Aaron Chang

Book Smart
Aaron Chang is using technology to help adults empower children by writing books together.

By Jessica Bizik
Photography by Chris Crews

Aaron Chang is a big proponent of learning by doing. As a kid, he loved inventing things, like a way to turn off the lights from his bed using a wooden sword, pulley system, and books. But that philosophy took on even greater significance during his undergraduate years at John Hopkins University, where he studied biomedical engineering.

“Freshman year, they threw us right in there,” he says. “They didn’t teach us how to design a medical device. They sent us into the operating room and and told us to pick something we wanted to improve.” (His team ended up making a laparoscopic retractor that inflates to help surgeons do minimally invasive procedures without the intestines getting in the way.)

The concept of experiential learning also resonates strongly with Aaron’s new business partner, Marwa Abdelfattah, an early childhood educator from Stanford, whom he met on Shapr. (“It’s like Tinder, but for networking and meeting fellow entrepreneurs,” he says.) The two bonded quickly over topics like “giving high agency to the learner” and how tricky kids can be.

“Children are very cute! Their cuteness and their little bodies trick us into thinking they cannot be active participants in our communities,” Marwa wrote in a recent blog post. “However, children are very capable of expressing their ideas about justice, kindness, and beauty—and coming up with creative solutions to everyday problems.”

That’s the philosophy behind CoAuthor, the duo’s soon-to-be-released iPad application, which walks caregivers through the process of co-writing books with young children—incorporating best practices in early childhood development, which are usually buried in 300-plus-page text books. Essentially, adults use the app as a guide to engage in “democratic dialogue” with a child—handwriting his or her thoughts, feelings, and observations to make them visible … and to show their value.

“By witnessing us use our bodies and intellect to document their words, children start developing a self-concept. They start thinking of themselves as interesting individuals who have interesting ideas to share with the world. This strengthens their self-confidence and unleashes their creativity,” says Aaron.

The team is currently beta-testing with a few schools in Washington, D.C., as well as parents in the U.S., France, and Egypt, with the he goal of launching in the App Store in early 2019—using the “freemium” model, where users can access additional story templates for a small fee. They also plan to offer institutional pricing for schools that want to license CoAuthor for teachers.

Perhaps what’s most radical about CoAuthor is the way it shifts the adult-child power dynamic—helping grown-ups to move beyond seeing kids as “consumers” of their knowledge and beliefs, and transforming them into co-learners, co-creators, and co-protagonists. (Preferably, moving at the child’s pace.)

“When we coauthor anything with children, we bond with them emotionally and intellectually. They feel respected and taken seriously. And they start to borrow our advanced language skills and thinking strategies,” says Aaron. “Plus, it opens up adults to the real possibility that they can learn something wonderful from children.”

That’s an experience Aaron enjoyed frequently, while serving as a “grandparent” in Baltimore Thread’s highly successful mentoring program. “I learned so much more about resilience from my mentee than I could ever have imparted to him,” he says.