computer, child on computer
AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Elementary Math Scores Soar With Help From Animated Penguin

August 18, 2010 06:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
JiJi, an animated computer penguin, is helping elementary school children improve their math scores, showing how technology can play a positive role in education.

Math Class Moves From Whiteboard to Computer Screen

JiJi, an animated cartoon penguin, has quickly become “California’s hottest new math teacher,” Lisa Fernandez reported for the San Jose Mercury News in 2009.

As Fernandez explains, the penguin “has been quietly taking over math programs dotting Silicon Valley, dramatically improving test scores in mostly low-performing schools.” The cartoon program has had an impressive rate of success: According to Fernandez, the number of fourth grade students at LeRoy Anderson Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., that scored “proficient” in math rose from 9 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2009; 45 percent of that number were “advanced.”

Part of the success of the JiJi program lies in its disguise as an entertaining activity rather than a learning vessel. “The kids think it's a computer game,” Janis Hubbs, principal at Gardner Academy Elementary in San Jose, told the San Jose Mercury News. “But really, it's all about higher level thinking skills.” Much more than a video game, the JiJi program is interactive and immediately tells students if they got a correct answer or if they need more work. The system also helps teachers track the individual progress of each student.

JiJi isn’t confined to schools only in California, though; 118,000 students in 22 states are using the program, Fernandez reported.

Background: MIND Research Institute

Created by a team of three scientists at the MIND Research Institute in Santa Ana, Calif., JiJi was developed as a “visual math program to teach complicated ‘spatial temporal’ concepts” in a simplified, animated way,” Fernandez writes.

“It's teaching math without a lot of added complexity that doesn't need to be there,” Andrew Coulson, president of the institute’s education division, explained to the Los Angeles Times last year.

As the MIND Research Institute official Web site explains, their educational products make use of interactive “[g]ame metaphors” to enhance traditional approaches to math teaching. According to MIND research quoted by San Jose Mercury News, “schools below 50 percent proficiency in math average a 15- to 20-point gain within two years” after implementing the program.

Reactions: Students and teachers greet JiJi positively

Most of the schools in California using the program have reported very promising results. In a press release, MIND Research Institute cited the example of Daphne Orellana, a student at Bryant Elementary in Long Beach Unified School District who spoke Spanish as her native language. According to Daphne’s kindergarten teacher, “JiJi … was great because she could learn more math concepts without using words. She was never afraid of math when on the computer."

As Aurora Esquivel, a teacher at Romero-Cruz Elementary, told the Los Angeles Times, “It's very inspiring, it's very hands-on and it's very engaging. I have to drag them off. They'll be late to lunch and recess to keep working on the computer.”

Related Topic: Technology in the classroom

Many classrooms around the country are being updated to become technological havens for students, with advanced gadgets and resources that are turning regular classrooms into high-tech environments. Document cameras and interactive whiteboards are only some of the new devices being installed in educational institutions around the country. Most teachers see these upgrades as an opportunity to better communicate with students, speaking their language and learning about the world children and teenagers live in now. In spite of the promising advancements, however, some wonder whether technology is a real necessity for education.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines