Face to Face: A Jump on Literacy
LeapFrog's breakthrough success holds important lessons for school administrators. An interview with CEO and founder Mike Wood
LeapFrog CEO and founder Mike Wood
Forget Barbie. When a pedagogically sound and truly educational product becomes the top seller in the toy business-and when that same product also shows up in 15,000 U.S. classrooms-we sit up and take notice. The LeapPad turned the concept of an "electronic book" inside out by building interactive computer technology into a paper-based children's-book platform that teaches kids phonics, reading fluency, math, and more.
Since founding LeapFrog in 1995, CEO Mike Wood has seen his company win more than 200 product awards and grow to over $500 million in annual sales. Although Wood-a parent, attorney, and successful entrepreneur-has never been an educator, his story has much to tell us about the value of fun and interactivity in the learning process.
Scholastic Administr@tor: How did the experience of trying to teach your son to read become the inspiration for LeapFrog?
Mike Wood: By the time my son Mat was three years old, he was learning the names of the letters using a little wooden alphabet puzzle. One morning, I was playing with him and trying to teach him that the letters represented sounds. I came up with a number of different games and what I thought were breakthrough ways of helping him make that association-but none of those methods worked.
Looking at a letter and thinking of a sound is a big conceptual leap. But if kids don't make that leap, sooner or later it becomes an impediment for them to sound out words and get off on this big adventure called reading. I thought, "What if there were little letters that Mat could squeeze, and when he squeezed them, he would hear the phonemes?" But there were no products out there that combined those tactile, visual, and aural aspects in an intuitive and fun way.So that was the original idea.
I went down to Stanford University and met with Dr. Robert Calfee, who is one of the nation's experts on early literacy. He became our advisor and helped us develop a curriculum around phoneme awareness and phonics. That first product became the Phonics Desk, and a lot of the curriculum in that original product continues as the underpinning of lots of our products.
SA: Why is interactivity so important to the learning process?
MW: First of all, it's fun. You know, kids love to do things like squeezing a letter and hearing a bunch of different sounds. Kids love to experiment, they love to be in control, they love to self-pace, and they love to have little epiphanies. Giving kids the ability to deduce things on their own and at their own pace is much better than for me to point to a C and say, "That says kuh. Can you say kuh?" That's not interactive. Kids love doing lots of things with their parents, but being quizzed is not one of them!
SA: Is the upswing in sales of educational toys a sign of increased parental concern about the quality of their children's schooling?
MW: I think all parents are concerned about their kids' education, and that's across all kids and all school systems. The other thing is that parents feel good about the time that their kids are spending with these products, so that's a big motivating factor. Parents look at products like this, and their first question is, "Will it be engaging?" Because everything else is irrelevant; parents don't want to buy something that they have to force their kids to use. In that case, they might as well just throw it out. Success in this category depends on creating products that are affordable, with technology platforms that last a long time, and with enough content that is engaging and allows kids to feel like they're succeeding.
SA: In what ways are the needs of schools and teachers different from the needs of parents?
MW: In the classroom as well as at home, you want to make learning engaging, and you want to have good pedagogy that reflects best practices. But the differences are that at home, it's generally one-on-one-it's either the parent and the child or it's just the child, so it's very individualized. And most parents aren't educated teachers. So for the home products, we try to build in features that empower parents to be participatory teachers, so that they're learning best practices along with their kids.
In the classroom, it's completely different. There you've got well-qualified teachers who know exactly how and what they want to teach; their challenge is that they've got 25 kids in a room. Our challenge there is to help teachers make this a more personalized setting. Our answer is to create a personalized learning path for each child. There are many spectacular teachers, but none of them can teach in 25 different channels simultaneously. Our ability to allow teachers to let each child learn at his or her own skill level and pace for an hour a day is empowering for the kids and the teachers.
SA: How does technology empower kids and teachers?
MW: When kids discover that they can succeed at their own pace, that in itself is tremendously motivational. Just like every child goes through growth spurts, their learning capacity also moves all over the place. Nobody can monitor all of that, not even their parents. But with technology like our LeapTrack system, kids can spend an hour a day on interactive, fun, and engaging skill cards, where their success is being monitored-it starts right where their skills are, and it moves as quickly as they move and slows down when they get stuck. It gives them personalized tutoring at their skill level with constant feedback and monitoring. So that's what it does for the kids. What it does for the teachers is that they now have an hour of time in which they can pull aside a child or a group of kids who are within a common skill level and work with them, either on specific remedial skills or on accelerated skills.
SA: Do you have any stories that speak to the effectiveness of your products?
MW: Lake Weston Elementary School in Orlando, Florida, is what is considered a "D" school in Florida, with high levels of student poverty and a significant turnover in the student body. These kids have many obstacles to success. At that school, the teachers and an educator named Trinnette Morris identified the kids entering the third and fourth grades who they thought had the lowest probability of success, and they put those kids in an intensive LeapTrack program.
These kids were assessed using the LeapTrack system, which created a personalized learning path for every student. Four days a week, the kids used the system for 20 to 30 minutes. At the end of the year, the kids took the Florida FCAT test. The statewide passing rate for third and fourth graders this year was just 76 percent. Yet in this group of at-risk students-in a school that does not have a good record for success-96 percent of these kids passed!
For these kids, the train was about to leave the station. You can tell by the FCAT results that these are smart kids, but they were at the point where they were despondent, I'm sure, because they weren't at the learning path and pace that the teachers were teaching to. These kids were dying to succeed, and they were able to catch up and get to the point where they grasped the building blocks.
It just reflects how much potential all children have, and how important it is to give them material that is within their grasp. They look at the material, and they think, "I can get this." And when they do it, they go, "Wow, I got it!" And that becomes very motivational. But if you put stuff in front of them that they look at and say, "I'll never get this," then it becomes so demoralizing and debilitating that they tune out. It's a natural reaction.
SA: The LeapPad conceals its interactive technology inside a traditional printed book. Do you think young children respond better to interacting with traditional media than with a computer?
MW: If kids learn to read, they've got the ability to go almost wherever they want to go, educationally and otherwise. There is something magic to me about paper and the written word, in that we all end up reading it differently, we all have the ability to imagine what the scene looks like and what the characters are like. In lots of ways it's interactive, and it requires kids to use their imagination. At the end of the day, getting kids hooked on the wonder of reading and giving them the skills to read is fundamentally important.
Different kids learn in different ways, and I think there are lots of things you can teach on a computer screen that in some ways we might not be able to teach on the LeapPad. But for teaching reading and teaching the wonder of books, the LeapPad is very effective and engaging. It's also very affordable.
We talk a lot about not developing technology for technology's sake, but developing technology for an application that will be intuitive, engaging, and meaningful. The more ways that we can take familiar patterns of learning and interactivity and extend them, the more likely we'll have people use them and appreciate them.
SA: Do you think that kids accustomed to interactive books might come to view traditional books as boring?
MW: I haven't heard anyone voice that concern, but it may be the case. Personally, I would like to be able to read everything on a LeapPad, because there's not one book that I read that I don't run into a vocabulary word that's beyond my knowledge. It would be very useful to be able to touch the word so I could hear the word defined and pronounced correctly.
SA: Did you make any missteps along the way that our readers could learn from?
MW: In the early years, we created some stand-alone products that did not do well. Two examples are Really Wild Animals and Little Composer. Really Wild Animals was a device that would teach children all about animals, geography, insects, and nature. The Little Composer taught children about music, notes, and songs.
In hindsight, we learned that we all have limited resources. As a result, we have to prioritize our spending. Parents prioritized reading and math products over geography and music. These were products that I was personally enthusiastic about, so I was quite disappointed with their poor sales. Interestingly, we have been successful with LeapPad books on the topics of geography and music. This is because a LeapPad book is a much smaller investment for a family to make.
SA: What can we expect in the future from LeapFrog?
MW: We don't rest much around here, and we get to have a sense of wonder in lots of ways about the kinds of things we get to do. Now we're launching a product called LittleTouch, for really little kids-nine months through three years. We're also launching LeapPad Plus Writing, where we've taken our stylus and turned it into an interactive pencil. Parents have said: "My kids are learning how to read, but their handwriting is atrocious." So we developed a platform for kids to learn to write, read, and do math. Who knows what we will come up with next? But it will be very engaging, pedagogically sound, fun, and interactive. And it will be done right.
Lars Kongshem is the senior editor of Scholastic Administrator.