Curacubby Team
January 19, 2021

What We Get Wrong About Math Education, A Conversation with David Ullendorff

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What We Get Wrong About Math Education, A Conversation with David Ullendorff

In this interview, David Ullendorff, President & Co-Founder of Mathnasium, joins us to talk about what he has learned over the past 20-years since he opened his first Mathnasium location. Their supplemental learning methods started to help students in math increasingly. 

He quickly learned with a little encouragement and a system to understand math concepts, he could get kids to love math - and even choose careers in the STEM/STEAM field. With the impact of COVID-19, they have been adapting to distance learning across all locations. However, the excitement surrounding learning math and producing a high student success rate is still growing. 

By the way, this conversation was originally featured on our podcast K12ish, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.


The Future Thought of Education

What was it like being in the film industry prior to education? 

I began in film and worked a lot in children's television and was always interested in kids and education. I think that my interests were a little less entertainment and more education. That's kind of why I transitioned into what I began doing later. 

As a production manager, I worked for the John River Show, which was my last film job. Then I started a company with a partner called Future Kids, where we were teaching in the 90s. So, this was when home computers and personal computers were becoming available. 

The company’s mission was to teach kids how to code and use these new machines that they weren't familiar with. So that was the first kind of educational endeavor. 

We sold that company in 1999  to an educational conglomerate, and then moved on and started Mathnasium, officially, in 2002. That's all I've been doing for the last 17 to 18 years. 


The Significance of Math

Were you always interested in STEM/STEAM subjects, or was this just kind of the way the cards fell? 

I studied sciences in college, and if you're going to teach factual material, the sciences lend themselves to that. So, I've always been interested in the Biological Sciences, but also math, physics, and chemistry. It seemed like people were paying less attention to those subjects - the need was more significant. 

Although the boundary between arts and sciences - sciences are a kind of art - I think of math as both art and science. It's hard for me to divide things strictly. I've never built a company about it, but I am very interested in language, literacy, writing, and reading. Math seemed like something that was particularly such a pity that so many kids hate math. 

My partner and I concluded that it wasn't math they hated so much. It was the way math was being taught. If they could be introduced to it positively, they would come to love the subject. Much in the way an English teacher might say: "Read this book, it's gonna change your life!" 

I felt the same was possible with math. Meaning kids could come to love math or at least tolerate math for its values rather than be afraid of it. 

For us, I started with a guy named Lawrence Martinek. He was our first hire, and we consider him a partner. He was a math teacher who'd been in the classroom for 30 years before this. Like a lot of math teachers, he'd seen trends come and go. 

Over time, he just developed his particular approach to teaching. Many math teachers will tell you if the superintendent's not listening, they do what they have to do to get their kids through the class. Very often, they don't listen to what the district is mandating. 

They close the door, and they do what they have to do. This guy had hit an independent streak that way and developed his approach to teaching math, which was, initially, a collection of best practices with his unique twist. Put simply; it’s just having a lot of respect for the kids, a lot of understanding, making it clear what they were doing, and trying to get them excited about the subject. 

So, he developed a curriculum that he used himself in the classroom. When he joined Mathnasium, that's how we started teaching the kids at the first Mathnasium center. Of course, we've been around for a while now, so we've put enormous resources into filling out and evolving that initial seed. 

That's what pointed us in the right direction. We've spent a lot of time, money, and people hours to develop into what is now called the Mathnasium Center, but it started with him.

Learning Encouragement Tactics When Teaching Math

With this style of pedagogy, how do you identify areas of weakness with customized learning assessment plans? 

You want to meet the child where they're at. Everybody who teaches math should be doing that. You don't want to give kids material too difficult for them because they'll become discouraged. 

Simultaneously, you don't want to provide them with material that's too easy because they'll feel complacent, and they won't learn. It's almost like you're asking them to reach out and stretch a little bit. You want the learning ramp to be gradual, almost unnoticeable, in a way where they're just taking baby steps every hour every day. 

Then over some time, they've made enormous progress. So, meeting the kids where they're at is a central tenet of Mathnasium. We didn't invent that. That's what you should do. 

Every good teacher does that. The only thing you can do if that doesn't work is teach to the middle. So, the kids who are gifted and need to run ahead are ignored. 

Tragically, the kids who are falling behind just keep falling behind. At a place like Mathnasium, we can give them the individual attention they need and start them exactly where they're at, and build from there. 

That's hard, if not impossible, for the classroom teacher. Even if they're Mother Teresa, they have lives. They can't just privately work with every single student. 

Math is particularly unforgiving because it builds on itself. So, once you fall behind, you continue to fall behind. If you're learning history, and you flunked out of the French Revolution, they'll say, "Well, good news, we're going to start the American Revolution, so you can try and catch the train this time." 

With math, which builds on itself, the failure to stay with its compounds. Then, kids just give up, which is sad.


Setting Students Up For Success: Then and Now

What did the first year of mapping out the program look like?

Larry and I ran the first learning center. It was very comfortable, and he knew exactly what to do. What we didn't have were all the systems worked out. 

There's a balance. You've got a business model and an education model. The two have to work together. We found ways for it to work together. 

Because you don't want to charge the parents a fortune, you want it to be inexpensive so that they can afford it. This is not meant for the 0.001%. 

This is intended for everyone. So, you want something where kids get excellent value - great math instruction at a very reasonable price. So, the first learning center was finding a way to make those two goals work together. 

There was a lot of work to be done on the curriculum. However, I felt very secure with Larry because he could handle any kid in any situation. The real problem was the second center because there's only one Larry and only one me. 

So, we needed to take all of the things we were doing, very often intuitively, and create a system that someone else could replicate. I knew that the kids coming to us were receiving excellent value and excellent math instruction. 

The question was: Could we open up a second one? Could we put on paper what we were doing? 

Larry worked intuitively, too. He did all kinds of things in his classroom before Mathnasium, and with Mathnasium, we had to figure out what those things were. 

I videotaped him in the early days, and I would study what was going on with the kids, almost like an anthropologist saying, Why did this work? What didn't work? 

Why was he getting through to kids when he spoke this way? Why was he not getting through to kids when he spoke this way? I was trying to deconstruct what it was we were doing so that I understood it better. 

So, when I found someone else who wanted to open up a learning center, I could tell them, "Look, this is exactly the process of how to do it, and this will work."


During the time of the deconstruction process, was there anything you discovered that surprised you and Larry? 

What surprised me was how simple it—simple things like treating kids with respect and encouraging encouragement. Doing simple things like saying in the beginning to the kids: there were things they knew, and they were things they didn't know yet. 

It wasn't that complicated. The key to teaching math was changing the children’s attitude. The idea of treating them with respect and not making them feel like they were somehow unable to do the math. 

So, there are things that you know, and there are things you don't know yet - that principle—explaining things clearly, simply, and straightforward, not using complex language—using language that they could understand was vital as well. 

The emotional component, especially elementary school kids - they do it for you very often. Intellectual curiosity comes later. They need to have that emotional experience with the instructor and feel that someone's in their corner and want them to succeed. 

So much of it is about attitude. If you can change a child's attitude towards the subject, their natural intelligence takes over, and they do very well. It was clear that there was no such thing as a kid who couldn't do the math. 

They all could do the math because we're hardwired to do the math, just like we're hardwired to understand language. Kids assimilate language and start speaking, it's nothing less than a miracle that they do that, but we sort of take it for granted. 

Kids have the same ability to do the math because we're hardwired to do the math. After all, it's part of our evolution as human beings. We do the math when we cross the street, so we don't get hit by a car. 

So, when you tap into that natural ability, it's like a miracle, parents say. They were always good at math. You just had to unlock it. 

So, that was surprising to me. The most enjoyable thing was seeing kids who thought they were terrible at math to become stars in math. That has happened so many times at Mathnasium that I've just stopped counting it. 

Kids who felt that they couldn't do the math discovered that they could, and not only that, they can, but they're excellent at it. They become math stars at school. They start helping other kids with their homework.

They begin having these fantastic math discussions. They become quick, and now that we've been around for long enough, I see a lot of them go on to become engineers, physicians, and math professors. So, that was very rewarding.


The Lasting Impact of the Mathnasium Methodology 

What's it like when those kids, who have grown up, come back to Mathnasium to thank the staff? 

Even better than that, they become teachers at Mathnasium. Some of them even come to work for us as they get older. It's a solid connection. 

I did a few videos; about a year or two ago, I found students who had gone to Mathnasium and now were out of college and asked about their experience. There was a teaching methodology, but the confidence, which would be placed in them that they could do, really made their experience worth wild through clarity, a sense of confidence, and enthusiasm. 

There's nothing better than a math teacher that loves math themselves. Pretty much everyone who works at Mathnasium loves the subject. That becomes that sort of communication to the kids. 

If I were looking for the most critical aspect of what I look for in a math teacher, we could give them a solid because many of the people who are teaching math for us are engineers. They're not necessarily educators. Although a lot of them are, they're people who've used math in their lives. 

They're contagiously excited about math, and that's the best teacher. One who's so enthusiastic about the subject that it catches on, and you get excited about it, too.


How have you been able to duplicate the same level of aid and success planted into your first location at your other sites? 

That's why you need to create a system that is easy to understand and easy to replicate. Then you have to find the talent, which is a little more complicated. The people who choose to do Mathnasium are very committed to children and education, and they want to make a difference in their community. 

Many of them have left engineering jobs to make more money, but they really enjoy doing this. The common denominator is that they want to serve their community. They want to make a difference in children's lives. 

They want to do it upfront and personal. Our math specialists want to be that agent of change, but they want to be directly involved. They want to see that kid every day, and they want to see them change. 

The other thing is that they love math, which is a key ingredient. Our math specialists believe math is essential. They think it's necessary. 

They're math geeks! To us, that's not an insult; that’s a compliment. So, they usually have those two things in common. 

With Mathnasium, we've refined over the years, so we can give future centers a system that we know will work as a business and an education system that we know will work. Those two have to work together because people have to be rewarded for their hard work. 

If they volunteer to do things, you've got them for a month or two, but then they go back to their lives. Here, this is a second career for them. It's an opportunity to do well, to do good, and to do something they love. 

So, they are people like that out there. There's a reason why we're 20 years old because we built very gradually. It took a while for us to get here, but we try to get better every year. 

The more people that are involved, the more information there is, the more we learn. We've got an enormous focus group out there teaching kids. Every day, their experiences are channeled back to headquarters, and we try to make the product and the experience for everyone better.

We're sort of on this cycle of continual improvement, but our goal is to do the best job we can - teaching kids math. It is inspiring them to be good at math. We find that, if kids are good at math, all those other subjects in the sciences open up to them. 

That's usually what would prevent them from going into those careers. We want that door to be open to them. Even if they’re going to be actors or writers, a solid understanding of math is essential.