Innovations for Learning

Student literacy is important to Seth Weinberger, executive director of Innovations for Learning, but he thinks it should be important to everyone.

“It’s horrifying, the odds of you going to jail are just so incredible if you don’t learn to read by third grade,” he says. “We are dooming millions of kids every year by just failing to have them learn to read.”

To improve educational outcomes, Weinberger developed the TeacherMate and TutorMate programs used in classrooms across the country. TeacherMate uses a cloud-based system to allow teachers to create personalized lesson plans for kids to practice on an iPad or iPod Touch. TutorMate pairs students with tutors from major corporations and organizations to practice those lessons via Skype. Together the student and tutor can read books, sound out words and play educational games.

Why did you found Innovations for Learning?
“TeacherMate in its earliest incarnations started really close to 20 years ago,” Weinberger says. “At that point I was a lawyer downtown at a big law firm and had some clients that were small technology companies. They were doing games for kids, but the games were basically teaching kids how to shoot things out of the sky. So I thought, what if you could use that same technology to teach kids things that were a little more meaningful, like reading?

“TutorMate started more recently, about seven years ago, and that was inspired by a program that we had in my law firm at the time that was a face-to-face tutor program. We couldn’t get more than a handful of lawyers to actually participate because it just took too much time. So we thought, well what if we could do this over the Internet so that people wouldn’t have to leave their office? We might be able to get a lot more tutors involved.”

Please tell us one of your favorite success stories.

“We’ve experimented with having multi-kid games going on in the classroom, with the idea that kids could learn from each other while playing on an iPad,” Weinberg says.

“We haven’t implemented that yet, but I took a prototype into a classroom and I put this iPad down on the carpet and we invited four kids to come and play. Within two minutes, not only were those four kids playing, but there must’ve been 15 kids hovering over watching. The enthusiasm and the energy and the attention, the focus was so intense that it really gives you a sense that we are just barely scratching the surface of what can be done to really motivate kids.

“Kids have within them a huge potential of learning based on things that excite them and interest them. Technology just seems to be better for some reason than just about anything else that I’ve seen in terms of triggering that switch.”

What else do you love about your work with Innovations for Learning?

At the end of each school year, the tutors from each corporation visit the students they’ve been working with for the past year at an emotional end-of-year party to celebrate their hard work.

“These parties are the most emotional things you have ever seen for everyone involved,” he says.

“The fact is, if you talk to a kid on a regular basis every week watching them learn—and they will learn quite a bit in reading in first grade if you’re working with them—you create a very substantial attachment to that kid. So when you finally meet them and it’s the end of the year and they’re graduating first grade and they’ve achieved a lot, the tears are flowing in every direction. It’s incredible.”

Innovations for Learning by the numbers

  • 1,500 tutors across the country from 50 major corporations (including JPMorgan Chase, AT&T, General Motors, United Airlines and Morningstar) work with students for a half hour every week.
  • 4 major cities use the TeacherMate program in schools.
  • 8 major cities use the TutorMate program in schools.
  • 13-point reading gain last year in Washington D.C., where IFL has had some of the largest implementations in schools.

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