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Teaching K-12 Math Online: Reasoning Mind CEO Alex Khachatryan (Part 1)

Posted on Wednesday, Aug 12th 2009

SM: Let’s start with a bit of your history. Where do you come from?

AK: I am from the former Soviet Union. I was born and raised in Moscow and immigrated to the United States in 1990. have lived here ever since.

SM: Did you come here for college?

AK: I had my PhD when I arrived here. I worked as a visiting professor at Texas A&M for a couple of years. My wife, Julia, and I established an engineering consulting company in 1992 and have been in business together for some time.

SM: What is your PhD in?

AK: It is in physics and mathematics, although I was primarily doing physics.

SM: Tell me about Reasoning Mind. What was the genesis of the company?

AK: The initial idea was different from what it has morphed into. It all goes back to family history.
My family, including our young son, arrived in the States in 1990. All of our education occurred in the former Soviet Union while our son had all of his education here in the United States, including kindergarten.

Through his eyes we have seen some issues with education. We expected the highest quality and wanted to give our son the best education. We noticed some things that were cause for concern. He was a pretty talented kid and school was not a problem for him, but generating his interest in something like mathematics and science was not a strength of his school. We tried different schools. In his first eight years of schooling he attended seven different schools.

We only physically moved once. We started out living in College Station when I was a visiting professor at Texas A&M. Once I started petroleum engineering consulting we moved to Houston. We had to go to different schools because we were looking for a better place. We were hopeful of finding a place where he could flourish.

We got to the point where a teacher called us at home early in the school year to request a parent teacher conference. She told us that we needed to pull him out and put him in a private school because she said, “There is nothing I can teach him.”

That was in fifth grade. He finally ended up in a very good private school. Even in the private school, one of the best in Houston, his math teachers did not succeed in getting him interested in the subject. He was the number one student in his pre-algebra class but he was bored with math and he did not have a concept of what he was doing. It did not make sense to him. He was taught math in disconnected, mechanical ways.

One day we got a letter in the mail suggesting we send him to a summer math camp. He was entering eighth grade so we convinced him it would be a good thing for him to try. He went to this summer math camp, which was a very extensive camp on one of the East Coast college campuses. It was organized and managed by a group of post-docs and grad students from the best colleges in the country such as MIT, Harvard and Princeton. Professors from those colleges would come and spend some time with the kids to get them excited about mathematics.

Our son discovered that being a part of this community was extremely interesting and rewarding. Suddenly he found a community that he believed he belongs to. After five weeks he returned to Houston a completely changed person. All he could talk about and dream about was mathematics and wanted to pursue a career as a mathematician.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Teaching K-12 Math Online: Reasoning Mind CEO Alex Khachatryan
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It is all about the ‘fun’ element in Maths whereas most of the schools focus on the stress element. You can only excel in Maths if you enjoy it.

Sanjay

Sanjay Uvach Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:37 AM PT

Sanjay,

I enjoyed math. Always.
In school, I had some of the absolute worst math teachers. The most boring and incompetent you can imagine.

This is not to say that teachers should not focus on fun, but just giving you a counterpoint.

Sramana Mitra Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:48 AM PT

It is about connecting with your audience , just like product with consumers . I studied Maths until my sixth grade in same boring fashion , prime reason being I not able to connect with teacher .As the teacher changed , I started learning mathematics in a more conceptual way .

Prasad Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:55 AM PT

If education can be delivered as a fun, it would be definitely good and makes a lasting impression.
But like Sramana , I had experience some pretty bad teachers and they make all the difference between liking and hating the subject.
This opens up another topic. Which education system is good , India or US.
I live in US and my friends and neighbours always praise Indian system. I disagree.
The Indian system is good in terms of discipline ,which is important and then the competitive spirit which it brings . This spirit is is now turning into pressure for students to get good marks and that is all what matters in India.
I like the way education is delivered in US. It is so much fun.I teach my 3 year old from Dora and winny pooh work booksand she enjoys it so much.

vinay Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 10:40 AM PT

I had the same experience as Sramana– loved math, bored out of my wits by math teachers.

Disagree, though, on the”fun” aspect, with one qualification. The way we in America try to make math fun is generally the same way Hollywood tries to make scientists interesting: treat it as freakish, weird, wacky, a geeks’ carnival.

This approach fails because no child wants to be a geek, and in any case the kids usually see through it. They know that math like any other serious subject is HARD. It requires drilling and repetition, which, as the Russian adage has it, is “the mother of learning”.

The best to way to make math fun is to use it in competitive games that require not just calculations but also the application of the child’s intuition and insights into human nature. Card games are an obvious choice, but also basic game theory scenarios, plus the sorts of exercises in probability / handicapping that bookies at the racetrack– and young (and old) Warren Buffett– habitually make about just about any human situation. IIRC Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger constantly make little bets on probabilities like when a flight will arrive, how long it will take them to cross Manhattan, (perhaps) the likelihood of receiving a bad can of Cherry Coke….

tom mclaughlin Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 1:00 AM PT

I did a very interesting interview with the CEO of Tetris where he discusses moving Tetris from a game to a sport. You will read it in September.

I think, if there are powerful and addictive math games that have the draw of Tetris, and if that could be first spread as viral games, then elevated to a sport, it would be a great improvement on the current method of teaching math.

Sramana Mitra Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 4:38 PM PT

Another way to teach math better is to show a child the order and symmetry behind underlie beauty, in art and nature.

Start with training a child to look and listen for proportions, order and symmetry. A child who has an attraction to building or fashion or flowers can be taught to look for the 5:8 “golden mean” proportion, whether it’s found in a building whose facade’s height:width = 5:8, or a beautiful statue in which the figure’s torso:leg ratio = 5:8. Or the Fibonacci sequence that is explained by the optimal number of additional petals of a flower (1 followed by 2, then 3, then 5, then 8, then 13, etc.).

If you know where to look for it, math can be found embedded within beauty everywhere, be it in a Brunelleschi building or a Bach fugue or a Botticelli painting or an old rose.

Astonishing that we leave the education of our children to the dullest and most jaded of the adult population.

tom mclaughlin Monday, August 17, 2009 at 1:22 AM PT

Thanks for the interesting article. Having experienced education in both India and US, I feel the education system in the US is far better in terms of exposing kids to practical knowledge and going the extra mile to make a difference in childrens’ understanding of the concepts.

The modern day teacher has so many more resources at her disposal thanks to internet and global sharing of information. However, from our own practical experience as a provider of tools to help in education, we have seen a stark difference between the passion and initiative shown by teachers in US and India. Although some of this could be driven by lack of training and exposure to new technologies, a lot of it needs to be attributed to the system where teachers are burdened with a lot of work that is hardly related to teaching. Just my 2 cents worth.

Cheers
Bharathy

Bharathy Bharadwaj Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 10:47 PM PT

I am looking for some guidance on online math and other help for my son (8 grade). do you have suggestion on online help either in the US or in INdia.

Neil Ghosh Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 5:39 PM PT
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