I was in a small room recently with some futurists who were very excited about adaptive learning. The reasons for their excitement wouldn’t surprise you. “Prussian factory model of learning, learn at your own pace, et cetera.” I admit it all sounded very appealing and when I tried to articulate my frustration with their model, I didn’t get far at all. I sounded like just another rent-seeking teacher trying to preserve the outdated model that cuts his paycheck.
Futurists and math educators talk past each other. If I could jump into any futurist’s head and encode any particular understanding there to make dialog easier, it would be this:
Adaptive learning is like an iPod with infinite capacity and infinite capability to play any song ever recorded or sung, provided those songs were written by Neil Diamond.
If all you’ve ever heard in your life is Neil Diamond’s music, you might think we’ve invented something quite amazing there. Your iPod contains the entire universe of music. If you’ve heard any other music at all, you might still be impressed by this infinite iPod. Neil wrote a lot of music after all, some of it good. But you’ll know we’re missing out on quite a lot also.
So it is with the futurists, many of whom have never been in a class where math was anything but watching someone lecture about a procedure and then replicating that procedure twenty times on a piece of paper. That entire universe fits neatly within a computer-adaptive model of learning.
But for math educators who have experienced math as a social process where students conjecture and argue with each other about their conjectures, where one student’s messy handwritten work offers another student a revelation about her own work, a process which by definition can’t be individualized or self-paced, computer-adaptive mathematics starts to seem rather limited.
Lectures and procedural fluency are an important aspect of a student’s mathematics education but they are to the universe of math experiences as Neil Diamond is to all the other amazing artists who aren’t Neil Diamond.
If I could somehow convince the futurists to see math the same way, I imagine our conversations would become a lot more productive.
BTW. While I’m here, Justin Reich wrote an extremely thoughtful series of posts on adaptive learning last month that I can’t recommend enough:
- Blended Learning, But The Data Are Useless
- Nudging, Priming, and Motivating in Blended Learning
- Computers Can Assess What Computers Do Best
Can I offer another analogy for these technologists? Adaptive learning is like a guitar teacher who teaches you how to play harder and harder pieces of music but never teaches you how to improvise. So you can play a piece of music that is placed in front of you, but you’ll never be able to pick up a guitar and just play with a couple of friends. I would contend that the improvisor is better prepared to understand and even make music. I’ll bet Neil Diamond can pick up a guitar and jam.