Interview | Arjan Khalsa Conceptualizes Math Fluency

Arjan Khalsa CEO of Conceptua MathConceptua Math was conceived three years ago with a mission to complete a K-8 curriculum that is visually interactive and that serves students and their teachers.

by Judy Faust Hartnett

A whole new generation of digital math products is focused on aligning math learning with the Common Core State Standards. If used properly, then these products can be a great asset to school districts. While researching this topic, Conceptua Math caught my eye because unlike other products, it has not only the student, but the teacher in mind. I tracked down its very dynamic leader, Arjan Khalsa, who has devoted his professional life to education and the development of educational materials for over 25 years. He offers a unique approach as to why, even in our more sophisticated culture, it is still acceptable to be afraid of mathematics — a subject that is essential to the future of this generation.

Judy: Can you tell me about the origin of Conceptua Math?

Conceptua logoArjan: For years, our team — that includes the six founders of Conceptua Math — developed special education technology for children with disabilities so they could be included in the school process. IntelliTools provided visual and conceptual learning opportunities that united students with their teachers. We sold the company after 16 years to the Cambium Learning Group, and we wanted to do something else as powerful as what we had done with IntelliTools. We wanted to have another great experience.

Judy: How were you specifically involved with mathematics?

Arjan: Back in the ’80s I used to develop math and science curriculum at a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley. From there I went into the disability world, but after completing a 16-year cycle, I went back to the math world and found that math education had not improved much since 1986, when I worked on it previously.

In the ’80s there was something new published called the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards. I was on the team that first published them in the California Math Framework in 1986 or 1987. From my perspective, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have recently been created are part of the same continuum of thought. We’re still in a place where we’re trying to help people live to those kinds of standards with regard to conceptual learning and great thoughtfulness in mathematics, which is extremely important.

Judy: Can you give a visual example of this?

Arjan: If a child only learned words but never read a book, it would not be fun at all. When they read a book they talk about it, and the teacher asks how they liked it, and would they recommend it to someone else, or how does it relate to their life.

Leaders of mathematics see math as a language as well. It’s a way of describing the world. For instance, I can say that the wall in front of me is white and has a slightly rough texture. I can also describe the height and width, and I can even measure the density. Mathematics is a way of describing the world around us. If math for kids is only ever a way to get answers right and wrong, and never a way to observe and describe the world around us, then who cares about it? It doesn’t have much meaning.

Judy: Can you explain how mathematics learning has gone wrong in schools?

Conceptua Student GainsArjan: The purpose of math education should be to get everyone to participate in looking at the world mathematically.  This purpose is greatly achieved in middle school mathematics – fractions and decimals and statistics and proportional reasoning. The problem is that we are not emphasizing and rewarding these critical years of math achievement. It’s highly documented that many people don’t know plain sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-grade mathematics. Most kids start turning off to mathematics right there. They start saying that it’s stupid and that it doesn’t relate to their life.

If we paid more attention to these pivotal topics and fostered more success at these middle school ages, that would increase the pool of people who are available to go into higher mathematics—things like calculus and trigonometry. That’s the problem. 

Judy: How engrained is it in our culture that it’s socially acceptable to not like math?

Arjan: You and I can go to a party and someone will say, “We’re refinancing and I don’t understand that at all; my husband does it” or “my cousin does it.” But you would never hear anyone at a party say, “I heard there was a really compelling article in the New York Times but I can’t read the New York Times; my husband does that. He was away for the last few days.” It would be completely unheard of to abdicate the throne when it comes to reading, but when it comes to math it’s totally acceptable. This is true not just in the United States. It’s true worldwide.

We live in a more sophisticated age than we used to, and people are doing many things that they didn’t do before. It’s time now for more people to be in the successful pursuit of mathematics. It’s evolutionary, and research shows that the mathematics conundrum has been experienced by students and their teachers. The National Advisory Panel of 2008, a controversial panel put together by President George H. W. Bush, had one conclusion that was not doubted, which was that elementary and middle school teachers have a very difficult time teaching math.

Judy: Most of the curriculum-based technology that I write about seems to be student centered. Conceptua Math is oriented toward the teacher. Am I right?

Arjan: Technology is good for several reasons. Number one, it can deliver visual conceptual learning. It can show how math works in our world. Number two, it can give teachers support in real time right on the whiteboard in the front of the room. Number three, teachers don’t have to study ahead of time. They don’t have to wonder, “What am I going to say to my kids today?” It’s right there for them. What we generally believe in our world now is that we use technology “just in time.” Just-in-time information is how professionals work in their field, whether it’s doctors checking drug interactions while they are with a patient, or people using a GPS for directions while driving or walking to an appointment. Why shouldn’t we make this available for teachers? It’s really simple. Our mission with Conceptua Math is to deliver just-in-time curriculum for teachers and students and to do it in a visual and conceptual way consistent with the best way to teach and the best way to learn.

Judy: Teachers do not need to prepare before using this program?

Arjan: They shouldn’t. How can they? They are in a room with 25-30 kids 180 days a year. Let’s get real. 

conceptua-sample-screen-add-fractionsJudy: The fraction unit, which is the first unit completed in your K-8 curriculum, is aligned with the CCSS?

Arjan: We are completely aligned with the CCSS. It’s in our DNA. We live in and breathe the Common Core. We believe in it. It’s who we are.

Judy: How many students are using the program currently, and are there any similar products?

Arjan: Currently we’re in eight states serving 15,000 students. Our approach is unique because we’re so focused on keeping the teacher in the equation. Traditionally, software has been about bypassing the teacher and having a direct connection to the student experience that is “teacher proof.” We just don’t believe in that. We believe that the relationship between children and their teachers is precious, and that’s what’s unique about what we do.

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Judy Faust Hartnett is a contributing editor to EdTech Digest. She was editor-in-chief of District Administration magazine for nearly six years. Passionate about education technology, she is a recognized leader in education journalism. Previously, she was the managing editor of ConsumerReports.org. Write to: judyfausthartnett@gmail.com

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2 Responses to Interview | Arjan Khalsa Conceptualizes Math Fluency

  1. Robert M. van Deusen says:

    I met Arjan at the National Singapore Math Strategies Conference in Las Vegas last summer. Arjan possesses a magnificent passion about the importance of sharing the understanding of math concepts with current and future classroom teachers. He has done the work, put together the staff, tested the software with teachers and students, and is ready to help districts and states meet the challenges related to understanding mathematics.

    When most elementary teachers signed up for the profession, we knew we loved children, books, and reading. When we started teaching, most of us discovered that the way we had been taught mathematics was highly procedural and directed at finding “right answers.” To teach to the objectives of the Common Core requires a quantum leap from our current understanding—it requires that we teach our students to understand what they are doing—that they know why something works before they learn how to do it. This kind of learning is built into the Conceptua Math software—software that keeps teachers directly involved while presenting multiple pictorial models on the whiteboard in front of the room. The payoff belongs to both the teachers and the students—they each develop a deeper understanding of the relationships that have always been there—but have seldom been explicated as part of learning mathematics. “Now, I get it,” will be heard up and down the hallways in thousands of math classrooms if Arjan has anything to say about it. And my guess is—he does.

  2. This is a great interview and I am so pleased to see my brother Arjan’s work getting this exposure. He is gifted at what he does and his work has impacted many lives. Thanks for this article!

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