By August Champlin
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
Over a lunch of all-you-can-eat sushi, a friend excitedly pulled out his cell phone and showed me an animated Chinese lesson his daughters were using to learn Mandarin. In the lesson, a river flowed through a Chinese landscape. Emerging from the currents, as if by magic, the Chinese character for water appeared. It looked just like the pattern in the underlying currents. It rose into the air and morphed into the modern character for water in Chinese. The animation made the link between the Chinese character and its meaning instantly clear.
I was impressed and wanted to use lessons like these to learn Chinese.
Unfortunately for me, Koala Know’s Online Chinese Course is only for “overseas Chinese children … 4 to 11 years old,” as their website makes clear.
Nonetheless, their program so impressed me as a university professor and language teacher that I knew I wanted to learn more about it.
With the help of my friend, I would have the opportunity to visit the Koala Know headquarters in the City of Industry, Calif., and meet its founders Thomas Nie and Patrick Wang. As I listened to them describe Koala Know, observed online lessons, and toured their facilities, I was impressed by what they had achieved. Koala Know has used “systems thinking” to improve education.
TechTarget.com defines systems thinking as “a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate … work over time and within the context of larger systems.” Traditional Western science analyzes problems by dividing them into their constituent parts. In contrast, modern systems science helps us to see the whole and understand its complex interactions, which often cannot be predicted based on an understanding of its parts. For example, if I examined every instrument in a symphony orchestra, I could not predict a Beethoven symphony.
Only when researchers began to look at systems as a whole did they see the advantages of systems thinking, not only for understanding the world and how it works, but for improving human affairs. In an increasingly complex, politically divisive world, we must find ways to function as an integrated system to solve our greatest problems — problems such as global warming, environmental pollution, ecosystem degradation, growing income disparity, racism, and hate crimes.
Though we have millennia of tradition prompting us to function as individual nation states, we must look beyond our individual differences to find solutions that will work for all of us as a whole.
The reason is simple: Our future depends on it. Moreover, what we do really does affect others. In fact, it affects our world. No action is without consequence to the greater whole.
As an educator, I am interested in applying systems thinking to education. I have learned from Koala Know how this can be done simply, effectively, and elegantly.
Koala Know’s system emerged when it integrated several components into an educational ecology. For example, research suggests that the most important variable in students’ learning is the quality of their teacher. Of the teachers Koala Know screens, it hires only about 4 percent. These undergo six months of stringent training, while receiving a full salary. This illustrates Koala Know’s commitment to its personnel and, of course, it inspires its personnel to feel that same commitment to Koala Know.
While teachers are important to education, so is a quality curriculum. To create its curriculum, Koala Know drew on Xu Shen’s classic method of analyzing Chinese characters based on their radicals. They created animated lessons that show how Chinese ideographs evolved from their ancient to modern forms. These animations promote a deeper understanding of Chinese characters than any method of flash card memorization could. They make the link between the form of the character and its meaning immediately obvious. Koala Know embeds these lessons in simple narratives, featuring animated characters that children can relate to.
Having an effective curriculum is beneficial. Having one that evolves is exceptional. Koala Know’s curriculum experts continually work with teachers and the big data they collect from the company’s computer systems to improve their curriculum, creating more effective activities that better engage students in learning.
How different this is from how many schools, especially in low-income areas, rely on out-of-date textbooks, which change on average every five to 10 years. Indeed, UNESCO published a report suggesting that out-of-date textbooks threaten progress in education globally. Koala Know shows us a solution for this problem.
Class sizes are limited to three students to maximize student participation. According to Thomas, one of Koala Know’s founders, they found that larger class sizes did not promote student participation, as some students sat by quietly, while others dominate class discussions. We know from much educational research that all other factors being equal, smaller class sizes promote greater learning than larger ones, yet class sizes often inflate when educational spending decreases.
Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect schools to have a 3:1 student ratio. However, in her report for the National Education Policy Center, Diane Schanzenbach cites research that suggests that “students’ achievement on math and reading standardized tests improved by … 5 percentile rank points … from being assigned to a small class of 13-17 students instead of a regular-sized class of 22-25 students.” Are we willing to do what it takes as a nation to improve education by limiting class sizes?
Koala Know’s system would be nothing new were it only to integrate the components described above. Ample educational research supports each of these components. What distinguishes Koala Know from traditional schooling is its use of the latest computer technology. Its computer systems record big data on student and teacher performance.
Artificial intelligence software crunches the data and makes recommendations in real time to improve performance. For example, Koala Know uses facial recognition software to analyze students’ attentiveness. If they appear bored, it recommends that the teacher change the activity or play an educational game. Moreover, behind the scenes, its IT staff monitors the Internet connections of users to ensure that lessons are delivered seamlessly across devices and internet connection speeds.
Koala Know has learned that for students to care about learning Mandarin, its teachers and staff must care about students — holistically. Thus, Koala Know personnel monitor the academic, social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of students — using the data they collect to partner with parents to enhance students’ overall wellbeing.
For example, if a student appears sleepy, depressed, or unmotivated — despite a teacher’s best efforts to engage the student — then a staff member will call the parents and inquire into the student’s wellbeing. The staff member will note the concerning behavior and ask parents about it, recommending more sleep, exercise, or a better diet — in short, whatever will ensure that the student excels. These courtesy calls serve as ways for Koala Know staff to form partnering relationships with parents, offering them support and feedback. These calls also help Koala Know curriculum designers to distinguish between lessons that need to be improved and extenuating circumstances in students’ lives that need to be addressed before they can learn effectively.
Research also supports Koala Know’s holistic focus on students’ total wellbeing. When communities ensure that students’ mental, social, emotional, and physical needs are met, students experience synergistic learning effects, that is, their learning outcomes far exceed predictions based on prior performance, IQ, or developmental stage.
What distinguishes Koala Know is not that it is the first to use such effective strategies, but rather how well it incorporates its strategies into a working whole, a smoothly functioning educational system or ecology.
In contrast, one reason that schools have often struggled to implement the recommendations of educational research is that for an organization, such as a school, to work effectively, it must develop efficient systems to achieve its goals. Most schools that I visit are understaffed and underfunded. Teachers are overworked and struggle with burnout. Many schools lack the systems that would promote their success.
Koala Know’s example provides the educational community with insight into how ecological systems could be used to ensure more effective schooling across the board. The key to an ecological system’s success is the harmonious integration of its components to create a working whole. That whole only works when it offers full support for all stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, support personnel — to do what is required of them for success.
By identifying these factors in its operation, Koala Know has provided a working model of an educational ecology that others can study and apply principles from to their own local circumstances.
Perhaps the solutions to education’s greatest problems won’t come from pursuing the latest methods, but from integrating researched-based methods into effective systems.
A remarkable Asian American firm has shown us how this can be done. It is up to us to follow their example in our local communities.
August Champlin is pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education at the University of California, Riverside. He works as an educational consultant, training teachers to educate English language learners. He also teaches graduate courses in education as an adjunct professor at La Sierra University.
August can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.