Adaptive Software: Friend, Not Foe

Laura Jackson, Highlander Institute
February 25, 2015

In my work supporting blended learning in Rhode Island and the surrounding region, one of the push-backs I occasionally hear is, “Why would teachers embrace technology that’s going to make them obsolete?” When I am faced with this question, I feel a mix of anxiety and assurance. Anxiety because I know that if blended learning is seen in this light, my work will be much more difficult; assurance because I feel confident that I can dispel this misunderstanding.

Let me start by saying that I would never hang my hat on tools or models designed to make teachers obsolete. Rich interactions between students and passionate, intelligent, 3-dimensional teachers is central to my vision of the classroom of the future. The key word here is rich. In my vision for the future, teachers’ precious time and attention is spent coaching and providing feedback to students, not drilling math facts and scoring quizzes.

Adaptive software, like DreamBox, is not and will never be a teacher. It will never really know the students who use it, and it will certainly never care for them like their teachers do. But it is an incredibly powerful tool that can take low-hanging fruit of teachers’ plates, freeing them up to do the more complex and intellectually-rewarding work of teaching. And this, I believe, not only makes teachers’ jobs easier, but it can make them more effective.

These claims are based on observations I’ve made this year supporting the implementation of DreamBox in kindergarten and first grade classrooms in Providence Public Schools. In Providence’s model, teachers use DreamBox as one of three stations in a standard station rotation model. Most students find the gamified math software extremely engaging, often pumping their little fists and whispering “yessssss!” when it’s their turn to slip on their headphones at the DreamBox station.

While a third of the class works silently at their computer station, the teacher is able to work with another third on a differentiated mini lesson. Teachers typically group students homogeneously for the rotation, so the group of 8 or 9 students the teacher is working with could be below, on, or above grade level. As a result, the teacher is more easily able to adjust the pace and depth of her instruction. And, because it is a smaller group, she is better able to check-in with each student and get a sense for their understanding.

A third group of students works on a previously-taught concept, either through a game, application activity, or story problems. This work can be done in partners or in small groups and provides an opportunity for students to talk about and apply their mathematical knowledge.

All the while, the software is generating data–far more than even the most meticulous and data-savvy teacher could possibly track. It is recording not only whether a student answered the question correctly or incorrectly, but also how long it took him to answer, whether his strategy was the most efficient, and what his mistakes reveal about his conceptual understanding. While the software will use this data to make adjustments to the lessons it offers up to students, that is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to how this information can be used.

Using the Classroom Usage Report, teachers can determine if students’ are working productively while on the devices. Forget eyes in the back of their heads; these students’ teachers have eyes in the back of the computer! They can also monitor students’ progress in the software, comparing a student to the class average and looking at specific standards they’ve mastered, in order to identify who may need more support (or more of a push) in small group instruction.

Once teachers have developed a familiarity with this level of data analysis, they can go deeper and start using it to create even more targeted groupings and make more nuanced instructional decisions. For example, if a teacher is planning to introduce a new concept the following week, he can go into DreamBox and look at the Student Groups by Proficiency Report to see if his students have been working on that skill. With the click of a button, the teacher can see which students have already demonstrated mastery, which are currently working on that standard, and which have not yet started. Using this information, he can regroup his students for the week so that his small group instruction can reflect students’ prior knowledge.

When I was in the classroom, this kind of differentiation and targeted instruction was more of an aspiration than a reality. But through the use of this type of software, teachers are actually able to work with small groups of students on a daily basis and use short-cycle data to make informed instructional decisions. This is the new normal in these classrooms. And it is why I feel strongly that this technology doesn’t threaten the role of the teacher, but elevates it.