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Jun 9

Ireland’s MATHletes Challenge: How Khan Academy and competitive spirit are transforming math learning in Ireland

By Kelly Kirkpatrick, MATHletes program lead

Ireland has earned a reputation as a hub of technological innovation and is home to some of the worlds most influential companies, including Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, and Apple. With a rich environment of startups and multinationals, ICT sector companies in Ireland are looking to hire over 44,500 technical workers in the next 6 years(1) – a huge prospect in a country with 12% unemployment and 1,000 Irish leaving every week to find work abroad (2). 

While the demand for highly skilled technical graduates is rising, Ireland’s education system is not meeting the need. Ireland ranks around the bottom third mark on international comparative exams for both Primary and Secondary student performance in mathematics (3). Our team set out with the idea that by making one small change – by introducing a FREE training tool already used by millions – Ireland will top the global leaderboards in mathematics.

That tool is Khan Academy.

Where did it all begin?

Last October, two National Education Centres started running free Saturday Khan Academy math clubs on Saturday mornings. Today, 100 students attend the club in Galway every Saturday, some carpooling over 2 hours just to work on Khan Academy, and there is a perpetual waiting list for a spot. The Khan Academy club model is spreading across the country: 20 additional education centres have been trained on Khan Academy, and volunteer parents of CoderDojo (www.coderdojo.com) have opened KA maths rooms in their computer coding clubs.

By the end of 2013, it was clear that Khan Academy had struck a chord with Irish students, and our team decided it was time to take our awareness raising efforts to the next level.

Enter: the MATHletes Challenge.

Building on Ireland’s strong athletics tradition, we launched the MATHletes Challenge – a national maths tournament for Ireland using Khan Academy. The Challenge was open to primary and secondary individuals and schools across 5 grades. In just 3 months, over 3,000 students and 350 teachers from 276 schools signed up for the Challenge – including 10% of Irish secondary schools.

The Challenge captured the imagination of students and brought excitement, engagement, and dedication to math that had never existed before. Radio stations and newspapers profiled local MATHletes as celebrities, and weekly leaderboards generated anticipation and buzz in schools and households across Ireland. It appealed to students’ (and teachers) basic competitive spirit - and the positive feedback generated by Khan Academy’s points, badges, and mastery skills encouraged students to keep working.

Top MATHletes were invited to in-person provincial and national final days, which were filled with math challenges, fun, and prizes totaling over €20,000.

So what has the impact been?

Students spent nearly a million minutes on Khan Academy over the course of the competition. Students logged over 900 hours during the Easter break, and stayed late after school and during lunch to work on Khan Academy. The Challenge improved performance across ability levels. Not only were top mathletes working on content 2-3 grade levels above their level in school, but all students were gaining confidence and being exposed to new topics before learning them in class. In one school, teachers saw “unheard of” increases in MATHletes’ standardized testing scores after just 3 intensive months on Khan Academy. Schools have been transformed, and in future years, we see this generation of MATHletes leading Ireland into its digital future.

With a small team, and 4 months, the MATHletes Challenge experiment with Khan Academy has captured the imagination of Ireland. As we work to make next years’ Challenge better, we encourage any group of parents, teachers, or students to try a Challenge in your own community! Its amazing what a world class training tool and a little competitive spirit can do to ignite a passion for math.

References

(1) http://www.forfas.ie/media/EGFSN020212-Statement_of_activity-publication.pdf

(2) http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/1000-irish-people-emigrate-a-week-241476.html)

(3) Secondary students - PISA: Programme for International Assessment Primary school students - TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.  

Cosgrove et al. 2012. Learning for Life: The Achievements of 15-year-olds in Ireland on Mathematics,

Reading Literacy and Science in PISA 2012. Education Resource Centre. Accessed 2 Jan 2014 at http://www.erc.ie/documents/p12main_report.pdf

Clerkin, A and Eivers, E. 2011. PIRLS & TIMSS 2011: Reading, Mathematics and Science Outcomes for Ireland. Education Research Centre. Accessed 2 Jan 2014 at http://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Education-Reports/PIRLS-TIMSS-2011-Reading-Mathematics-and-Science-Outcomes-for-Ireland-Main-Report-.pdf