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GLEE Progress

GLEE Update 2016-01-10: A Most Exciting Global Learning XPRIZE Project

Come join us.  Here’s why.

An extraordinary group of educators, system scientists, computer scientists, creative types, subject specialists, and others have been working quietly together over the past decade to transform K-12 education worldwide, to help children become whole, happy, successful adults.  Our host organization is StarShine Academy International Schools (“StarShine”) in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.  StarShine has run a learning laboratory (a K-12 public charter school) for over 13 years, and works with affiliated schools in Africa, Mexico, and the U.S.  Although a non-religious organization, StarShine has recently been participating in high-level meetings with the Vatican, one purpose of which is to extend StarShine’s philosophy and methods to the Boys and Girls Town Schools of Italy and worldwide.

StarShine schools are based on a philosophy of purpose-seeking and non-coercion, combined with a shared desire to make the world more peaceful and more prosperous, starting locally and extending globally.  Besides the usual academic subjects, StarShine’s curriculum includes gardening, art, music, drama, and peacemaking. Although essentially “high-touch,” StarShine’s learning process incorporates “high-tech” learning technology in order to ensure efficiency and affordability.

StarShine schools have already transformed the lives of many children (and adults!), but we are always looking for opportunities to offer our philosophy, methods, and curriculum to more and more children. For years, we have been designing and prototyping software to help us achieve our goal of helping our children achieve their goals.  The center of this work is a tool called the Learning Trajectory Navigator, which will help students identify and elaborate their long term goals, and then create detailed short- and intermediate-term plans to achieve those goals.  We also search continually for the best ways to learn, whether mediated by human interaction, technology, or a combination.

The Global Learning XPRIZE was just the challenge we needed to kick our work into high gear. Although Swahili is a stretch for us, the XPRIZE goals are consistent with our goals for creating better learning for all kids.  We believe there is a huge opportunity to leverage technology to improve learning for children worldwide, helping millions to become literate in both language and mathematics.

Since the Global Learning XPRIZE announcement we at StarShine have been laying the foundation for a competitive XPRIZE entry. Although we have developed some prototypes (which we have already used with students at StarShine), our focus has been on getting certain fundamentals in place so that we can develop the “right” software.  These fundamentals include:

  1. A systems approach, whereby we work to understand and evolve the sociotechnical systems in which the technology will be developed and into which our technology solution will be inserted, so that our users will receive that maximum benefit from our solution.
  2. Systems thinking, whereby we introduce students to concepts and terminology for understanding, decomposing, building, and operating systems at all scales.
  3. StarShine Guiding Principles, through which we ensure that our entry is consistent with developing the whole child.
  4. “Black swans of learning,” methods of learning that are so productive that they defy belief until seen in successful operation.
  5. A combination of prototyping and classroom testing, through which we obtain feedback about what works and what doesn’t.
  6. The Racket programming language, which we believe has the power to complete the systems infrastructure and the apps that we have in mind for our XPRIZE entry.


Systems Approach

To understand and evolve the relevant systems, we have created four work streams, with the following goals:

  1. Evolve a GLEE Community of Purposeful Practice: Although we need additional people, especially software developers, we have a core team of educators, systems scientists, computer scientists, and — as test subjects — young children to move the project forward.
  2. Evolve the Learning Environment Effectiveness Model: We have carried out a formal process to identify the intended effects of our solution, to prioritize them, and to make explicit their causal and temporal dependencies.
  3. Evolve the Learning Engine: The purposes of the Learning Engine are to provide an execution environment for learning apps and to collect and interpret data that is generated while the student is using apps.
  4. Evolve the Learning Engine Apps: In preparation for developing production apps, we are creating and adapting theories of learning in each the areas of systems, reading, math, and writing, and we are exploring the app space in each of these areas through prototyping.


Systems Thinking

Not only are we taking a systems approach in developing our XPRIZE solution, but we are also introducing our young students to systems thinking as a prerequisite and complement to their work on reading, writing, and math.  We have found that systems thinking, presented in an appropriate manner to very young children, can accelerate their progress in the other subjects.  For example, these four different assertions — critical to systems thinking — seem to resonate even with kindergarteners:

  1. Everything is different.
  2. Everything has parts.
  3. Everything is related (or not).
  4. Everything depends on how you look at it.

Understanding these notions — and their generality — helps kids understand things as diverse as the tiny sounds (phonemes) that make up words and the numbers that make up fractions.


StarShine Guiding Principles

The operation and evolution of StarShine Academy has been driven by StarShine’s Fifteen Guiding Principles.  Though still imperfect and subject to evolution, they serve to differentiate StarShine from traditional learning environments, and they set the tone of thought and action among learners and learning leaders at StarShine. Some of our principles specify subjects and content (e.g., art, music, and gardening) that we believe are necessary to educate the whole child. Some speak to the world view we strive to encourage at StarShine.  And others speak to the attitudes we want to encourage in StarShine learning leaders and learners.

For example, Starshine Principle #10: Co-learning demonstrates that every person is a teacher and every teacher is a student.  This principle codifies two beliefs.  First, we believe that every learning leader must be continuously learning.  Second, we believe that learning is often accelerated through co-learning, when two learners work through something together. In our XPRIZE work, we are considering how we can facilitate the development of learning leaders as well as learners, and we are considering how we can encourage co-learning between and among children.


Multiple Technology Foundations

The GLEE Learning Platform provides powerful tools to support software for learning and assessment. Our Racket-based approach — and excellent support from the Racket community — multiplies our software productivity.

An evolving system of learning-to-learn tools based on systems thinking, concept maps, and experience reflection — and co-learning.

GLEE provides an integrated and harmonized system of courseware across academic and life skills learning,  Inspired by the XPRIZE challenge, we have new prototype apps for early reading and early math, both of which incorporate systems thinking.  It’s fascinating to see how basic systems thinking has propelled children’s progress in math (notably fractions), reading, and composing stories.

GLEE is an early adopter of development technology to support error-free systems.


Black Swans of Learning

Years before the announcement of the Global Learning XPRIZE, we became aware of  astonishing examples of effective learning methods. The first was a method of language learning through which a person could learn a new language in three to five days.  Though its effectiveness has been demonstrated through one-to-one instruction in a for-profit language school, in classrooms in an urban school district, and in recorded form on tape and CD, the method has still failed to achieve widespread adoption in schools or colleges.  This method was subsequently adapted to a completely different subject — high school mathematics — reportedly with similar success. The second example was a method of learning elementary mathematics.  Developed by a math tutor who had himself struggled with math as a child, the method — though still little known — has demonstrated success with tens of thousands of students.

Since we began our XPRIZE quest, we have learned of three additional examples. The American inventor of the very successful language method mentioned above is now deceased, but his mantle has been taken up by a young Greek who has further improved on the method.  Two American innovators have separately created versions of a new method of teaching reading which has already demonstrated success with thousands of students.  Finally, another pair of American innovators have created a new method of teaching systems thinking that has proven effective for kids in kindergarten as well as CEOs.

Knowing about all these methods, we have adopted the systems thinking method, the reading method, and the early math method as the curriculum core of our XPRIZE submission.  Although we haven’t mentioned writing here, we see systems thinking as the first stage of our writing curriculum, with actual composition to follow.


Racket Programming Language

As we began the XPRIZE process, we had unconventional ideas about implementation.  Most of the discussions we saw were about HTML5. Javascript, and Python. After some exploration, we gravitated to Racket, a variant of the Scheme dialect of Lisp that has been described as the “second-best programming language” (but only because “the best programming language hasn’t been invented yet”).  Racket is a powerful, typed language that comes “with batteries”.  When the developers say “with batteries,” they apparently mean all kinds of batteries — flashlight batteries, camera batteries, laptop batteries, maybe even car batteries — because Racket comes with powerful built-in software useful for building systems, games, documents, even presentations.  Racket also comes with all source code and the flexible LGPL user license.  All of this capability is incorporated in an industrial-strength implementation with a very strong community providing quick answers to questions.

Racket is the foundation for all the prototypes we have developed so far, in reading, math, and systems thinking.  Racket runs on OS X, Windows, Linux, but not yet on Android.  We’re working on a crowdfunding campaign to support an Android port.


Prototyping and Classroom Testing

Having a K-12 school at the ready has been a powerful accelerator for our work.  Starting with systems thinking and reading, we have been testing and refining both methods and prototype software.  Both of our reading gurus have visited the campus and are in regular telephone and email contact, giving advice on methods, and feedback on our software prototypes.  Our reading prototype, with a systems thinking introduction, currently has nearly 1500 screens introducing students to the sounds of the language, how to blend them together, how to form words, and how to translate between phonemes and the letters of the language.  Although not yet integrated into the prototype, a few games have been developed to help keep the learning fun while simultaneously assessing reading skills and progress.


Conclusion and Invitation

The StarShine GLEE project includes a remarkable community of contributors and collaborators, a systems approach, systems thinking, guiding principles to address the whole child, black swans of learning, multiple powerful foundational technologies, and a remarkable software development environment.  Perhaps you’ll agree with our conclusion that GLEE is a most exciting Global Learning XPRIZE Project.

Whether you’re interested in helping children worldwide become whole, successful, happy adults, and facilitating literacy and learning worldwide, or you’re mainly interested in working on some really cool software, then we invite you to learn more about the StarShine GLEE project and consider collaborating with us.


Byron Davies, Ph.D.

Email:   Phone: 480-276-4285

Chief Learner and Director of K-12 Innovation

StarShine Academy International Schools and




GLEE Progress 2015-05-26

StarShine Planet’s XPRIZE project, known as the Global Learning Environment & Experience, or GLEE for short, has been in active startup mode in recent weeks. Our first accomplishment was to complete our registration to officially become an Global Learning XPRIZE team.  We submitted our registration well before the April 30 deadline, and we were notified that we were good to go. The latest word is that we are one of 188 teams competing and collaborating to achieve the XPRIZE goals.

To remind you, the long-term goal of the Global Learning XPRIZE is to end illiteracy, world-wide.  As a step toward that goal, the XPRIZE organization created a $15M purse to stimulate and reward the development of the tablet-based software tool that best improves student performance in reading, writing, and math over the course of an 18-month field test in sub-Saharan Africa.  The target population is children 7 to 10 years old, and the field tests will be conducted by five finalist teams, with each team being assigned approximately 600 students.  The finalists will be selected by judges on the basis of learning potential, design quality, and implementation quality.  The XPRIZE winner will be selected based on student performance improvement, weighted 60% to reading, 10% to writing, and 30% to math.

While completing our registration, we also began fundraising, including a public crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo.  Although we didn’t reach our stretch goal, we did receive a total of about $25,000, including IndieGoGo and other contributions.

At the same time, a GLEE design team of ten dedicated individuals has been stepping through a structured design process led by Jack Ring. Jack is a Fellow of the International Council on Systems Engineering with decades of experience designing, implementing, and radically improving systems ranging from satellite launch systems and e-commerce to high-performance automobile racing engines.  Under his guidance, the team went through a brainstorming process to identify desired and undesired outcomes of the project across a comprehensive set of stakeholders, and then prioritized the outcomes to determine the top 27 effects we envision our system contributing to its users and other stakeholders.

Following that, we began accumulating a collection of system “vignettes”, illustrating how we think the system we develop will be used by young students day by day.  These vignettes will illustrate how the students initially become familiar and competent with using the tablet hardware and software, and what the students will see as they progress through a tablet-based curriculum focused reading, writing, arithmetic—and StarShine.

Meanwhile we are vigorously recruiting sources of excellent ideas and tools that expedite the pace and scope of learning, and sources of information technology and systems for hosting these assets on the Android platform. We will have much more to say about that soon.

Going forward, our plan is to select and in a few cases develop outstanding software systems for reading, writing and numeracy along with systems that advance the StarShine Planet objective of excellence in mind, body, spirit, health, wealth and peace-making. Unlike some of the other XPRIZE teams, we’re not furiously coding. We’re creating and accumulating powerful ideas on which to base code and around which to build content. Time and resources are scarce, so for now we need to maximize leverage, not lines of code.


Byron Davies, Ph.D.
StarShine Planet


GLEEful greetings, again! 

In my last report about the StarShine Global Learning Environment & Experience (GLEE), I mentioned that we had completed our official registration with the XPRIZE organization. I related that we had made some progress on the design of our solution, including analyzing desired effects, describing ways that kids will interact and learn with the tablet, and researching ideas and tools from across the technology and learning communities. I also described our overall, but still preliminary, plan to select and develop outstanding apps for reading, writing, and arithmetic while still addressing StarShine’s holistic approach to learning. This week I’ll bring you up to date on activities at XPRIZE Central, progress in the GLEE Design team, and plans for learning Swahili(!). I also want to say something about the Phoenix XPRIZE Think Tank http:/, but I’ll leave it till next week. 

Besides some administrative activities, the main event at XPRIZE was the release this week of the list of the 198 teams that are competing to win the Global Learning XPRIZE. If you go to, you will see a map showing the distribution of teams across the globe. Below that you will see the list of teams, their locations, and in many cases their websites. I spent many hours on Monday poring through this list to see who our competitors were and what they were revealing about their plans. I only looked at the 135 who professed to have websites. 

Among them there were: 

  • Companies that already have educational apps, either Android apps, or iOS/web/desktop apps that could possibly be turned into Android apps.
  • Companies that have software platforms or plug-ins that might be useful for developing educational apps or content
  • Companies that have educational materials that they would like to turn into apps
  • Companies that seemed to have little to do with education or edtech (e.g., a financial services company, a home security company, youth and adult job training companies)
  • Companies that produce educational video games
  • Companies that produce educational technology for adults
  • Companies that build websites
  • Teams of people (2 to 10) who have gathered together specifically to work on the XPRIZE program
  • Companies who build administrative software for schools and districts
  • Companies who specialize in media for marketing campaigns
  • Universities and schools that have created teams to compete for the XPRIZE
  • Companies that produce e-books or worksheets for children
  • A company that markets on offline version of Kahn Academy
  • Companies that develop apps (not specific to education)
  • Companies with deep experience in learning to read
  • Companies that sell term papers or test questions
  • A company that has created an app marketplace for small educational apps.
  • Organizations that do advanced research that might be useful in new educational apps.

As you can see, the XPRIZE teams have a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, most related and some seemingly unrelated to the XPRIZE problem of addressing literacy and numeracy in young children. Few seem to have the breadth of knowledge and skills to develop software spanning several years of reading, writing, and arithmetic. But one team has already announced on the XPRIZE forum that it has a very early and very incomplete software prototype. It will be fascinating to see how these teams compete, collaborate, and perhaps merge to compete for the XPRIZE. 

Meanwhile, back at StarShine, the GLEE Design team has continued its work on envisioning the interaction between child and tablet, while also trying to analyze the breadth and depth of what children 7-10 years old can learn during the 18 months of field tests. From our team of scientists, engineers, and educators, we have collected dozens of “vignettes” describing how children may learn from a tablet, and we have summarized them for analysis. 

To understand what children can learn in 18 months, we have been looking at various novel approaches to learning, including a very powerful learning method originally developed for learning languages. (This is not the only method we’re looking at.) On the curriculum side, the method breaks down the learning content to very small granules and reconstructs the granules into a sequence that greatly facilitates learning. The steps between the granules are very small, and no granule is introduced before the student has learned everything necessary to understand it. Earlier concepts are reviewed not by numbing drill, but by embedding them in the context of new concepts being introduced. On the delivery side, the learning environment is made comfortable and stress free. All responsibility for learning falls on the teacher. If the student fails to learn something it’s not the student’s fault but the teacher’s. In responding to prompts from the teacher, the student is always given time to build the response from what he already knows. This method has worked so successfully that people learn new languages in three to five days days. 

We wondered if similar methods already existed for reading and arithmetic. We were excited to find that they did. Like the language method mentioned, they were little known in the education community, but they had been demonstrated to be very effective. For example, the math method we found, originally developed in Canada, has shown its effectiveness in tens of thousands of students across the K-12 age spectrum, including those who had resigned themselves to be math failures and others that teachers had given up on. It uses the same approach of breaking things down to granules that are then sequenced to maximize learnability. It also uses a low-stress delivery approach, putting the ultimate responsibility for learning on the teacher, not the student. What’s more impressive is that the method does not require super math teachers; in fact, the teachers are often learning new math concepts while they’re teaching them to their students. The granularity of the materia l and the ease with which it is delivered give us encouragement that the method can be automated through a tablet. After all, the language method I mentioned uses technology no more sophisticated than a CD player and its pause button. We don’t expect that kids will learn math in three or five days, but within a few days kids see themselves as math successes, not math failures. 

Our team also had a heated discussion about the overall style of our tablet-based learning system. The straw man proposal was a system that knows from the get-go what every child needs to learn and the best way to teach it. We found ourselves closer to another extreme, which goes something like, “Every interaction with a child is an experiment. We don’t know how the child will react or whether the child will learn what we’re trying to convey. Mose of the time, we hope, the experiment succeeds, but when it fails, we have to learn from failure so that subsequent experiments will be more likely to succeed.” 

To help our project succeed, we’re trying to learn Swahili. Swahili is the language that the tablet will use for instruction, so we think that at least some of us should become familiar with it. Since we already know of the very effective language learning method mentioned above, we looked for a Swahili course using that method. Unfortunately, none exists. However, we have been in contact with an amazing non-profit,, that has developed a variety of language courses using this method, and is willing to produce a Swahili course for us. One of the amazing things about this organization is that, once developed, their courses are free to the world. (You can try their Complete Spanish course for yourself ( — I highly recommend it, but be sure to use the pause button on your computer or phone after every prompt. Their method is called the Thinking Method, because it’s success de pends on you thinking through your answer rather than responding with the first thing that comes to mind.) 

We think a high-quality, highly effective course in Swahili would be of value to many companies and NGOs that work in East Africa, including all XPRIZE competitors, and we’re reaching out to them. For example, StarShine friend Brad Zerbe is contacting an important person at Doctors Without Borders to gauge their interest. 

You can help, too. The Complete Swahili course will cost about $19,000 to create and edit. This will be done in two phases. Language Transfer will first create a standalone Introduction to Swahili for about $7,000, and then will complete Complete Swahili for another $12,000. Money donations are welcomed, of course, but it may be even more important if you can put us in touch with companies and organizations that would directly benefit from a better way to learn Swahili. 

I have lots more to tell, but this is already too long. I’ll close with some useful links to information about the Global Learning XPRIZE: 

Global Learning XPRIZE website – 
Global Learning Public Team Directory – 
FAQ – 
Forum – 

Until next week, with GLEE, 

Byron Davies, Ph.D. 
StarShine Global Learning Environment & Experience 


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