CASE STUDY, Matchbook Learning

Designing the Future of Education

A Detroit elementary school achieves double-digit gains in proficiency across all grades and breaks out of its bottom 5% status.




In the last 50 years, no industry has seen less progress than public education. The old model has failed a large segment of the population, especially those from low-income zip codes.


How can a better school experience for all students lead to increased proficiency and pacing in subjects?

Matchbook believes in order for “quality education for all” to actually mean “all,” education reform must start in the weakest schools. These schools are classified by the federal government as “turnaround” school, or the bottom 5%. The primary challenge is these schools lack a systemic solution for change and access to the resources to make the changes they need and want. Additionally, the environmental factors that create nurturing learning environments are missing, so the odds are stacked against turning these schools around.


The Matchbook Model

Technology has impacted every arena of our lives, except K-12 public education. Schools are the one domain whose content and experience have remained largely unchanged over the past 50 years. In order to improve a school's results, Matchbook Learning realized they needed to improve the content delivery itself and shift from a 1: Many relationship between teachers and students to a 1:1 ratio.  

In a traditional model, teachers stand at the front of a classroom delivering the same content to all students at once, regardless of the student's learning style or where the student is in the learning process. Matchbook delivers a more customized experience. In the Matchbook model, students leverage technology (and data) to choose instruction based on how they learn best and what lessons best serve the student based on where they are in the learning process, regardless of where their peers may be.

Matchbook then embeds itself in the schools themselves to coach administrators and teachers through best practices and how to handle the day-to-day challenges that naturally arise in a school. This full-time, on-site coaching creates a richer, fuller, more engaging, and effective experience for both the teacher and the student.

Starting at the bottom is not easy, but it is necessary.



Matchbook Learning is courageously turning around America’s lowest performing public schools, starting with those in communities with the highest poverty rates. Matchbook’s unique model blends traditional teaching and technology to create a personalized learning experience for each student.

Bringing Design Thinking To Education

Since day one of Matchbook’s founding, FiveStone has partnered with their team to design an engaging learning environment and ways to increase student pacing through academic standards. We believe applying the same level of thinking that goes into any other successful product or service can also benefit education. 

There were two fundamental problems we tackled through our first six years with Matchbook. The first was the schools themselves—the environment, the parents, and the building. The community believed in their kids and local school, but over time hope dwindled. Our goal was to reignite their hope and give the community what it deserved.

Matchbook started in a single school in Detroit. We spent time in the neighborhood, talked with administrators, and held community forums. From there we developed a set of design principles specific to that single school and a set of universal principles for future Matchbook schools.

From those principles we made a couple “easy win” suggestions. We rearranged the entrance of the school so students could enter the front door, signaling dignity and pride. We moved the office of the social worker from a remote corner of the school to the entrance most often used by parents. We asked teachers to stand in front of the school in the morning to greet parents and inform them of key dates in the school.

These small things, along with some fresh paint and trimmed landscape, went a long way to signal that things were different.

From there our focus shifted to the students and parents. Through parent surveys we learned one-hundred percent of parents had college and career aspirations for their child. Not surprising, but something often overlooked in low-income areas. 

We took that information and developed the “When I grow up…” campaign. This campaign became the foundation, not only for the brand, but for excitement within all Matchbook schools.

Each year Matchbook teachers asked students to fill in the blank with what they wanted to do when they grew up. This question became the anchor point for students throughout the year as they worked through the curriculum. Oh, you want to be a veterinarian? Okay, then this science lesson is going to matter. You want to be a singer? Great, reading contracts and understanding royalties will be important. Math will help.

“It’s hard to express the satisfaction that comes from seeing a concept in your head then having that concept come to life, not as you imaged, but even better. From day one, FiveStone worked to challenge our assumptions, clarify our purpose, and enhance our customer journey making every aspect of our mission better.”
Sajan George
Founder, Matchbook Learning

Second, FiveStone addressed the balance between proficiency and pacing. That is, making sure a student mastered the material in a timely manner, so they were able to keep up with their peers.

Pacing becomes especially important when turning around a school where the overwhelming majority of students are multiple grade levels behind. We wanted to catch students up as quickly as possible. However, the ground students needed to gain was large and the time they had to do it was short.

We talked to hundreds of rowdy, funny, polite, smart, gracious, and all-around amazing students along with some of the most committed and passionate teachers and administrators in the country. Through these interviews and by observing the day-to-day activities of students, we developed a set of core insights. Powered by those insights we reimagined the student’s day from the time they woke up for school until they went to bed.

We imagined a solution that used data to nudge student activity throughout the day (at home and at school) in order to encourage the correct pacing. That data would also illuminate efficiencies in the learning process by giving both teachers and students more information to empower them in decision making. 

In this way, the classroom experience moved beyond the four walls of the school and infused itself into the student’s entire day.

“Good designers don’t really ‘add’ to make something beautiful. Instead they help reduce things to their core—revealing the inherent beauty of the concept. FiveStone has a unique skill that breathes life, dimension, and momentum into otherwise placid ideas and static visions revealing their beauty.”
Sajan George
Founder, Matchbook Learning


In Matchbook’s first school year in Detroit*, the percentage of students making satisfactory gains of 10% or more:






Satisfactory gains expounded:

29% gains greater than 30%
38% gains between 10 and 20%
33% gains between 20 and 30%

*2011-2012 school year


After two years in a single Detroit elementary school 

This Detroit school suffered from a long continual decline in both proficiency and its state ranking for several years, including having spent the 3 years prior to Matchbook Learning in the bottom 5%. No longer in the bottom 5%, the third graders alone had proficiency gains in English Language Arts from 9% to 32%.


national attention

This work gained the attention of a few friends along the way.


community engagement



Over four months, increased engagement across social platforms by over 1,000 percent


Over three months, reached over 100 qualified teacher applicants through social marketing and awareness


In the two weeks prior to the first day of school, reached over 15,000 neighborhood families, which led to over 2,000 responses on the application page



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