Only 44 percent of high school seniors graduated in 2013 prepared to tackle college-level math. A contributing factor to that, according to area ed-tech entrepreneur Sheela Sethuraman, could be that “a lot of teachers don’t know how kids think.”
If teachers were able to see how their students were solving problems, however, and pinpoint particular parts of their thinking where a solution went wrong, that percentage of prepared students could increase.
Or at least that’s what Sethuraman is aiming to accomplish with her company CueThink, a collaborative, interactive learning environment for math students in grades four through 12.
Sethuraman launched the startup publicly in the fall of 2014, following a stint as the director of technology at the Center for Applied Technology, better known as CAST. There, she helped flesh out the “Universal Design for Learning,” an approach focused on creating curriculum and practice assessments that are inclusive and accessible to students with disabilities. Rather, how could digital learning empower every student?
Sethuraman took that knowledge to Pearson, where she served as a project director, joining the team when the Common Core started taking shape. Her job was to determine how students were interacting with items designed to test them on Common Core constructs, as well as develop recommendations and product requirements based on her findings.
“An expert student tackling a problem was so much different than a novice,” said Sethuraman of her time at Pearson, quietly observing students at work. Experts were more prone to thinking out loud and explaining the strategies they were using to solve a problem, while novice students took a completely haphazard approach. And that disconnect got Sethuraman wondering, “Is there was a way to capture students’ thinking almost as they’re thinking out loud?”
It’s a question that’s powering CueThink, which Sethuraman first received a grant for from the National Science Foundation in January 2013. She successfully made the case that educators should be capturing student thinking other students could benefit from. And so, with the grant, Sethuraman built out an iPad application centered around “Thinklets” — a sort of digital whiteboard that lets students showcase their problem solving.
Students are aptly provided “cues,” and then prompted to share their reasoning as they work through the four stages of a problem: “understand,” “plan,” “solve” and “review.” Through the stages, students are tasked with devising a strategy, pre-determining how they’re going to use that strategy, creating a draft — whether with visuals or audio — and then revisiting their work to check that their initial estimate added up.
Beyond needing to ensure their math made sense, students simultaneously need to focus on how strong their communication is. After they publish their Thinklet, their peers are able to see their work and annotate it. Feedback can be embedded in different parts of the stream, meaning students’ peers and teachers are able to cue them to particular points in their thinking that worked or didn’t work.
“More and more, educators are saying, ‘You need to create mathematical thinkers,'” Sethuraman said. “What does that really mean? It means being able to understand how to focus on what’s important — how to analyze your work as well as your peers’ work.”
With the Common Core preaching eight mathematical practice standards, meant to help “students develop a mathematical mindset and see math in the world around them,” improving students’ writing in math is crucial — and a problem CueThink is focused on solving.
Sethuraman was sure to emphasize, though, “We are not a tool, we are a pedagogy. We are a learning application.”
A flexible learning application at that, given teachers are able to input their own problems into CueThink. In return, the startup is saving the best questions they’ve seen asked, so they can build a rich database of content. And to help the learning process even further, CueThink has also launched “CueNotes,” audio podcasts and companion downloadable files that are easy to read, review, listen to on-the-go and implement in the classroom.
The features attracted Drexel University’s The Math Forum, an online resource for improving math learning, teaching and communication. The Math Forum announced in November a partnership with CueThink that integrated its problem-solving programs with CueThink’s social math learning platform.
“We are not a tool, we are a pedagogy. We are a learning application.”
The features also attracted a slew of early investors. Prior to receiving the phase two of its grant from the National Science Foundation, CueThink raised a small angel round, with the help of Jeff Fagnan, a partner at Atlas Venture; Barbara Clarke, a founding member of Astia; and LearnLaunch Co-founders Eileen Rudden and Jean Hammond. After securing the bridge round, CueThink was accepted into the 2014 LearnLaunch Accelerator, and is still working out of LearnLaunch’s co-working space, called Campus, located in the Back Bay.
CueThink has grown to six employees overall, who are helping oversee the handful of pilots now running in Massachusetts, including a district-wide test in Medfield. Roughly 100 classrooms are actively using the platform, while nearly 10,000 students are in the funnel. For fellow districts and educators interested in using the product, CueThink is currently being offered as a 30-day free trial, with costs rising to $6 per student per year after that trial is over.
As CueThink matures and adds more features, Sethuraman noted they will reevaluate which features should be free and which ones should be premium. Down the road, Sethuraman envisions the platform being used to improve other subjects.
“Teachers in science are already using it, even though we’re not set up for that,” she said. “And it could be used in the process of writing. It has more power when students are using it across multiple areas.”
Sethuraman also sees an opportunity to improve how teachers teach, as well, once they have a better idea of how students are using the platform.
One teacher has already given CueThink his approval.
“I was giddy exploring this app for the first time; seeing how well it could support students through the problem-solving process, seeing the functionality for feedback and having a teacher dashboard,” wrote Andrew Stadel on his blog. “I know there’s more to come to make this app even better, but think of the potential.”
And it’s that potential CueThink is ready to capitalize on.
Images via CueThink