Jeffrey Biles is a freelance programmer and author of Math Monsters, a game-changing new math curriculum. He took the time to chat with me about his project last week. I'd like to make this a series with various social entrepreneurs (please contact me if interested). This interview will be posted in parts and has been edited for length and clarity.

Me: Tell me about your project.

Jeffrey: My project is a new type of curriculum. It's completely interactive and has instant feedback, which is really good for learning, and it's something that kids really enjoy using. It's the same math content that you'd get in a textbook, but it has all these other features that psychology tells us are really great for learning. It encourages persistence, and does mastery based learning, which means it can tell when your child has mastered a particular skill set, and encourages them to go on to the next one.

Me: It kind of looks like Pokemon. I don't know a whole lot about Pokemon, but it reminds me of it.

Jeffrey: That's exactly what I was going for. Most parents don't know a whole lot about Pokemon, but they know that their kids like it, and the kids have made that connection as well. One of them actually said it was more fun than Pokemon, which was "success". I asked, "Are you sure? Can I quote you on that?"

Me: How can people get involved?

Jeffrey: Right now, the kindergarten curriculum is completely free. A kindergartner, precocious preschooler, or first-grader who doesn't like math can go and play it. Please offer me feedback. I'll have the first grade curriculum out by the end of this year, and it's going to be $30 for the numbers portion, which is place value, skip-counting, and more advanced addition and subtraction.

Me: So are you charging a yearly fee, or do you buy it and have it forever?

Jeffrey: They have it forever for that child's account. In order to keep track of how the students are learning, and customize it to them, each child would need their own account. Another huge advantage of my curriculum is that errors are corrected immediately. If something is too hard, or out of order, it gets fixed. Even if a problem isn’t bad enough that someone calls about it, I can still see from the data problems like people having a harder time picking up a certain math skill. So I can make a change like offering a different explanation, or putting an intermediate skill right before it to bridge the gap. At the start, Math Monsters will be the most fun math curriculum available, but over time it will also become the best.

Me: What makes it special? How is it different from other math games, and what is your competitive advantage?

Jeffrey: In a traditional math curriculum, you read an explanation in a book, then you have a set of problems, and you do them. You look at the back, and you see if you got them right or wrong. If you need more practice, maybe you buy another math book? If you mastered it very quickly, you're pretty bored the whole time. And if you're behind, then you're frustrated. Even if you're in the middle of the bell curve, you don't know what you got right or wrong until the very end. That makes it very difficult to learn, because your mistake is separated from the correction of the mistake. You're never able to connect the thought process you were going through when you made the mistake with the correction of it.

Math Monsters fixes that because it has immediate feedback. You submit the problem, and it immediately tells you whether you got it right or wrong. You get a little reward hit if you get it right, or a very small miss. The game has puzzles, which are math-based in increasing difficulty, and surrounding that, you have your meta game, which is making your monster stronger, and competing in battles. You have a 5-30 second loop of doing the puzzle, then you have a 30 second to three minute loop of doing the battle. You have your longer loop of training the monster and going through stages.

Sometimes you have to fight multiple monsters in a row, and it gets harder. It's like a mini test. But it's never structured as a test, because even if you fail, you always get another chance. And that's another reason why Math Monsters is better than traditional math worksheets, because in a worksheet, there's always a fear that you're going to fail and this will affect your grade. Being in a state of fear is not a great way to learn. In Math Monsters, all failure is temporary. All success is permanent.

Me: Tell me about your project.

Jeffrey: My project is a new type of curriculum. It's completely interactive and has instant feedback, which is really good for learning, and it's something that kids really enjoy using. It's the same math content that you'd get in a textbook, but it has all these other features that psychology tells us are really great for learning. It encourages persistence, and does mastery based learning, which means it can tell when your child has mastered a particular skill set, and encourages them to go on to the next one.

Me: It kind of looks like Pokemon. I don't know a whole lot about Pokemon, but it reminds me of it.

Jeffrey: That's exactly what I was going for. Most parents don't know a whole lot about Pokemon, but they know that their kids like it, and the kids have made that connection as well. One of them actually said it was more fun than Pokemon, which was "success". I asked, "Are you sure? Can I quote you on that?"

Me: How can people get involved?

Jeffrey: Right now, the kindergarten curriculum is completely free. A kindergartner, precocious preschooler, or first-grader who doesn't like math can go and play it. Please offer me feedback. I'll have the first grade curriculum out by the end of this year, and it's going to be $30 for the numbers portion, which is place value, skip-counting, and more advanced addition and subtraction.

Me: So are you charging a yearly fee, or do you buy it and have it forever?

Jeffrey: They have it forever for that child's account. In order to keep track of how the students are learning, and customize it to them, each child would need their own account. Another huge advantage of my curriculum is that errors are corrected immediately. If something is too hard, or out of order, it gets fixed. Even if a problem isn’t bad enough that someone calls about it, I can still see from the data problems like people having a harder time picking up a certain math skill. So I can make a change like offering a different explanation, or putting an intermediate skill right before it to bridge the gap. At the start, Math Monsters will be the most fun math curriculum available, but over time it will also become the best.

Me: What makes it special? How is it different from other math games, and what is your competitive advantage?

Jeffrey: In a traditional math curriculum, you read an explanation in a book, then you have a set of problems, and you do them. You look at the back, and you see if you got them right or wrong. If you need more practice, maybe you buy another math book? If you mastered it very quickly, you're pretty bored the whole time. And if you're behind, then you're frustrated. Even if you're in the middle of the bell curve, you don't know what you got right or wrong until the very end. That makes it very difficult to learn, because your mistake is separated from the correction of the mistake. You're never able to connect the thought process you were going through when you made the mistake with the correction of it.

Math Monsters fixes that because it has immediate feedback. You submit the problem, and it immediately tells you whether you got it right or wrong. You get a little reward hit if you get it right, or a very small miss. The game has puzzles, which are math-based in increasing difficulty, and surrounding that, you have your meta game, which is making your monster stronger, and competing in battles. You have a 5-30 second loop of doing the puzzle, then you have a 30 second to three minute loop of doing the battle. You have your longer loop of training the monster and going through stages.

Sometimes you have to fight multiple monsters in a row, and it gets harder. It's like a mini test. But it's never structured as a test, because even if you fail, you always get another chance. And that's another reason why Math Monsters is better than traditional math worksheets, because in a worksheet, there's always a fear that you're going to fail and this will affect your grade. Being in a state of fear is not a great way to learn. In Math Monsters, all failure is temporary. All success is permanent.

Me: I know you've talked about the kids using it, and how they've enjoyed it. Can you go into that a little bit more?

Jeffrey: Kids actually enjoy logic and math. What they don't enjoy is the fear and the judgement that we've placed on it. Kids also enjoy things with short feedback cycles: trying something, seeing if it works, then trying it again, and noticing patterns. These are things that children love to do. Lots of times people say, "Here is a pattern. Memorize it." Not Math Monsters.

Me: Let's talk about your social mission, helping kids to learn math.

Jeffrey: Making games is really fun, but there are plenty of games out there. The world is not short on games. What it is short on is really compelling math curriculum. I want to help kids keep going with math and not drop off. There is a point where kids miss a day, or they miss a really important concept, or a teacher doesn't explain it well. They get into this cycle where they miss problems and start thinking that they're a failure. They stop paying attention in class because they're "bad at math". The more they do this, the worse they get at math. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. It can all be started by a little accident. You see people drop off, because some kids are less confident in their growth mindset.

There are two different mindsets, a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. In math instruction currently, it encourages a fixed mindset, "I'm good at this" or "I'm bad at this." The test tells you whether you're good or bad, and you might be able to hide the fact that you're bad for a while, but eventually people are going to find out, so why work? There is an emphasis on testing, on right or wrong, and in math, there is certainly a right or wrong. But we should be encouraging experimentation, and it's difficult in that paradigm. It's like telling a scientist that her first hypothesis was wrong, so she is a bad scientist.

A growth mindset says "I am getting better at this by practicing". Math Monsters celebrates the progress. Instead of comparing you to the rest of the class, it compares you to where you were a week ago. The more difficult skills are more powerful, and they are encouraged to use the more powerful skills to do harder math. You gain access to those skills by completing the previous skill correctly five times in a row. That allows them to go onto the next, harder skill.

Me: So they truly are ready, but in the game they're ready, because they have the power.

Jeffrey: Yes. It's a reward to be able to do harder math. If it's not totally solidified, they can keep trying, and go from 3 out of 5, to 4, then finally 5 out of 5. In a typical math classroom, 3 out of 5 would be a 60. That's failing.

Me: And you've essentially taken them from a 60 to 100.

Jeffrey: Yes, and I don't put them in situations where they're going to get 40's. At least not for long. The more monsters you defeat, the more experience points you have. Your monster grows stronger as your math skills grow stronger.

Me: You're really mirroring their real life math skills.

Jeffrey: It encourages persistence and progress. They are rewarded for both. There are lots of games that only reward persistence; they reward players for doing the same thing over and over. Math Monsters helps children progress.

------

I have to say, I love math. And talking about math. I can't wait to see how this takes off! You can look forward to my conversation with Jeffrey about freelancing next week.

Log on and play: Math Monsters

Follow Jeffrey: @JeffreyBiles

Follow Math Monsters: @MathMonsters

Jeffrey: Kids actually enjoy logic and math. What they don't enjoy is the fear and the judgement that we've placed on it. Kids also enjoy things with short feedback cycles: trying something, seeing if it works, then trying it again, and noticing patterns. These are things that children love to do. Lots of times people say, "Here is a pattern. Memorize it." Not Math Monsters.

Me: Let's talk about your social mission, helping kids to learn math.

Jeffrey: Making games is really fun, but there are plenty of games out there. The world is not short on games. What it is short on is really compelling math curriculum. I want to help kids keep going with math and not drop off. There is a point where kids miss a day, or they miss a really important concept, or a teacher doesn't explain it well. They get into this cycle where they miss problems and start thinking that they're a failure. They stop paying attention in class because they're "bad at math". The more they do this, the worse they get at math. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. It can all be started by a little accident. You see people drop off, because some kids are less confident in their growth mindset.

There are two different mindsets, a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. In math instruction currently, it encourages a fixed mindset, "I'm good at this" or "I'm bad at this." The test tells you whether you're good or bad, and you might be able to hide the fact that you're bad for a while, but eventually people are going to find out, so why work? There is an emphasis on testing, on right or wrong, and in math, there is certainly a right or wrong. But we should be encouraging experimentation, and it's difficult in that paradigm. It's like telling a scientist that her first hypothesis was wrong, so she is a bad scientist.

A growth mindset says "I am getting better at this by practicing". Math Monsters celebrates the progress. Instead of comparing you to the rest of the class, it compares you to where you were a week ago. The more difficult skills are more powerful, and they are encouraged to use the more powerful skills to do harder math. You gain access to those skills by completing the previous skill correctly five times in a row. That allows them to go onto the next, harder skill.

Me: So they truly are ready, but in the game they're ready, because they have the power.

Jeffrey: Yes. It's a reward to be able to do harder math. If it's not totally solidified, they can keep trying, and go from 3 out of 5, to 4, then finally 5 out of 5. In a typical math classroom, 3 out of 5 would be a 60. That's failing.

Me: And you've essentially taken them from a 60 to 100.

Jeffrey: Yes, and I don't put them in situations where they're going to get 40's. At least not for long. The more monsters you defeat, the more experience points you have. Your monster grows stronger as your math skills grow stronger.

Me: You're really mirroring their real life math skills.

Jeffrey: It encourages persistence and progress. They are rewarded for both. There are lots of games that only reward persistence; they reward players for doing the same thing over and over. Math Monsters helps children progress.

------

I have to say, I love math. And talking about math. I can't wait to see how this takes off! You can look forward to my conversation with Jeffrey about freelancing next week.

Log on and play: Math Monsters

Follow Jeffrey: @JeffreyBiles

Follow Math Monsters: @MathMonsters