Jennifer on how Manhattan Scholarium came to be

Transcript: Over the last 10 years I have worked for all of the major test prep companies, and while I met a lot of really smart people and I get to stand in front of a room and shout about prime numbers sometimes—that’s a personal pleasure of mine—I became frustrated with idea that a whole bunch of adults, some of whom are spending a good deal of money, are going to sit in a room and kind of "play school."

It just seemed a little unnecessary that I would stand in front of a classroom and a bunch of students are going to sit in desks and they're going to, for instance, not be able to look at their phones and not be able to use the Internet and they’re going to sit there and take notes and raise their hands. It seemed like there had to be a better way.

I left in January of 2014 to go off and found Manhattan Scholarium. My idea there was that I would teach the GRE, and the SAT, and all kinds of test prep classes, as well as career development, public speaking, and something I call Advanced ESL. I work with a lot of students who are way too advanced for regular ESL classes but maybe need more English help in order to be ready for graduate school. On the other side of the fence I’d say I have a lot of students who are very ready for graduate school except that they can’t understand why they have to take a math test! (And there I’m talking about the GRE.) 

I've often felt that I know how to serve those students—all those different populations of students—better than the big companies I was working for. And what that means is having more flexible options. A person doesn't necessarily need to sign up for a GRE class that's ten sessions, once a week or something like that where everyone is sitting in on and learning the same kinds of things. So my idea is to allow people to create their own educational experience in more of a modular way. I also wanted to create a place where people can learn more socially and more collaboratively. And it would be cool if people had their phones out and learned like adult, modern people in the world today.

One thing that I think is really important in trying to teach test prep, or any subject, is that you need to be able to make an emotional connection to material in order to really learn and remember things. It also helps if you’re actually doing something, rather than just sitting at a desk, even if you are doing problems at that desk! So, on the first note: getting people emotionally engaged in material, it's very helpful to have a relationship a good rapport with the instructor, and it's also helpful to have positive relationships with your classmates. I don't think that that always arises in a traditional kind of teacher-student environment, especially for students feel like they're competing with each other, which doesn't really serve anybody.

So being able to facilitate a more collaborative environment I think is just positive for everybody. Not just the less advanced students who are getting help, but the more advanced students who are getting opportunities to process material and re-teach it, or to employ what they’ve learned over the week and get credit for it publicly, to use that to present in front of a group, and actually do something with that knowledge.

As much as I do like getting told that somebody thinks I'm a great teacher, I think that in a lot of cases what's even better is if people come to class and they leave enmeshed in a conversation with each other and they feel like they had a great interactive experience and they learned so much -- and they were much more awake than they would have been in a regular class, and I kind of fade into the background.  Of course, I’m always here to answer questions and I hope that people find me insightful. But I think that a well-designed activity means people are learning and they're doing something and maybe they make a new friend, and I don't necessarily have to be in front of the room the entire time (pointing my finger at you like an old-fashioned schoolteacher).