Brick City Thoughts

Meet us in person Wednesday

posted Oct 12, 2014, 8:11 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Oct 12, 2014, 8:14 AM ]

See you inside Newark's stunning library
Wednesday night - 10/15. 6:30 to 7:30. Newark Public Library.

We're turning Newark kids into math stars.
  • Have you been patiently waiting for your ticket? Find out how to get bumped up the list.
  • Do you want to learn how we're making it happen? Come see what we do.
  • Looking for advice before class starts? This is where you need to be.
Parents and children are both welcome.

Space is limited. You must be signed up in advance to attend.

Fitting the kid to the code

posted Sep 29, 2014, 5:02 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Sep 30, 2014, 7:22 PM ]

Seat good, legs too short.

Parents are dreamers. We're always thinking of the future. Ever since the little nippers appeared. 

So how do we help our kids grow into good people with great lives? And keep them from starring on a reality TV show? 

Education shines here, but there's an enormous problem. We simply can't afford private tutors for our children. 

All in all you're just another brick in the wall

America's answer? We built factory-style schools for the entire nation. Teach millions, cater to none. Schools do their work pretty well, but break down at the human level. 

Even the best teacher can only teach one lesson at a time. Which means the entire class moves at the same speed, whether your child is bored or behind. And that leads to problems.

Ghost in the machine

Education technology has the opposite issue. Lessons can be personalized - two students can learn different subjects at the same time while sitting five feet from each other.

But you ever watch kids who spend too much time on the computer? They're either glassy-eyed and bored or manic from overcaffeinated graphics. I've been there myself - I pumped more quarters into Defender than you can imagine.

The problem? Few children are wired to spend their days alone with a computer. Teachers and classmates can make your kids' learning that much richer. They crave competition and praise, teamwork and fun, guidance and goals.

Education for real children

It's time to stop fitting kids into cookie-cutter classes (or code-based education). It's time to build education around the child. And it's time to dream large. 

Here's where to start ...
  1. Use educational software only where it's amazing - leave other topics for those carbon-based teachers. So far, the only site to hit the mark is Khan Academy (math), but others are coming up. I'll explain more in a future post.
  2. Customize education to your kids. If you unleash them in the endless internet, they'll get lost. Figure out exactly what subjects your children need and keep them on track.
  3. Involve other kids in ed tech. Friends - and healthy competition - are important to having fun and gathering up knowledge. Start by pulling in like-minded parents so your kids don't feel like they're working alone.
Work these problems out and you'll see more than better grades. You'll watch your dreams find life.  Children who enjoy learning don't require nagging. 

And kids who aren't nagged hear the real lessons you're teaching. 

Math levels - where to plug in?

posted Sep 15, 2014, 5:58 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Sep 15, 2014, 6:16 AM ]

Eeny, meeny

Math is enormous. You can study counting,  cosines, or calculus. Or continue much further. 

Breaking it down into manageable chunks (like grades) helps the student see progress and allows coaches to celebrate achievement. 

BCT starts kids out a little behind where they are in school. They cover the foundations of their grade level (or maybe even the grade they just finished). How come?

Mathematics needs strong foundations

Kids are in danger if they move past their solid subjects too quickly. They get frustrated, slow down, and mistakenly think they're dumb. School likes pushing children forward to look good, but they eventually graduate without actually knowing math.

When students master subjects, they move along without the frustration. They learn the hard stuff quicker and end up much further ahead. This is especially important when starting out with new tools and ways of learning math.

Plus, kids wind up seeing some of the same math across grades. So a child who nails down fourth grade subjects can see massive improvement on fifth grade tests without ever touching fifth grade work.

We help kids blaze through the math

We want students to advance through math as quickly as possible. There's no set time per subject and kids can quickly demonstrate mastery without suffering through unnecessary lectures. 

Besides, even the "baby" math is fun. My daughter sometimes spends extra time mastering little kid math, even though we both know there's no real point to it.

BCT uses great tools where available

The free math tools out there are fantastic - but not in every area. There's no quick, accurate assessment test - yet. Even Khan Academy's test is stuck in "Labs" for now.

So we take a rough guess, get teaching, and make adjustments after we know the child better.

Does this approach get results?

Our goal is to improve standardized test scores - it's the best way to judge if the kids' hard work is worth the effort. The answer so far is a definite YES. As we learn more results, we'll keep adjusting and building on what works.

School in a jewel

posted Sep 10, 2014, 3:33 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Oct 2, 2014, 8:13 AM ]

Like the White House with books

Newark is full of hidden treasures. The Newark kids learning with us are sweet, funny, and polite. Plus, they have far more math ability than they thought.

We now have a gem of a location to match our students' inner brilliance. 

I'm proud to announce a one-year pilot partnership between Brick City Thinks and the Newark Public Library

How NPL helps Brick City Thinks

The library champions kids. That's one of their main jobs - and the dedicated staff there take it very seriously. They'll provide:
  • Meeting room equipped with PCs for every student and big projector at the front
  • Wifi access (great for students with their own tablets)
  • Publicly-available computers (perfect for kids learning extra math before class)
  • Huge collection of books for little brothers and sisters to explore
Of course, Newark Public Library drives a hard bargain in return. They expect us to deliver amazing math to our kids, show parents how to take charge in math, and have fun at the same time. And bring it all to Newark families for free.

Don't just check out a book, check out the library

NPL is different from every library I've ever entered. This place is grand. From the marble columns to the grand staircase and mosaic ceilings, the building breathes purpose. Read a book here and feel the importance of your task.

Stop by and check them out. The main branch is at 5 Washington Street and is exquisite.

Guessing into mastery

posted Sep 7, 2014, 5:43 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Sep 7, 2014, 5:58 AM ]

Playing it smart?

Brick City Thinks kids learn a little backwards - guess first and then study. 

Decode a new subject without needing help? Wonderful. You just saved yourself a boatload of time. 

Guessed your way to success? No problem - we'll automatically uncover the gap before it becomes a problem. My fifth-grade daughter proudly "found" the right answers on converging sequences this week. 

But what if you need help learning the subject? Studies show guessing first helps you learn deeper and faster. Thinking through the question primes your brain to know what you're aiming towards. You not only consider the right answers, but you think deeply about the wrong answers too. Scientists believe pre-testing increases your knowledge 10%.

Normal classrooms aren't built for guesswork. Building extra tests takes extra time. And teachers can't handle kids skipping ahead anyhow. Educational websites excel at pre-testing because they use many questions on the same subject.

But if you want to really take advantage of this technique, don't stall out. Guess, learn, test yourself - one after another. This method works better if you don't wait for the lesson.

Good software gives you the lessons right when you need them. Need help? Take a hint. Videos at your fingertips translate into knowledge - right then and there.

So go ahead and take a guess. It's smarter than you think.

Math goes social

posted Sep 1, 2014, 10:42 AM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Sep 1, 2014, 10:48 AM ]

Goofing around or getting mathy?

We learned a ton in our very first Brick City Thinks class. Friends are huge.

The first group of parents and kids were all buddies. We didn't plan this, but quickly noticed how important friendships are. These kids hit big math success - partly because they helped each other out.

Why do math friends matter?
  • Kids' classmates can lift them up or bring them down. When children give up on math, they drag their friends down with them. They tell each other "math is for nerds" instead of pumping each other up. When kids' peers all enjoy math together, they help each other out.
  • Kids love competing with their friends.  We all enjoy teaming up with our buddies - and trying to beat them out. But normal math class isn't a fair competition because kids start with different abilities. BCT works at each kid's level - our games compete on effort, not knowledge.
  • No discipline problems. Class is amazing when everyone's listening and having fun.
So how does this play out? BCT encourages parents to bring in their children's entire social circle. Kids do not need to be at the same math level. We:
  1. Set up classes with as many friends as possible
  2. Prioritize kids coming in as a group
  3. Help out anyone who doesn't come in with a crew in mind. We have flyers and emails that can make it easier.
Think hard about your kids for a minute. Which of their friends should you grab up today?

Brick City Thoughts

posted Aug 27, 2014, 1:47 PM by Michael Schoeffler   [ updated Aug 29, 2014, 5:47 AM ]

Jaden and Rianna

I've been using educational software since the Seventies. I loved it as a kid, but had second thoughts once I became a father. Too much Pac-Man and not enough knowledge.

Software's improved a ton, but the basic question is unsolved. How do you make computers work for real kids?

I started messing around with different ideas - using myself and then my children as lab rats. Worked nicely, so I decided to go bigger.
My friends and I started Brick City Thinks a few months ago. We're having fun and it's paying off for Newark families. The kids are learning math in enormous gulps - we're seeing nearly a year's math progress in six weekly sessions. Best of all, they're enjoying themselves.

We're teaching differently. BCT is leveraging the latest software with old-fashioned, proven ideas:
  • Pride of achievement
  • Competition and teamwork
  • Parental guidance
  • And fun.
We're uncovering the gaps between what software can do and what it should do. We love educational software, but are also careful about its limits.

This blog is aimed at parents who dream about amazing futures for their kids. It's also meant for software designers who want to build a better education. And it's for anyone who thinks we're on the edge of something spectacular - a world where any kid can truly reach for the stars.

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