There’s an Aussie company paying kids to do their maths homework and it’s working.

Video via Eddie Woo

Most reports paint a depressing picture of the current state of Australian students’ maths results. The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science results show Australian students are being outperformed in maths by countries such as Kazakhstan and Slovenia and falling two years behind students in Singapore.

With the jobs of the future increasingly relying on maths and technology skills, this is a big worry and we should be concerned that our kids won’t have the required skills necessary to keep up with global demand.

For the last eight years I’ve been working on ways to make maths more engaging for kids by developing a web app called Mathspace. The app replicates the feedback of a personal tutor.

We wanted to give every student the step-by-step learning and instantaneous feedback that a personal tutor can, and not just push children to complete hundreds of multiple choice questions with no sense of progress or accomplishment.

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While Mathspace is a helpful online tool to make maths easier to understand for students, we still had a big problem with keeping students engaged with maths.

With the rise in social media and video games, kids’ attention spans are becoming increasingly limited, which I’m sure we can all relate to. Even while reading through this article, chances are you’ve received a mobile notification. Kids today face so many distractions and immediate gratification from social media, which is always just one click away, and it’s hard to compete.

We tried everything to make maths more appealing, from gamification, to avatars and badges, but any increases in attention were only short-lived. To make a real improvement in engagement we needed regular and consistent use of Mathspace. We discovered a study by behavioural economist Steven Levitt at the University of Chicago which looked at paying students to improve their test scores and the results showed it was an effective way to encourage effort.

This sparked a question – could we pay students to complete their maths homework? This led to a hundred other questions. What were the ethical ramifications? How would it work? Could this work over the long-term?

While many people might disagree with the idea of ‘bribing’ kids to do their homework, just looking at the declining results of Australian maths students shows that something needs to change.

I’m a big believer in testing ideas on a small scale, looking at the results and then rolling them out more broadly if they work. So we decided to do just that… We decided to launch it on a small scale, here in Australia.

The funding question initially seemed like a tricky one. But then we realised that most parents are already paying children pocket money for doing chores, so why not incorporate their weekly maths exercises into this. Parents pay a weekly $10 subscription fee which is refunded directly to the child if they complete their weekly exercises.

The opportunity to test this came through a partnership Westpac. Parents can now link their child’s Westpac bank account to Mathspace. We’ve been testing this in Australia over the past six months and found that 75 per cent of students are completing their homework each week. This means that students on the rewards program are 70 per cent more engaged than those not on the program.

Maths Graph
This graph shows consistent homework completion on Mathspace Solve To Save over a 21 week period. Image: Supplied.

Even more incredible is that fact that 90 per cent of the students who have joined this rewards program are still on it six months later. This really excites me, because we’re starting to see some longer term results.

This leaves one final question: Will students keep coming back if we stop paying them?

I’m a firm believer that maths is more than just something you do at school. As kids learn more and see how maths can be applied to better understand the world around them they will naturally develop an interest in maths. We know the future holds greater opportunities for maths graduates with the advent of exciting fields like artificial intelligence and robotics. Once kids see how powerful maths can be, their learning will be the reward.

You watch the Mohamed Jebara's full TED Talk here.

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