Building a movement: what startups can learn from an Irish math challenge

Three design principles for scale from The O’Sullivan Foundation’s work with the Khan Academy

We at SOSV are passionate about giving back (“Should giving back be a key marker of a company’s success?”). Whether engineering and mapping for war-torn Iraq with Jumpstart, teaching over 40,000 kids coding at one of 1350 CoderDojos worldwide, or engaging teachers and students in mathematics with Khan Academy, our charitable projects are constantly seeking out innovative and ‘disruptive’ initiatives that can be scaled globally.

Does this last bit sound familiar?

It should — it’s the same approach that SOSV brings to our accelerator programmes and startup investments.

One of the key initiatives of the O’Sullivan Foundation over the last couple of years has been Learnstorm (formerly the MATHletes Challenge) , a pioneering maths tournament that originated in Ireland using Khan Academy. Motivated by weekly leaderboards, provincial rivalries, and pride of school and county, 3,000 11–15 year old students from 240 schools across Ireland logged nearly half a million minutes on Khan Academy in the first 2 months of the Challenge. That grew to over 13,000 students year 2, and over 30,000 Irish students and 250,000 across the US in year three. It was the first Challenge of its kind run anywhere in the world, and the engagement was remarkable.

Where it all began: The Khan Academy

It all began in 2011, when the O’Sullivan Foundation granted $5 million to Khan Academy, the world leader in free online math learning. The organization, which began as a series of youtube videos by hedge fund manager Salman Khan for his cousins, has transformed into a comprehensive learning platform of videos, exercises and data-driven coaching interface for teachers and parents. Khan Academy gained fame from Sal’s 2011 Ted talk “Let’s use video to reinvent education” and is now a leader in growth mindset and blended learning practice.

With support from names like Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the O’Sullivan Foundation, Khan Academy is now a household name (and innovative model) in education technology circles. And Khan Academy is free — which has vast implications for education disparities worldwide.

Khan Academy had a ‘disruptive’ idea. Learnstorm/MATHletes Challenge scaled that idea.

Scaling nationally & globally

With support from the Department of Education and National Education Centres in Ireland, the MATHletes Challenge was one of several “experiments” to build awareness of Khan Academy in Ireland and transform how the country learns, teaches, and performs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. If those experiments worked, and were taken to scale, not only could Ireland become the first country to adopt Khan Academy nationally (following California school districts and the state of Idaho), but the Challenge could become a model for how Khan Academy can quickly spread its participation around the world.

Like any startup, the early days of MATHletes saw us failing and adapting every day. We didn’t have have it completely right, but clearly something was working: students are engaged and confident in maths class. We have replaced fear of maths with fun.

MATHletes grew over three years to impact a quarter of a million students globally, and we worked to turn the program over to Khan Academy’s internal team, where it has has evolved into Learnstorm, a free, six-week challenge that helps US students build the skills and mindsets to start the school year strong.

Three design principles

Looking back, what were the key lessons in those first years that helped us achieve fit and scale. And what does the MATHletes Challenge story mean for you, a startup or investor?

I put much of the success down to three key key design decisions:

1. Build the Platform or App?

Build on something that works. Khan Academy works — the research says so, teachers say so, and students say so. The MATHletes Challenge was simply a new application that is built on the Khan Academy platform/engine.

There are endless programmes and charities out there doing good work. Rather than reinvent the wheel and create a new philanthropic programme for your company, why not think about a new application, process, or interface that will help an organisation that already has it right.

Build the app that transforms engagement with an existing learning platform that you believe in.

2. Local or global?

Awhile back, the term ‘glocal’ came into fad in social entrepreneurship circles: make local changes that have global impact. Pretty simple.

MATHletes was a local application of Khan Academy’s global platform — the inter-county rivalry, fed by Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) model, is a uniquely Irish motivator. I guarantee you would not get the same county pride if you pitted Yolo County in California’s central valley against its neighboring Solano County just down I-80. Counties just don’t hold the same local weight as they do in Ireland.

If you are looking to scale a good idea, keep it simple, local and adaptable.

CoderDojo is another a prime example — now serving over 40,000 in 70 countries, Dojos are found in a wide range of locations (company HQs, community centres, schools) and are championed by whoever has passion for the cause (industry reps, parents, young people). Focus locally to scale globally.

3. Push or Pull?

Big systems are hard to change. As Sean said at a recent US embassy conference on EdTech:

“it’s difficult to push a change through the educational system. It’s far easier to have the system pull the change through the system.”

Find champions who will introduce an idea into the system, and if it is a good idea — if it is a worthy product — it will do the “pulling” for you. Our teachers in Ireland were our biggest advocates, followed closely by parents and importantly, students themselves.

Give it a go.

Many voluntary initiatives fail, just like startups. Trust me, kids are the first ones to tell you if something is ‘uncool’. But you will learn something in the process, and who knows? Maybe the next iteration will change the world. Or at least it will change how one kid looks at geometry.

And that might be enough.

Originally published at on April 15, 2014.