Concept Mastery

In today’s digital world, students read, examine, manipulate and interact on their device.

GUEST COLUMN |by Jim Bowler

CREDIT Adaptive CurriculumAs I travel around the country visiting schools, I observe one noticeable absence in many classrooms―no textbooks. Increasingly, teachers are turning to digital materials to improve learning and meet new standards. Companies are creating revolutionary new ways of teaching and learning that let students read, examine, manipulate, and interact with content right on their device—like a virtual canvas. This is the way students learn in the digital world. These next-generation e-books blend engaging interactions, animations, illustrations, graphs, and questions with standard text to create an interactive, enriching learning experience.

We need to create experiences that stimulate active learning through interaction with content, promoting mastery of key concepts.

As a former educator and current educational software developer, I believe this is a direction that is long overdue in U.S. classrooms. We need to create experiences that stimulate active learning through interaction with content, promoting mastery of key concepts and 21st-century skills. Schools today need to prepare students for lifelong learning, not simply landing a first job. Today’s graduates will hold a number of jobs in the future and may settle into a position that doesn’t even exist today. Focusing on active learning and concept mastery is the best way to meet this challenge.

Many of us think back to our classroom days when rote memorization was a large part of our learning, whether it was geometry proofs or biology classifications. We also know how little we have referenced those long-forgotten facts. Pedagogically, education has rightfully moved beyond memorization of discreet and unrelated items to a more systemic understanding of concepts. Dr. Peter Rillero, Ph.D., an associate professor of science education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU, says that deep conceptual learning methods help students meet today’s more rigorous standards in math and science. “While it’s clear that deep conceptual learning is a desired outcome of the Common Core standards, just asking students to learn deeply isn’t enough,” said Rillero. “Educators need practical, proven methods to help students to make connections between concepts and real-world situations. Deep conceptual learning methods—such as discovery learning, multiple representations, analogies, and challenge-based learning—help students move from simple memorization to deep, meaningful learning.”

What is most exciting is how conceptual learning can be furthered with technology. Interactive activities can simulate real-world scenarios, and students can make hypotheses and then discover whether their hypotheses are correct. Predicting an outcome, observing an action, and analyzing the result cannot be accomplished with a traditional textbook. An interactive eBook can provide such learning. Take, for example, an instructional unit on “Conservation of Mass,” in which students measure the mass of reactants, burn them, and then measure the mass of the gas and residue remaining. Students can predict what the outcome will be, watch the reaction, and then analyze the results. In this case, they find that the mass of the reactants is equal to the mass of the products. Starting with their observations, students are led to the conclusion that mass is conserved in chemical reactions. Not only is the content learned in a deep and memorable way, but learners also develop inquiry skills.

Likewise, challenge-based learning can be supported by innovative technology. As Dr. Peter Rillero observes, “In challenge-based learning, as in problem-based learning, the teacher’s primary role shifts from dispensing information to guiding students’ construction of knowledge around a problem of global importance.” Using technology, a student is presented with a problem, refines the problem, and then develops strategies to arrive at a solution. Students can research questions, investigate the topic using a wide variety of primary source material, and work out a variety of possible solutions using online simulations before identifying the most reasonable one. Solving ecological issues, medical problems, or chemical reactions are just a few of the challenges that can be addressed with simulations in an interactive e-book.

What do teachers say about using technology to support concept mastery and challenge-based learning? In a study by the ASU’s Technology Based Learning Research Center and sponsored by Adaptive Curriculum, teachers listed several benefits:

  •       “They develop thinking skills that go beyond looking answers up out of the book. Those thinking skills can be transferred to all aspects of their lives.”
  •       “They’re not limited by their knowledge in one particular area—they can make connections between disciplines, and they know how to find the information they need to succeed, no matter what they’re trying to accomplish.”
  •       “These students will be better at analyzing information by knowing that there may be more to a problem or situation they encounter.”
  •       “They are better problem solvers; they understand how to learn in a variety of settings; they can answer questions of types they haven’t seen as well as types they have seen.”

For those of us who have been using technology with students for decades, these responses do not surprise us. If anything, they encourage us to speak more boldly about the need to accelerate the transformation from books to interactive learning. Failure to do so is limiting another generation of students charged to our care. As parents, as teachers, as a society, we cannot afford to do that. Providing our children with the most innovative and pedagogically sound learning is a responsibility we all have.

Jim Bowler is CEO of Adaptive Curriculum. Write to:

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Cool Tool | The EDvantage

CREDIt EDvantage prof devA new online resource from the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, The EDvantage is a free, online curriculum hub that searches the realm of online content, collecting high-quality and creative resources that educators can incorporate into instruction. The content is curated from educational videos, articles and other resources instructors can use to supplement classroom instruction. Educators also have the option to contribute their own content to the site, helping to grow the resource and build a community of connected users. Current content covers philosophy, history and economics, with more resources being added in the near future. The EDvantage is eager to hear from faculty and teachers who are interested in providing feedback, contributing content, or getting involved in future project development. See it here.

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Turning on the Quadcopter

Boy, there must be a better way to teach math and science!

GUEST COLUMN | by Elad Inbar

CREDIT RobotsLABVictoria is a 10th grader at a school in Austin Independent Schools in Texas. Some of her fellow students have already had babies, which they bring with them to the in-school daycare. Math is not one of the strengths of this school. Actually, last year only 12 percent of this school’s graduates were considered proficient in math (not shocking news for those familiar with the national statistics; only 32% of U.S. graduates last year were proficient in mathematics).

The students didn’t show any interest in the explanations, and it seemed like any other low-attention Algebra class.

Victoria didn’t know what to expect in her Algebra class on a cold December morning last year. When she entered the room, it was clear that something wasn’t as usual. In the middle of the U-shaped tables where the teacher usually stood rested a quadcopter, a helicopter with four rotors.

“Now what is THAT?” she asked her teacher while chewing a huge piece of pink gum.

“Sit down and you’ll see,” said the teacher.

As the lesson started, the teacher explained to the students that today they are going to learn quadratic equations in a whole new way, using the robot that was on the floor. Meanwhile, most of the students remained skeptical, continuing to zone out on their smartphone games and other non-class related toys.

The teacher explained to them that today’s lesson involved the quadcopter as a tool that can demonstrate the quadratic relationship between the height of the quadcopter and the area that its bottom camera can capture.

“The higher the quad copter, the larger the area that the camera can see,” she explained, “and if you think about it, the image area is actually edge times edge, or edge squared. Hence, the quadratic relationship.”

The students didn’t show any interest in the explanations, and it seemed like any other low-attention Algebra class.

That all changed when the teacher turned on the quadcopter.

It immediately took off and hovered in the middle of the classroom. Everyone’s eyes were locked on the robot as it floated with little movement, as if by magic.

The teacher got the attention of the class.

CREDIT RobotsLAB quadcopter

Then, while controlling the robot, sending it up high to 7 feet, and down to 5 inches, she repeated the explanation about the quadratic relationship while demonstrating a real-world example.

This time the students really listened, asked questions — and for the first time — they understood how the parabola on the screen modeled the height vs. area relationship, why the vertex is where it is, and how a quadratic relationship is different from a linear relationship. Everything was clearly explained by looking at the robot in mid-air and the correlated data and graph on the lesson’s interface as projected on the wall.

Victoria, who was quiet during the demonstration, raised her hand later on and asked the teacher: “So is this the same relationship when I turn on a flashlight, and come close to a wall, the light gets small and when I go back the light becomes bigger?”

The teacher replied with tears of joy in her eyes. “Yes, Victoria, that’s correct!”

Surprisingly, Victoria shouted: “Ah! NOW I understand quadratic equations!”

The lesson was a success.

The students left the class that day talking about Algebra and relationships, something that never happened before.

EdTech is Much More than a Smart Board!

This amazing story happened last year while we tested the RobotsLAB BOX lessons in classrooms, fine-tuning them and preparing them for prime time together with our teachers. We experienced similar “revelation” moments every time we ran a lesson, to various groups. It was exciting!

Math proficiency is not a luxury our schools can afford skipping, this is one of the core elements of the work force of the 21st century. Recent research findings published by the Harvard Business School Review stated that 62% of all American jobs require entry-level workers to be proficient in Algebra. This is not a surprise considering the fact that we live in the digital era, where every business, marketing, manufacturing or engineering decision must rely on real data and the correlations hidden in it.

Now, if the average U.S. high school produces only 32% math-proficient graduates, who will fill all these open positions?

There must be a better way to engage students in math and science.

There are many initiatives that are trying to bridge this gap, some are using smart boards, some are using iPads while others are trying flipped classrooms and MOOC such as Khan Academy. However, at the end of the day students still don’t understand why math is relevant to their life.

And this is where robots are coming into the picture.

Robots are moving in and interacting with our physical universe. They are the absolute opposite of the abstract: they are very visual.

In her famous book, “Visual Literacy”, Lynell Burmark emphasizes the importance of visual learning, as it improves learning by 400%, and improves information retention by 650%!

CREDIT RobotsLAB bar graphIt’s easy to see why: I can spend 20 minutes explaining to someone how to use a screwdriver, draw equations representing the vectors of the direction and force we need to apply in each step, etc., or just pick up a screwdriver and show him. In less than a minute, most people will get it.

Similarly, robots are visual, one sees them, and can immediately understand. On top of that – they’re fun and cool! And fun means engagement — which is directly correlated to success and higher scores which, in turn, will help the student in finding a decent job upon graduation.

And this is, after all, what the education system is all about — isn’t it?

* * *

RobotsLAB BOX is a teaching aid designed to engage students in math and science using robots. It includes a set of four robots controlled by a tablet, pre-loaded with Common Core and STAAR aligned lessons. Teachers don’t need any prior experience with robotics or computer science to conduct the lessons.


Elad Inbar is the founder and CEO of both the first marketplace for apps for robots, and a boutique firm dedicated to teaching STEM topics using robotics platforms.

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Cool Tool | Smart Sparrow

CREDIT SmartSparrowFinally, an adaptive eLearning platform built specifically with the teacher in mind. Most adaptive learning platforms are based on multiple choice questions and the content is limited. Today, teachers want to be in control of the content they teach with and are looking for rich, interactive and adaptive content that gives them more control over their online teaching. Smart Sparrow’s Adaptive eLearning Platform was developed with faculty in a research group for Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Educational Data Mining at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Their direct-to-academic approach contrasts with institutionally-focused edtech players, enabling an individual professor to develop engaging content while preserving academic control. The platform incorporates an authoring tool that allows professors to create adaptive learning experiences and to easily deploy them to students. There is also a learning analytics dashboard that allows professors to analyze their students’ learning and gives them recommendations on how the content can be improved to achieve better learning outcomes. Smart Sparrow’s Adaptive eLearning Platform is already used by academics from more than 400 educational institutions worldwide. Their mission is to empower teachers to make the world smarter. Check it out.

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Cool Tool | SupplyChaser

CREDIT SupplyChaserA new website that allows teachers to create and share supply lists, SupplyChaser is free and allows teachers to reuse and refine their lists from year to year. Teachers are given a unique link for each list so they can post it on their own website or share it through email. The unexpected part is that teachers can search for a specific product on and then paste its link into their list. The list then goes out to and includes the product’s image, details and price. The list also creates a link that will open Amazon’s detail product page for that item when the parent clicks it. Now instead of describing in great detail the 24-pack of jumbo crayons you want the parent to provide, you can just point to it. This takes the guesswork out of shopping and it ensures that students obtain the correct items.  It also allows the parents to click a button on the teacher’s list and have all of the items automatically transferred to ready for checkout. If the parent chooses to shop in a physical store the lists are viewable from their smart phone.  Parents can do all of this without needing to create an account on the site. Check it out for yourself at

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