Adaptive Learning and Other Educational Challenges

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I subscribe to Dan Meyers’ blog because he thinks and writes with great clarity about the teaching of mathematics. I’m no mathematician, but good teaching techniques are cross-disciplinary, permitting me to apply many to the teaching of history. One of Dan’s recent posts has a title that would catch anybody’s attention: “Adaptive Learning Is An Infinite iPod That Only Plays Neil Diamond.” In the post, Dan laments his encounters with futurists, who are promoting an adaptive learning solution to solve a problem that is part of a teacher-centric classroom. For Meyers, who practices a student-centered approach, the adaptive learning solution, in its current incarnation, does not apply. Rather than elaborating, Dan sends the reader to a series of excellent Education Week blog posts by Justin Reich, where the topic is explored in more detail. I recommend that you read Justin’s work because he lends some additional perspective to the Meyers lamentations.

While we have watched technology tools blossom for consumption and content creation, enhancements to online assessment or any related automated learning program such as adaptive learning have fallen woefully short of what good teachers require. Reich elaborates on the reasons why, and offers a few suggestions for future software development. The operative questions are whether the lack of good adaptive assessment tools is a show-stopper for blended and online learning (clearly not), and if the real question is not so much about assessment, but who is at the center of the classroom. The answer to the latter question might shape the direction of the development of educational technology tools.

The point of adaptive learning is to focus individual student effort on types of questions that were difficult or impossible to answer while minimizing questions for which the student showed mastery. Computers can certainly “learn” or adapt to a student based on prior results, but Reich argues that computers are only effective with specific kinds of quantitative or objective questions. Meyers says, in a student-centered classroom, computer-based adaptive learning provides a shadow of what good peer and teacher interaction would provide to help clear up conceptual and procedural misunderstandings for students learning at different rates. Those different rates fall under the umbrella of personalized learning services, driven by the assumption that children’s brains understand things quickly or slowly for a variety of reasons, ranging from emotional and physical states to specific learning challenges.

Returning to the arguments of  Meyers and Reich, one can infer that a student-centered classroom permits the teacher and student peers to provide effective personalized learning as necessary without adaptive learning software. The software applications of the future might then be used to provide a more specific diagnosis subject to the constraints of the data collected. Without a student-centered classroom, we are compelled to design and build curricula and pedagogy that expects students to learn at the same pace. Our current philosophy of assessment is that students move forward together and are assessed on at critical junctures. Once we have the results of those assessments, we move into reactive mode for students who have fallen short of mastery. Some of our greatest teachers are those who come to the rescue of “fallen students” and effectively erase the gaps in student understanding. In that type of classroom where all students are expected to end up in the same place with respect to skills and content, good teachers must rescue students. However, there seems to be a flaw in this strategy. Instead of building on prior successes, we are repairing failure. This is not the best method of improving student performance unless one is working with an incredibly resilient child.

How about a more proactive approach to student learning? We already see signs of that in Dan Meyers’ classroom, and others. When students work with their peers under the right circumstances, they level the playing field by trying to achieve some form of common understanding. It can work with teacher-student interaction as well, but the process is not as natural and intuitive. Better for the teacher to intervene when the peer dynamic breaks down or gets stuck. How is a student-centered scenario more proactive? All of this interaction reveals problems with understanding and potentially corrective action prior to the major assessment, and therefore avoids the need for damage control after the assessment is graded. It also maximizes student learning prior to the assessment, which is what we seek in our students.

Is there a downside to this proactive and student-centered approach to learning? Well, students won’t move at the same pace (that will be a reflection of how their brains actually operate), and that has implications in our current factory model of testing and evaluation. Perhaps there is an alternative that will thrive in both the traditional culture and a more innovative environment. In a typical scenario, if a student scores 90% on a first test, we view that performance as good and move forward. If the course material is cumulative and there has been no intervention, however, then a 90% on the second test means the student understands 90% of the 90% they previously understood, or 81%. You can see where this exercise is going. Furthermore, checking the declining cumulative result of successive tests requires regular intervention with most students, and in a reactive mode since the intervention is triggered by the test result. This process does have an appropriate role in diagnostic testing such as tests that determine a student’s reading level. But in a summative setting, the teacher is always chasing the tails of the students and practicing damage control.

Try this on for size. Is it better to complete 100% of the learning expectations at a rapid pace and understand 70% or is it better to complete 70% of the learning expectations at a comfortable pace and understand 100% of those expectations? If the summative assessment covers all of the material equitably, then one would, in theory, score 70% either way. In the former case, the student lives with some misunderstanding throughout the course and brings that misunderstanding to each subsequent assessment. In the latter case, the student has experienced mastery for 70% of the material going into the final assessment, and has the confidence to apply that mastery to what will be new material for the last 30% of the learning requirement. I like those odds better.

Yes, we need enhanced assessments, and computers may be able to help. While we are waiting for them to be developed, we might rethink how we structure our classrooms and existing assessments so we can be more proactive addressing gaps in student understanding.


The Independent School Case for Grassroots Innovation


For many years, we have understood the roots of change and innovation to result from either a grassroots movement or top-down mandate. Like the difference between democracies and dictatorships, one produces rapid change while the other is much slower based on the need for consensus. In education, there is a growing view that public schools are frequently constrained by top-down policies and programs, while independent schools have more flexibility. The latest paean directed at independent schools comes from Tom Vander Ark in his recent blog post: “Independent schools have the benefit of independence but most don’t use the degrees of freedom to innovate.” Tom goes on to say that parents of independent school teachers are looking for a better rather than a different experience. Because independent schools are not subject to federal and state education policy, they are mission-driven, but the paths to achieving that mission are often subject to interpretation by members of each respective school community. There is some tension between the ways in which faculty members choose to best serve the learning needs of children and the strategies of senior administrators who are held accountable to boards, alumni, and parents. Most of the time it is a healthy tension, resulting from different points of view regarding the balance between tradition and innovation.

We have all heard about twenty-first century skills (the list was frequently discussed under other names in Classical Greece) and the challenges our children face. Every generation has faced challenges, but this current group of kids may have to exhibit a kind of flexibility, resilience, collaboration, and consensus building that was less familiar to many of us during our formative years. If we continue to educate children in the same manner as we were educated, we might be doing them a disservice. Yet our educational system has shown an uncanny ability to maintain status quo with small pockets of innovation. In a perfect world, we would transform the educational mission to become a synthesis of best practices from the past with the most creative and exciting pedagogies we can muster. In order to do so, we need a firm grasp of the linkages between yesterday and tomorrow, and they must be part of today’s practice. While senior administrators come and go (the average tenure of a school head is five years) or rotate through key positions, the faculty corpus represents the link between past and future. Thus, innovation is the domain of the faculty (while the goals may be developed by administrators or boards), and they represent the grassroots movement in our schools.

This hypothesis is troubling news for a school head who is driven to innovate quickly. It implies that he or she will have to depend on the faculty to bring innovation to a school. Some schools have decided that this is a workable scenario under the following circumstances:

  1. A school makes faculty hiring decisions, and therefore can effect innovation over time through hiring decisions.
  2. A school can launch an innovative program, and call for faculty volunteers to lead the charge, hoping that those brave individuals will positively influence their colleagues.
  3. A school can launch a comprehensive and required professional development initiative that is targeted to innovative teaching and learning, with assurances there will be no sacrifice of excellence or outcomes.

Faculty are understandably skeptical of all three approaches because they either create a chilly climate or make for additional commitments layered onto a plethora of daily responsibilities. Then how does one create the spark that motivates a faculty to pursue appropriate innovation, benefitting their students and their professional lives? There are three strategies that will enhance the effectiveness of the faculty grassroots initiative. We know about all three, and only one costs real dollars (#2), but those dollars are an investment in the future success and viability of independent schools.

  1. Reposition technology so that is not perceived as synonymous with innovation. We live in a digital, connected, and information-rich world, and it has permeated our schools. Technology is sometimes a necessary, but never a sufficient condition for innovation. That means a teacher innovates by rethinking pedagogy and outcomes, and then identifies technology tools that enhance that pedagogy or improve the outcomes . We have a responsibility as educators to recognize both the power of technology tools in helping students to learn more effectively and the counterbalance of face-to-face human interaction supplemented by time for unencumbered personal reflection. Together, these elements represent the ideal learning environment.
  2. Develop creative solutions to address the practical and financial challenge of providing time for faculty to think about teaching and learning, engage in curricular and pedagogical redesign, develop personal learning networks, and participate in traditional professional development of their choosing without feeling like they have let their students down as a result of an absence. We must accept the notion that good teachers are good learners, and provide an environment where both are valued.
  3. Develop strategies that permit both administrators and faculty to do what they do best. For example, it is well within the purview of academic administrators to define the educational outcomes we expect of every student at our schools (it would be enlightened management to ask for faculty input). We can then ask academic departments to define more specific outcomes within their disciplines and major courses. Now the school has defined what a graduate of that school will be able to do, know, or discover. Those outcomes are then valued and accepted by the faculty, but not the prescription for how to achieve those outcomes across a diverse student body. Groups of teachers are then charged to develop curriculum and pedagogies that will produce the desired outcomes. Thus, innovation is owned where the rubber meets the road, between teachers and students.

Some would say that this analysis only scratches the surface of what independent schools have to do in order to provide educational value to families who will be paying, in twelve years, over $100,000 per year for a residential experience. Point well taken. But none of the construction projects, new programs, and more diverse student demographics will lead to value without the steady self-transformation of the faculty from a grassroots level. We can all smile at the pundits who claim that students will not need to attend school because they can enroll in MOOCs, “taught” by the leading experts in their fields. Those who make that claim either are desperate for the survival of their institution or have limited knowledge of teaching and learning. The more innovative education becomes, and that includes blended and online learning, the more important and complex the role of the teacher becomes.

I’m certain that some independent schools have already embraced the idea that innovative education requires a grassroots faculty movement. These are schools that have shed the image of “test results factories,” and are embarking on journeys to new frontiers in teaching and learning without sacrificing core skills and traditions. One of those schools is my own, and it is characterized beautifully on this topic by John Chubb in a recent blog post. I have spent twenty-two years in one school because I am charged with innovating on a daily basis, both as an individual faculty member and as a model for my colleagues. There are a few places such as my school where innovation is a key driver and is generated through the creativity and energy of a grassroots faculty.

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