Second to None

Beyond video games, online program aspires to help students master mathematics.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Bob Sun First in MathWhile the national media has been putting a lot of focus into harnessing games in the classroom to teach core subjects, a local company has been doing it for 20 years and has been seeing tremendous success throughout school districts in Philadelphia. First in Math, an online program that helps students in grades K-8 master math skills, goes beyond video games and grasps the power of gaming with a deep foundation in education. The result? Effective learning strategies that provide rapid feedback, forcing students to rethink and alter strategies— truly helping them master mathematics. Philadelphia-based creator Bob Sun (pictured) discusses why this method is extremely effective for the generation who’s obsession with video games and not so much with traditional, slow-paced classroom lectures that can seem so un-engaging.

By allowing students to tackle the complex subject of math in manageable parts—stopping when an error occurs and practicing that one skill until it is perfected—they march steadily toward mastery.

Victor: What prompted you to develop the First in Math? What issues, challenges, problem were you trying to solve?

Bob: I have a deep respect for the importance of practice in mastering any discipline or skill. I observed that when learning math, children were missing an essential element that motivates practice – built in feedback.

Think about a basketball player practicing free throw shots or a baseball player swinging the bat. When the ball misses the hoop, or the bat swings through the air, they receive immediate feedback about their success or failure, because our physical senses serve as a built-in feedback loop. Now, imagine doing both of those things with a blindfold. How long would you be motivated to practice?

With First In Math (FIM), we remove the blindfold and provide students with immediate feedback.

Victor: What’s something interesting about it’s development history?

First in Math logoBob: About ten years ago, when we were launching FIM, many content providers were debating the validity of the internet as a delivery method for educational content. At the time, about 3% of schools had high speed internet access. For this reason, many educational publishers chose to use CD-ROMs rather than the internet as their delivery mechanism.

Because we had more than a decade of experience in running tournaments using the printed 24 game cards, we understood the power of competition as a motivating tool. With the internet, everyone is easily connected. We committed to the internet recognizing its potential as a long-term medium. And, one that would support our goals to build a community of math enthusiasts who could participate and compete on a variety of levels — on their own, as a classroom, or school – at the state, region, nationally or international levels.

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Bob: After graduating from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Electrical Engineering, I worked for 7 years designing and inventing industrial controls. If you asked me to describe in one word what I did in those years – that word would be “feedback”. Major companies came to us because they had a complex manufacturing process that they could not control because they lacked a feedback loop.

I had one project that drove home the importance of immediate feedback. This company made dynamite fuses which contain an outside casing and inside is the charge. The product came off their machines at 400 feet per minute. They wanted a system that could detect voids in the charge so that they could insure quality and predict demolitions more accurately.

We provided a solution that worked very effectively and I learned the importance of a principal that has guided me ever since, immediate feedback is critical to the learning process. They told us that our system taught them more about making dynamite fuses than the 20 years they were in business, because now that they had immediate feedback, they could adjust a dial early in the process and right away see the impact on the output.

Victor: Where do you get your passion for education and coming up with education-improving solutions? 

Bob: I learned about the power of math at an early age. I arrived in Philadelphia from Shanghai at the age of nine. I spoke very little English and was teased mercilessly by the other kids in my class.  They would torment me on the playground, but they would turn to me for help in math. I learned that math had power, that it transcended cultures and that with a solid foundation in math, one could cross many boundaries. I want children everywhere to discover this power within themselves.

Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?

Bob: First In Math… fuels the desire to learn. Ignites the passion for excellence. Motivates the drive to achieve.  

We are providing comprehensive, engaging content with multiple entry points for any skill level that encourages children to take ownership, learn from their mistakes and be motivated to practice.

Students want to engage with FIM. When they are given the freedom to make mistakes, they push their skills to the edge, that’s where real active learning occurs. When they take ownership, they are intrinsically motivated and their sustained practice leads to mastery over time.

Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?

Bob: Although there are limited dollars available to be allocated to supplemental educational programs, we don’t view others in the field as direct competition.

Most products are geared toward teaching, ours are geared toward learning through deep practice.

We have  many long-term relationships with school districts around the country that illustrate the effectiveness of our approach. The School District of Philadelphia has used First In Math districtwide (grades K -8) for more than 10 years. The district achieved over that period a 40 percentage point increase in students scoring proficient and advance on the Pennsylvania standardized tests.

Victor: Any highlights in test marketing or starting out, any interesting feedback?

Bob: First In Math evolved from the success of the 24 Game and contains many of its components and most popular features. We had a strong base of support that we were able to build upon when we introduced First In Math online. The initial response was extremely positive.

Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of First in Math?

Bob: One of the most exciting aspects about FIM is our ability to scale on a vast level quickly. The power of the internet has allowed us to engage about 1.5 million students annually who have solved over 13 billion math problems to date.

This is in part due to our commitment to the concept of “deep practice” – a system that provides an immediate, non-judgmental feedback loop where proficiency is attained through immediate awareness of success or failure.

By allowing students to tackle the complex subject of math in manageable parts — stopping when an error occurs and practicing that one skill until it is perfected — they march steadily toward mastery. This is the hallmark of Deep Practice and an important benefit of our program.

Victor: Anything else in the works?  

Bob: We are developing a vibrant community for FIM. In addition to the United States, we are initiating efforts in India, Israel and the United Kingdom.

We are also creating modules on our site that encourage collaborative problem-solving involving students throughout a school. We want to encourage kids to speak math — to develop their confidence and fluency with a skill that can open doors and provide opportunities.

We think of this as Social Math, an initiative that encourages and supports the use of spoken math to engage in interactions that provide feedback and motivation to master fluency in this universal language.

Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Bob: Our education system is out of balance, putting most of its resources into teaching but precious little into practice.

We place too much reliance solely on teaching — and too much pressure on teachers — in the rush to get immediate results that are transitory rather than sustainable. Passing a test based on memorized facts may be interpreted as success in the moment, however, learning that is based on intrinsic motivation and repeated engagement, provides a successful practice for a lifetime.

Perhaps the translation of the two Chinese characters that denote learning/study say it best, one represents the “accumulation of knowledge” the other “constant practice, as in little birds learning to fly.” Teaching is certainly important, but you cannot run on one leg. Put a sustainable practice piece in place and you can get long lasting results.

I believe that sustained practice will become the norm when we create a love for math that permeates our culture — especially in our schools and homes.

Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days?

Bob: First, I applaud our educators for making the commitment they do to our next generation. All of us can remember a teacher who made a lasting impression and influenced our life.

Today’s teachers face so many obstacles and so much pressure to produce results that are externally imposed. Each child is unique and deserves the freedom to make mistakes that can be the foundation of their learning.

Stay true to your heart and honor the art and science of the profession. While content knowledge is important, we’ve observed that a student’s attitude toward the content is often a deciding factor in their success or failure in the classroom. The greatest success occurs for both teachers and students when they mutually experience engagement as the first step in the learning process.

Intrinsic to FIM are multiple opportunities to affect attitudes and content knowledge while providing teachers with the resources they need to engage their students in achieving math fluency. Equally accessible are the data and feedback necessary about each student’s progress to assist teachers in making important curriculum adjustments and decisions that affect attitudes and learning success.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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