Imagine a world where teachers can anticipate a student struggling the night before they teach the material.
With the help of research from the University of Pennsylvania, local education company Mindprint Learning is hoping to make that world a reality.
Founded by Penn grad Nancy Weinstein, Mindprint focuses on the cognitive aspects of how a child learns and uses that information to create a successful learning environment for the child.
"When my daughter was in third grade, she was a bright kid, a capable learner," said Weinstein. "She had a very good teacher. But there was something that was holding her back, from reaching her full potential."
The teacher informed Weinstein that her daughter's test scores were normal, and that there wasn't anything wrong on the surface. Several months and several tests later, the family had their “Eureka!” moment. Weinstein and her husband both had similar cognitive learning styles, and her daughter simply approached problem-solving in a different way. Using different methods would help her reach her full potential. Weinstein found herself thinking, "Wow, it didn't need to be this complicated. There should be a better way, but this is it."
It seemed like a ridiculous process for kids who are good, but could be better. Nancy searched the world as a parent for a long time, and then put on her business hat and figured there had to be a better way. She found exactly what she was looking for at the University of Pennsylvania.
Penn happens to be the alma mater of Nancy and her husband, Eric, but she says that's mostly a coincidence. She saw information about a "neuroscience boot camp for nonscientists" in an alumni newsletter, and thought she'd check it out. The boot camp is often attended by lawyers, judges and teachers.
"They took us on a tour of Penn Medicine and some of the engineering labs, and there were a few lectures as well," said Weinstein. She approached some people at Penn about her idea for a company that incorporated personalized learning, and was told to reach out to the Gurs. Ruben Gur and his wife Raquel had been working on a cognitive assessment they’d tested on NASA astronauts, children, and everyone in between.
The Gurs’ assessment is used mostly in research to better understand the brain, but Weinstein wanted to commercialize the product to help children. The Gurs appreciated Weinstein’s good intentions, and helped facilitate Mindprint’s access to the assessment.
The assessment is simple enough. It's a one hour-test with 10 sections, and doesn't require pencil and paper. It analyzes the way your brain makes connections, recognizes patterns, and solves problems.
Once a child takes the test, they’re given a full learning profile, featuring 10 different cognitive skill assessments, including skills based on memory, processing speed, reasoning and other executive functions. It’s a blueprint of how that child learns best.
“The family receives a comprehensive report describing the child’s individual strengths and weaknesses, and offers a wealth of recommendations tied directly to the findings,” said Dr. Wendy Matthews, a child psychologist who has lent some expertise to Mindprint.
I took the test to get a better feel for Mindprint's approach and to see how my cognitive skills would be assessed. My lowest skill was flexible thinking, which refers to a student's ability to come at a problem from different angles. I instantly understood most of my struggles from both high school and college courses.
To hone skills and provide a child a chance to enhance their overall learning experience, the learning profile also comes with a toolbox, where parents and children can search among over 1,300 educational products to find tools and resources that work best for their style of learning.
“The format of the report provided to parents does a good job of de-emphasizing scores and percentile rankings,” said Dr. Matthews. “Instead, it focuses on the child’s areas of strengths and weakness, and explains how the child is learning, where the child might confront an obstacle, and how the child might best use their skills to get around that obstacle and succeed.”
"We think parents are getting it,” said Weinstein. “You can find a child that gets straight A's, but you're not going to find a child that has all strengths. Use this as a platform to help your child learn more efficiently so they can reach their achievement goals."
Weinstein was able to present Mindprint at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, which drew nearly 20,000 people to the Philadelphia Convention Center in late June.
"The ISTE conference was an incredible opportunity to meet people who are trying to create change in the education field. They aren't trying to stick to traditional methods,” said Weinstein.
Mindprint was one of only six products chosen to present in front of the ISTE board as part of their "Next Big Thing" showcase. Weinstein had just three minutes to try and persuade ISTE that spreading her idea could transform education.
"There's a lot of talk today about personalized learning, and it works. Cognitive assessment has been the best way to show how a child learns best for over 100 years, but it's been inaccessible," said Weinstein, who dreams of a school system where teachers can have access to student learning profiles, and use them to create an optimal learning environment.
"Wouldn't it be great if every teacher had a profile of how every child learns?" Weinstein explained. "They could anticipate a struggle and be ready with different approaches. Don't wait for a child to fail."
Currently, Mindprint is working with private tutoring firms, private schools, and a few parents. They've got a decent customer base in central New Jersey thanks to their Princeton headquarters, and are working with schools in states nationwide, including California, Florida, Maine and Nevada.
"We have the infrastructure in place, and a better feel for what teachers need so they can be productive using the tool in the classroom," Weinstein concluded.
Technology continues to transform the world, and Mindprint Learning's personalized profiles just may be education's "next big thing."