school for one

These two charts make the case for iPads in every classroom

May 23, 2013
May 23, 2013

Over the last few weeks, my startup conducted pilots of our adaptive math iPad app in 12 different classrooms across the country. Many of our hypotheses were confirmed and many were unraveled, but no conclusion was as strong as this: adaptive learning—where each student learns at their own pace—is the most important innovation that technology will bring to the classroom.

Students spent their time with the Front Row Classroom app developing and applying their knowledge to fractions under the new Common Core standards. While the students practiced, the teachers monitored a dashboard, like the following:

Above is a typical fourth grade classroom—there’s a lot of diversity regarding what concept each student is learning. Seven students  are still working on third grade math, 15 are working on fourth grade math, and four students are a grade level ahead.

In all, there are 18 different concepts that the students are working on, but there is only one teacher in the class. If you were a teacher lecturing to the class—what do you lecture? Do you lecture on concept 8, recognizing equivalent fractions—and bore 80% of the class that already knows that content? Or do you lecture on concept 11, generating equivalent fractions, and confuse 20% of the class while boring another 60%. Or do you go with the curriculum and teach concept 18, multiplying fractions—ignoring the fact 60% of your class isn’t ready for that yet?

The sad truth: in a traditional classroom, no matter what this teacher lectures, he or she isn’t going to get through to more than 15% of the class—essentially wasting the other 85% of students’ time. This is typical of classrooms today.

Here’s a very different picture of a class, in the fifth grade:

This classroom is pretty far behind—nearly all the kids are stuck on third grade concepts, with one student who is at a fourth grade level and one who is at a fifth grade level. But the teacher is working through the curriculum like she is supposed to—which means she’s teaching concept 25, understanding fractions as division, while the students are largely stuck on concepts 8, 9, and 10.

This problem is worsened by the fact that the students have been passed from the third grade teacher, who probably knew about their struggles with equivalent fractions, to the fourth grade teacher, who kind of knew about their struggles, to their fifth grade teacher, who was probably never told. It’s a cruel game of telephone in which the kids end up losing.

But if she uses adaptive teaching tools that let students learn at their own pace, suddenly a graph like the above emerges, telling her exactly where the structural holes in the kids’ knowledge are. The difference is stark: in one case she continues teaching and the students remain lost, and in the other case, the students work on the parts of their math foundation that are missing. In one case they are confused, and in the other one they are enlightened.

The value of adaptive learning is unquestionable in every classroom. Teaching is hard—it requires working with 30 little minds, each moving at a different pace and learning in their own way. Optimizing the classroom to maximize each student’s experience is exactly the sort of thing software can provide teachers and their schools.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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