Why “Unfinished Learning” was a Math Problem Long Before the Pandemic – Watch On-Demand Video Now

Jessie Woolley-Wilson at TEDxRainier

Pivotal moments really can create who we are today and very much shape who we become tomorrow. When I was a student, I was part of the group that went to the Metro DC area to try to figure out what business could do to try to improve education for every child. And what I remember most about my first classroom visit in DC was the sound of dripping water from a dilapidated building. There’s this classroom full of maybe 20, 25 students and there was one student sitting on the desk and he was kind of captivated, captivated by the water dripping from the ceiling. I won’t forget that scene because there wasn’t much learning going on but I also won’t forget his eyes. He saw me when I looked at him and he knew he deserved better.

That was a pivotal moment for me. At that time I decided not to take a traditional path from business school and to develop my career, really my life’s work is trying to figure out a way to make quality education available to every child regardless of what language they spoke, regardless of where they called home, regardless, really, of their zip code.

Do you know how important your zip code is to giving you access to quality education? The 40,000 zip codes in the United States, two outside the Boston area are considered the most highly educated zip codes in the country. So seems to me we have a choice, we can kind of load up our minivan and take all the kids to the best neighborhoods with the best teachers and the best education, or we could figure out a way to make zip code irrelevant to a child’s ability to learn, to realize their learning potential. And I believe in doing so realize they are human potential. I am very, very excited about the future of learning despite you might read in the paper every day because I think it rests in the promise of blended learning. Blended Learning, learning that combines the traditional face-to-face classroom experience that all of us perhaps grew up with. With new innovative learning technologies that have the power in my mind to democratize learning.

So I wanna tell you a little story, I want to talk about three things. Three things that I think are converging now, that are going to permanently and I think positively, change education. The first is the economic tsunami that we’ve all weathered. Twenty-six of fifty states are gonna dramatically decrease their investment in education as a result of what has happened in the past several years, twenty-six of fifty. And as a result, schools are being forced to do more with less. While classroom sizes get larger and while the learning readiness of the students in that classroom continues to get broader, and broader, and broader. Broader socioeconomic, broader cultural, broader language skills, so what is the teacher to do? I wanna tell you a really encouraging story about a teacher. Her name is Wendy Fugg. She’s a teacher in California. She saw over the past two or three years, her class size goes from 18 to 28 students. In the United States, the average classroom size is about 25 students now but that’s up to 16 in 1980. So Wendy looked at her classroom and she said, “What am I going to do to make sure every child get what they need when they need it?” What is the teacher to do, even a great teacher like Wendy. Wendy’s pivotal moment came when she turned to blended learning. She turned to blended learning that was supported by an intelligent adaptive learning technology that I’ll tell you about more later. So she asked her kids to spend 100 minutes a week on this adaptive software program and to rotate, part-live class with her, some time on the adaptive program. And the results were nothing but astounding. In six months, her classroom achieved the equivalent of a full year of learning, in six months. So with the help of these adaptive technologies that I’m going to introduce you to, we could actually increase the velocity of learning. So it doesn’t matter what a child’s starting point it. It doesn’t matter what they know when they start. What matters is the journey and where it takes them.

That brings me to the second major force that’s changing education in a positive way. I mentioned it a few minutes earlier, intelligent adaptive learning. How many of you have ordered something from Amazon or Netflix that you never, more of the later, that you never intended to buy? Because these software programs that we use get to know us through use. They get to know us through use and sometimes they’re right, oftentimes they’re right. But we’ve brought that kind of capability to learning, so that these adaptive technologies learn the learner as the learner learns. Sounds funny but it’s true. They actually learn the learner as the learner learns so that they can help determine what next lesson, what next learning experience a child should have based on what they demonstrate they know and what they don’t know.

So let me share with you an example that might help. Behind me you’ll see a virtual manipulative, a learning tool. This is designed to allow students to explore a lot of different ways to solve problems but what is happening in the background, what’s happening under the hood is that, the adaptive engine is collecting a lot of information as the student plays what the student thinks as a game. In fact, this engine will collect about 50,000 data points per student per hour. Did they hesitate when they picked up the mouse? Did they get the right answer immediately? All of those data points go into what lesson or what learning experience that child receives next. So let’s say we have a classroom and in that classroom we have two students, one is very dense and one is struggling. And the adaptive engine asks the two students to build the number 48. The first student says, “Well I know how to do that. I’ll take four groups of 10 and one group of 8 and I get my number, 48.” Doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t ask for help, he’s confident. The second student says, “Not quite sure but I do know my ones and I’m gonna push over individually, forty-eight ones.” Well in a multiple choice environment, both students are correct right? They both got the right answer but you can see that each of those students demonstrated that they had a different level of understanding of mathematics. And therefore, where they should progress to next, it shouldn’t be the same, it should be different.

Well with the help of blended learning solutions, like intelligent adaptive technologies, students are actually put in the driver seats so that they can literally help architect their own learning path. So that that first student might be sent to a subtraction lesson and be asked to build the number 48 starting from 100. Or as the second student who was struggling might get a lesson in 5s, in 10s, so that student can have a better opportunity to master what they weren’t able to demonstrate that they mastered before. But the most important thing here is that both students get what they need when they need it. Both students are engaged, they feel successful. They’re not stigmatized. They’re not embarrassed. Both students are supportive in an environment that is highly personalized to their own unique learning needs. This is the promise of intelligent adaptive learning. It will never replace great teachers but they can support great teaching as those classrooms explode.

That brings me to the third force that is shaping the future of learning. My husband and I were in an electronic store recently, trying to buy a flat screen TV, probably for the Super Bowl. And we went in there and there was little girl maybe 3 or 4 years old with her father. And while her father was engaged with the salesman, she went over to the wall and started pressing all the TVs hanging on the wall. She wasn’t really satisfied, she went to the next one. Wasn’t really satisfied, went to the next one. She turned around and said, “Daddy, we can’t buy our TV here. They’re all broken.” Grace is part of a new generation of learners. She’s used to having immediate responsiveness at her own personal touch. She feels in command of her environment with her touch and most kids don’t have the opportunity to experience blended learning in their classroom. And we have to inspire Grace to new levels of creativity because the world that she’s going to inherit, the jobs and industries that she’s going to encounter might not even exist yet. So we have to help Grace learn how to learn and understand the value of working through persistence. And in this environment that I was explaining to you, getting the wrong answer doesn’t mean failure. It’s just the first step to a deeper understanding of subject matter.

So when I think about my career, I think about 20 years ago in DC. I oftentimes think about that classroom. I think about that child, his eyes I met. I think about the desk he was sitting in and I think about that drip. And I think about how many other students in classrooms across the United States are uninspired and perhaps overlooked. But don’t be discouraged, be determined, because that drip doesn’t have to be a ticking clock. That drip can just be a cause of motivation for all of us to make sure that regardless of zip code that we can bring these blending technologies to every child and help to unlock the learning potential of every child. Because you what, when you think about, these are our future leaders. These are our future innovators, our future doers. These kids are our future. So I wanna leave you with a quote from a famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead. It guides me in my work. She said, “If children do not learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn.” Thank you.