“I want my students to be the type of people who won’t quit. Instead of them saying ‘I can’t get an A on my history test because I’m bad at history,’ I want them to think ‘How can I get an A on my history test, even though I am bad at history?’ When students think ‘HOW?’ instead of taking the easy way out and giving up, it leads to more critical thinking and persistence.” – Jane Cui, USA

She may be just a couple of years out of college, but Jane Cui is making a big impact on students – both those she works with personally (helping them to prepare for college admission tests), and many more who are benefitting from her innovative visual learning start-up, Flashcard Monkey.

“[Education] is important to me because I know it is something that could change a person’s life forever,” Cui says. “Education leads to awareness, more choices in life, better decision making, choosing not to have children at a young age, more job opportunities, financial freedom, and a reason for people to stay off the streets.”

Cui was inspired to create Flashcard Monkey by her own struggle, as a non-native English speaker, with learning vocabulary. “English is actually my third language. When I was 9 years old, I couldn’t even spell my name ‘Jane’ correctly (I would spell ‘hane’ on all of my homework),” she recalls. “I made a website that would help students like me. Students who are visual learners, students who otherwise would feel frustrated and discouraged from looking at vocabulary word lists. Flashcard Monkey is a dictionary of cartoon pictures that helps students memorize vocabulary visually and much faster than using traditional methods.”

Helping students around the globe is a top priority for Cui, who is currently raising funding for her start-up. “With technology, I can reach out to high school students across America who are studying for vocabulary quizzes. And I could also reach people in Taiwan, India, and the Philippines, all of who are forced to learn English by their educational system.”

We know that every student has a different learning style, and Cui has smartly recognized that many students connect with imagery in ways they don’t connect with words. We’re glad that this passionate educator and entrepreneur — who decided to switch career paths after five years pursuing a career in medicine – is applying her energy to make a difference for students. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Jane Cui.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

When I was 16, I was a tennis coach to little kids in this summer camp called Tenacity. Tenacity focused on getting low-income inner-city Boston kids out of the street and into a tennis camp, where they would learn to socialize, exercise, and do their summer reading. I coordinated the summer reading sometimes, and I found out that a lot of the kids couldn’t read very well. At first, I would force the kids into doing their homework and reading books, but I found out that if I made reading fun for them, they would be more compelled.

In college, I volunteered as an SAT teacher in a low-income inner-city school in Boston. Many of my students would do poorly in the English section of the SAT because they couldn’t read very well. Because of this, the students would say that they were not “college material” or that they were “too stupid to get into college.” I always remember these words. I don’t like it when people say that they “cannot” do something, and hearing 16 year olds say that they didn’t believe themselves enough to pursue a better future is just terrible.

Education is important to me — to all of us as a collective society. It is because of education that people can remove themselves from poverty and a life of desperation. Education narrows the distance between the poor and wealthy, and is the gateway for social mobility.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

In senior year, I had a professor named Paul Leavis, whom I asked to write a recommendation for medical school. 70-year old professor Leavis taught me Cardiopulmonary Pathophysiology class, and was pleased when I told him that I was going to be a doctor.

I announced six months later that I wasn’t going to medical school anymore. At that time, I was completely devastated, after realizing that I had wasted almost five years pursuing a field that I had chosen to give up. But Leavis was very happy for me. He encouraged me, saying that I was strong and would be able to get back on my feet, and that I was special.

No one had ever said that I was special before. Especially not a teacher. Professor Leavis was there when I was at my worst. Most teachers just teach a class for an hour and then leave, but Professor Leavis would answer all my questions after class. He would meet up with me even after I had graduated, and helped me even after I didn’t want to go to medical school anymore. Leavis made me feel very special. He would sit down with me and let me talk about aspirations, and just listen. Most teachers just talk, but this one listened without interruption. He made me feel like someone worthy of being listened to, when everyone else would just lecture me, or tell me that it was a waste to give up medical school.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?

I was in 6th grade English class, and our teacher Mr. Fitzgerald would give us a quiz of five vocabulary words every week. Most kids would usually get four or five correct on the vocab quizzes. I would get maybe one correct, or two on a good day. Mr. Fitzgerald wondered why I was consistently failing the vocab quizzes, and I would, too. On one quiz, I couldn’t even remember the word “determined,” and I felt so ashamed that I ripped up the quiz paper as soon as I got it back.

When I was 16 years old and studying for the SAT, I had the same problem with memorizing vocabulary, and when I was 22 studying for the GRE, the issue came back again. Flashcards would help a little bit, but it wasn’t enough. But then I realized that combining drawings with flashcards helped me memorize much faster. I started to make flashcards with pictures on the back, and all of a sudden, I could actually remember the words.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

The Internet is amazing because it can reach out to millions of people across the globe. When I first made Flashcard Monkey, it was just printed out flashcards on pieces of paper, which was fine for helping out two or three students at once. But after I made the website, I realized that I can reach out to students in other countries who are learning English.

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

Many people in developing countries can’t afford laptops, but they can afford to buy a smartphone or a mobile device that can connect to the Internet. Mobile devices let people use the collective power of the Internet to help them with daily tasks. Mobile is changing education and the way people learn by giving people access to all of the world’s information.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

There are a lot of tutorials and educational videos online that are being translated into different languages. So if I was a teacher from Cambodia with access to the Internet, I could find lectures online to teach my students math, or history, or science in the Khmer language. Or if I was a woman in rural India who wanted to start her own farm to grow food, I could go online and look at step-by step tutorials in Hindi to learn how to start a farm. I think online tutorials can bring previously inaccessible knowledge to millions of people in rural areas.

Is there a 21st century education tool that you are most passionate about? Why?

I’m really excited about Khan Academy. Khan Academy is an online platform that teaches anyone Math, Science, English, History, and any other subject for free. Unlike traditional school courses, Khan Academy explains difficult terms in easy language, using language that a 10 year old can understand. This is obviously great for children and students, but it is also wonderful for adult learners. Many adult learners are intimidated by the concept of taking classes, but Khan Academy videos explain everything so clearly that adult learners feel comfortable and at ease with the pace of learning.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

It would be the Internet, with a guide on how to use it to search for tutorials.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

I am from the USA. Although there are a lot of problems with the American educational system, the US is the leading innovator in education technology. We have passionate, creative entrepreneurs who are trying to solve problems related to education in America and abroad.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, century?

Schools need to pay teachers more. If schools in poorer districts received more qualified and passionate teachers, we would see a lower dropout rate, higher literacy rate, and more social mobility among low-income students. Great teachers teach and inspire their students. Inspiration is so important, because inspiration leads to students gaining interest in the subject and a willingness to learn. Students need good teachers in order to learn essential skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. We have to pay teachers more in order to get the best, most qualified people to teach our children.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

There are many students who don’t believe in themselves, or who don’t find education in their school stimulating enough. It is very difficult to convince someone who doesn’t believe that they can pass Math class to study harder.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I always tell my students that they can do it. Whether it’s studying for a subject that they immensely dislike or applying to a college that may be out of their reach, I always encourage my students. I want my students to be the type of people who won’t quit. Instead of them saying “I can’t get an A on my history test because I’m bad at history,” I want them to think “How can I get an A on my history test, even though I am bad at history?” When students think “HOW?” instead of taking the easy way out and giving up, it leads to more critical thinking and persistence. For many students, persistence is what gets them though the day. Persistence is something that teachers should teach their kids, by asking them “How can you do it?” and making sure that they never give up.

How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?

Mobile devices and apps are just another tool for giving information to students. They are no different from books or other traditional media. Some of my students use apps and mobile devices to study, while others use textbooks. I like the convenience of smart phones for learning, because my students can use an app to study on the bus or train back home.

About Jane Cui, SAT Teacher, College Consultant, Founder of Flashcard Monkey
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

  • Birthplace: China
  • Current residence: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: Undergraduate from Boston University, class of 2012
  • Website I check every day: Google
  • Person who inspires me most: Eric Thomas, Motivational Speaker
  • Favorite childhood memory: I was about 3 years old. This is my earliest memory. I was walking with my grandmother along a dirt path. All of a sudden, I saw this bright blue flower on the side of the road. In retrospect, that flower was a weed, and it was extremely tiny, unnoticeable by most people passing by. But to me, that blue flower was the most beautiful flower that I had ever seen. To this day, I can’t find that exact shade of blue that was so intensely burned into the fabric of my childhood memory. 
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Taiwan for work.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I’m laughing as I write this post. This is a funny question. It makes you think about your priorities in life. It makes you wonder “Why don’t I laugh more often? I really should.”
  • Favorite book: The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
  • Favorite music: I don’t have a favorite piece of music. I like singing Backstreet Boys karaoke in the shower.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Someone once told me: You should go do all the things in life that you want to right now, because you’re never going to be as young as you are today. Don’t live life with regret. Do all the things you want NOW.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “When you want to succeed as much as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” – Eric Thomas                                          
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