Sarah White started working in education technology back in the 1980’s—at a time when “multi media” was a term many didn’t know, and very few teachers and schools had any understanding of the benefits of delivering learning through technology. Sarah started Six Red Marbles with an “absolute passion and certainty” that technology would one day be integral to education and make an immense impact on the lives of children. “We produce great programs for several reasons: our interfaces engage through creative interactive design and content, our flexible process always ensures we get the job done, and we deeply understand the needs of both students and teachers,” she says. Instead of developing interactive programs from a list of features or technology buzz words, her company starts with the goals, and then they create engaging programs to fulfill those goals. “This takes a great team, more patience, and a bit more work upfront but it always pays off,” says Sarah. Indeed, it has: Six Red Marbles is now the largest American-owned full service development house dedicated exclusively to the educational industry. In 2008, they successfully merged with Baltimore based Monotype, which had an up-and-coming editorial shop, and in late 2010, under their CEO Jacques Driscoll’s leadership, they merged with Brown Publishing Network, a well-known editorial house focused mostly on Reading/Language Arts. Educational publishing continues to be a tumultuous market, but Six Red Marbles has been navigating it well and staying true to their original dedication to technology. Here, Sarah shares more of their story and where that dedication comes from.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Sarah: Two founders + four original employees, a bold color, and an interactive toy = Six Red Marbles. I have never had any second thoughts on the name and it has carried us forward beautifully for 15 years!
Victor: What programs has Six Red Marbles developed?
Sarah: For many years we developed award winning multi-media educational materials for leading publishers including McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson. Then in 2010 we decided it was time to create learning programs that we felt would address the issues many others were missing. Our “platform” is called our Natural Learning Approach. It is based on four pillars: Neuroscience research on how kids learn best; a thing we call Tribal Pedagogy (learning by necessity, imitation, and story-telling), creativity, and an accessible 24/7 delivery.
Our first three programs were released in 2010: Juba™, a whole-brain learning exploration for young learners; Waza™, an interactive math readiness adventure; and Cabanga™, a celebrity agent role-playing game for middle school math.
Our primary goal is to engage the young learners—to develop a love of learning. So although the programs have robust Teacher Dashboards with progress reporting, assignments, and reporting against standards, we focused on the learner experience. We did our market research, went into classrooms, and used our own experience to create these three programs.
Victor: Tell us about each program—what makes them unique for student learning.
Sarah: Most importantly, all our programs make learning relevant and fun for kids.
Cabanga, is an interactive role-playing game for middle school math students in which each student runs his/her own celebrity agency by recruiting talent and getting them jobs. The National Parenting Center just said it is “without a doubt one of the most ingenious, cool and fun ways to learn math in a ‘real-life’ setting.”
Students must apply math concepts as well as critical thinking, problem solving, and judgment skills to keep their businesses viable and profitable. So while having fun, students are challenged by more than 30,000 algebraic, arithmetic, and word math problems in eleven topic areas that kids struggle with most, including decimals, fractions, and percents; ratio; equations; data and probability; as well as financial literacy.
Educators put great emphasis on middle school as a make or break time for learning math. Cabanga supports middle school learners through an automated Adaptive Curriculum of nine difficulty levels, seamlessly adjusting question difficulty based on student responses. Cabanga adapts to each student’s level, providing the necessary feedback and coaching, while allowing them to learn at their own pace and fostering a positive learning environment.
Waza is an online math readiness program for PreK-1st grade. It immerses kids in fun challenges, not “math problems”, through a vibrant, intuitive multisensory learning adventure. Waza also features an automated Adaptive Curriculum, so kids never feel discouraged while progressing at their own pace—building interest, trust, and confidence in math.
Juba is a multi-sensory learning exploration for young children. It is designed to nurture kids’ natural desire to explore, create, share, and learn. It features 2,000 real life images from around the world, with sound effects, interactive activities, STEM related fun facts, inquiry based questions, and most importantly a “tool kit” that allows kids to paint, draw, type, and audio record. Juba supports instruction in language development, literacy, math, science, and the creative arts, while at the same time providing children the freedom to explore and creatively express what they’ve learned.
Unlike any other program on the market, each of our three programs features a unique Spanish/English toggle—both audio and visual—so kids can seamlessly switch back and forth between languages. The toggle provides extra ELL support in addition inspiring English speakers to learn another language.
The meaning of the names? We chose African tribal names for our programs to pay homage to their Natural Learning roots. Juba is Swahili for fearless, Waza is Zulu for think and Cabanga is Zulu for imagine. We want kids to be fearless in their education…not paralyzed by the fear of a wrong answer or stupid question. We want them to develop the capacity to think while never losing the ability to imagine.
Victor: And how do these programs help teachers teach?
Sarah: Part of the beauty of these programs is that they can be used for whole class, teacher-lead instruction, or individualized, child-directed learning, so teachers can work with kids one-on-one as needed.
Each program features a robust Teacher Dashboard, providing real-time reports tracking student progress against standards. The reports in Cabanga and Waza show teachers which students are struggling with or mastering specific math topics. Juba features a visual portfolio of each child’s work and tracks student mastery of topics. All the programs are delivered online and correlated to Common Core, State, and ISTE NETS learning standards, as well as NCTM (for Waza and Cabanga) and NAEYC and Head Start (for Juba). So this makes individual student progress reporting, assignments, and reporting against standards very easy.
To foster communication between teachers and parents, each program has a Home Connection feature, allowing teachers to email parents and share student work and progress reports. And since the program is online and available anytime, parents can work with their children on the programs at home.
Victor: When were the programs developed? What is something interesting or relevant about their development history?
Sarah: All three were released in September 2010. I’m very passionate about these new interactive programs because they are real embodiments of the company’s vision and dedication to designing programs that both engage kids and help them learn. It’s a really exciting time at Six Red Marbles. Despite the company’s growth, our research and development team has really maintained the start-up atmosphere and passion that I find very energizing. Our small, agile team was focused on creativity, flexibility, and the end user (teachers and kids). Our tight team knows how to get it done. I have always thought that pressure is good. If you have the right people and a flexible process—amazing things can happen. Along with creativity and technical know how, our interdisciplinary team had publishing, teaching, research, and neuroscience expertise. We have an on-staff neuroscientist, Dr. Danny Franklin, who also possesses both technical and teaching experience.
Victor: Where can you get the programs? How much do they cost? What are the options?
Sarah: Individual subscriptions are sold at www.sixredmarbles.com, while district or school sales are with our sales reps at 866-632-6623 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Juba is sold per classroom, (up to 25 students) while Waza and Cabanga are sold per student. We offer them as yearly subscriptions. Since they are online and cloud-based, there is no installation or maintenance necessary. A browser and a login are the only requirements.
Victor: What are some examples of the programs in action?
Sarah: The programs are still quite new, but one of our proudest examples is in Lincoln Park Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida. Although currently engaged in a turnaround mode, Lincoln Park was in danger of being closed. One of their primary strategies has been to use Juba—in several of their grades, actually—to improve students’ verbal and math skills. The product demos on our website provide a great introduction to our programs. We also have recorded webinars for Juba, Waza, and Cabanga that are about 12 minutes in length for an in-depth view.
Victor: We are in unique times. How would you characterize these times? For example: over the last 5 years, much has changed. Print is not going away, but digital offerings have matured and have much to offer, and with an altered financial scene, they are being taken very seriously in the educational textbook publishing world. How specifically have things changed, what are your thoughts on this?
Sarah: We love and embrace the change in the industry because it has been our vision from the start. Not only can digital offerings be (eventually) less expensive, but more flexible both in terms of purchasing and usability. Our industry is investing in vision and strategy and adapting to the issues in our classrooms. For the first time, publishers are making a big push to address these issues. No one has the ability to make a bigger impact than the publisher because they are so dominant in the market. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I believe that the smaller players in the market, like Six Red Marbles and our programs, can help move the market by creating big vision, full-blown programs—without the overhead of a large company. Our core clients (the textbook publishers) recognize and trust our expertise to quickly move them into a more innovative market.
Victor: Who are the programs particularly tailored for? Who are they not for?
Sarah: Each program has its own form of personalization: whether the adaptive curriculums, on-screen Spanish/English Toggle, instructional coaching, focused instruction, home connection, or 24/7 access. The programs were developed to meet the needs of any student. We have seen a great response from visual learners, ELL, and intervention as well as enrichment students. It’s difficult to imagine a student who wouldn’t enjoy these fun, interactive environments while advancing their learning. What kid doesn’t want to learn through play?
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Sarah: I think what has happened to our education system is complicated. On one hand, we have many “adult” issues—issues with unions and administration that take away from our critical focus on the students.
On the other hand, our country is not homogeneous. We have many different cultures, and urban, rural, and suburban settings, so it’s hard to come up with a one-size fits all approach to teaching our kids. Thus, the one-size-fits-all assessment is also tricky.
I am a strong believer in the brilliance in each child. Our struggle is identifying and nurturing it. If teachers were able to focus more on individual students and less on assessment, this individualized approach could help the skills of each child flourish. I believe students can achieve in more innovative ways—through creativity. Ultimately, we do not need a nation of test takers, but a country of people who know how to think and learn.
Victor: How does Six Red Marbles address some of your concerns about education?
Sarah: In both our programs and services, we work to develop the best, most relevant learning experiences we have the power to create. We think the programs we’ve created are a significant step towards engaging children in learning and identifying their individual strengths and passions so they can develop a true joy for thinking and learning.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Sarah: The system is broken. I think that when things get this broken, change happens. Taking risks is critical. That’s when innovation really happens. I think we are seeing it at every level from pioneering thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and Clayton Christensen to inventive curriculums and teachers. That’s one of the beauties of American innovation—we work to solve our problems—we will end up with a stronger education system because of it.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Six Red Marbles? What makes you say that?
Sarah: We know change is hard in the classroom. Kids are different today and our world is different—even from 10 years ago. We need to embrace this change and engage kids in a personal and adaptive way. Nothing worth doing is easy. Changing our approaches will provide enormous benefits to our kids, teachers and, eventually, our future.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com