The beat fades in with space-age synth as the music video opens on an astronaut, weightless and adrift alongside stars and distant galaxies. “I’ve been first and I’ve been last,” a rapper proclaims as he opens the song.
So far, so good. But then, the next line: “Either way I keep the order with PEMDAS.”
If you were expecting standard hip hop fare, think again. You’re watching education company Flocabulary’s song about PEMDAS, the acronym for order of operations familiar to generations of math students. Or as the lyrics break it down: “P is parentheses, search for them first / Whatever is inside them, you need to do the work / E is exponents, so raise them (raise them) up / Or get down with the roots like Questlove does.”
As a lesson supplement, it gets the job done–not every memory tool inspires comments like “JAMMIN” on YouTube.
“We can’t betray the student by making corny music,” says Flocabulary cofounder and CEO Alex Rappaport. “At the same time, we can’t betray the teacher. Pleasing both is the line that we have to walk.”
Flocabulary has been successfully (and quietly) toeing that line for 10 years, putting it in a leading position as the implementation of the Common Core standards unleashes an arms race to develop content to teachers starved for high-quality curricula. The standards present teachers with a conundrum: Philosophically, they emphasize higher order critical thinking, based on analysis of “complex” texts and primary sources like Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” 1940 address to parliament. But practically, they do not prescribe specific texts, curricula, or ways of teaching–a deliberate exercise in restraint that is consistent with the model of local funding and control that governs U.S. education. “Teachers know best about what works in the classroom,” the state-led coalition behind the standards writes on its website.
Where good or expert-approved content is available, teachers have arrived in droves. The New York State Education Department launched a site packed with 40,000 lesson resources in August 2011, thanks to funds provided by Race to the Top, a federal grant program. Even officials have been surprised by the volume of interest: During a typical week, EngageNY attracts between 100,000 and 200,000 unique visitors, with roughly one in four coming from out-of-state.
“We knew early on that these standards were demanding a very new approach to content and instruction,” says Kate Gerson, a senior fellow at the Regents Research Fund who has been helping manage the site as part of her work related to educator engagement and the Common Core.
So far, teachers have downloaded 7.5 million resources from the site’s library of free lessons–3.9 million for mathematics, and 3.6 million for English. In parallel, curriculum factories like Scholastic have been churning out new offerings, many of them hastily repackaged versions of existing products that are often strong on structure and weak on imagination, a shortcoming that is contributing to teachers’ misgivings about the standards themselves.
As a result, education content companies–previously given the cold shoulder by entrepreneurs and investors with scalability concerns–are finally being offered a tenuous embrace. Over 20,000 schools use Flocabulary lessons, and now pitch nights and demo days feature startups like Fantasy Geopolitics and Hstry, both peddling new approaches to teaching social studies, that aspire to follow a similar path.
Flocabulary’s headquarters in a high-ceilinged open office with rainbow-striped carpets near the edge of DUMBO seem to reflect the company mindset that “the desire to be having fun while you’re learning is universal,” as Rappaport puts it. He sits on a sofa beside cofounder and chief product officer Blake Harrison in an alcove meeting room while their team of 20 full-time staff members, plus a resident dog, keep busy in the background. Rappaport and Harrison met as struggling musicians waiting tables at the same California restaurant and have translated that friendship into a partnership that has lasted over a decade. Like a classic hip-hop duo, they have contrasting styles and skills: Rappaport speaks with the assured deliberation of a manager, his posture slightly formal even in a chambray button-down, while Harrison, in a t-shirt and untamed mane of hair, wears his wry enthusiasm on his sleeve.
“We–society, parents–teach children using song all the time. We sing the ABCs–no one is giving their kids ABC flash cards,” Harrison says. “At that age, everyone agrees: Make the things that you’re teaching fun, put it in song, put it in story. Then around third or fourth grade, when students are really getting into music on their own, we don’t do that anymore. It becomes frivolous or childlike, and that just seems really strange to us.”
That perspective has resonated in the classrooms of educators like Florida-based Todd LaVogue. He introduced Flocabulary songs and lessons about world history to his sixth and eighth grade social studies classes (“Like a Persian,” “Gettin’ Byzzy With It”) and immediately noticed a difference. “It made it easier for them to be engaged [in the content], and ultimately to retain it.”
A Flocabulary-commissioned study backs up LaVogue’s experience, finding that a school year’s worth of exposure to Word Up, the company’s vocabulary curriculum, raised middle school students’ scores on state tests. In addition, past independent research has validated the use of rhyme as a way to increase both acquisition and retention of knowledge.
To achieve their impressive levels of engagement, Flocabulary curriculum directors develop detailed lesson outlines, and then work closely with freelance hip hop artists to write the lyrics. “You start with a learning goal, that one thing that you want students to come away with even if they hear the song maybe one time,” Harrison says. “Almost always that piece of information is going to end up in the chorus.”
Flocabulary lyricists are a special breed: rappers who can cram in a long list of learning objectives, and at the same time make the rhymes appropriate for all ages. It’s challenging, but not impossible, thanks to a core group of talented freelancers who hail from Atlanta to Phoenix and everywhere in between.
“We want the funny and the weird to be in there, but it can’t come at the expense of the educational stuff,” Harrison says. “One of the reasons we really love hip hop music is that it lends itself so well to storytelling. We want to create that narrative arc, even if we’re rhyming and teaching vocabulary words or math concepts.”
When the lyrics are set, the team makes or buys a beat, records the song, and builds out worksheets and other wraparound materials. (“I’m the business guy, I mostly worry about the boring stuff,” Rappaport says. “You were making a beat earlier today,” Harrison counters with a smile.)
Despite interest from major publishers like Houghton Mifflin, Flocabulary has yet to do more than experiment with partnership models. “We got some advice early on, to always control our own means of selling products,” Rappaport says. To date Flocabulary has avoided attaching itself to any particular hardware, instead focusing on creating a platform-agnostic online home for its valuable content.
Next up: new product features that will further align Flocabulary lessons with the Common Core standards, and specifically their emphasis on making rather than consuming.
“The person who learns the most is the person writing the song, and that’s a big part of Common Core,” Rappaport says. “A big focus for us moving forward is building the classroom technology to flip the tables and put the kid in control. Our favorite thing is when kids say, I can do that better.”