TeachLab Podcast: Matthew Mugo Fields
- [Justin] Hey welcome TeachLab listeners. We've got a great two-part series coming up this month looking at personalized responses, tutoring responses to unfinished learning from the pandemic. Part one's gonna have Matthew Mugo Fields from Houghton Mifflin, and part two is gonna have Matthew Kraft from Brown University. So two Matts, talking about tutoring in response to some of the challenges of helping students become their best selves during the pandemic. Enjoy! (upbeat jazzy music) From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab.
A podcast about the art and craft of teaching, I'm Justin Reich. Today's guest, Matthew Mugo Fields, is an educator and entrepreneur and the general manager of Supplemental and Intervention Solutions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where he's been since 2017. He's the co-founder of Innovation For Equity, a nonprofit organization that promotes innovative ways to improve life outcomes for black learners of all ages. Matthew has also founded education startups including Redbird Advanced Learning, a personalized learning company, and Rocket Group, United state's largest provider of in-school tutoring. Matthew holds dual master's degrees in Business and Education from Harvard University, and is an Honors graduate of Morehouse College.
He's the host of the Shaping the Future Podcast. Welcome Matthew, we're really happy to have you here on TeachLab. - [Matthew] Thank you, Justin. It's great to be with you today. - [Justin] These are intense times, how are you doing? - [Matthew] I guess the saying these days is COVID good.
- [Justin] COVID good. - [Matthew] Yeah, acknowledging there certainly is a cap on it, on how good one can be, but generally speaking, I'm quite privileged in that family is safe and healthy and everyone is doing well. I have a 17, soon to be 18 year old daughter, who's in primarily remote school these days like many kids around the country and she is- - [Justin] Is a junior or a senior? - [Matthew] She's a junior here in Boston. It has definitely been an interesting and challenging year as everyone out there knows, but she is thriving academically, so we're very fortunate. How about you? - [Justin] So I have a seven and 10 year old, and my family's had a cabin in Barnard, Vermont, which is in rural Vermont for a long time. And all of my work is remote so we moved up here.
For two reasons, one, the schools are open 'cause it's very- The kids go to a elementary school with 82 kids. And then strangely enough, the six towns around mine form a municipal broadband cooperative. So the broadband on my download, which is not find-able on Google is faster than the broadband in Arlington, Massachusetts. - [Matthew] How about that? - [Justin] So open schools and functioning broadband is like the two things to make (indistinct) a little bit. - [Matthew] You're in like a COVID oasis up there.
- [Justin] It's kind of a COVID oasis. How's your daughter feeling about the junior year, getting ready to apply for colleges, those kinds of things? What does that feel like? And I think last year in March and April there was an enormous amount of concern from state policymakers about seniors. How are we gonna get seniors to graduate? My sense is that policy makers still have a ton of concern about our very youngest students who are having a really hard time with online learning, but then a ton of concern about our oldest students who we need to help make this transition to their future.
How's your daughter and her classmates sort of- - [Matthew] Yeah. Now, you point out two very real challenges. We're in an interesting position.
Actually she's generally doing well, we are kind of gearing up for that preparing for the SATs and SATs and trying to think about what are the choices and going through the college counseling and all of that good jazz. There's a bit of cognitive dissonance because it seems like the preparatory process we are engaged in is a little bit decoupled from all of the sort of non-traditional realities that are out there that exists. I mean, who knows whether or not, are there gonna be more schools that don't require tests be taken, et cetera.
So there's a lot of talk of that. We're kind of taking a more traditional approach, at least for now. My daughter, she's a particular case, there are many different challenges with kids and thinking about college. Her challenge is, as you mentioned in my intro, I'm a Morehouse graduate.
So since she was six years old my daughter has had the pleasure of going to Morehouse and Spelman's joint homecoming. A bit of programming, I must admit. And that programming has worked so well that she is fully committed since about seven or eight that the only school she's considering is Spelman College. And now since that Spelman College's own Stacey Abrams is so prominent in our culture it's even more. So getting her to consider schools beyond Spelman is probably our biggest challenge in the college process. - [Justin] Well, I gotta tell you, there are far worse challenges to have to overcome than a strong commitment to one of the very best colleges in the country, which has made all of these extraordinary contributions.
We had former president, Beverly Daniel Tatum on the show a couple of seasons ago and she's an extraordinary woman. So one of the things that we like to ask to get to know our guests is their ed tech story. Do you have any sort of distinctive or defining experiences with education technology, either as a student or as an instructor? - [Matthew] I do. How long we got? 'Cause it's a tail. - [Justin] We'll cut it down if it's too long.
- [Matthew] All right, cool. My ed tech story is very much connected to just my education story. Like many educators I've been inspired to get in this work and do this work in an effort to pay it forward, do for others what was done for me, that kind of thing which many of us share.
Well, in my case that sort of pay it forward came with very explicit instructions. It was not optional. Weren't that long ago I came to the United States low income, immigrant kid, title one, that kind of thing, free-lunch kid. I had had some early academic success in my native country of Barbados, but family left to pursue the sort of American dream. And like my two older brothers, I was upon arrival in a suburban Philadelphia school system tracked to the bottom.
And all the educators out there know what I mean when I say tracked to the bottom So fifth grade, 10 years old told, "Hey, we think that there are great opportunities for you "to be some kind of vocational technologist in the future." Carpentry, plumbing, those are things I was talking to guidance counselors about at that age. And my life shifted because I simply had a teacher who intervened, and quite frankly fought the system, seventh grade ELA teacher who said, "Hey, this kid is actually capable of much more," and started sort of working with me after school and tutoring me and also getting her friends who were other teachers to kind of support that I needed to be in on a different track.
And eventually, that came to pass. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was on this honors track, doing well in school, looking at college preparatory for high school, all that good stuff. But those teachers, that little group, they didn't stop there.
Even though I left their school and went on to high school, they stayed in my life. It got to the point where when I was looking at colleges, like my daughter is now, they were helping me select colleges, work on essay writing, all that good stuff, got into Morehouse, thankfully. And couldn't afford though, and those same teachers started a campaign and raised money in our community and people of all stripes, black, white, high income, low-income folks, et cetera, chipped in and sent me to Morehouse. And the day before I left the Morehouse that group of educators turned to me and said, "Now go do for other kids what we just did for you."
So for me my path literally started, my first week at Morehouse I was like, "Okay, I'm here, "this is where Martin Luther King went to college. "I gotta go figure out how I'm gonna change the world." And I started very amateurly looking for opportunities to do that.
Started mentoring and tutoring some kids from the neighborhood. They became like my tagalongs and it was really in mentoring one of those kids that I got exposed to sort of... I began going to parent-teacher conferences and helping with his homework and all that kind of stuff. And what became clear to me was there's an opportunity here to provide sort of tutoring support for more and more students. Typically tutoring was something a province of folks who had higher means than many of the students I was dealing with. And so I was tryna figure out how could I do that, first on a volunteer basis.
I told you about my family's background, so I had bills to pay coming out of college so I went into management consulting, but I also was still tutoring on the side and eventually worked that into like cutting a deal with the Atlanta Public Schools where I was teaching one day a week and I was still a consultant. - Oh, wow. - [Matthew] And it was in that process I began getting exposure to technologies. - [Justin] What year is that roughly that you're telling that story? - [Matthew] Yeah, this is, I think late 90s. This is golden era of hip hop years.
- [Justin] Golden era of hip hop. But also just bridging in, I mean 'cause one of the things you described is that tutoring is primarily the province of the affluent, but one of the policy things that starts to change that a bit, certainly not fully, but is the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which dictated that if certain schools weren't meeting adequately yearly progress, that tutoring could be a service that could be required in some of these schools that weren't making progress. So basically, we're in the golden age of hip hop you are getting really excited about tutoring for a diverse set of kids kind of right at the moment that the country is starting to say, "Hey, maybe actually this could be something that's useful for a bunch of people." So I wanna put that in context.
Tell us what happens next. - Absolutely. Thank you for the bridge and the segue 'cause you know that's exactly what wound up happening. And so I was fast forward in grad school at Harvard pursuing a dual degree in Business and Education at the same time, and that law was passed and one of the key tenants was, "Hey, there's now availability for tutoring to be offered "to kids from schools where there was some academic need." And I wrote a business plan with some of my good friends and created what became over a couple iterations, the largest provider of those tutoring services through No Child Left Behind. That was a very sort of formative experience for me because it was on the one hand kind of tried in true, pure roll up your sleeves entrepreneurship. It was in schools on a daily, certainly, a couple of times a week basis seeking to make improvements to the programs.
'Cause we were not only providers of the curriculum and creators of the curriculum but we also hired teachers to work as our tutors after school. So I think teachers were kinda moonlighting, right? And we were going into high need communities, places like where I grew up. And we were first having to convince school districts and States that here's our program and yes it's standards aligned and it's solid. But then we were also having to convince parents who didn't know they had access to these services that, "Hey, this is now available to you."
You can almost think of this as, this is an opportunity to get your kid to private tutoring, it's just happening at the school. And we're taking the best teachers that we can find who are willing to do this work and putting them in small group settings. And we were blending in some combination of sort of constructivist teaching practices with sort of direct instruction as well. Again, I'm assuming your audience will know what I'm talking about there.
- [Justin] You can't say to kids like, I mean, well, it's harder to say to kids, "Yeah, at 2:30 PM, stay at school for an extra hour, "and we're gonna flashcard you for an hour." - [Matthew] Exactly. - [Justin] If you're not forcing these students to participate, there's a certain amount of opt-in enthusiasm that you have to generate. - [Matthew] "Come get these worksheets, "come get these worksheets." We couldn't do that.
And to your point, I mean, we got pretty good at it. I mean, we had districts and schools where we had students, sadly, who would skip regular school but come to the tutoring program because it was a very different instructional environment. One way that one teacher described it to me, it was like, it was a lot noisier. It was a lot noisier than regular school, and by design, right? Because we were attempting to engage students in ways that they hadn't been working. But as you know, that law had its sort of time horizon on it, and we anticipated that that was gonna happen, and began sort of exploring, and quite frankly, at the urging of teachers more integration of technology even into our tutoring programs. So it was teachers saying, "Hey, you know there's this great game that we're playing "and we're having with the manipulatives.
"You know this music that we've integrated in program, "boy, wouldn't it be good if that was on the tablet? "Wouldn't it be good if we found a way "to start leveraging technology more and potentially "things that kids could work on when they weren't with us." And that's what kinda got us on the path, or it got me on the path as an entrepreneur exploring more seriously, more deliberately instructional educational technology. And that evolution took me out to Stanford University and to begin working in partnership with sort of one of the fore fathers, if you will, of education technology, a then 91-year old professor at Stanford named Patrick Suppes, who was one of the sort of god fathers- - Earliest gurus, yeah, god father are those in tutoring kinda things. - [Matthew] Exactly. So imagine this picture of, I'm now like early 30s, right? Young, gave him my background, and I'm like having dinner almost every night with this 91-year-old guy who's in the office every day.
And he's basically schooling me on everything that has ever happened in education technology. We're going through, I mean, dense research papers that I didn't even understand some of the numbers, but I had to pretend I did, (chuckles) it was... And became more than a mentor, really someone who insisted on us kinda holding a standard. And so it was through that partnership with Pat and the research team that he had been leading at Stanford, he'd been leading for 25 or so years, that we created this thing called Redbird Advanced Learning which was a startup that was grounded around mathematics and adaptive learning, but a lot more than that. I mean the headline was, "Hey, personalized learning math," but the more detailed view is something that we knew, and I know this speaks to what's in your book, is that it can never be about the technology alone.
It has to be about sort of more comprehensive instructional systems that leverage technology. And that technology can play a key role, but if you're gonna be serious about sort of education technology and instructional technology at scale, you've gotta be as thoughtful about implementation and how you're gonna support teachers in using it, how you're gonna coach them, et cetera, as you are about what algorithms you're gonna optimize. And so that's my long ass ed tech story. - [Justin] I mean, to put Patrick Suppes's work in some context for our listeners. He wrote, I think I've seen this before. He wrote a paper for Scientific American called the "Uses of Computers in Education".
And that paper was published in 1966. Another thing and I try to point out in "Failure to Disrupt" is that the effort that you joined in with Dr. Suppes on is not a new effort. I mean, this is something from the earliest days that we had mainframe computers the size of living rooms. People have been trying to ask the question, what's the right alchemy of people, of computers, of students, of instructional design, that gets to some new kinds of answers. - [Matthew] I couldn't agree more.
And that was really one of the things about the relationship with Pat and his work. I mean, he was doing serious scientific published research for 50 years on this stuff. We today talk about, yes, we have peer reviewed, randomized, gold standard studies, all that kind of stuff.
I mean, that was sort of par for the course with him and the work that he led. I'd be remiss if I didn't say, a couple of years after we met Pat passed away. And one of the honors of my professional life is I actually got to speak at his Memorial.
- [Justin] Great. - [Matthew] It was a great moment - [Justin] But work goes on. I mean, here's something that I'm interested in. You have this really powerful experience in the seventh grade of a handful of teachers sort of looking at you and saying like they probably did with lots of kids in different ways.
Like we are not recognizing all the talents that this young man has, and we've got to figure out how to find a new place for him in schools. And it's like a very personal intervention. And now you're working at a huge publisher, a huge solutions provider, and the things that you all build in supplement, intervention kind of advocate.
I mean, they're big products they're designed to work at the scale of great levels of schools, of districts. How do you think about building those kinds of values, the values that you described of these like really intimate connections into these huge technology systems. I mean they're technology systems, curriculum systems. - [Matthew] That's such a great question, Justin. Quite frankly, it's something I think about on an almost daily basis.
And here's how I think about it, and you nailed it. It was a very personal intervention. And the fact that the teacher I mentioned, and I talk a lot about her, her name was Mary O'Gorman. It wasn't just the relationship that Mrs O'Gorman had with me, but it was a relationship she brought to bear in my growth and development, including building a relationship with my mother, which trust me, I wasn't eager to stay after school and do some extra work. (Justin laughing)
So that relationship was critical too. The work that I do today at HMH is we still believe in the primacy of relationships. In fact, it inspires how we approach developing the technology systems that you mentioned. If you believe that sort of what is most essential and important, and we hear this all the time. We do large surveys of teachers and education, confidence reports annually, and one thing never changes is educators tell us the most important thing in learning is the relationship between student and teacher. - [Justin] If we ask kids it's the same thing, they will tell us the same thing.
"I don't like science, I don't like math, "I just like Mr. Fields or I like Mr. Reich "and that's why I'm taking this class." - [Matthew] Exactly, exactly. It's the most important thing.
And so if you apply sort of design principles to building instructional solutions that assume that you land in sort of different places than if you centralized the technology or the algorithms. You land in a place where you say, hey, the best and highest use of technology is extending the teacher, so allowing the teacher to have more capacity, more capability, save them time. That's the lane for technology, so that ultimately, you can create, hopefully, enough assistance and enough freedom for teachers to prioritize relationship building. And that's the sort of high level, I can get into the specific ways we do that. - [Justin] Yeah, well, maybe give us one example of something that you've been working on recently, or some change that you've made or something that you've been working on for a while that you think does that particularly well.
Sort of, what's an example of something concrete that you've been working with recently, or that you've been working on for a long time that you think is hit kind of a nice level of polish that you wish more of your products had or that more competitors had, or just an important advancement from your perspective. - [Matthew] Yeah, I can definitely... We can take up two hours also, you'd stop me when we're good. So one really clear way that we've sort of focused in my work at HMH around extending to teacher and building their capacity, is in the area of writing. So we know, for example, I think the latest national results are only about a third of kids are writing proficiently. We also know from again, lots of surveying, lots of data, that part of the key challenge in improving the writing skills of students is that the way that you become a better writer is you have to write a lot more.
Revision is the key to growing in writing. But the challenge becomes teachers don't have enough time to review all of this student writing and to give the feedback in many different loops that you need to improve student writing. So we have a program in our portfolio called Writeable that seeks to do a couple of things to help address that problem. We're not wholly opposed to the idea of leveraging things like AI and essay grading to help teachers prioritize certainly not to replace the judgment of a teacher, but to help teachers prioritize who may need some intervention first. We also are leveraging that technology to do peer reviews, so leveraging the class. We also know that there's a benefit to students when they review someone else's writing and give feedback, it actually helps their writing improve, so you get a bit of a twofer there.
And then we also know that there are better and worse ways to enhance sort of user experience and workflow of teachers, something you don't usually hear a lot about in education. We as technologists think a lot about, how do we optimize this workflow to make it easier for a teacher to not have to spend their Saturday night grading a whole bunch of different papers. And may be only getting one revision from their class but maybe upping that to three revisions, and therefore growing student writing.
So that's one of the ways that we're focused on extending the teacher and keeping technology in its lane, but saying it can truly add value. - [Justin] Yeah, and I think educators have enormous concerns when they hear, oh, auto graders are just gonna give feedback to my students. That's when technology kind of expands beyond its lane. There are a lot of teachers out there who say, "Look, I've got 150 students, "how much of this stuff do you want me to read?" And we're like, "Well if we could take those 150 students "and make it a little bit easier for you "to say a little bit something for all of them "and to know a little bit more "about which students really need some help "and have some peers do some more work." I think that could be really compelling for folks. And it sounds like you're not only sort of expand, not only thinking about expanding the capacity of teachers, but really thinking like, all right are there some spellcheck or other things, kind of like, what's the next level of spellcheck, which we were all perfectly happy to have artificial intelligence agents give us feedback about our writing.
No one feels like we're dehumanized because Microsoft Word reminds me every time I spell psychology PYS instead of PSY. - [Matthew] There you go. - [Justin] And how can we help one another.
- [Matthew] That's right. - [Justin] There's a second piece of what Miss O'Gordon did which you described as sort of fighting against the system. There are a few things there. I mean, I don't wanna say it too strongly 'cause it's your story, but it sounds like the system had categorized you in a certain way.
And your teacher said, "Nope, we're not categorizing this student this way." Presumably the system like kinda didn't recognize sort of all the strengths you brought to bear as it does every day with all kinds of kids across this country, but particularly black, young people, Latin American, Latino young people, new English speakers, new migrants, new immigrants to the country. Is there a way that you think about supplemental intervention technologies? Are there ways you think about designing them that encourage teachers to be constantly seeing and re-examining the humanity of their students, seeing and reexamining the assets that your students bring to bear? I mean, that's not commonly sort of what we think of as the role of technology maybe, but it also seems like...
In fact in a lot of cases, we have great fears that what technology does is reinforce those kinds of things like, well, that kid's mastery chart, there's a whole bunch of red boxes not a lot of green blocks, so you know what kind of kid that is. Is there a role for technology to play in that other kind of work that your seventh grade teachers were doing? - [Matthew] Yeah. Again, a great question and you absolutely nailed it too.
It was about fighting against policies that were certainly flawed. I don't remember, maybe it happened, but I don't remember taking a test or going through some battery of a portfolio assessment when my sort of tracking was determined. And even then, you would argue, the big problem with tracking students, is making permanent decisions instead of maybe you make decisions that say, certain kids need certain kinds of support now but you tune the instructional program towards accelerating those students to standards, mastery, and (crosstalk drowns out speaker).
- [Justin] I think you see it less about identifying a person in a track and more about finding a set of person's capabilities where they need more support. I mean, I think this is something for instance that like, when people point to Finland as an example, some enormous percentage of all Finnish students experienced special services at some point, but not because they're like put into services for the rest of their lives, it's because like, hey, I think this month Arvilla is not getting it. He was missing some piece of reading, so you target and intervene and then special education becomes less of a stigma because way more people are participating in it and so forth. You track around like finer grained capacity.
And of course all of us fall short of things that we want to where we wanna be, where our teachers want us to be at some point. So, yeah, absolutely. And technology plays a really powerful role in locking people into those kinds of systems and tracks.
- [Matthew] It can. And technology can also do exactly what you're saying. If done right, you can add layers of specificity to understanding what students are ready to learn, where they may have gaps in sort of prerequisite areas, send them back in some individualized time, whether it's at home or leveraging a device in the classroom and yet having the solutions tuned towards accelerating students towards mastery of the relevant standards that the teachers are focused on. So that's a lot of what we spend our time and energy doing and figuring out what are the optimal paths that get you there. So one of the things that I think we have the benefit of, and this is where part of maybe an obvious question is, hey, Matthew, you spent early part of your career being an entrepreneur in ed tech, and why are you at this big, what some people used to call a publisher. We don't say that anymore, we're a learning technology company.
Why are you doing that now? And part of the answer to that question is the opportunity for scale increases the opportunity for efficacy. When you have the kind of data that I sit in, literally in a meeting I was just in today and review with our learning scientists and our assessment teams. And we interrogate, what are we seeing here? What does this mean about these particular exercises we have students doing? Is there a way to better optimize the learning path or the learning progression that we've created that allows us to accelerate students even faster? When you have the access to, we have 25 million students on our platform right now at HMH, a lot of the promise of what many of us hope we can do with learning technologies really becomes at your disposal.
Again, all of that, with the requisite humility to know that we're not selling just technologies, we're not implementing just technology. We're actually implementing comprehensive instructional solutions of which technology is our key enabler. - [Justin] Yeah.
And I mean, just to go back to your story too, your seventh grade teacher didn't have 25 million data points about you, sort didn't need that. Like if you have a choice between the sort of heart and passion that your teacher has and 25 million data points, you'd probably pick the heart and passion of the teacher. And then you've gotta figure out what is it that can help extend the capacity of that person? It seems like your your career has had these kinds of really interesting, being the right person in the right time to think about, you're a tutoring guy, and we're about to see another surge of interest in tutoring and support, I mean, I think. One of the primary ways that the education policy community has framed the results of the last year, which I think we can debate this framing. But is this idea of learning loss. There's a bunch of stuff that kids were supposed to learn this year and they didn't.
Either because we couldn't get them connected technologically or because we were forced by conditions to put them in these emergency remote learning, emergency hybrid learning settings which are just not that good. Our teachers are not trained and experienced in how to facilitate these kinds of things, so they're just not teaching as much. But also they're there are millions of students in United States who are living in contexts where their family members have died, where people are sick, where family members are at work. Even if there weren't these... If for some reason schools had been magically spared all of the effects of the pandemic, there'd still be an awful lot of challenge and trauma out there to face down.
What role do you imagine sort of tutoring and personalized kinds of supports playing this spring, this summer, this fall? I mean, if you have advice to schools and districts about thinking about this, what feels really important to you right now? - [Matthew] Yeah, I agree with you. There are many challenges. We spend a lot of time, I spend a lot of time with classroom teachers, superintendents, et cetera. And whether you use the language of learning loss, some people use that language.
Other people think that language is inherently deficit minded, so I'm sure you you've heard that. I think one thing people- - We've been playing around with unfinished learning. - [Matthew] Unfinished learning, okay, I like it. - [Justin] One thing that's kind of intuitive in that is that the learning will be finished. So we're like, we're going to get to it, we just have time shifted.
- [Matthew] Yes, yes. I like the sort of the "not yet" growth mindset kind of approach to that. But one thing everyone agrees on, is we do need some way of creating mechanisms for accelerated learning in the very near term to mitigate a lot of what's happened over the past, I guess, year to what, 10 months, let's say. What I have been focused on, and one the things I quite frankly love the most about my day job, is we have got a portfolio of highly efficacious intervention solutions. These are similar to kind of the Suppes' research we were referencing. And for the last 20 years, we've been building upon and many folks on my team have been building upon, and improving, and iterating on the efficacy of products like READ 180, MATH 180, et cetera, just to throw some brands out there that people would recognize.
And those are products that are finely tuned for helping students that have significant learning gaps who are two or more grade levels behind catch up as quickly as possible. There's also a component where we're focused on how do we help teachers implement this kind of instruction, 'cause this isn't the kind of instruction that many teachers are doing coming fresh out of graduate school and programs. So thoughtful support for educators and how to accelerate learning for students that are behind. I think almost we need to think about it in the next few months as acceleration or intervention for all or all who need it. There are proven models, there are successful stories. I get one of the central premises of your book, which I actually agree with is, is there's been a lot of over promising.
There's been a lot of like, hey, this singular solution is gonna open up the sky and bring us salvation. And quite frankly, that's irresponsible marketing in many areas. But I do believe there have been successful models where you can reference those, and then the work now becomes about how do we scale things like that up to getting more and more students - And is part of that, I mean just looking at your title, it's kind of interesting, the general manager of supplemental and Intervention solutions.
But part of what you're saying here to some extent is that, my assumption is that when most people hear supplemental and Intervention solutions, they're thinking, oh, that's the kind of stuff we use with 15% of our students or 20% of our students. And we use it for 20 or 40% of their curriculum. But to some extent in the model you're just proposing, like all of the curriculum needs to be supplemental and intervention. We sort of need to start saying, when someone steps into the fourth grade after a rocky third grade, my hunch is to most of them we don't wanna say, "Do third grade again."
We wanna say like, "Do fourth grade, "and here's all the third grade stuff that you need "that we're gonna get in there somehow." And probably make some choices along the way too which is like, "Hey, by the way, in the third grade, "we teach some of this stuff and you don't really need it, "so I'm just gonna keep rolling." (crosstalk drowns out speaker) sort of part of the shop then start to provide more support, guidance, direction, to the rest of the what might be considered like the curriculum for regular kids or whatever. - [Matthew] Yeah, it's a good question.
And it touches on this language we've been introducing of sort of connected teaching and learning. Because what we say is, look, absolutely mastery of grade level standards needs to remain a clear focus and getting all kids at and above that bar is something that we are focused on. And so in that extent, sort of what you'd consider traditional core curriculum is super, super important because we do need to focus on a team of standards.
But what needs to also happen that maybe hasn't happened quite enough in the past is the curriculum of grade level standards needs to work in connection to supplemental intervention learning experiences. So when you detect that, as you said, hey, that student in fourth grade is missing some things from third grade, and sometimes even second grade, there's an easier path to fill in those prerequisite gaps. Right now the way that happens in the average American classroom is they have core curriculum from one company over here, and they have the supplemental programs that are sitting in the computer and go in the back 20 minutes, go on this, here's the password, here's the other password, here's the seventh password. And none of those technologies and those systems in those curricula talk to each other. There's no single unit unifying sense of what is truth about this student.
And what we've done over the past couple of years is build a single unifying platform that connects our disparate solutions across supplemental intervention, core curriculum, a unified assessment system so that there's one version of where's Patricia, or where's Johnny really in math, in reading, and then what supplemental experiences make the most sense, and trying to do it in a way that makes life easier for teachers so they aren't having to go in a bunch of different programs and try to... Teachers, as our CEO, Jack Lynch says, is teachers are being forced to be human APIs, late at night often, and we've got to solve that problem. - [Justin] And by human API we mean, what an API does is sort of an interface with the software program that's sort of. What these teachers feel like they have to do is sort of pull the data out of this one thing, and the data out of this third thing, and the data that's fourth thing, and sort of get them all to be connected with one another and to say kind of what's the comprehensive picture here.
- [Matthew] That's right. - [Justin] There are certain ways that I find that vision compelling. I would particularly find that vision compelling. I mean, certainly it's a lot easier to imagine in other countries in the world where they have a national curriculum. And for instance like you would go get a teaching degree, and while you are getting the teaching degree in how to teach science, it wouldn't just be like generically how to teach science, it would be, here's how you teach the French Science Curriculum.
There's one curriculum, and instead of you having to figure out how to teach Mobile Alabama's curriculum, or Juneau Alaska's curriculum, there's just one. And you learn how to do that. So there's something very compelling about the idea that if like there's just sort of one thing that we're teaching around, then we can learn how to use that really well, the parts can talk to one another.
We can be having conversations with other grade level teachers, with other members of our team, we're all talking about the same thing. But the other thing that we see in the United States is that a big thing teachers wanna do is take whatever stuff they find on the internet and use it to teach because they feel like the comprehensive solutions are kind of missing the connection to their personal interests. Or like Amanda Gorman gives an unbelievably beautiful poem at the inauguration. And like, of course we have to throw out everything we're doing just to spend a day really diving into that. - [Matthew] Absolutely. - [Justin] How do you think about integrating these kinds of comprehensive things with teachers inclination to wanna tweak and design and kind of follow their own path? That must be a tension (crosstalk drowns out speaker) - [Matthew] It is attention, but again, it comes back to, are you building your solution with the requisite humility? 'Cause if you're building it and you're the center of the world, or your solution, or your platform is center of the world, or do you really believe that teachers are the center for the world, and are you really focused on sort of striving to meet their needs? So we know everything you just said is absolutely true because we spend an intense amount of time ethnographically with teachers.
That's just good product design. That's just how you build good products. You spend an insane amount of time with your users.
Yeah, you serve at (indistinct), you talk to them, but you also observed them and you see exactly what you said. You're right, Amanda Gorman's poem, I guarantee you that was the number one piece of curriculum used in the- - [Justin] January 21st in English classes across the country was Amanda Gorman's... But now I forget the name of the poem (crosstalk drowns out speaker) - [Matthew] What I think is key in the design principle that's relevant for us is not only just understanding teachers and preferences, but the other thing is creating flexibility for teachers to implement solutions as they see fit, and leverage their judgment and support. So in the language of sort of technology development you'd say, support a variety of use cases. So yes, we have teachers who wants something much more prescriptive and kinda out of the box, and we support those. But we create the option for teachers who says, "I'm gonna pick and choose "because I'm covering this standard today.
"And I want the supplemental experience for my child "for the kids in my class to be tied "to this standard I'm focused on today." And we support both. And that's something also that's a new.
I mean, one of the critiques I think you rightly have, and I certainly have lived through this, is some of these adaptive learning solutions they kind of take over. The algorithms are in charge of what the kids get to experience. And we've really fought that. We've created programs, we have a program called Waggle that's very much sort of gamified adaptive learning, but it creates options and teachers get to choose which content areas and standards the students are gonna focus on.
So it's like seeking to be best of both worlds. - [Justin] It's so funny you described that. My daughter, as she was switching schools, sort of switched a math software product and they sort of assigned her to use it.
It sort of put her back into review mode, and she was like, "Nope, I'm not doing that again." She was like, "I really enjoyed doing it." But just like the system was saying you have to do these activities. And she was like, "Nope, not gonna do it." - [Matthew] And then you found out she has the ultimate choice.
- [Justin] Young people, they can't always make other people around them do everything, but the capacity to refuse is one that young people carry with them in very, very powerful ways that we need to respect. - [Matthew] Yeah, you got to honor voice and choice of yes, teachers, absolutely, and students as well. - [Justin] One of the things I so appreciated about this conversation, Matthew, is I think for a lot of teachers their textbooks, their software packages, they just kinda fall out of the sky.
And they don't recognize that there are a whole series of human beings who are product developers, who are former teachers that go into instructional design or software design, who are thinking through all these things. So I really appreciate you coming on TeachLab and just letting some of our listeners get to know a little bit more, one of the human beings who's behind some of the things that they're using. A, so they can send you nasty emails that they don't like it. (Matthew laughs) But probably more importantly, recognize that it's immensely difficult to build a tool that's useful to 25 million students, but there are people working really hard at making that happen. Maybe the last thing we should say is that in addition to being a great podcast guest, you're also a podcast host, Shaping the Future. Do you wanna tell us a little bit about the podcast and what kinds of guests you have on or what kinds of things are coming up? - [Matthew] Yeah, so one of the things I was most excited about talking to you about is you're a pro and I'm a newbie at this podcast thing.
I've been taking some notes here and then I'm gonna walk out with some good tips. So Shaping the Future is a podcast in the second season, taking over as hosts. We start on the 26th of January, 2021, that real focus of it is geared towards an educator audience. And we wanna have innovators, thinkers, experts, folks who do work in education and beyond education that's future-facing with a theme of how do we better help students be prepared for an uncertain future.
Oftentimes, we nowadays talk about the fact that, hey, we're attempting to prepare learners for careers that don't even exist yet, right? And so we wanna lean into that and have guests come on. We anchor the discussions in education, in their own educational journeys, but also what they think should be happening in education based on what they're doing. So we have entrepreneurs and researchers. Our first guests is been Tal Shahar.
He kinda came to a claim as the happiness professor at Harvard, and had two of the most popular courses ever in the history of Harvard. Now he's branched out and he has a Happiness Academy. And he's coming on to talk about the role that schools can embrace in helping students live happier lives and some of his research and work in that area. So looking forward to it, looking forward to having many great conversations like this one.
- [Justin] Well, Matthew Mugo Fields, thanks so much for joining us. - [Matthew] All right, Justin, and you gotta come on the podcast. - [Justin] I'll be there. - [Matthew] All right.
(upbeat jazzy music) - [Justin] So behind those big heavy textbooks and those clunky software packages, there are real human beings like Matthew Mugo Fields who are they're developing those things, trying to support you as educators. I'm Justin Reich, thanks for listening to TeachLab. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes.
And if you like our podcast, please leave us a review. You can check out my new book, "Failure to Disrupt: "Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education" available from book stores everywhere. You can read reviews of the book, check out related media, and sign up for online events at failuretodisrupt.com,
that's failuretodisrupt.com. And join myself and Vanderbilt professor and author, Rich Milner, in a free self-paced online course for educators, becoming a more equitable educator, mindsets and practices. Through inquiry and practice, you'll cultivate a better understanding of yourself and your students, you'll gain new resources to help all students thrive, and develop an action plan to work in your community to advance the lifelong work of equitable teaching.
You'll find the link to this ethics course in our show notes where you can enroll now, and the course runs until late August, 2021. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Amy Corgan and Garrett Beasley, recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beasley. Stay safe, until next time.
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