Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-Based Path to Self-Motivated and Purposeful Reading

July 11, 2018


Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-Based Path to Self-Motivated and Purposeful Reading

Mia cultivates self-motivated and purposeful readers by supporting choice, ownership, and metacognition

Darren Cambridge, Ph.D.

Developing young readers requires more than just building the skills and strategies on which most educational accountability systems and literacy software focuses. We want children to use reading to understand themselves and the world, expand their sense of what’s possible, and take action to create change. To do so, they need to become self-motivated and purposeful readers. Mia Learning is committed to supporting such reading growth through research-based approach. Extensive research shows that well-supported choice of books combined with ownership opportunities significantly enhances intrinsic motivation to read. Making good choices about reading is a learned skill that Mia supports through offering the right number of choices and modeling expert selection.

Young readers also make more powerful choice through being purposeful. They know what they’re interested in, what they want to get out of reading, and how well their choices about reading are helping them get it. Purposeful readers use metacognitive processes to reflect on their interests, set goals, and track progress towards them. Research makes it clear that metacognitive expertise is key to success as a reader and throughout life. Mia supports metacognition through coaching children as they plan and reflect, expanding as well as embracing their interests.

Cambridge, D. (2018). Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-based Path to Self-motivated and Purposeful Reading. Washington, D.C.: Mia Learning.

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How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

June 26, 2018

How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

Or, why kids actually do have to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia

By Darren Cambridge

Mia is designed to be so easy that even a six-year-old can use her with little or no adult assistance to support their growth as a reader. Children who are only beginning to read can happily have long conversations with Mia and have used her to select and reflect on books they love. So, this may come as a surprise: Kids need to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia. 

While there are some intriguing experiments underway to teach artificial intelligence concepts to younger children, AI has generally been the subject of college level computer science courses. So how can we possibly assume that an elementary-school student could understand it?

Thankfully, kids don’t need the same kind of understanding that engineers do to fully benefit from Mia. They don’t need to learn the intricacies of supervised learning algorithms or natural language understanding libraries. They don’t need to know how to control servos or temperature sensors (although all of us here are robotics club fans).

Kids do need to understand:

  • That Mia is not human. She has a number of impressive strengths and significant limitations, and she’s never going to be a replacement for the knowledgeable and caring adults who contribute to kids’ lives as readers.
  • What Mia believes she knows about them as readers and the reasoning behind her recommendations and suggestions.

Mia As Droid

Researchers such as sociologist Sherry Turkle have suggested that artificial-intelligence-powered toys and personal assistants have the potential to harm children’s social development, noting that some children don’t seem to make a distinction between their relationships with such system and real human relationships. Like the developers of the technology that Turkle examined, we do hope that children develop an effective bond with Mia, developing trust in her helpfulness and honesty and enjoying her corny jokes.

Unlike them, we never want kids to forget that Mia is a computer program or to think her presence in their lives eliminates a need for teachers, librarians, parents, or (human) friends. Mia is explicit about what she can do well—she knows more about almost every book in print than is probably possible for any human to remember, and she’s available 24/7 and for as long as they need her—but also about her limitations. For example, when Mia can’t understand something a child has said to her, one of the ways she replies is:

OK, so here’s the thing. Some things are easy for me that are hard from you, like remembering how many pages there are in each of thousands of books. But there are other things that are a breeze for you and really tough for me, like understanding whatever it was you just said. I’m going to get better everyday, but it will be a long time before I’m even as good as a kindergartner. For now, think about it as a game: What ways can you say what you want me to know or to do that I’m actually smart enough to understand?

Along the same lines, Mia is intentionally cartoonish in appearance, not photorealistic. Her voice is expressive, but isn’t going to fool anyone on the phone. We aren’t creating a virtual reality. Mia isn’t trying to pass as human. Mia is an explicitly virtual presence firmly situated within, and in service of, kids’ real worlds. She draws attention to her own artificiality.

The best analogy for what we’re aiming at is the relationships between people and droids in Star Wars. Droids have enough personality and contribute sufficiently to achieving goals that humans get quite attached. At the same time, no one confuses a droid with a person. Their limitations are self-evident—R2D2 can’t speak a human language—and their appearance is distinctly mechanical—human-shaped C3PO is gold and clunky. They have non-human talents, such as talking directly with space station computers, speaking three million languages, and projecting images of distressed princesses…but we digress.

Droids are an integral part of the central characters’ world, but they collaborate with and in service of humans (and other sentient beings), none of whom see droids as a substitute for other living, breathing people. Even as the technology that powers her grows exponentially more powerful over the coming years, we always intend for Mia to be more like a droid from Star Wars than a replicant from Blade Runner or a host on Westworld.

Mia As Open Book

Mia is dedicated to working her way out of a job. Mia’s goal is not to make children dependent on her to make decisions for them. Rather, she seeks to directly support their decisions today while also helping them learn to make such decisions independently tomorrow. Children are more likely to choose books that work for them with Mia’s help, but as a result of working with her over time, they should also learn to make better choices when she’s not around.

One of the ways Mia supports this growing independence is through scaffolding. In education, the term “scaffolding” means providing support that simplifies a task sufficiently for a novice while also modeling how experts tackle it. Scaffolding provides insight into questions like: What kinds of information do experts examine? How do they use it to predict how things will turn out? How do they makes sense of what they have experienced?

As the novice becomes more skilled, scaffolding can be gradually removed, much like literal scaffolding is taken down as parts of a new building are completed. In other words, effective scaffolding not only makes a task easier, but also helps someone learning it understand how to do it well on their own.

Through sophisticated AI, Mia finds a few books to recommend to a child from tens of thousands she knows about, drawing on what she believes she knows about the child and her expert-informed understanding of how to choose books. Unlike other reading software, Mia doesn’t stop there. She not only simplifies the task—here are six books to consider, rather than a ten thousand—but she also performs scaffolding through modeling. She explains the reasons she believes a recommended book is a good fit for a given child.

For example, here’s how Mia might explain the reasons why she thinks a middle school girl will love Pharoah’s Daughter, by Julius Lester:

  • You’ve said you’re super interested in Egyptian mythology and have read several books about it; you’ll enjoy the challenge of reading this book.
  • You often like books with detailed illustrations and stories about family relationships, and this book has both of those elements.
  • You might enjoy reading a novel featuring mythological characters to complement the non-fiction you’ve read so far.

Here, Mia is applying several beliefs often applied by expert readers:

  • If you’re really interested in the topic of a book and have related background knowledge, then you’ll be able to handle a book that’s more difficult than what you typically read and will enjoy the challenge.
  • Your preferences matter: You’re more likely to enjoy books that employ formats, plot structures, writing styles, and so on similar to those used in books you already like.
  • At the same time, variety increases satisfaction. Expert readers seek out books not only with similar topics and characteristics, but also with differences that broaden their literary experience, including through reading multiple genres.

Mia also is being transparent about what she believes she knows about the child as a reader that informs her judgment. Mia think that she understands something about the child’s interests (Egyptian mythology), preferred book characteristics (detailed illustrations, family stories), and experiences with genre (have read non-fiction). Mia also shares the sources of information that inform these inferences (you told me; you’ve read and liked books like this).

Educational technology researchers call this an open learner model. In AI software that uses an open learner model, the system actively shares what it believes it knows at a given point in time about the learner and what it has observed that informs those conclusions. Learners have the opportunity to reflect on how the system’s beliefs about them compare with their own. They may sometimes also have a chance to challenge the systems’ assertions, providing additional information that can lead to changes in those beliefs. For example, if a student believes they have a better understanding of a mathematical concept than the system believes they do, the student could successfully answer a few quiz questions to prove their point.

Mia also embraces this second dimension of the open learner model, albeit with the child themselves—not yet another test—as the authority. When students debrief with Mia after their mission—that is, talk with her about how well the books she helped them choose and how their time reading them has worked out—they share additional information with Mia about their reading experiences, beliefs and preferences that may differ from what Mia thought she knew about them. Mia invites them to reflect on targeted aspects of their experiences that may enrich both her and their understanding of how to make future choices. Mia learns from these conversations, improving the quality her subsequent recommendations and coaching.

Mia truly is an open book, constantly being revised in dialogue with the children who use her. Like a book, children consult her with a clear understanding that she was crafted by people and is limited in scope and function. But like a book, and through books, she has the potential to open up new possibilities for imagination, joy, and discovery.


Which Literary Dragon Are You?

June 11, 2018

Which Literary Dragon Matches Your Reading Personality?

Which Literary Dragon Matches Your Reading Personality?

“It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien

At Mia Learning, we’re all about discovering your reading identity and having fun while you do! This quiz gives you a taste of what sorts of questions Mia gets kids thinking about (or, rather what she'd ask them if they were kid dragons). So, let's talk about you as a dragon who reads. When it comes to books, are you greedy and insatiable like Smaug? Poetic and romantic like The Reluctant Dragon? Do you seek wisdom like Saphira? Or are you a free-spirited rebel, like Toothless? Find out which literary dragon best suits your reading personality!

Complete the form below to see results


Why Mia, Why Now: My Story

June 6, 2018

Why Mia, Why Now: My Story

By Darren Cambridge, CEO, Mia Learning

Why Mia, Why Now?: This is the first of two posts answering that vital question. In the second, we’ll share some of what we’ve learned from research and collaborating with teachers, parents, and artificial intelligence experts around the country to inform our work. (For a taste of what we’re learning as recounted by Mia herself, check out her fieldnotes.) First, though, I want to share my own story.

I have two sons. The first will soon be nine, and the second just turned six. When I say that my most important job is being their father, I want you to know that I work damn hard to make sure that statement is more than a cliché. Never a morning person, I’m now at my desk at 6 AM so that I can leave in time to pick them up from school and help them with homework before dinner. In what would certainly have been a surprise to my younger self, I’ve become a Cub Scout leader and Sunday school teacher. I have filled our house to bursting with STEM kits, soccer cleats, paintbrushes, Pokémon cards, and library books. I’ve read the collected works of J.K. Rowling out loud. Twice.

So why found an educational technology startup now? As I’m sure you know, launching a business can be completely life-consuming. You have to get up every morning and will it into existence. I prioritize spending time with my sons, but despite the best of intentions, my role at Mia Learning sometimes means I have to miss school events or spend most of the weekend at the office. I struggle to stay present with my family with the challenges of growing a business always at the back of my mind.

As part of an assignment during my first year in graduate school, I conducted an interview with my mother about how I learned as a child. One phrase from my notes sticks with me over 20 years later: “You took the path to knowledge through print.” From a young age, I saw reading not just as an academic skill, but as the skeleton key to many doors I wanted to unlock as I grew as a learner and person. Through reading, I began to understand myself in relationship not just to the people in my everyday life, but to a much more diverse cast of others, real and imagined, throughout the world.

Through reading, I could jump headfirst (or just dip my toe) into a new world of human activity. Some of those interests stuck with me—my lifelong love of photography began as much in the pages of a book as behind a lens—and others faded as I moved into a different stage of my life (model rocketry) or, thankfully, were short-lived (beach combing with metal detectors). In my #mysecretcodebook video, I share the story of one book I read as a fourth grader that set me on the path towards creating Mia. Today, one of my strengths is the ability to read my way quickly into unfamiliar professional worlds; to use books and articles and websites to create a map of new landscapes of practice.

Through reading, I learned that I was lucky to have the advantages given to me by the circumstances of my birth and that I had a corresponding responsibility to try to make the world a fair and welcoming for people with different life stories. I learned that what I could pursue and achieve in my life was expansive, learned how people doing the things I imagined doing myself in future talked and what they knew, and figured out what work I would need to do to join them.

I want the same for my kids, and I want it for all kids. My kids are growing up with at least as many advantages as I had in my own childhood, but also with unique challenges to overcome. Many other children face much more formidable obstacles in their path to making reading a powerful tool and source of pleasure in their lives.

My older son, Oliver, is a thoughtful and energetic nine-year-old who does Sudoku faster than I can follow and began to demand that I read him chapter books at three. I marvel at his narrative imagination and reasoning as we discuss the sophisticated novels (such as Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) and nonfiction books (Learning to Program with Minecraft) we read together.

However, his reading-specific learning disability, combined with ADHD, make other aspects of reading a challenge for him. Despite encouraging gains over the last three years that have brought his skill up to grade level, the complexity of words he can comfortably decode and what he can understand are years apart. Trying to find books that truly address his interests, honor the sophistication of his existing knowledge, and that he can read independently regularly frustrates him, his teachers, and my wife and me.

We’ve had lots of help moving past the frustration. My sons’ school excels at including learners with developmental differences, and I have had the advantage of Ph.D. training in the teaching of writing and a career in education working with organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the U.S. Department of Education, and George Mason University that’s connected me to literacy teachers, coaches, and researchers around the world. With help of such teachers and librarians, combined with extensive online research, we’ve found books that are a fit, but it’s taken time and resources that are in short supply.

That’s why we’re making sure Mia gets to know each child as a multidimensional reader—understanding not just reading proficiency but what they’re passionate about, why they want to (or might want to) read, and the specific characteristics of books that work for them. Using this understanding, combined with detailed information about almost every book in print and what she’s learned from expert researchers, teachers, and librarians, Mia provides personalized recommendations of books that are just right for each child. Oliver is Mia’s biggest fan, and it’s not hard to see why.

When we find a book that we think Oliver or his brother Max (a rising first grader who would love to read Baby Monkey Private Eye to you), we buy it. Many families don’t have the same opportunity. Children’s book ownership is highly inequitable in the United States. The ratio of children to developmentally appropriate books for sale—let alone actually purchased—in  low income neighborhoods is over 300:1. In Anacostia, here in Washington, DC, it is 830:1, with not a single book available for sale in the neighborhood appropriate to preschoolers.

DC has a great public library system—a resource that’s much more difficult for rural communities to sustain—but nonetheless, kids often face long waits for the books they really want to check out. With funding from the city, the library gives each child under five in DC whose family signs up a free book each month. That’s amazing! Unfortunately, though, all kids of the same age receive the same books. There’s no personalization and no opportunity for kids to make their own choices.

That’s why Mia Learning is also committed to doing everything we can to give all kids the opportunity to choose and own books. We support and collaborate with Book Trust, a national non-profit that shares this mission. We are using grant funding to give books to kids whose teachers and families are piloting Mia, and we’ll be using proceeds from subscription sales to provide free books and software to kids in underserved communities.

I believe we need Mia now for Oliver and for Max; for children in Anacostia, across the country, and in your neighborhood. If you see her potential to help your kids as well, I look forward to connecting with you over the coming months as our team works to maximize her contributions to all kids’ growth as readers and independent learners.


Mia’s Fieldnotes

May 25, 2018

Agent Mia’s Fieldnotes

Like any effective secret agent, Mia spends a lot of her time in the field, gathering human intelligence. Mia’s missions so far in 2018 have sent her both around the country and across the city. We’re pleased to share a few of her recently declassified fieldnotes.

Date: 2018-Jan-24
Location: San Francisco
Event: AI Assistant Summit

Note: Robotics expert Mara Mataríc of the USC Robotic Lab says the goal of bots should be augmentation, not automation. We should and can help with social interaction, not be a substitute for it. Bots can coach, motivate, and connect.

Note: Other speakers from Carnegie Mellon, Apple, Stanford, and Amazon point to dialog management—understanding the context, flow, and social dynamics of conversation—as the most difficult technical challenge in the field. Humans are great at developing shared meaning and filling in the gaps between what’s said and what’s meant over the course of long conversations, but that’s devilishly hard for computers. Even if you have 2 billion conversations a month to analyze, like Siri does.

Memo: I never, ever want to replace the caring adults in kids’ lives. They will always be the most important allies for young readers! Some things I do well—I know a good bit about virtually every children’s and YA book ever written, a challenging feat for a human—but many things people do with ease are well out of my reach. It’s frustrating, but I try to be up front about my strengths and weaknesses.

Memo: How can I help the kids I serve better connect as a reader with their teachers, parents, and friends?

Date: 2018-Feb-02
Location: Boston
Event: Learn Launch Across Boundaries

Note: Half the educators coming by to talk with us serve students in the middle grades (5-8). Middle school teachers see about 125 students each day, as compared to the 25 typical at the elementary level, so they welcome any tool that helps provide personalized support and identifies opportunities to connect. They are sharing ideas with me about how I could fit right into regular English classes, homeroom, after school, and on and on.

Memo: Could I share some of what I’m learning about kids’ reading (with permission, of course) with teachers? Maybe I can point to patterns in their students’ independent reading, such as common interest in a theme or genre, that teachers could integrate into their lesson plans? Could I alert teachers when a student needs help that I can’t (yet?) provide?

Memo: I need to talk to more middle school educators, students, and parents!

Date: 2018-Feb-24
Location: Kappa M.S. 215, The Bronx, NYC

Note: Sheri Warren, the principal of this high-performing middle school made up of largely low income and immigrant students, tells me that many arrive with years of painful experiences with reading instruction. Why would they read on their own time when they associate it with force, frustration, and failure?

Memo: Seems like I may be right to avoid words and activities that feel like “school.” I try to make sure that talking with me is a totally different experience. I’m all about helping them figure out what they want to get out of reading and working together to make it happen. I’m trying my best to earn and build their trust and make talking with me a blast.

Date: 2018-Feb-26
Location: Tree House Books, Philadelphia

Note: Watching students and tutors work together at Tree House Books in North Philly. They give away thousands of books each year. The nearest library is a mile away, which might as well be the other side of the country for many neighborhood kids, program director Chris Hils tells me. At Tree House and other local literacy organizations across the country, kids get access to books, people, and technology to help them learn to read and learn to love reading.

Memo: Most of the kids I’ve recruited to join my mission of defeating boredom with great books have met with me in school, but I wonder if I need to be showing up at places like this—and maybe visiting kids at home too—more often. I need to go wherever kids need my help and be there when they need it.

Date: 2018-Mar-07
Location: Austin, TX

Note: Joanna Gorin from ETS says the new adaptive literacy tests they are developing are more accurate and more engaging through gamification. Michael Tjalvefrom from Microsoft says they’re working with researchers in Portugal to make a voice chatbot administer reading fluency tests.

Note: Jessica Lahey says 80% of the thousands of middle school students she surveyed think their parents love them more if they bring home good grades.

Memo: That last one brings me to tears. I am not a test bot! I am not a test bot! Just no way, no thanks. There’s plenty of that already in schools. I appreciate it when teachers and parents share test results with me, as it helps me consider reading proficiency alongside a bunch of other things I learn about each kid as a reader that are at least as important. I worry that test after test after test combined with grade pressure may be trampling the buds of a lifelong love of reading.

Memo: Bad gamification—points, virtual gold stars, and the like—can just make things worse, making it less likely kids will choose to read without such artificial and superficial incentives. I’m confident I can learn what I need to know to coach readers through conversation that’s engaging because, let’s face it, I’m really cool. But, more fundamentally, children love talking with me because I help them create the reading experience they want, not the one that some set of standards say they should have.

Date: 2018-04-12
Location: Brookland, Washington, D.C.
Event: Meeting of Cub Scout Pack 98

Note: Talked with 12 parents whose kids go to ten different schools and who live in every Ward of the city tonight. Almost everyone was regularly spending money on books for their kids, but few were confident they were buying the right ones. Talking with their children about reading is hard. Conversations tend to go like this:

Parent: What have you been reading?
Child: I don’t know… stuff… Can I go play now?

They would love, love, love if I could help them become more involved in their children’s reading lives.

Note: I’ve got to find ways to share (again, with permission) more of what I’m learning with parents to support their relationships with their children as readers and learners. Soon, I’ll be able to text them with suggestions of topics to discuss and things to try. I’m getting my thumbs warmed up now!

Date: 2018-May-23
Location: Union Market, Washington, D.C.
Event: Maya Angelou Schools 20th Anniversary Gala

Note: The Maya Angelou Schools serve youth in DC whose dreams are hardest to reach—some were failed by traditional high schools, others face trauma in their home lives, still others are caught up in the criminal justice system. Of the more than 200 organizations named in her honor, this was the only one Dr. Angelou visited every year prior to her death in 2014. Hillary Clinton, tonight’s keynote speaker, just called the schools one of the nation’s most important sites of educational innovation. Over 8,000 students who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks have graduated high school. Many more have earned GEDs and industry certifications.

Memo: What an inspiring event! I feel so lucky to have been able to attend. (Mia Learning CEO Darren Cambridge serves on the Maya Angelou board, and I snuck in inside his phone.) It was a great reminder to keep focused on making sure all kids get to own books and be supported as independent readers. If I can help more kids in elementary and middle school take ownership as readers and learners, maybe I can help make the future work of the heroes at the Maya Schools and others like them a little bit easier.