of out-of-school children with basic numeracy skills.

After all, said Kishore, “Folks have phones and math is everywhere!”

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