we must do better at recognizing the skill and professionalism required to be an outstanding teacher. Great teachers deserve more respect, appreciation, and compensation than our society has generally given them. Educators earnestly play a pivotal role in shaping the minds of our youngest citizens, which has a lasting impact on our society as a whole. In Japan, doctors, lawyers, and teachers are referred to as “sensei”– a title of respect for important and highly educated members of society.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Paul Candland.
Paul Candland joined Age of Learning in 2019 as CEO. Previously, he was a Senior Advisor to the company. Paul brings extensive experience to the company from his work in the children’s media and technology sector. Previous to Age of Learning, he had a 20-year career at The Walt Disney Company, most recently as President of Walt Disney Japan (2007–2017) and President of Walt Disney Asia (2014–2017). During his tenure as Disney’s top executive for Japan, Paul drove rapid and consistent growth across all divisions. He oversaw the creation, launch, and expansion of Tsum Tsum®, one of Disney’s most successful consumer products franchises globally and the company’s first $1 billion mobile game. At its peak, Tsum Tsum was played by over 5% of Japan’s population every day. Paul also launched a major new TV channel, pioneered the local production of short- and long-form animated content, and transformed Disney’s retail operations. Prior to joining Disney, Paul was an executive at PepsiCo for more than a decade. He earned his MBA from Penn State University and his B.S. in Finance from Brigham Young University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I’ve been a fan of Age of Learning for many years and have known the founder and senior leadership team since the early 2000’s. Since then, I’ve watched them positively impact millions of children’s educational outcomes both in the U.S. and around the world.
I worked and lived in Asia for over 25 years, a particularly rich experience for me as I was able to learn of and grow to deeply respect diverse cultures. During that time, I was fortunate to run businesses in various industries, including beverages, media, films, consumer products, retail, mobile games, music, and others. Much of that experience came with the Walt Disney Company, a company that I greatly respect for its brand values. To me, Disney is a brand that inspires people to be their best, that teaches children that dreams can come true, and that is permeated with an eternal optimism.
Optimism and the belief in the unlimited potential of every child are what attracted me to Disney, and that same optimism brought me to Age of Learning. We have the opportunity to push the boundaries of what is possible in early and elementary education on a broad scale, and I am excited to be a part of that effort.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have lots of stories over a long career, but one of my favorites is the origin story of a multi-billion-dollar franchise called Tsum Tsum. A twentysomething buyer in Disney Stores Japan came up with the idea of stackable plush (tsum tsum means “stack stack”). Before the plush hit retail shelves, the idea was presented to my management team and me, and we loved it — it was an idea that was brilliant in its simplicity. We partnered with a Japanese company to create a mobile game by the same name and executed a full line of Tsum Tsum experiences that included merchandise, animation, and theme park presence. The lesson was, of course, that great ideas can come from anywhere in the organization. It’s the job of leaders to create an environment where innovation can happen, then to champion and maximize the best ideas.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Age of Learning, we’ll soon be launching our new adaptive and patented digital math program, which assesses each child’s understanding and provides customized learning experiences for that child. Every child can learn at his or her own pace and will ultimately master the concepts he or she needs to know. A similar program for literacy is also in late stages of development.
Our research-based programs help students stay engaged, provide them valuable learning experiences, and maintain continuity in their lives — whether in the classroom or at home — and we have witnessed that firsthand, especially in recent months with the transition to remote learning.
To that end, we’re also working on daily classes that can help supplement what children will be doing remotely with their schools this fall.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Age of Learning’s digital learning products, including our flagship product ABCmouse, have been used by millions of children around the world. To date, children have completed more than 7 billion learning activities using our programs.
Although we are a technology company, everything at Age of Learning starts with education. In addition to our in-house team of researchers and curriculum experts, we have assembled a board of nationally recognized educators and experts in the field to guide the development of our products. They ensure that we are creating engaging and highly effective experiences that help children achieve learning outcomes.
Building on highly effective educational content, we invest heavily in R&D to produce groundbreaking technology in an ongoing effort to truly impact each individual child’s academic success. We have exciting new things on the horizon that are further evidence of how we take a unique and effective approach to our business and our products.
Over the last several years we’ve also expanded internationally. We are focused on impacting children not only here in the U.S. but worldwide through strategic partnerships with companies like Tencent in China and Rakuten in Japan.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Our education system does many things well, but there will always be areas that it can improve. When looking specifically at the Nation’s Report Card, we cannot be happy with those numbers. While the latest results didn’t show declines in math and reading, there was little to no academic progress. Of course, we want to see our students doing better. Fortunately, there are people at all levels of the public sector thinking of ways that can be accomplished.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I’m most optimistic about topics that are becoming more central to conversations because they indicate that we’re moving in the right direction. One example is equity and access, the idea that every child, no matter their background, should have an equal opportunity to learn.
There is also a growing emphasis on family involvement. We know that family engagement in a child’s education is a key factor for his or her success. By emphasizing and encouraging involvement from caregivers, we create and nurture an environment where children thrive and understand the importance of their education.
Similarly, whole-child education. Our education system is widening its scope by not only focusing on core subject areas but also integrating social-emotional learning into the school environment. Through this, children build self-confidence, foster relationships, and develop empathy and other qualities that help them thrive as students and, in turn, as humans.
The focus on early education is another positive example. The academic field has long been aware that building a strong academic foundation early in life pays enormous dividends later on, so it’s a good thing that our education system is paying increasing attention to it.
Finally, I’d point to the use of technology, which is something that has taken on a new level of importance during this challenging time. This goes beyond using digital tools to provide practice, however. It also includes leveraging technology to gather data about student progress and equip teachers with information that can help them guide students toward academic success.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
The education community has never been one to rest on its laurels, and many of the items I mentioned as strengths are also things educators are looking to improve even further.
One thing that’s squarely in the spotlight right now is the system’s ability to support remote learning. When the pandemic blindsided the education community earlier this year, schools had to scramble to make the best of the situation. Some of the struggles were unavoidable, but this did expose the fact that, as a whole, schools need to improve at using technology to inform, deliver, and support instruction. Many schools and districts have spent the time since then intensely focused on those improvements, so I think there’s reason for optimism about the remote learning experience we’ll see in elementary schools this fall.
Equity and access are also areas that we must improve upon. Schools, particularly those in urban areas, are generally under-resourced, negatively impacting students’ academic potential. The pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront, and many school districts are moving aggressively to provide devices and home access to their students.
Relatedly, the limited access to high-quality preschool education is another concern. While state and federal funding of public preschools has increased within recent years, there are still improvements that can be made — especially for disadvantaged youth. Preschool provides children the building blocks to a successful academic future. Our education system will see a ripple effect of academic achievement if it is able to expand access to quality early childhood education.
Another area to look at is the role and administration of standardized tests. There has been passionate debate for many years on whether standardized tests are improving education and student performance. While the academic concepts covered by standardized tests are important for students’ success, our priority should be accelerating learning gains rather than strictly “teaching to the test.”
Lastly, we must do better at recognizing the skill and professionalism required to be an outstanding teacher. Great teachers deserve more respect, appreciation, and compensation than our society has generally given them. Educators earnestly play a pivotal role in shaping the minds of our youngest citizens, which has a lasting impact on our society as a whole. In Japan, doctors, lawyers, and teachers are referred to as “sensei”– a title of respect for important and highly educated members of society.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in regards to STEM. First, we need to come to a shared understanding of what STEM actually is. Too often, it’s assumed to be a set of separate topics — science, separate from technology, separate from engineering, separate from mathematics. So, if you’re doing one of those things in isolation, you’re doing STEM. This is not true. STEM is the integration and application of ideas from all of those domains — and others — simultaneously.
In the same respect, classroom teachers need training and support on implementing it. Naturally, teachers gravitate towards subject areas they are comfortable with and this often does not include STEM. We will not see STEM become a larger part of school unless teachers become educated, familiar, and comfortable with it. Part of that education involves demonstrating how STEM can be incorporated into the core subjects and isn’t another, separate thing to be shoehorned into the school day.
Finally, demystify it. It’s not overly sophisticated or esoteric, and it doesn’t require elaborate and expensive technology. STEM can be really fun for all kids, including the very young.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Currently, only a quarter of STEM roles in the U.S. are held by women. This reality is something we have to address now to change for the future. Engaging young children — especially girls — in STEM early on will set them up for more career possibilities and establish the groundwork for a more equitable workforce in the future.
Unfortunately, there are stereotypes our society has to overcome with regard to women and STEM. Propagating misconceptions, like the idea that girls’ brains aren’t wired for STEM, is discouraging and causes girls to lose interest over time. Encouraging young women to explore STEM-related fields will build the confidence they need to continue developing these skills throughout their time in school and into their careers.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There is always room for improvement. The ways to increase the engagement of girls and women aren’t all that different from the ways we can increase engagement more broadly. If we integrate STEM thinking into our curriculum from the earliest ages, we can preempt ideas of what girls like or want to do versus what boys like or want to do. Some kids will be drawn to STEM and others won’t, regardless of gender identification. The same is true with reading, science, physical education, and all subject areas. That won’t change. But we, as educators and caregivers, have to put away the idea that girls don’t like — or worse, can’t be good at — STEM thinking. We have to act as though that’s not a thing — because it isn’t.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
This goes back to the fact that STEM — or STEAM — isn’t each subject area separately, it’s about creating learning experiences that invite kids to draw on multiple disciplines to solve the complex problems people have always faced and will always face. There is a mistaken impression that STE(A)M thinking is related only to modern technology and problem-solving, but people have been using it to solve problems forever.
The most important outcome of this approach is that kids learn to recognize that they’re at their most powerful when they can draw on what they know from all domains simultaneously. In other words, that they learn to think of themselves as thinkers. If that outcome is reached for students by incorporating the arts, then it most certainly should be done.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really value a poem called Good Timber by Douglas Malloch. The key line was “Good timber does not grow with ease, The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.” Challenges make us stronger, and should be viewed with an optimistic lens. These words also remind us that choosing the hard road usually leads to the most growth, and that has served me well in making career decisions.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would have loved to have had the opportunity to sit down with Muhammad Ali. He’s a man that reached tremendous heights, but also was challenged with extremely difficult lows — especially as he refused the draft on religious grounds and lost his ability to work to support his family. Throughout his amazing career, he continually overcame hurdles while using his unique position to promote social fairness and justice.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!