Adaptive learning takes a personalized, often technology-centric approach to education. The tools are new, but the ideas behind them date back at least a century.
“People have been talking about and attempting to do adaptive learning under different names for many years,” says Neal Kingston, an education professor at the University of Kansas. “A lot of the ideas came out of Maria Montessori’s work in the early 1900s.”
The Montessori method gives teachers a variety of learning activities that students can pursue independently, working at their own pace on projects that fit with their preferences and abilities. Today’s trend toward adaptive or personalized learning in the K-12 sphere incorporates many of the same ideas, administering them through computer algorithms to help teachers tailor their approach to students, or to allow students to take assessments that instantly adapt to their level of mastery.
Tailoring the approach to each student in a classroom might sound ideal, but it comes with its own set of challenges. “When you talk to teachers about personalizing education, they imagine having to create 20 or 30 lesson plans,” Kingston says. “Adaptive learning is impossible if every teacher has to invent everything for their kids every day.”
Instead, districts must embrace a fundamental shift in mindset to implement adaptive learning and assessments successfully, starting with a big picture goal and harnessing technology to help them succeed. Here are four best practices for districts transitioning to assessing student progress in an adaptive framework.
Establish clear goals
Identifying project goals is an essential step toward the successful adoption of an adaptive model. “It’s very helpful to have an anchor,” says Maggie Wertz, dean of instruction at KIPP Generations Collegiate, part of KIPP Texas Public Schools Houston. “What is our mission? What are the quantitative and qualitative goals we’re wanting to hit?”
Once the initiative is underway, Wertz recommends periodic evaluations of progress and roadblocks. “We ask, ‘Are we getting there?’” she says. “If not, what is preventing us, and how can we address it?”
Evaluate potential technology issues
When considering adaptive tools that rely heavily on technology and connected devices to operate, administrators should anticipate potential implementation challenges in their district. For example, Title I schools might have a larger percentage of students who do not have a broadband internet connection at home.
“Our students’ access to the internet can vary,” says Wertz. “They’re able to use tablets and laptops at school, but when they go home, they’re not staying connected.”
KIPP Generations Collegiate has used several adaptive learning tools, including LightSail, a personalized digital reading curriculum. Last year, they incorporated Cerego, an adaptive learning platform based on research in neuroscience, in several courses. Overall, Wertz says the results of taking an adaptive approach have been positive — but the students’ lack of access to technology at home is a challenge they have to work around.
Schools also face the challenge of device usage in the classroom becoming a distraction. Fred McDaniel, executive vice president of assessment and professional learning at NWEA, stresses the importance of tailoring the approach to suit the particular teacher and group of students.
“Teachers need to be trained in classroom management with technology, and to adapt and apply these tools in the manner that best suits their kids,” he says. “I think there’s a risk of over-reliance on the technology. It’s a tool to supplement, not to replace quality teaching.”
Prioritize open communication
Introducing any technology-based initiative is always a daunting task, but the process will go much more smoothly if communication is a priority. Maintaining close contact with the technology provider is one key element of this, says Wertz.
“You need a solid relationship with the company you’re using,” she says. “Cerego always responds quickly to our questions and works with us to make changes, and it’s been very helpful to have that support.”
Communication between administrators, teachers and students is also essential to the success of adaptive tools. “Teachers have so much on their plates all the time, so asking them to make a fundamental shift in how their classroom functions can add more stress,” says Wertz, noting that once teachers are on board, they need continuing support. “I coach the teachers who use it. We meet weekly, and that provides a solid touch point on what’s happening and a place where we can address any challenges they’re facing.”
Districts transitioning to adaptive assessments must also prioritize communication and teacher training to reap the most benefits. “Teachers and administrators really need to understand how the test works,” says McDaniel. “The data is available at the end, and they need to be prepared to interpret and apply it immediately.”
Adopting an adaptive model impacts students most of all, and they need to be kept in the communication loop, as well. “Making sure our students know what we’re doing and why is key,” says Wertz. “Cerego asks you to study and test yourself in small increments instead of just rereading notes. We front-load that information to incoming freshmen so they will know the reasoning behind the approach.”
Adaptive assessments can be unsettling to students who are unfamiliar with how they work, says McDaniel.
“The classic example is gifted and talented kids taking an assessment and instead of sailing through the first half of the test, they’re having to really think after the first three questions because the computer is adjusting to their abilities,” he says. “It’s important to provide preparation for kids across the board as districts make these changes.”
Give teachers the tools they need
Ultimately, successful implementation of an adaptive approach depends on giving teachers the tools they need — first to understand their students’ individual abilities and needs, and then to use adaptive methods to meet them where they are.
Kingston is involved with research on an adaptive tool called the Dynamic Learning Map. “It enables teachers to make formative assessments in the classroom better — more a representation of what a child knows and doesn’t know, and how it all connects,” Kingston says.
The learning maps illustrate pathways between various skills, suggesting different teaching methods based on the student’s learning style, preferences and abilities. “For example, if short-term memory is a problem for a student, some approaches wouldn’t be helpful, but others would. We lay out what these approaches are for the teacher to be able to navigate the landscape.”
The learning map model is being piloted by hundreds of teachers in five states, while Kingston is tracking its efficacy. The adaptive market boasts an extensive range of software tools and applications, but the jury is still out on the lasting impact of the trend. Kingston emphasizes that adaptive education is a fundamental shift from traditional K-12 education in the U.S.
“Certainly for the last 50 years or more, we have been bound by the structure of grades, buildings and walls between everything — and that gets in the way,” he says. “Unless we start to consider changes from a systems point of view, we’re not going to have the success we need.”