Cognitive ToyBox was one of the eleven solutions showcased at the Young Child Expo Covid-19 Response Conference on May 5, 2020. School districts and government funded Ed tech developers shared tactics, technology and resources to support the youngest learners during Covid-19.
Tammy Kwan of Cognitive ToyBox and Lorri Hope of Child Care Aware of Eastern Washington, co-presented the first lightning talk. They shared how Cognitive ToyBox is facilitating family and teacher engagement through its game-based assessments.
A few highlights from the talk:
Tammy Kwan, co-founder of Cognitive ToyBox shared:
Lorri Hope, an early childhood educator for over 25+ years and a QRIS Coach for the state of Washington shared:
Cognitive ToyBox at Home is free until the end of the school year for educators affected by Covid-19. Sign up for an account here.
reprinted from the EdWeek Startup blog
A few weeks ago when schools first started closing en masse, the priorities were to make sure children were fed, safe, and to address immediate needs. Now teachers are confronting the reality that they will have to say goodbye to their students and families, and end the school year via video conference, or worse yet, a letter or phone call. As time has gone on, more of these nuanced and yet very important issues are beginning to surface.
When we first realized that it was no longer “business as usual,” our co-founder Tammy Kwan switched Cognitive ToyBox into research mode. While our product had successfully been addressing a pressing pre-Covid evaluation requirement. Post-Covid, we urgently needed to find out if early childhood assessment remained a priority. We wanted to determine how best to serve our current customers, as well as new ones. Tammy’s scientific training surfaced and we embarked on a fact-finding mission to interview as many directors, administrators, and teachers at Early Head Start, Head Start, and PreK-12 programs as we could.
More than fifty conversations later, here are some key takeaways.
1. The Digital Divide is Pervasive
This topic is too broad to address here, and that’s not the intent of this post. However, it was such a prevalent concern in our calls that highlighting this issue seems necessary. Interestingly enough, whether kids and teachers have access to devices and the internet is not as predictable as you might think.
For example, a small rural district outside of Pittsburgh has faced financial challenges for years. Yet their visionary leadership in finding creative solutions to invest in digital resources and programs that have modernized the district’s capabilities are paying off. Elizabeth Forward School District Superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin said the district has only missed one day of instruction during the closure and expects to meet the 180 days of instruction mandated by Pennsylvania in early June, although that requirement has been waived this year because so many school districts cannot meet the same standard.
Elizabeth Forward’s success in spite of the hurdles they have had to overcome does not seems to be the norm. More often we heard a vast discrepancy among families as to whether digital devices are available for children’s education. Even among districts who are able to provide devices, internet connection remains variable.
In particular, we are finding that early childhood programs are getting left behind in regard to access to devices, since districts are prioritizing the upper grades.
2. Mobile is a Common Denominator
Here are a few findings from a fact sheet published in June of 2019 from the Pew Research Center:
3. Parents [and Many Teachers] are Overwhelmed
Many parents have multiple children at home. Asking parents to log into multiple websites each day to download assignments and communicate with teachers quickly becomes overwhelming. Granted, being under quarantine adds extra stresses to a household that may not be present during “regular” online instruction. However, districts are doing their best to reduce the number of different websites and tools that they recommend or require. Instead of trying to replicate everything that happens in a regular school-based day, one tactic is to prioritize and focus on only one or a few goals. For instance, our head start customers in Alabama and Georgia are facilitating video calls that encourage social-emotional development and play.
We heard from multiple teachers who are struggling to keep up with digital communication streams from their districts on one side and their families on the other. Thus, ease of use has become a primary concern, both for teachers and parents. Learning management systems, assessment methods, communication tools, and other digital resources must be available on many different operating systems and devices. It's important that products are designed with simple intuitive interfaces that require very little, if any, training to use.
4. Provide Quality Screen Time
Most of the Head Start programs we spoke with remain concerned about exposing kids to too much screen time, but are balancing that with the reality of only being able to conduct instruction via a half-hour daily videoconference versus not at all. Finding creative ways to reach young children and their families without requiring that the kids themselves remain parked in front of a computer for hours on end is a challenge.
Cognitive ToyBox is meant for children ages 8 and under, which is a population especially monitored to avoid excess screen time. Our assessment games are five minutes or less per game. We do our best to make sure that screen time is kept to a minimum, while the quality of the data collected during each interaction is maximized.
In a recent Canvas8 report, Dr. Laura Zimmermann, child development and media researcher shared, “My hope is that this period will change the stigma surrounding the amount of time children are using digital devices and lead to a greater emphasis on the ways to foster creativity and the benefits of interacting with high-quality content.”
We are Resilient
We’d love to hear from more educators. Knowing about the most pressing problems helps Cognitive ToyBox and other education companies stay better informed and use that data to develop more effective products. The coronavirus situation is tragic and stressful. Yet we are resilient, and if some positive can come out of this time—in the form of more effective tools for education–then we all win.
With more than 40 million students in US public schools affected by school closures due to COVID-19, young children may be having more screen time today than ever before. In this new era in which screen time may be used as a poor, but often necessary substitute for academic instruction, families have the opportunity to be conscientious of the type and quality of screen time when choosing educational apps and media for their children.
One of our favorite pieces of advice around screen time comes from NPR Education reporter and Art of Screentime author, Anya Kamenetz. She recommends, “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.” Yet when a parent is working from home, it may not be possible for parents to use media with their children.
Digital media is an increasingly important component of a child’s life, averaging 2.5 hours per day between ages 2 and 4 (Common Sense Media Report, 2017). The reality is that parents are increasingly relying on apps and other types of digital media to entertain their kids. Currently there is an “app gap”, meaning that existing commercial apps and games lag far behind the state-of-the-art in academic research. As a result, children are spending hours per day consuming “digital candy”.
Recently, a Huffington Post reporter consulted with a number of experts about how parents can find digital media that is more educational than “digital candy” (Bologna, 2020). Experts shared that “parents should get in the habit of doing a little digging on apps or games before downloading them,” including considering the developers background and whether they have conducted any research. The experts also recommended that parents take a few minutes to play the game or app themselves to see if it’s a good fit for their kids.
To address the need for high-quality early learning tools, my organization, Cognitive ToyBox (CTB) is transforming how children use touchscreen games. CTB is closing the app gap by developing evidence-based learning games. CTB helps parents and early childhood educators to replace unproductive screen time (“digital candy”) at home with high-quality early learning games that children love to play. Best of all, evidence-based apps give children a better shot at starting school ready to succeed.
Cognitive ToyBox’s products take a radically different approach from other “educational” apps in the App Store (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Most of the 80,000 other apps focus on reinforcing ABCs, 123s, colors, and other early fundamentals through rote learning and memorization, often with dubious success. Research on one of the most commercially successful “educational” media products, Baby Einstein, shows that young children failed to learn any new words from the product (DeLoache et al., 2010).
In contrast, Cognitive ToyBox develops apps that help children learn-to-learn (L2L), meaning that we teach high-level principles so children learn more efficiently even when they are not using the app. L2L is a foundational principle of cognitive science. Compelling research demonstrates that teaching children L2L concepts earlier than they discover them on their own can accelerate early learning (Smith et al., 2002; Samuelson, 2002; Perry et al., 2010).
Figure 1 depicts Cognitive ToyBox’s suite of learning-to-learn apps, which are based on child development research.
Screen time is often thought to be antithetical to children’s learning and development. But at CTB, our team of developers use technology to distill complicated research experiments into self-directed touchscreen games for children. Because 81% of Americans own smartphones, mobile-first digital interventions could provide more equitable access for all children. As families consider their plans for digital media while quarantined and beyond, I encourage families to reframe the debate of “how much screen time” into “what quality screen time” you give to your children.
Kindergarten Entry Assessment (KEA) helps teachers understand what children know when they start school. Teachers use this information to plan for appropriate instruction.
Hawthorne Public Schools in Hawthorne, NJ was one of the first school districts to use a new touchscreen-based assessment tool for their KEA process in the spring of 2019. The assessment partner, Cognitive ToyBox (CTB), offers a hybrid observation and game-based assessment platform. Partnering with the school district, CTB aligned their assessment tool, Cognitive ToyBox KEA, to the district’s KEA process. This enabled teachers to use CTB to assess key skills and knowledge in language and literacy, math, speech and language, and fine and gross motor skills. CTB provided automatically generated assessment reports at the program, classroom, and individual student levels.
Educators saved time because CTB helped them automate the data collection and aggregation process. The educators used the time gained as well as the objective and consistent assessment data to better plan for instruction. Recognizing that different stakeholders have different data needs, the Cognitive ToyBox team developed differentiated reports for administrators, coaches, and teachers.
“Cognitive ToyBox is a powerful program that helps our students build math and language skills, but more importantly build confidence while being assessed. In my opinion, the real power in Cognitive ToyBox is its ability to adapt to each individual child.”
-Kristen Trabona, Director of Education.
For administrators, Cognitive ToyBox provided aggregated reports that reflected the school readiness levels of the incoming Kindergarten class.
Cognitive ToyBox alleviated the tedious process of gathering and analyzing student data by hand. Feedback from students and parents during the entry assessments was very positive,”
- Richard Spirito, Superintendent.
For coaches, Cognitive ToyBox provided reports that enabled them to support teachers in goal setting and further professional development.
“Cognitive ToyBox’s reports represent exactly the type of data we have been seeking,”
- Jackie Passero, Academic Coordinator.
For teachers, Cognitive ToyBox offered not only the KEA tool, but also the corresponding formative assessment tool. Teachers were able to use the KEA as an initial benchmark and then continue to track progress and growth of students throughout the school year. To do this, each student completes an adaptive, five-minute touchscreen assessment game per week. The assessments are aligned to the curriculum, so teachers are able to use the assessment data from the week to plan for the subsequent week’s lesson.
"Cognitive ToyBox is a practical and intriguing program for our Kindergarten students. More importantly, the students enjoy using it!”
- Chelsea Perrone, BSI Teacher
CTB has subsequently been working closely with Hawthorne Public Schools to expand into their First Grade classrooms.
Through strong partnerships with schools like Hawthorne School District, Cognitive ToyBox has developed a streamlined KEA process. CTB is looking to work with more school partners for the upcoming school year. Please contact us at email@example.com if you are interested in learning more about the benefits of technology-aided assessment in streamlining your assessment and data collection. We look forward to partnering with you!
Funds to Accelerate Birth to Eight National Programming and Home-Based Education
NEW YORK, February 3, 2020 -- Cognitive ToyBox, a New York-based early childhood technology company, has raised $750,000 in seed funding from Dallas-based investor, CMI Ventures. The company develops assessment technology for organizations that support children from birth to eight years of age. The technology makes assessment easier and more actionable for teachers by enabling them to assess children through adaptive, touchscreen games. Cognitive ToyBox is the first early childhood investment for CMI Ventures.
Tammy Kwan, a Doctoral student in Education, and Dr. Brenden Lake, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Data Science, both at NYU, co-founded the organization in 2015. The company was spun out of a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps for Learning grant, stemming from Kwan’s interest in early childhood development. Today, Cognitive ToyBox is working with some of the largest early childhood education programs in the country, reaching over 150,000 children a year.
“This started as a research project, but I learned early on that we could do much more to help educators and children win through technology-enabled solutions,” said Tammy Kwan, Co-Founder & CEO.
As part of the grant, Kwan and Lake spoke to over 100 early childhood administrators, teachers and families to learn about the biggest pain points for early childhood educators. Through these conversations, they heard firsthand about the challenges around the status quo of early childhood assessment: teachers in publicly funded programs spend 4 to 6 hours per week observing children, taking notes on their development and then transcribing their notes into a digital system after class or often on weekends. Moreover, this data is often not trusted because of the limitations around an observation-only approach to assessment. These limitations include teacher subjectivity and the feasibility of accurately observing individual student development for 18 to 24 children across dozens of school readiness measures.
“Given everything on their plate, teachers shared that they often ‘miss’ the individual assessment of some children, especially the quiet ones," said Kwan. "This can be devastating: if a child’s level of instruction is mismatched from their skill level, the child is at risk of becoming disengaged from learning at this very early age."
In response to the National Head Start Association's “Better, Simpler Assessments Challenge” meant to maximize the accuracy of assessment tools while reducing time and stress associated with it, Cognitive ToyBox partnered with researchers at Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University to research the potential impact of games on child development. This work has led to a presentation at the Society for Research in Child Development in 2019 and a peer-reviewed paper to be published in the journal Cognition later this year.
“Most edtech companies build and scale a product first and conduct research later," said co-founder and Chief Scientist, Dr. Brenden Lake. "It was important to us that we start with the research."
In parallel to the research, the team worked with Head Start and Pre-K programs to ensure that the tool was useful and actionable for teachers.
“The typical preschool teacher collects a lot of assessment data but analyzing and using these data in real time can become overwhelming. Cognitive ToyBox has unlocked the potential for teachers to use the data they collect on a weekly basis to modify instruction, so that each student can be better supported in their earliest years,” said Dr. Anusha Subramanyam, who has worked in publicly funded early childhood education settings for over ten years.
With the fundraise, Cognitive ToyBox will accelerate its growth in birth to eight programs across the US. They will also expand the product line to support home-based providers and families. CMI Ventures joins organizations, including AT&T, Camelback Ventures, and Blue Ridge Lab at the Robin Hood Foundation in supporting this work.
David Muzzo and Cameron Chalmers, partners at CMI Ventures, co-founded Archipelago Learning in 2000. The organization went public in 2009 before being taken private again in 2012.
“As former entrepreneurs who bootstrapped our way to the IPO of our own edtech company, Cognitive ToyBox’s founding and growth story reminds us a lot of our own. We are excited to back the team and help them grow,” said Dave Muzzo, Partner at CMI Ventures.
ABOUT COGNITIVE TOYBOX
Cognitive ToyBox is a research-backed technology platform for kindergarten readiness. The platform offers a hybrid observation and game-based approach that makes assessment better, simpler and more actionable for teachers. Program administrators and teachers can then leverage the data to more effectively allocate resources and plan instruction, with the goal of optimizing student learning. Cognitive ToyBox works with Head Start and PreK programs that support hundreds of thousands of children from birth to five years of age in the US.
I’m Erin, product manager at Cognitive ToyBox, and I am delighted to announce the release of our new parent product, First Choice Assessment!
I am a former teacher and math tutor, and I just completed my Masters of Arts in Digital Media Design for Learning at NYU. I am thrilled to be putting both my teaching and technology experience and skills to good use.
First Choice Assessment helps children get ready for kindergarten through weekly, five minute, game-based assessments. The app is appropriate for children 3-5 years of age.
As we designed First Choice Assessment, we spoke with dozens of parents, teachers and children to better understand their needs. We heard about the anxiety that parents face when preparing their students for preschool and kindergarten programs in NYC. We also heard about the importance of app engagement, but also the fear of too much screen time for their little one.
That’s why we have designed First Choice Assessment to be a technology product designed to enhance school readiness outside of the screen. Parents and children use First Choice Assessment together for five minutes per week to assess kindergarten readiness skills in critical developmental domains like math, language, literacy, and social-emotional learning. The app then aggregates the data into weekly reports that provides you - the parent - with teacher-approved practice activities that take families off the iPad and into the real world.
So if your child is not able to complete tasks in connecting numerals with quantities, you can play a game called Secret Agent to help them practice!
Check out First Choice Assessment on the App Store today and tell us what you think!
Cognitive ToyBox is honored to receive the 2017 Rethink Education Impact Award! Our team is committed to continuing our work on closing the early achievement gap through evidence-based technology solutions.
The Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop shared the story behind the research and development of our newest app, Fuzzy Numbers: Pre-K Number Foundation. Check out the blog post here!
Note: This is a reprint of an article that our co-founder Tammy Kwan wrote. The article first appeared on Getting Smart on January 20, 2017.
AI-powered technology can help the future workforce have more creative and fulfilling careers. But as the world continues to change at an ever-faster rate, how can we best prepare the next generation to flourish in this new economy? Moreover, how can we do it equitably?
According to a recent White House report on AI and the economy, the key is early education:
“All children [need to] get off to the right start with access to high-quality early education. In a world of AI-driven skill-biased technological change, people with low levels of even basic skill such as reading and math are at higher risk of displacement.”
Can learning “in the cradle” actually impact a child’s career? Research shows that early childhood experiences have lifelong impacts. Vocabulary size at 24 months predicts academic and behavioral performance in kindergarten, three years later, even after controlling for many other variables. Kindergarten skills go on to predict later reading and math achievement, as well as life outcomes such as earnings at age 27, home ownership, and retirement savings.
What can parents do to ensure their child is off to the best start? Parent-child communication is key. Research shows that well before a child speaks, they are actively listening. Infants use parental input to learn the elementary structure of speech and language, such as different phonemes and words. But it can be tough to keep the conversation going with a child who does not yet speak back. To help keep parents motivated, campaigns like the Clinton Foundation’s “Talking is Teaching” provide resources around conversation topics, books and songs.
Digital media is another promising tool. Toddlers learn best in contingent environments that provide feedback based on their actions. Touchscreen technologies, unlike TV, are flexible enough to provide this type of feedback.
This nascent development is a win-win. Parents want to provide the best learning resources, and children love touchscreens. Emerging research has shown that young children can learn from research-based touchscreen experiences. The “research-based” component is important – not every touchscreen experience provides a rich learning experience. For example, using a touchscreen as a mini-television with YouTube and Netflix is no better than TV. In essence, quality matters. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to choose evidence-based digital apps.
Finally, high-quality pre-k can help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up. Young children from low socioeconomic status households are, on average, exposed to 30 million less words by the age of 3, when compared with their higher income peers. These differences in early environment impact all aspects of learning. As stated in the White House report:
“On average, children from poor families score far below their peers from higher-income families in early vocabulary and literacy development, in early math, and in the social skills they need to get along well in their classrooms. Studies indicate that kids who start off with deficits in basic skills fail to catch up to peers by later grades.”
Every child deserves an equal opportunity. Although we’ve made great strides in increasing preschool accessibility in places like New York City, we still have a long way to go. The US ranks 29 amongst 38 OECD countries in the percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education programs.
Investing in preschool is also good for the economy. High-quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children have beneficial impacts on health, crime, mother’s income, and child’s future income. Nobel laureate James Heckman estimates the total benefits yield a 13.7% rate of return per annum. The bottom line is that early childhood factors are predictive of life outcomes. Through early childhood programs, we can ensure that every child is poised to succeed in the changing labor market.
AI-powered automation will enable the future generation to reach new frontiers. In 2016, we saw driverless cars, AI-powered grocery stores, and ubiquitous smart home assistants. As more routine-intensive occupations become automated, new occupations will open up in the workplace. We can only begin to imagine the careers of the future, but we know that they will utilize the best of human creativity and general intelligence. With high quality early childhood initiatives, we can ensure that every child can reach their full potential.
Research has long shown that math whizzes tend to have a stronger intuitive sense of quantity, or “number sense” (Halberda et al., 2008). Our games aim to improve your child's number sense, so he or she will have a leg up at learning math in school.
In the lab, four and five year old children who played digital number sense games demonstrated better math performance (on tests of counting, number identification, addition, etc.) compared to control groups, when tested right after a brief practice (Wang et al., 2016) or after several weeks of practice (Park et al., 2016).
We are excited to release More 4 Monkey 2.0, which was inspired by this 2016 research. The app guides children through seven activities in approximate quantity, addition, and subtraction. The app is adaptive and continually challenges your child’s number sense. Children from ages 2 to 6 enjoy playing More 4 Monkey.
See below for two examples of the digital number sense activities that are in our app:
We hope you enjoy this new version of More 4 Monkey, which provides a much richer set of activities for your child, as well as a parent dashboard for you to keep track of progress.