Education Opinion

Karim Kai Ani, Founder, Mathalicious

By Sara Mead — May 16, 2011 10 min read
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Karim Ani is a guy who asks interesting questions ... and then translates them into real-world math lessons:

Do people with small feet pay more for shoes?" (Ratios & proportions) "Have video game consoles followed Moore's Law?" (Exponential growth) "Is Wheel of Fortune rigged?" (Percents & probabilities)

These are just a few of the questions around which Mathalicious builds high-quality, standards-based math lessons designed to transform how students learn math, and how teachers teach it. This emphasis on interesting questions is hardly surprising. Ani, a former middle school math teacher and coach, views Socrates as his role model. At a time when many education reformers and innovators are focused on high-tech and expensive solutions, Mathalicious is refreshing in its simplicity: “make math interesting.”

Raised in Richmond, Va., Karim Ani (formerly Karim Logue), 32, attended Stanford University as an undergraduate and earned a Master’s degree in math education from the University of Virginia. An avid photographer, he currently lives in Alexandria, Va. Fortunately, he took a break from asking questions to answer a few of mine. [Continue reading.]

What’s your “elevator pitch” for Mathalicious?

Mathalicious is rewriting middle school math around real-world topics that students care about, from sports to music to technology. By contextualizing math for their students and making math real, teachers can cover more material in less time, and with better results. Mathalicious helps them do this.

If you look at education reform today, we’re spending a lot of attention—and even more money—on teacher training, school reform, devices, etc. This is great. At the same time, 20 percent of eighth graders in this country say they “hate” math, and over 60 percent of middle school students would rather take out the trash than do their math homework. Will putting their textbook on an iPad change this?

People ask me what’s the biggest problem facing math education. I think it’s simple: students don’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning. They see math as a fragmented set of skills, and aren’t sure how it relates to their lives. The problem is that they continue to ask, year after year, “What does this mean, and when will I use it?”

We need to answer that, and when we do, everything else falls into place. Yes, we need to invest in great teachers, great schools, great technology. But as long as we have content that’s fundamentally broken, then we’re building a house of cards.

How is math content “broken” today?

First, it’s irrelevant. Open a typical textbook—even on an iPad—and you’ll still see questions like, “Two trains leave Central Station at noon traveling in opposite directions. At what time will they...” Stop right there. Nobody cares. And when students don’t care, they either tune out or act out. Ask any first-year teacher what their biggest challenge is, and I guarantee they’ll say classroom management. And that ties straight back to content that’s irrelevant, unimaginative and that does not engage students. Period.

The second problem is that math is often presented in a way that makes no sense. Take an algebra topic like writing the equation of the line between two points. Many teachers will simply list the steps: “1. Calculate the slope using ‘rise over run’. 2. Multiply the slope by one of the x-coordinates. 3. Subtract the result from the corresponding y-coordinate.”

It’s no wonder that so many students view math as random and meaningless. We spend almost all of our time focused on individual skills, and treat applications as an afterthought: something to get to if there’s time. It would be like spending all year in a shop class learning how to use a hammer but never actually building anything. It’s totally backwards, yet it’s exactly how we teach math.

Of course, some of this has to do with standardized testing. Personally, I think standardized tests are valuable. I also think skills are valuable. The problem comes when we take these skills and break them down further and further into micro-skills. I’ve spoken with curriculum developers who will start with 25 state standards, and then subdivide them into 50 or 100 discrete, bite-sized bits. I understand why they’re doing it. Getting back to the shop analogy, you can’t build anything with an entire tree, so you cut it into boards. That’s good. But if you keep cutting and cutting, eventually you’re left with a pile of sawdust, and it’s pretty hard to build anything with that.

Which gets us to the biggest problem of all, and where math education is most fundamentally broken: we’ve lost sight of what math really is, and why we want students to learn it in the first place. We’ve turned it into just another subject, something that happens in 45-minute blocks. But mathematics is so much bigger than that. At its core, math is a way of thinking. At various points in our human history we had questions about how to do something, about how the world works, and math was the tool that we invented to answer them. Which is to say: the world existed first. Math came next. But that’s not how we teach it.

And this is why I’m convinced that fixing math education is actually really simple, and doesn’t have to involve server farms and complicated algorithms. We just need to ask better questions that allow students to engage in math naturally. Take the algebra topic from before. You can teach it in the traditional step-by-step way, and kids will either forget it or not understand it in the first place. Or you can ask, “The 16GB iPad costs $499. The 32GB version costs $599. At this rate, how much should the 64GB iPad cost?”

With this simple prompt, students not only have an easier time figuring out the linear equation ($399 for the base iPad plus $6.25/GB), but more importantly they understand what it means. Meanwhile, teachers can milk the iPad context even further. There’s a Mathalicious lesson that does this, and ends up covering around 30 percent of an entire year’s worth of standards. That’s three months of instruction in one period. It’s not rocket science. It’s just content that’s very intentional.

How did you come to start Mathalicious?

I taught 8th grade math, first in rural Virginia and later in Harlem. And I struggled: classroom management, grading, calls home. Normal things. I was so busy that I ended up relying on the textbook, which made my class pretty dry. Students got bored, I got stressed, teaching started to feel like a struggle. I could see it happening, but didn’t have the time or the experience to do anything about it. Eventually I got my footing, but it took a while.

After a few years I became a middle school math coach. I worked with teachers on, “How do we teach for conceptual understanding? How do we make math relevant?” Because I no longer had all of the teacher responsibilities, I was able step back and take a fresh look at content, and that’s when I really saw how broken it was. As a coach I began to develop exemplar lessons for other teachers, and eventually it made sense for me to pursue this full time.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

One of the challenges may be unique to curriculum development: writing lessons that feel open-ended to students—where they can genuinely explore the math—but are also structured in a way where teachers can be confident knowing that they’ll cover what they need to cover, and in the time they need to cover it. This is particularly important now, as more and more baby-boomers are retiring and are replaced by new teachers. It’s taken a few years, but I finally feel like Mathalicious lessons have found that balance and are firing on all cylinders, which is really satisfying.

Another challenge was perhaps more universal, and involved figuring out what I wanted Mathalicious to be. When I started, everyone had their own opinion—"You should do online learning,” or “You should develop an iPad app"—and it’s hard not to get pulled in a thousand directions. Fortunately a friend said to me pretty early, “I’ve seen a lot of companies fail because they didn’t know who they were.” Around the same time I read the book “Rework,” and together they gave me permission to plant my flag in the ground and say with confidence, “I write math lessons. That’s what I do.”

And then there are more mundane challenges. My background is in teaching, not business, so marketing and sales are all new to me. Another challenge, to be honest, has been funding. So far I’ve funded Mathalicious entirely out of pocket. The company is set up as a for-profit—non-profit didn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons—but profit maximization isn’t the primary goal. This means we won’t appeal to venture capitalists, while the for-profit status means we’re not eligible for some of the foundation grants. This is a real challenge for organizations trying to pursue a dual bottom line.

That said, I have had a number of conversations with would-be funders, and was surprised to find how few of them had actually taught. A lot of the money is in Silicon Valley, where there’s a certain bias towards complicated, MBA-type solutions. This is understandable, but it makes “rewriting the math curriculum around real-world topics” a tough sell. I can line up everyone from teachers to curriculum specialists to professors, but ultimately people want to fund their narrative.

Fortunately, the lack of money isn’t a deal-breaker, and I’m confident that Mathalicious can get where it needs to go even on a shoestring budget. Some of this has to do with the low cost of developing curriculum. More of it has to do with how we plan to sell it. In the traditional model, publishers sell textbooks to school districts on multi-year cycles. This requires a huge sales force, longstanding relationships and a certain amount of bureaucratic maneuvering, all of which is costly. And since districts often have a laundry list of requirements for core curriculum, the final product ends up being bloated with bells and whistles that districts want but teachers never use.

To avoid this, Mathalicious lessons are designed to be supplemental and easy for teachers to integrate into their existing curriculum. Beginning in the fall, Mathalicious plans to sell monthly and annual subscriptions directly to teachers, and at a price they can reasonably afford. This will allow us to focus on what really matters: creating lessons that help them do their jobs better. Of course, many say that teachers are an unattractive market, and they may be right. Still, teachers are the ones who make the final decisions about what to teach, and I figure it’s worth a shot.

What are your goals for Mathalicious? What will the organization ultimately look like/accomplish?

The long-term goal is to provide teachers with the best math lessons ever written, and to help put them in a position where they feel more effective, confident and excited about teaching. Teaching is hard, and it should be. But it should also be fun, and there’s no better feeling then when a teacher says, “I used a Mathalicious lesson today with my students, and I’ve never seen them so engaged.”

By the fall I expect there to be around 50 lessons on the site; by next spring, most of middle school will be done. It’ll be interesting to see how Mathalicious continues to evolve over time. Again, the goal isn’t to replace core curriculum or even to compete with textbooks. It’s simply to give teachers a tool, and to put them in a position to ask interesting questions—Can music cause you to have a heart attack? Is it ever okay to tip less than 15 percent?—and help their students answer them with math.

Math is a tool to explore the real world, and everything is fair game. Teaching it should be the best job in the building, and math class should be the highlight of every student’s day. That’s the goal.

Why work in education?

When I die, I’d like to be able to look back on my life and know that I helped make the planet smarter. I think this is why anyone gets into education, and everyone has their unique talent. Some are really good teachers. Others are great administrators. I happen to see math problems all around me, and am able to turn them into meaningful lessons.

In the end, education is at the heart of what it means to be human. I don’t know a more genuine emotion than curiosity, and every day I get to ask interesting questions. What could be better than that?

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.