Were you always bad at math? Does math make you feel uneasy? You might be suffering from math anxiety, a feeling of tension, apprehension, or even fear that interferes with the ability to do math. This aversion starts at a very early age, said Henry Chui, CEO of online learning platform Zap Zap Math which won the of Best Startup of the Year award at last week’s RISE 2017 conference in Hong Kong.

“When kids are at an early age they are active and they want to create and explore, but math is a subject where they are forced to sit down and actually grind it out,” Chui told  TechNode. “At a very early age, kids develop a mindset thinking that math is very difficult and it’s really for smart people that have a good memory.”

What is even more troubling is that even primary school teachers themselves sometimes suffer from math anxiety, he added. Nevertheless, both teachers and parents know that math will become even more important in the next decades.

“If you think about 20 years and later what kind of job opportunities there will be in the world–big data, coding, science, technology–everything has to do with computation and having a good math background.”

Screenshot from Zap Zap Math
Screenshot from Zap Zap Math

Zap Zap Math uses gamification to make this daunting subject more approachable. The online platform and app contain games tailored for students from Kindergarten to Grade 6. The avatars in the game are extraterrestrials—a nod to the idea that math is something “alien” for many of us.

Gamification, of course, is not a new trend in education and there are now many apps and online tools that use games to teach math. This is why it was interesting seeing an EdTech company such as this win the pitch competition at one of Asia’s largest tech conferences. The reason behind this is likely a different approach to studying. Some gamification critics argue that this learning method often replicates bad education practices such as drilling facts and formulas, making students study for points, leveling up or other rewards. In many cases, gamification centers on tapping into the competitive spirit of the students which can increase their engagement, but it does not necessarily help them learn in a better way.

Malaysia-based Zap Zap Math hopes to overcome this problem by asking kids not to provide an answer but to think about problems and solve them. Twenty percent of the game content has higher order thinking elements which aim to develop more complex cognitive skills such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (creation of new knowledge). The company is working with children’s creativity expert and Singapore-based math teacher Teoh Poh Yew to develop their games.

CEO of Zap Zap Math Henry Chui with Co-founder Adam Goh I-Ming. Photo credit: Rise 2017 Twitter account.
CEO of Zap Zap Math Henry Chui with Co-founder Adam Goh I-Ming (Image credit: RISE)

“Math is about concepts, not memorizing it,” Chui explained. “That is why we have higher order skills building to help them understand that every equation can go both ways and every question can be answered differently.”

Zap Zap Math is currently being piloted in over 100 schools in the US and Asia. The games are connected to a web dashboard which shows parents and teachers how the kids are progressing.

“In the near future what we are betting on is that parents will be increasingly receptive to using technology as an education tool because it is much more effective,” said Chui. He believes that educational content will increasingly be consumed through digital formats which produce data—data which is being used to understand learning processes and enhance them.

Chui also thinks that technology makes the world a fairer place—everyone can have access to good education, all they need is a cheap mobile device.

“Users from poorer countries and from more mature countries are about equal,” said Chui. “That’s the level playing field that EdTech will bring to the world. No longer you’re thinking there is a discrepancy between education in prestige schools versus lower-end schools. Education will be much more affordable and wide-scale.”

Masha Borak is a technology reporter based in Beijing. Write to her at masha.borak [at] technode.com. Pitches with the word "disruptive" will be ignored. Read a good book - learn some more adjectives.

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