Native Brain seeks to demonstrate and promote the ideal that all learning providers should be held accountable for making valid use of learning science, creating intrinsically engaging learning experiences, and producing measurable learning results. In particular, the following twelve Guiding Principles, rooted in learning science, inform all of our work.
Focus on the Individual Learner
Seems simple enough, right? Far from it.
Consider that almost all educational experiences are designed not for the capabilities and needs of any individual learner but for the “average” capabilities and needs of a very large group–for first graders, for example, or five-year-olds. Books, games, toys, websites, apps, classrooms–virtually all educational products and experiences are designed with a somewhat arbitrary group in mind, not an individual learner.
Take just one subject as an example: reading. Some kids learn to read fluently at age three or four and are reading chapter books by the time they enter kindergarten, while others are still working haltingly through early reader books in second or third grade. And yet curriculum decisions and parental recommendations are typically made grade-wide (or age-wide) for all of these kids–they will all experience the same reading curriculum when they enter first grade.
There was a time–before we had computers or much in the way of learning science–when this approach may have been the best we could do. But today we can (we must!) move beyond the nineteenth-century “batch” model of education to meet individual learners where they are. At Native Brain, we accomplish this by combining the intuitiveness and mobility of tablet computing with the power of learning science to deliver intelligent apps that provide experiences tailored to the unique capabilities and needs of each learner.
Start with the Science
A hundred years of research on learning and teaching has generated many insights that could be used to improve learning experiences dramatically. Unfortunately, most of these insights remain buried in academic journals. Meanwhile, most mainstream textbooks, workbooks, curricula, apps, and other learning interventions are still being designed based on opinions, idiosyncratic observations, and gut feelings instead of sound research and hard evidence. As with any other important domain–from healthcare to agriculture to economics to engineering–the best available research and evidence should form the foundation of any learning design.
Respect the Learner
Young children are neither vacuous nor ignorant. More than a century’s worth of developmental research has documented that even very young children possess an active, creative, coherent intelligence. The same research shows that children know a lot more than they can show, because their understanding develops before they have the fine motor control necessary to express it, either through speech or the manipulation of complex interfaces like a keyboard and mouse.
Many educational interventions created for young children simultaneously underestimate their intelligence and overestimate their physical coordination. Like everyone else, children excel most when given access to learning experiences that respect both their capabilities and their needs. At Native Brain, respect for the learner–grounded in a deep understanding of the learner–is central to our approach.
The primary goal of any learning intervention should be to create the best possible conditions for learning. All too often, some other priority overshadows the actual learning, such as a preoccupation with making an experience fun (frequently at the expense of learning), or an emphasis on coverage–which is a focus on teaching, not learning. Engagement and a sense of fun can and should be a product of effective learning, rather than being viewed as an external lever to be pulled to trick kids into thinking that they are doing something other than learning.
Knowledge is cumulative–new learning builds on old. Like a chain, therefore, knowledge is only as strong as its weakest link. Building solid knowledge structures requires adapting individual learning using output measures such as authentic demonstrations of individual understanding at each step along the way, not by using generic input measures such as amount of material covered, number of problems completed, or hours spent in a class.
Build to Mastery
Learning takes many different forms–outcomes range from awareness or recognition of a simple concept to skill in creatively applying complex models to solve novel problems. One difficulty for learning providers, including educators, is that simple tests of concept recognition do not distinguish simple awareness from deep understanding–which means they provide no nuanced insight about how to support individual learners on the next step to mastery and no reinforcing feedback for learners on significant accomplishments they have made in a domain. If basic proficiency is the stated goal and tests used to inform learning decisions only measure simple awareness or recognition, then a vicious circle is created that produces shallow, brittle, fragmented learning. The ultimate result is a system driving toward mediocrity.
We begin with a research-informed model of what mastery looks like in a subject area and design our apps to support learning toward that end.
Focus on Systems
There is increasing pressure at all ages to make sure kids are exposed to an ever-expanding set of facts and skills. Unfortunately, there is often so much pressure on everyone to “keep up” that kids move from one subject to the next with barely a cursory understanding of each subject as they go. Discrete facts and skills are of course important components of learning in any subject area, but at the same time it is obviously not possible to organize all learning in this way. Usable knowledge forms a system linking perceptions, knowledge structures, and physical actions. Rather than give kids a shallow sample of the widest possible range of concepts and leave it at that, it is critical to focus on developing usable systems of knowledge – which in many cases means making sure kids get to mastery in specific areas before moving on. Mastery of these fundamental concepts develops confidence and can also lay the foundation for more rapid learning of future subjects that builds on these fundamentals.
It has been widely observed that “you can’t improve what you don’t measure.” The converse is also true: people–including learners, educators, and learning providers–will naturally work to improve on whatever metrics are used to evaluate them. Unfortunately, feedback in learning is often hopelessly broken. Take early-learning apps for kids as one example. Where feedback exists at all, it’s based on false or incomplete ideas like “engagement = learning.” As a result, many top-rated apps in the Education category are given four or five stars because children love the fun characters or the elaborate reward animations. If this is the kind of feedback app producers get, it is only natural that they would add more of what people seem to want. The ultimate result is an app store filled with apps labeled “educational” that are really just entertainment apps with a light sprinkling of “educational” material. In cases where meaningful feedback doesn’t exist at all, learning interventions are based solely on value-based opinions that generally ignore–or in some cases even fly in the face of–evidence about what actually works, and learners are left wandering in the dark.
At Native Brain, we are committed to the idea that feedback should be real-time (where appropriate), inclusive of all stakeholders, and – most importantly – based on measured learning impact.
Learning is one of the most naturally rewarding activities we engage in as humans. Somewhere along the way, though, many people get the idea that “learning isn’t fun.” In reality, it is generally the experience of being subjected to an ineffective teaching process that is the root cause of such an experience. To be clear: research suggests that the feeling of engagement or “fun” is a consequence of effective learning, not its cause. Instead of developing a more effective learning design to generate this intrinsic motivation, most app makers invest heavily in trying to “inject fun” directly into the experience alongside the learning by adding gratuitous extrinsic rewards such as characters, cartoons, and stickers. This strategy has the added benefit of making their apps appear fun and engaging to parents, which leads many to conclude that learning must be taking place.
We take a dramatically different approach. Rather than treating “learning” and “fun” as two separate ingredients that must be blended together in an App (like spinach puree slipped into a chocolate milkshake), Native Brain carefully engineers our apps from the ground up to allow kids to experience the intrinsic engagement–the “hard fun”–of learning itself. Our apps are fun because kids are learning, not despite that fact.
Much like athletes perform best when they can get into the “Zone,” learners perform best when they achieve the optimal state of experience called “Flow.” Flow arises when an experience is perfectly tuned to a learner’s abilities and keeps stretching them just a bit beyond their comfort zone for extended periods of time. While this state of deeply engaged experience is powerful, it is also fragile. If an activity is too challenging, the learner can become frustrated; if it is too easy, they can become bored. Too much frustration or boredom can knock them out of Flow, causing learning productivity to plummet. And each time, it can take several minutes to get back in.
Few apps use “dynamic challenge” as the lever to stimulate intrinsic motivation to learn. In fact, many designers add lots of unnecessary sounds, animations, and other distractions into their apps in an effort to support engagement, with the unintended side-effect of systematically preventing the learner from getting deeply engaged through the learning process itself. Native Brain carefully engineers our apps to help learners get into Flow and stay there – and we ruthlessly eliminate any distractions that are not likely to support both an intrinsically rewarding learning experience and the intended learning outcomes.
In the ongoing debate about developing kids’ self-esteem, few would argue against reinforcing meaningful accomplishments in learning. Learning is a lifelong journey, and the hills can sometimes seem pretty steep. When learners genuinely climb to the top of a hill – and truly master something new – it’s important to recognize and celebrate the achievement so they can experience real satisfaction in such an accomplishment and develop a positive image of learning as a worthwhile pursuit and of themselves as effective learners.
We begin with the best available learning research, but we can’t end there. Just as no learning theory is ever complete, no learning design is ever perfect. At the end of the day, the ultimate test of a design is in the quality of the learning it supports. Native Brain uses detailed performance data to adapt to each learner’s needs in real-time. Aggregating these data across all of our users gives us detailed insight into how an app is performing as a learning intervention. By learning from our learners in this way, we continuously improve our designs and increase their learning impact over time.