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.

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No Contest

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I generally find myself reading books that have been published recently since so many are published daily, but over the summer I went back to read a 1986 classic by Alfie Kohn called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. While the second edition was published in 1992, there has been very little discussion of the book recently. That is surprising because Kohn presents an argument that is very provocative and controversial, and would have a profound impact on K-12 education.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Briefly, Kohn’s thesis is that our entire culture of competition is destructive to child development, and stunts the growth of intrinsic motivation. He cites numerous studies in which students that were given a carrot for completing a project produced inferior work in comparison with those students having no external incentives. Kohn is well aware of the role of sports in the lives of our students, and makes the arguable point that competitive sports is only advantageous for the best athletes while the rest of the competitors are hurt by competition. He does say that the focus of sports should be on personal excellence rather than winning.

After completing the book, I found myself torn. Kohn’s arguments are very convincing and well-presented (some critics argue his conclusions go beyond the data), but they fall short in the litmus test of reality. What would it take to alter the values of an entire society? Even if we agreed that eliminating a culture of competition would improve the human condition, how would we get there? One major premise of our schools is that individuals should strive to do better than other students because getting ahead leads to success. How do we alter our beliefs and commit to personal excellence of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell describes?

More importantly, why did Kohn’s book fade into oblivion when he had identified a fundamental cultural bias that, according to him, is destructive to child development and adult happiness? Why did innovative educators not embrace Kohn’s proposal and test it on a somewhat limited scale. From my brief research, it appears that there were very few initiatives in schools that produced any significant results, and a few initiatives died due to parental pressure to maintain a competitive environment. I hope some of you will read the book, and think carefully about he implications of Kohn’s proposals.

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Now I have an iPad? What to do next?

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So you’ve received a shiny, new iPad, set up email and calendar, used the browser to check some basketball or hockey scores, watched a Netflix movie and installed Facebook. All of that functionality exists on your laptop, so why use the iPad? It seems like duplicated effort. Here are some reasons, and recommendations for getting started small so you are not overwhelmed by the 200,000 apps out there.

Reasons for using the iPad

  •  Mobility – You walk ten miles with your laptop; i’ll walk with my iPad. Let’s see who’s more tired at the end of the trip. Imagine an iPad eliminating the need for a backpack, or at minimum, reducing the weight by 50%.
  •  Spontaneity – “Okay, let’s go to the computers.” Ten minutes later, every student in the classroom is logged in (some forgot his/her password), and has found the web page you asked them to locate. Can you afford to sacrifice ten minutes of class time? With the iPad, this process occurs in 30 seconds. Would 30 seconds deter you from using an iPad in class?
  •  Size – Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a smart phone; a great size for note-taking and reading.
  •  Multi-purpose – With a little creativity, you can satisfy most of your needs with the iPad (some apps are still in development – remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper).

Getting started

Very simple: Read, read, read with your iPad. Books, newspapers, magazines, web pages, journals. Start taking notes using the built-in Notes app or ask your friends for note-taking app recommendations if you want to use a stylus (purchase at Walmart for under $10). Begin with shopping lists, to do’s, and  meeting notes. Finally, start using Dropbox so you can share documents between your laptop and the iPad. These steps will help to unleash the passion — the commitment comes when you add a few other functions.

Hybrid Class Discussions

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The independent school world has always prided itself on an approach to learning that was effective and well-suited for smaller class sizes. It is popularly known as the Harkness method, named for the inventor of the oval tables (1930) that were used to promote self-directed class discussions. The belief was that students could be trained to participate regularly and substantively in discussions that were designed to ferret out the answers to essential questions of the daily lesson.

Harkness Method

Harkness Method

For three quarters of a century, the Harkness method has worked well in educational environments where the faculty believes that students are capable of discovering and constructing knowledge with well-crafted coaching from the teacher. As I reflect on my experiences with what we tend to call “discussion-driven” classrooms, I see some challenges with today’s students that might be addressed with minor modifications to the original concept. These changes are based on two assumptions:

  • Not all students participate in discussion for a variety of reasons, even if it is an expectation of the course.
  • Even though class sizes are smaller in independent schools, discussions of 12-16 students almost guarantee that not everybody will be able to participate regularly.
The hybrid model is not an original idea. Others have proposed several iterations over the past few years, so this proposal is simply a variation on a theme:
  • Divide the class into two random groups of similar size.
  • One group engages in a traditional class discussion.
  • The other group participates in the discussion through a live blog such as CoverItLive that is projected in the classroom (they are not permitted to speak).
  • On a daily basis, students shift frequently between the spoken and written contribution, but both groups are expected to participate together and in concert.

There are several benefits to this strategy (if it works) that might speak to the individual needs of some students. Those who are intimidated or prefer not to speak in class will have the opportunity to participate. Those who prefer to reflect on a question before responding will have the opportunity to do so in the written genre. Those students who dislike writing as a form of expression will write more frequently, and about topics and viewpoints that they feel strongly about (the same motivations for speaking in class).

Will there be challenges implementing the hybrid discussion? I can anticipate several. First, the logistics of ensuring some continuity between the two camps may be complex. Traditional discussions sometimes move at a pace that would be difficult to match for writers. On the other hand, slowing down discussions to encourage more depth might be a benefit. Second, students may not like the hybrid format, both because it is different (and therefore risky) and because they will not always be able to play their stronger suit, depending on the group to which they are assigned. Again, alternating groups might strengthen both spoken and written skills over time.

After I have experimented with the hybrid discussion in my class for a few weeks, I will report back in this blog with anecdotal results and student feedback. I am hoping I can add the hybrid discussion to the “teacher toolkit for increased student engagement” that I am building this year.

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