February 2009 Archives

Co-Founder Dan Heath at NAIS Conference

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It was very cool to see the Twittersphere and blogosphere buzzing this morning about Dan Heath's keynote at this year's conference for the National Association of Independent Schools. As most of you probably know, Dan is a co-founder of Thinkwell and a co-author of the best-selling book, Made to Stick. 

While I'm bummed that we didn't have the opportunity to see the keynote in person, it was fun to follow it virtually here and here. 

For those of you who haven't read Dan's book, Made to Stick, it's a fun, engaging, AND rigorous look into the world of ideas--what makes some ideas naturally "sticky" while other ideas fall flat. 

In today's keynote, Dan talked about the core qualities that sticky ideas usually possess: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotion, and a Story element. (To learn more about this perspective, go here---or, better yet, buy a copy of book!) 

Why do I bring this up? These ideas were central to the formative vision of Thinkwell and are actively at work in all of the Thinkwell videos. See for yourself! Check out Professor Edward Burger's lecture on the two, fundamental questions of Calculus:   

Look for these moments: 
  • Simple--what is Calculus all about?
  • Unexpected--Did he break the law?
  • Concrete: At the very moment he crossed the 30 mile an hour sign...
  • Credible--He really does have a purple mountain bike!
  • Emotion--The drama of the bear-Professor Burger
  • Story--He was going on the road

After finishing it, you'll never forget what the fundamental questions of Calculus are all about!

90% of Surveyed Students Prefer Thinkwell

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One of the many joys of my work here is speaking directly to instructors, students, and parents who use Thinkwell, and I'm always looking for ways to find out how well we're doing our job. 

Recently, we surveyed a little over 240 students asking them about their experience using Thinkwell. In particular, we wanted to know how students felt about using Thinkwell versus a traditional print textbook. We were delighted with what we heard! 

90% of the students surveyed prefer using Thinkwell to a traditional textbook. Wow--90%! This confirms what we are hearing from individuals but it is especially exciting to have this confirmed by hard data. 

It's exciting to hear such enthusiasm about what a helpful tool Thinkwell is. To have students who say they have a math phobia write about enjoying and understanding mathematics for the first time in their lives is wonderful! Hearing from these students inspires me and makes me proud to be a Thinkwellian. 

I've gotta run--my phone is ringing and Scout needs a treat!

Northwest Missouri, e-Text, and e-Learning

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There was an interesting story this morning on NPR about Northwest Missouri's decision to move entirely to e-textbooks. A human resources instructor at Northwest Missouri was quoted on this trend and students' use of this digital media: "I just remind them again, you know, review this chapter, probably more so than I did so before," she says, "because I think they're actually going to read it more this time." 

I hope that this instructor is correct; however, our research has shown that when static text is simply digitized, it is no more compelling to a student than when it's bound and printed on paper. For digital textbooks to really work, publishers need to embrace the possibilities of the medium and utilize the best of what it has to offer. 

I'm hopeful about these trends, though, and look forward to continuing to help students get the most out of their digital learning resources.

Advanced Placement and Today's World

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There aren't many people who would deny that American education is facing some thorny issues. 

One approach to these issues is to lower the water rather than to raise the bridge. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander suggested to the American Council of Education that one way to cut costs was to institute a three-year bachelor's degree in order to save "one fourth of the time and up to a third of the cost." Lamar Alexander is a thoughtful man, but it is troubling to think that less education would be considered an answer to our problems. This is especially troubling when one notices that students around the globe are being asked to do more work, not less, and the Europeans seem just now to be aligning with our standards with the implementation of the Bologna Plan in 2010. 

At the moment, many students seem to be addressing the issue of cost by leaving four-year institutions and enrolling at two-year schools. Community colleges are enjoying marked growth and recently the American Association of Community Colleges noted that a third of these colleges' new students had previously been enrolled at four-year schools. Moreover, there is some evidence that this "reverse transfer" process may benefit students, helping them to obtain a degree eventually. 

There are lots of moving parts, but one proven method of saving time and money is the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) programs. AP offers an efficient way to master many introductory college courses, and the College Board offers evidence that "...a score of 3 or higher in particular, is a strong predictor of a student's ability to persist in college and earn a bachelor's degree." In some cases, AP can provide a cost-cutting alternative to Lamar Alexander's plan. 

AP is not a panacea because availability and participation are still spotty, but it seems to be one good answer.

Here's to ten more!

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Today, Thinkwell celebrates having Carl Tyson as our CEO for ten years. Carl's guidance through those years has been priceless. I've only been here for 4+ of those years, but in that time I've had the opportunity to watch Carl and to see just how crucial a CEO can be to a company's success.

In the early days of Thinkwell, co-founders Amy Bryant and Dan Heath sought Carl out because of his depth of experience in the educational publishing business. At that time, he was the president of the college divisions of Harcourt-Brace and McGraw-Hill. Amy and Dan had a great idea, a lot of ambition, and the willingness to work hard as necessary, but Carl brought the know-how that made Thinkwell into a contributing part of the publishing community.

Carl is not only a publishing industry guru extraordinaire, but he's also a brainiac of the highest order: with his Ph.D., 8 books, and over 20 articles on the American West, Carl can regale you with tales and details that will recast your impressions of the history you thought you knew. He's smart!

So we raise our glasses (and our paws); thanks for everything, Carl! 

21st Century Learning

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As we seek to capture the zeitgeist of 21st Century learning,  we at Thinkwell spend a lot of time talking and thinking about fixing the broken paradigm of education that bombards learners with massive amounts of information and then asks them to ferret out the important stuff.  

Recently, the need for rethinking was driven home by the report "Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community College" from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. And Scott Jascik gives a great analysis of the report in Inside Higher Education in "Lost Before They Start." After reading these and other reports, it is obvious that the paradigm is at least cracked, if not broken. It's surprising that anyone emerges from  developmental courses--but of course they do, thanks frequently to heroic efforts by dedicated teachers and mentors, and of course the students themselves. 
Just a few excerpts highlight the situation:

  • Fewer than sixty percent of students referred to remedial education complete the sequence of programs.
  • Many students, perhaps as many as 30% of the students who do not complete a remedial program, never return to college.
  • More than 40% of students who are referred to remedial programs that are three or more classes below college level never enroll.

In other words, many people are lost in the mix and do not acquire the skills needed to thrive and be productive in our nation.

However, there is good news; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is addressing the problem.  

Additionally, the Achieving the Dream initiative is dedicated to improving the community college experience. They help the student with several goals:

  • Successfully complete the courses they take;
  • Advance from remedial to credit-bearing courses;
  • Enroll in and successfully complete gatekeeper courses;
  • Enroll from one semester to the next; and
  • Earn degrees and/or certificates.

All of this gives us pause, and it makes us think and work harder to provide the best educational tools possible.  

Networking, Multimedia, and Homeschooling

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As the homeschool movement started gaining momentum thirty years ago, few could have envisioned how many parents would choose this option for their children's education. In fact, the latest report on homeschooling from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 1.5 million children are now being homeschooled. Also, this past decade has seen the advent of many tools that enable distributed learning. 

The emergence of these technologies and services has provided a boon to the homeschooler. Although most parents of homeschooled children are far more educated than the average public school student, the child can still outpace the parent. That's when the parent-teacher can rely on networking with other parent-teachers through internet tools like Twitter and Facebook, as well as rich multimedia products. 

Today's homeschooler can find other homeschoolers to collaborate with and can easily mix and match curricula from different programs and courses, creating a unique environment for the students. Multimedia and networking are breaking down educational barriers and opening up new avenues of learning for students everywhere.
Recently, Chancellor Michelle Rhee of the District of Columbia Public Schools system has been creating quite a stir.  Her pay for performance plans and overall reforms to the DCPS have riled feathers and created a backlash, even as she has struggled to put her ideas into practice.  At the heart of those ideas is a desire by both Ms. Rhee and the mayor's office to improve DC's schools--and most parents are similarly motivated.  However, DC's school system has become much of a patronage system over the past twenty years, and many people have much to lose if the game were to change.  At the same time, Chancellor Rhee is somewhat unproven.  Her ideas have a nice free-market ring to them, but it may prove to be a daunting challenge to put them into practice.

For example, while many charter schools have shown great results with children of all ages--the KIPP (http://www.kipp.org) academies are a shining example of the potential available for new teaching techniques and highly trained, devoted staff--the KIPP foundation and most charter schools have proven it difficult to scale in a cost effective manner (though commenter John at http://www.eduwonk.com/2009/02/kipped-3.html claims that KIPP can scale).  Certainly, putting higher-paid and better-trained staff in controlled environments with students whose parents are motivated can improve the prospects of the children educated there.

But how can these ideas be replicated inexpensively? Part of the answer is technology--more distributed, effective online learning.  Part of the answer is administration--better school and school system management.  And part of the answer is more parental involvement--the schools can't parent and teach.

Thinkwell HQ's Core Canine Team

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This morning, the sun shines brightly through the cracks of the crinkled black blinds that hang in my office window, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee is tickling my highly sensitive, and very cute, nose.

Scout here, clocking in for another day on the job here at Thinkwell HQ.

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I wanted to take a few moments to introduce myself, and give a dog's perspective on what goes on around here. Specifically, I would like to introduce you to my well-intentioned brigade of canine cadets. 

As you know, (or may not know) my official title here at Thinkwell is Chief Canine Officer. In other words, I'm the boss of all the other dogs. A typical day for me is generally filled with a continual investigation of all possible culinary opportunities. I also attend staff meetings and conference calls. But enough about me. Allow me to introduce you to my staff.

Let's start with Bingle:


Bingle, also known as Binglina or Bingo, is fascinated with her tail, which, from time to time, tries to attack her and eat her food. She loves meetings and busy work...any excuse to sit in an office chair. She also enjoys swimming and fine french cuisine.

Bingle has a step-sister, Moxie:

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Moxie is our head cheerleader. Her positive attitude and crazy-good knack at telling jokes, keeps us smiling from head to toe. While at work, Moxie stays busy hanging out and searching for peanut butter, but on the weekends she is less social and spends all of her time cross-stitching alphabet letters.

My bestest pal around here is Harley:

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Harley comes to work almost every day and is really good at sharing his treats; we eat cupcakes, beef jerky, and a variety of biscuits. Harley likes to read about dinosaurs and also likes to count his spots.

And last, but certainly not least, Nola:


Nola is our resident Catahoula with the amazing blue eyes. She works in our order department and helps with bookstore and student orders. Nola is excellent at chasing tennis balls and playing fetch, and she is a master of the hula hoop.

So this is our Core Canine Team at Thinkwell HQ. I hope you enjoyed meeting some of my friends, and now if you'll please excuse me, I am certain that a bag of breakfast tacos just walked in the front door. They require my immediate attention.

Thanks for reading!

Scout has been CCO of Thinkwell since 1999. Treats can be sent to Scout@Thinkwell.com.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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