Adaptive learning – departure from the lockstep model of education

| August 8, 2014

Adaptive learning caters to the individual and aims to meet them exactly where they are at any point in time. Mohamad Jebara from Mathspace explains how technology can help to take adaptive learning to the next level.

Adaptive learning is a popular term of late. No doubt you’ve heard it when looking into apps and tools to support students’ learning both in and out of the classroom. What is adaptive learning, exactly?

Differentiated -> personalised -> adaptive

Differentiated, personalised, and adaptive are three of the biggest buzzwords in the education world at the moment. What do they mean exactly? And what is the difference between them?

Differentiated learning

Differentiated learning is an easy one, and something that we all know about. Streaming is the most obvious example of this. Commonly, this will involve students being placed in a group according to their ability level and the group following a set pathway through the curriculum. Most maths classes that we come across these days are differentiated in some way to cater for the different levels of ability within the class.

Personalised learning

Personalised learning is where individual students, rather than a group of students, have their own pathway through the curriculum. This could be based on a diagnostic test that the student takes at the start of the year or the term to see what level they are working at for different topics within the syllabus.

For example, one year 8 student may have fractions covered but struggle with decimals. A personalised learning path could be designed for them whereby they learn year 9 material in fractions, and work through some year 6 material on decimals to help them get up to speed in that topic.

So personalised learning is essentially individualised differentiation.

Adaptive learning

Adaptive learning takes it a step further and introduces a time element. With adaptive learning, not only do you have differentiation based on ability and individualised pathways through the curriculum, but there is a recognition that the pathway can change at any time.

Going back to our year 8 student, they might work through the year 6 fractions material more quickly than expected. With adaptive learning we’d recognise that they’ve demonstrated mastery of the year 6 level and we could start giving them some more advanced material to work on.

We can see that differentiated learning begets personalised learning, and from personalised learning comes adaptive learning. It seems a natural progression towards a learning program that caters specifically to the individual and aims to meet them exactly where they are at any point in time. This is a radical departure from the traditional lockstep model of education that the world has been following for the last hundred years or so.

Adaptive learning – how to deliver?

To a degree, it is possible for a teacher to facilitate adaptive learning in their classrooms without any additional technological aids. In fact, all good teachers will already deliver some degree of adaptive learning. Recognising which students are ready to move on and which need a little more attention goes with the territory.

But to deliver a truly adaptive program, you need more than just spreadsheets and a good memory.

Perhaps this explains why it’s only recently that adaptive learning has jumped to the forefront of the education frontier.

Technology helps us take adaptive learning to the next level and allows us to offer a truly personalised, granular, real-time learning program.

If our year 8 student demonstrates competence in adding fractions at a year 9 level but needs more practice with multiplying fractions, an adaptive learning technology can at once give them more difficult addition questions and make the multiplication questions simpler until they get the hang of the concept.

We can follow the student via reports and progress matrices, make adjustments where needed and, of course, be present in the classroom to explain concepts and help with difficult problems. The teacher’s role shifts towards facilitating self-directed student learning. Thanks to technology, all this is now possible.

Global Mindset presents Mohamad’s ideas along with digital thinking, leadership thinking, global thinking, lateral thinking and an education technology Start Up pitch at the conference ‘Innovations in Learning’ on 13 August in Sydney.