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Adaptive Software: Friend, Not Foe

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 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 more difficult; assurance because I feel confident that I can dispel the 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, three-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 some of the more tedious tasks off 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 while supporting the implementation of DreamBox in kindergarten and first grade classrooms in Providence’s public schools. In the Providence 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 a set of headphones at the DreamBox station.

 While a third of the class works silently at computer stations, the teacher is able to work with another third on a differentiated mini-lesson. Teachers typically group students homogenously 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 instruction. And, because it is a smaller group, she is better able to touch base with each student and get a sense of 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 on the first group—far more than even the most meticulous and data-savvy teacher could possibly track. It is recording not only whether a student has answered a 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 a student, that is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to how this information can be used.

 By viewing 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, she can go into DreamBox and look at the Student Groups by Proficiency Report to see if students have been working on that skill. With the click of a button, she can see which students have already demonstrated mastery, which are currently working on that standard, and which have not yet started. Using this information, she can regroup students for the week so that small group instruction can best reflect students’ prior knowledge.

 When I was still teaching, 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.

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