Scott Laidlaw's math students just weren't getting it.
While teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the private Realms of Inquiry school in Salt Lake City three years ago, Laidlaw racked his brain for ways to improve his students' competency in math. Only 21 percent were testing proficient in the subject.
He joined forces with Utahn Jennifer Lightwood and launched Imagine Education, a company that designs learning games. Titles such as "Ko's Journey" and "Empires" have helped middle-school math concepts ratios, graphing and geometry click with students through interactive games.
But Laidlaw hasn't stopped creating new tools to help bolster student achievement in math. His and Lightwood's new documentary, "The Biggest Story Problem: Why America's Students Are Failing at Math," will premiere 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fort Douglas Post Theatre in Salt Lake City.
The film is meant to start a conversation on what Laidlaw calls the country's "middle school math crises." U.S. students perform well in math in elementary school, but by 10th grade, have dropped to the world's bottom tier, said Laidlaw. He cited 2009 research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group that has studied and ranked education systems around the globe.
While making the film, the duo visited Finland, where students earn some of the world's top math scores and outpace neighboring countries with similar demographics, such as Norway. Laidlaw and Lightwood interviewed educators in Finland to learn why their system is successful, and spoke with dozens of researchers, education experts, teachers and families in the U.S.
" 'The Biggest Story Problem' was made with the intent to understand why American students are failing at math. It looks at the tools that have been handed to this generation of teachers, from traditional stand-and-deliver to techniques underlying even the shiniest new technology devices. It ultimately sheds light on the underlying thoughts behind our teaching tools," Laidlaw wrote in a director's statement describing the film.
Parts of the documentary explore how Laidlaw left his teaching job after "Empires" became popular. He now lives in New Mexico and has watched Imagine Education and its products take off.
In "Empires," students start their empires around 5,000 B.C. near the dawn of civilization with a population of 100. The goal is to build an empire's strength and population as much as possible by the Bronze Era. Each empire has its own military, religion, tax system, infrastructure, scientific advances and resources. Empires can exist peacefully or conquer their neighbors.
Students control how their empires grow, but every step up the civilization ladder requires math, from calculating tax revenue, when to build, and how to invest in infrastructure.
"Ko's Journey" takes kids on a similar math adventure, as students try to help a teenage girl reconnect with her family by taking her through a series of challenges that require them to use math skills.
Laidlaw notes that while the new documentary focuses on what he achieved with Imagine Education, it's intended is to send a broader message.
"I think the larger feeling is that it creates awareness of just how important it is for educators and parents to reflect on their practices, while exploring how deeply our beliefs and assumptions influence learning. The negative aspects we've created through our culture of rewards, like memorizing facts for candy bars, is part of that. But so are the inspiring hope of solutions, like pretend play, narrative and manipulative environments that can actually teach the way the brain learns," he said.
Laidlaw and Lightwood received a grant from the Gates Foundation to conduct an in-school pilot program and efficacy study of "Ko's Journey" during the 2011-12 school year that led them to also create the documentary. Among those featured in the film are Keith Devlin, executive director at Stanford University and NPR's "Math Guy"; Marilyn Burns, founder of Math Solutions; and Jukka Gustafsson, Finland's minister of education.
Lightwood is hopeful the documentary will reinvigorate educators to try new things in the classroom. Math needs to be taught in a way that is more relevant to students, she said.
"Coming from a finance background, I've watched so many people have a fear of math. It plagues us," said Lightwood, a former vice president of finance who left her job in the corporate world to found the start-up with Laidlaw. She said if educators can better connect with students and offer instruction in a way that makes them care about the subject, scores will improve.
If you go
What • Screening of the new documentary "The Biggest Story Problem: Why America's Students are Failing at Math"
Where • Fort Douglas Post Theatre, 245 Fort Douglas Blvd., University of Utah, Salt Lake City
When • 7 p.m. Thursday
Cost • Free and open to the public, although an RSVP is requested by calling Scott Laidlaw at 801-657-1035
More info • http://www.thebiggeststoryproblem.com