Season 3, Episode 3: ‘Every Kid is a Math Kid’ – One Leader’s Mission to Make Math Accessible for All Students
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the Route K-12 Exploring Education Recovery podcast. Each episode, we travel the country on a kind of road trip to talk about the ways public education is evolving. Along the way, we hold up the best examples, with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Shalinee Sharma. Shalinee is the CEO and co-founder of Zearn, a math program used by millions of students and teachers across the country. Shalinee, thanks for joining us today. Thank you.
Shalinee Sharma: Thank you for hosting.
Jim: So I’d like to start this off just with some, some context that.
I feel like we are just being beaten up with, with results right now on status of kids across the country. Right? The NAEP scores have come out that have revealed US students in most states across all demographic groups, have experienced really big setbacks, particularly in math scores for nine year olds.
I don’t have to tell you, but in 2022, they fell about seven points since before the pandemic, and that’s the steepest decline I think, ever recorded. It hurts, right? It stings to feel that. Why do you think that’s such an important point and what do you think we should be sort of considering at this moment right now?
Shalinee: Yeah, so I similarly have a lot of emotions when I look at the NAEP scores and a lot of thoughts. I’ll just share one sort of counterintuitive point, which is, you know, the NAEP scores dropped because during the pandemic we weren’t able to teach math. And so there’s sort of evidence that if we taught math, NAEP scores would go up. That’s a one part of it. That’s a kind of a silver proof point, right? Yeah, it’s a good proof point. That’s the opposite proof point that we want, but it is a proof point that kids learn math when you teach it to them.
What I’d say though is that the seriousness with which we have to, while I’m sort of joking to begin with, the seriousness with which we have to look at these results. We cannot brush them off. Or if we do, we’re just going to let a generation go. What we know about math teaching and learning is that we know student success in algebra is most predictive of them getting through high school, graduating from high school, getting into college, getting through college.
And over the course of, college aside, over the course of lifetime earnings success in high school, mathematics is predictive of lifetime earnings to the point where taking advanced courses in high school and mathematics increases your lifetime earnings by a million dollars. There’s really no other activity, K-12, that’s similar.
So what we know about math achievement and how much it changes lives and trajectories, we don’t have other subjects that show us those same kinds of outcomes.
Jim: That’s interesting to hear because one of the things that we’ve been, I said at, at the collaborative is to thinking through like, how do we push the importance of math?
Because especially in, in an area like Washington, DC and where we are, there are tons of professionals that are living good lives that are achieving. A good career status and have meaningful work that would probably say they’re not math people. So, we are always looking for an answer for, what do we say to that group about the importance of math?
Shalinee: One of the biggest reasons we don’t see the math achievement of other countries, you know – and we’re talking about the whole OECD, you know, lots of other countries – is those sets of beliefs. We in this country really think that you’re born to be able to do math. You know, for example, perhaps you are born to be in the NBA.
It would be very difficult to be in the NBA if you were five foot six. But what we don’t believe is that most kids can learn math. We just don’t. We do believe most kids can learn to read, actually. We think all kids can learn to read. And when kids aren’t success, successful learning to read, we get mad at the adults.
What’s wrong with those adults? Why wouldn’t they teach those kids to read? And when kids don’t succeed in math, we don’t get mad at the adults. Instead, we absolve the children of any suffering and we say, oh, don’t worry, you’re just not a math kid. So it’s actually this presentation of mathematics as inaccessible as, you know, for this kind of elite, is sort of incredibly difficult.
That presentation of mathematics really holds us back. And I agree with you that you see people across the country that hold that belief, and we just really have to let it go.
But how in fact do you let it go? You need success. So you need kids succeeding in that. You can’t just change beliefs about what is possible if no one ever gets to see or touch what is possible.
And so we really have to both reflect on our beliefs and say, wait, maybe this isn’t right. But then we also need proof points of success. We need proof points that children are succeeding in mathematics.
Jim: Did you consider yourself to be a kind of a math kid as you were growing up?
Shalinee: It’s an interesting question that I get asked a lot.
So, I would say no. I was the kid who kind of fought her way through. In particular when I look at these results in middle school, I think about my middle school math experience, which is really where it’s all decided. One of the places we take children off track more than anywhere is in middle school, actually across subjects, but certainly in math.
And I remember in sixth grade, I transferred schools to a more rigorous school and showed up in that sixth-grade math class. And I knew I was behind within a day. And it was one of those moments where I could decide if I was just going to give up or if I was going to try and push through. And I got lucky.
I had a teacher who engaged with me. You know, I had extra help outside of school and I pushed so hard. And I think what I learned through that experience is what I think every child can learn, which is that when you actually push through and understand why the math is happening, rather than memorize it all, you really do experience that.
Knowledge is power, you know? So I remember getting to the places where I could check my own work and I knew the answer was right. It didn’t matter if the teacher graded my test. You know, I remember walking out of a math test and being like, “I know I did well on that” – because I checked each one of my problems and I got it right both ways. So I know that test is going to come back with a good score and then it did. It didn’t feel arbitrary like it did in that school. In general, it was so much harder. And every grade felt arbitrary, but in math class I was like, I think I got a good test score because I checked my work.
Jim: You can work, you almost work backwards on it to know you did it right.
Shalinee: Yeah. It’s pretty cool. It was incredibly empowering.
Jim: Tell me about the Zearn approach. How do you guys take this on?
Shalinee: So, you know, Zearn was built by teachers for teaching and the way we built Zearn is to assist the great work of teachers in really two important ways.
The first is we want to work hard to make math make sense for students. I remember actually not just as a kid, but even as an adult in grad school, the way that I knew that anything times zero was zero is I just memorized it. So, three times zero. Zero. Why? No idea. I just memorized it.
Eight times zero is also zero. At Zearn, we work hard to tell you why that’s true. So, you don’t have to memorize it. And I’ll come back and actually tell you why it’s true, because I’m sure a lot of your listeners don’t know. But the second thing we do is with concrete to pictorial representations, which I’ll talk about.
Another big approach, which I want to unpack, which is called learning acceleration, which has become a marketing slogan, and I really want to talk about it with regard to what it really is – which is specific pedagogical approach that allows teachers to keep teaching the grade level that their students are in and catch them up on the learning that they’ve missed from before.
So let me start with the first one: why is three times zero, zero. Why is eight times zero, zero? Why is a hundred times zero, zero?
Okay, so Jim, I’m going to put you on the spot. Do you know why?
Jim: I just know that it is… that’s the sad part is I just remember that anything times zero is zero.
Shalinee: Yeah. It’s not, it’s not even the sad part. You know, I was speaking to somebody who writes AI algorithms and has two mathematics PhDs, and I asked him, why is anything times zero, zero? And he scoffed at me. He was like, well, it’s a convention. I’m like, okay… but I can prove it to you.
In Zearn, we prove it to eight-year-olds. We show them that there’s always an answer. And so why is it true? Let’s just think – what does multiplication mean? Let’s say you have three times three is nine. Okay? Why is three times three, nine? You can think about it with plates of chocolate chip cookies, which is my favorite thing.
So, you can say the first thing means we have three plates. That’s what the first three means. And the second three means on each plate there are three cookies. So three times three, and now I can count them up. There are nine cookies. Now, what does three times one mean? Well, I still have those same three plates, but now each plate has one cookie.
So, three times one is three. Okay. What does three times zero mean? Well, I still have those three plates, but on each plate there are zero cookies. So how many cookies are there? Zero. And that’s very upsetting.
If I have eight plates times zero, there are still zero cookies. Now rather than memorize and get a little worried every time you’re working on that equation, wait three times zeros, what? In your mind are the cookies, the empty plates, and you understand.
When we give children that kind of understanding, it’s a completely different way of experiencing math. Math makes sense. You can trust math and you can actually love it because it’s beautiful. That’s one way that we help teachers is we bring this concrete to pictorial, to abstract pedagogy into mathematics.
What we spoke about earlier, which is there are lots of countries who outperform us in mathematics. Those countries do that. That’s how they teach math. That’s the science of concrete to pictorial to abstract. That’s actually science that was created in America in the seventies. And those other countries took that learning science and they put that into their mathematics, and we just didn’t yet. But we can, it’s a very exciting opportunity for us.
Then the second part I wanted to talk about is that approach to learning acceleration. So, what we’re not doing at the outset is assessing a child and saying, okay, this child has two grade levels behind. Here are the 47 things they don’t know. They’re going to learn these 47 things before they get to touch grade level work.
Why are we not doing that? Because then they will always be behind, because that proposition is a failing proposition. Instead we have to look at the problem and solve it a different way. So, we have to say yes. It is the case that most of our children are not proficient in grade level math.
That’s what the NAEP shows us. So now what are we going to do? Now we have a different problem to solve. The problem to solve is to make them all proficient in grade level math. Okay, well if we’re gonna solve that problem, well then they have to learn grade level math and catch up at the same time.
And so how do you do that? That’s what we’ve been trying to work on for the last decade on our platform, and that’s where we’re seeing success. When a child is behind in grade level math, which is no big deal, by the way, everyone is a bit behind in some parts of learning of anything. You know, that could be pickleball, that could be, you know, mathematics, that could be reading.
We’re always a little behind in some area. It doesn’t mean that we have to get remediated and pulled out of the wonderful learning experience in front of us. The question is: How do you get them to learn grade level work and still catch them up? And that’s what we’ve been trying to work on for the last decade in our technology platform.
Jim: What does the interaction look like with teachers in the classroom, like these concepts? What things made you most excited about the relationship with the teachers and where’s the biggest challenge?
Shalinee: Today we serve one in four elementary school students in the country and more than a million middle school students.
I’d love to say that we are so good at marketing and that we got Zearn into the hands of all of those students and teachers, but we did not. Teachers took Zearn viral. Teachers told other teachers about Zearn and spread Zearn through the country. And they also have continuously made Zearn better.
They send us emails. We talk to them and they tell us all of these things we have to do to make Zearn better. So every Thursday we push code and we improve Zearn. It’s based on their guidance. I’d also say the use cases, the way in which Zearn works in the classroom, the way the rhythms of the classroom and how Zearn fits into those rhythms – Those have all been created by teachers.
I think the magic of Zearn is listening to and watching teachers as they utilize Zearn, with fidelity, to solve the real problems they have and as they build really fun culture around Zearn and math that has been the best sets of learnings.
I think in terms of challenges, there are a couple mental models out there about what digital tools are that we sometimes have to battle. One mental model that I think is really pernicious is the mental model that this tool sorts kids, right? “ Well, kids are going to get on this platform and it’s going to tell me my high kids and my low kids, and then those kids are going to be off on different paths.”
The platform’s design is not to sort. The platform’s design is to teach. We’d only sort if it was scarce, right? So, if we only had enough spots on the platform for one or two kids, we’d assess, sort and just put the one or two kids that are good enough for the platform, but as many kids as there are on earth can use Zearn, there’s no limit.
So, we don’t need to sort. I think that’s the first issue, is this kind of upfront diagnostic sorting mentality is pernicious.
The second barrier for us is thinking about digital tools as a game to memorize your multiplication tables. I think memorizing your multiplication tables is wonderful and that’s great, but it’s a very small fraction, a very small portion of what you need to learn in mathematics to be successful in K-12.
Sometimes teachers, parents, adults think, “okay, I’m going to put my kid on this and they’re going to play a game. They’re going to shoot a duck and they’re going to memorize what seven times seven is.”
But there’s just a lot more that needs to happen. So, I think that’s the other schema out there that we’re battling, which is this is a game to learn a very discrete, simple skill. We are excited about what is happening around the science of reading. And there’s been a lot of movement in states to actually push this from a policy standpoint that is helping more and more kids throughout the country.
Jim: If there was a science of math, what would you hope that that would include?
Shalinee: Yeah, I also feel very excited about the science of reading work. In my decade working, before I founded Zearn, I worked in technology. I wasn’t in education. I remember when I first kind of joined the world of education and we decided to focus Zearn on math.
I asked, give me the guidance, give me the research, that tells me exactly how kids learn math, and then we’ll turn it into technology. And actually, we know very little about how kids learn math. It’s pretty frightening.
What makes the science of reading very exciting is two things are happening.
One is we see results and people believe them. They believe we can do something differently so kids can learn. And the second thing exciting is very specific pedagogy, very specific instructional practices that are extremely detailed. We’re suggesting that teachers change their practice to those, and that if we do, those kids can learn.
That’s an amazing formula. There are parts of that that relate to mathematics. Today our beliefs about math are in a worse place than our beliefs about reading, but we do need that same kind of momentum and beliefs that kids can all do math that the science of reading offers. With regard to specific pedagogy, there are lots of components of [US] pedagogy that are not best practice that we know from other countries and that we know from learning science.
One I spoke about earlier is the concrete to pictorial to abstract progression and using pictures and objects to make math make sense. So, if you ask me from my perspective, Jim, if there’s one thing that goes into the science of math, that has to be a part of that. We need to approach math where we bring that forward for all teachers. And it’s not, “Now I’m going to throw manipulatives out onto all the tables and the classroom is going to be a mess.” That’s, that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is that example I shared with regard to three plates and zero cookies. I’m talking about really connecting the math symbols and the math ideas to concrete things we can understand in our day-to-day lives, to pictures that are simple and make sense.
That’s what’s happening in other countries, and that’s also what’s happening when we see math achievement in this country. You touched a little bit on phobia. I think that it’s just a natural existence around math.
Jim: What is Zearn’s approach towards kind of – I’ll just say mistakes. What is your approach for kids and kind of this struggle that needs to happen to get more empowered by math.
Shalinee: I appreciate you being honest that you felt that phobia when I asked three times zero and I felt apprehension asking you, because I didn’t want you to feel that way, which is kind of crazy.
We’re two grown adults just asking what three times zero is. All this emotion that comes up for us. In other subjects, when you struggle or when you’re confused, you recognize that as learning. In math, any question is an IQ test. It’s an assessment of if you’re good enough, if you can, if you’re even worthy of learning, which is silly.
We internalize. I remember, you know, this kind of notion of feeling like an imposter or I remember in sixth grade doing my homework and thinking if I couldn’t get a question right, it meant I shouldn’t be in that class. Why couldn’t it just mean that I was learning and it was my homework?
I didn’t feel that way when I was doing my history homework. I didn’t think, oh, well, this means that I shouldn’t be in this history class. So, there’s a culture of teaching and learning in math that is oriented around sorting – oriented around weeding kids out.
It’s not a team sport, it’s an individual sport. It’s always performative. That’s a toxic culture for learning. And it’s one that we need to get rid of. It’s one thing just to say, “okay, making mistakes is how you learn.” And you say that to kids and you put a poster up on the wall. Kids are really smart. They look at that poster and they’re like, “that’s a lie.” Right?
And then they go back around their own behavior. So, you know, I have 12-year-old twin boys. Then you put a poster up like that and the culture doesn’t feel like that. And they’re like, “yeah, that’s some lying poster on the wall.” We can’t just have slogans and say, “oh, making mistakes is how you learn.”
You actually have to learn when you make a mistake. I come back to how we approach these diagnostics. If we’re going to diagnose a kid and a kid knows at the end of the diagnostic that they’re going to now be put in some remedial track, is that making mistakes is how you learn. How are we framing for them that when they make a mistake, they can be successful?
So one critical design of the Zearn application is it’s built for teaching, not assessing. And there’s a role for assessment, but that’s not what we do. We support and assist in teaching. When you make a mistake, you get a boost and you actually learn, you’re also not punished.
On Zearn, every single end of lesson has a little quiz. On the quiz, you have to get a hundred. And if it takes me 10 times to get a hundred and Jim, you get 102 times – we both got a hundred. I may have gotten additional boosts, but that’s not counted against me. There’s no record of that, in a way that that makes me feel like I’m losing lives [in a video game] or there’s no gamification of that in a way that feels stressful.
That’s our small part, but that’s not a small challenge and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’d really put that forward as a conversation we need to have as educators, which is how do we move from a poster that says, “making mistakes is how you learn.”
And all the kids are like, “yeah, right- thanks for that random poster,” to feeling true in classrooms. How do you approach this like continuous feedback?
I mean, this is where it’s so exciting to be software and be in this cloud-based world. One thing we’re lucky about is we built Zearn recently and so it’s all cloud-based and every Thursday we are able to push code and improve Zearn. So, we can do all kinds of things. You know, one simple example I’ll share that I was so proud of our engineering and product team for their hard work was right in March, 2020, thinking back to when the pandemic first hit and schools across the country all closed. It was March 16th, 2020. I’ll never forget the day.
What changed on our platform is rather than Chromebooks Ping pinging us – Chromebooks and iPads- Computers you might find inside of school pinging us. What started pinging our website were low-cost Android devices. So, these are devices inside homes. We could think like a Kindle Fire is an example of a low-cost Android device.
There are many others, but our platform didn’t support that because we had never been by those devices. But those are the devices sitting at home. So what we had to do was actually an incredible amount of work to reformat and kind of reorganize the platform so that it could appear on a low-cost Android device.
That’s just an example and it was important and really motivating to our whole team to reorient, to deploy Zern.
Jim: Do you have a favorite story from either a teacher or student or a school system that you just love to hold up? Showing how this has been impactful.
Shalinee: Some of my favorite stories… I have several when I get to visit classrooms and I watch students learn the why and then teach it to their teachers. I remember one story where a student – so in third grade, we prove to students that four times eight is the same as eight times four by creating an array, and then they can rotate the array.
So, they make four rows of eight objects and then they can physically rotate it. They can see the values are the same. It was in a small group lesson and I walked into this classroom and they were just teaching a lesson to explore and prove that four times eight is the same as eight times four.
The teacher was essentially telling them to memorize it, but it was always going to be true. And this little girl got up to the board and she said, “Well, can I show you why it’s always true?”
And she did that. She drew an array. First, she drew four rows and eight columns and then she drew eight rows and four columns, and she showed everybody that it was true and the teacher loved it. You could tell the little girl loved it. So, I think those are always my favorite moments when you see kids feel that there’s a reason. “It’s always true. Let me show you.” There’s a chance that we as adults get to be math people too, because we get to be shown why.
Jim: Shalinee Sharma. Thanks for taking time today. Really, really appreciate it. Thanks for the great work.
Shalinee: Thank you so much. Thanks for hosting me, Jim.
Jim: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring education Recovery, where we showcase ways public education is evolving by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at edurecoveryhub.org/podcast or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.