Javier Arroyo owes his credentials as one of the world’s changemakers to his children.
When his daughter and son were born, the Spanish co-founder of AI-based maths-learning method Smartick began to worry that many countries were “failing to prepare new generations for challenges they will face in the future”.
Everything he read at the time, including reports from PISA and the European Commission, seemed to suggest that most countries in Europe – with a few Nordic exceptions – as well as the US and Latin America, were performing poorly in mathematics, while projections showed the majority of future jobs would require a background in STEM subjects.
“If your maths foundations are not strong enough, you’re closing so many doors and, in the future, they will be the best-paid jobs,” he says.
Not only would raising the standard of maths help to futureproof children for the workforce, it could also help tackle some of the world’s problems – from climate change to the energy crisis – believes Javier, because maths is the basis for many scientific disciplines.
“I wanted to focus my efforts on helping future scientists, astronauts or engineers by using new technology to leave behind a century-old way of learning maths.”
In the six years since its launch, the uptake of the online programme Smartick has expanded rapidly. Of the more than 100,000 children aged between 4 and 14 that have used it, 94% have shown improvements in their calculation, reasoning and problem-solving skills.
Javier, one of the changemakers who has been invited to speak at the Global Education and Skills Forum, says there are now more than 15,000 students, from 100 countries, using it for 15 minutes daily.
Where AI comes in
Javier found that some EdTech programmes weren’t pitched at the right level for young children or weren’t designed to specifically help this group. That’s why he designed Smartick to use artificial intelligence to be responsive, agile and adaptive.
After an initial assessment, a unique study programme is developed for each child, based on those areas that aren’t yet mastered. As they progress, AI constantly adapts the exercises based on how well each one is done by the child.
In less than one second, the system measures as many as 50 data points, such as the speed of solution and the number of times it takes to get it correct and uses this data to generate the next exercise.
“It means, from an educational point of view, the student is constantly learning at maximum capacity. We are constantly maximising his or her potential, no matter how high or low, which ultimately means the child progresses at their own pace.”
This also means that they are achieving frequently as well: “I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement, so we modulate it so that most of the exercises they complete that day will be correct.”
The approach goes much further than helping children get their heads around numbers – and children learn multiple skills from Smartick, says Javier.
He explains that Smartick puts a lot of emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, since they are set to be crucial for jobs in the future.
“In the age of the internet, you don’t need to have knowledge, because it’s out there and you can access it at any time,” he says. “What professionals need to have in future are critical-thinking skills. So, it’s more a shift in [a child’s] mind, rather than knowing by heart how to multiply numbers.”
The programme includes a module of coding, which Javier says is just maths plus logic, to help children gain all-important digital skills.
And, parents have also found their children actually improve their reading from doing Smartick, due to the emphasis it puts on word problems.
“We have difficult syntax that children have to read carefully and understand, and parents now say their children are improving a lot in reading comprehension.”
It’s designed for children to work on their own, and he advises parents to show an interest in the programme, but not to help, as that will skew the AI and make the exercises more difficult for the child.
A limit of 15 minutes a day means “you can squeeze it in any time. It’s enough time to progress in your maths and it leaves room for the children to do other things”.
Javier, who was named an Eisenhower Fellow in 2018, grew up a truly global soul, educated in the US, Germany and Belgium, as well as Spain. He lost his parents at a young age, but before they died, they taught him a valuable life lesson.
“I learned there is nothing in life which you can’t achieve without an effort and usually the result you obtain from your effort is proportionate to the effort you put in.”
Two inspirational women also shaped his thoughts and determination to make a “global impact”.
One was Barbara Oakley, the author of the world’s most popular MOOC, Learning How To Learn, who wanted to retrain as an engineer, but having been bad at maths and science at school, managed to rewire her brain.
“I like to see maths as an international language,” says Javier.
The other woman inspiring this changemaker, appearing at the Global Education and Skills Forum in 2019, was US psychologist Angela Duckworth, who came up with the concept of Grit. Javier explains:
“She did research with thousands of children and said IQ is no longer the key indicator to predict the future success of a child, but instead it’s grit – the capacity and determination of a child to work in the present for long-term objectives.
“Those children who have grit are the most successful, not just in terms of their professional career, but in terms of marriage and happiness.”
Javier’s own children have now earned their Smartick stripes – all the exercises were tested on them and he jokes they “probably hate it more than they like it” – but he says they’re both very good at maths and interested in STEM careers now.
“It’s up to them. They have to make their own decisions. It’s not my passion that every child has to be an architect or an engineer, but I want children to have the freedom to choose what they want to do.
“If you’re weak in maths, there are so many doors that are closed to you. The truth is, in Spain you cannot even study to be a doctor without maths – it’s the basis for science careers. So, I say, ‘Have a solid maths foundation and then you can do whatever you want’.”
Smartick supports students from low-income backgrounds, with free enrolment for families who can’t afford it, and they also have a programme in hospitals, making it free for children with cancer, who might be long-term patients.
“My ambition is to improve the future of every child in the world,” Javier says, “by giving them a good foundation in maths.”