School of One

Imagine a school in which each student receives individualized instruction, material tailored to the student’s own academic needs and learning style.  Individualized instruction was once available only to those able to afford exclusive programs or intensive tutoring.  Technology may be changing that.  This month’s issue of The Atlantic highlights the effort of New York’s School of One .

School of One is an attempt to apply an intensively personalized approach to math instruction:

The biggest difference between my work life and my school life is that my job allows for a high level of personalization.  Unlike my teachers in school, my editors don’t unilaterally insist that I do a story a certain way; instead, we come to an agreement.  Intriguingly, School of One attempts to apply that same kid of personalization to the teaching of math.  To put that in the edu-speak vernacular of Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City’s schools and one of the program’s biggest boosters, School of One tries to “move from the classroom as the locus of instruction delivery, to the student as the focus of instructional attainment.”

As most teachers and many parents can attest, not all students are well-suited for the mass-production, classroom model.  For a variety of reasons – from learning disabilities, behvaioral problems, motivation deficiencies, gaps in learning, and so on – many students struggle with a traditional classroom.  Over the years, those gaps in learning increase; and the likelihood that a student will suddenly catch on – absent intensive remediation – significantly decreases:

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that one of the biggest barriers for kids in school is the narrow entryway to success. “You’ve generally got one shot at school,” Willingham says.  “And if you’re no good at reading and arithmetic, you tune out, and school becomes a place where you’re not very happy, where you go to fail.”

The problem, Willingham argues, is that the “one shot” is tightly defined – reading in elementary school, for instance, is about pulling the main idea from stories.  It’s not seen as part of social studies, the arts, or science – classes rarely taught at the elementary level.  But the same basic comprehension skills come into play in those areas as well.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, most instruction is built around the idea of efficiency, of reaching the greatest number of students at one time:

Teachers generally work on a mass-production model – if 30 kids are in the class, the goal is to find a method that will allow the highest percentage of them to succeed.  A great teacher can employ secondary methods to get through to laggards, but given the variables that individual students bring to a class, a handful of kids will inevitably be short-changed.

Teaching each child at an individual level is cost-prohibitive and terribly inefficient.  Or, at least it has been.  School of One builds on the idea of utilizing technology to rapidly differentiate (or, in this case, individualize) for each student:

He envisioned a classroom broken down into stations, each one designed to teach specific skills in different ways.  A kid who needs to learn how to calculate the area of a circle could be taught in a group with a teacher, with a virtual tutor, or with a computer program.  “The vision I had was a large open space with different modalities happening at the same time,” Rose told me.  “I don’t know a lot about technology.  But I did talk to people who know a lot about technology.  I said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea.  Is this even doable?’  And they said ‘Yeah.’ ”

…Rose collaborated with Wireless Generation , a Brooklyn computer programming firm.  Together they created an algorithm capable of weighing a student’s academic needs, his or her learning preferences, and the classroom resources.

…The result is that one student might learn to add fractions at a dry-erase board with a small group, while another student uses the internet to practice calculating the area of a circle with a tutor in Kentucky, while still another student learns about factoring through a game on his laptop.

So far the program is yielding results.  Last year a study found that student diagnostic scores improved by 28%.  Initially, the school’s students were at 9% proficient in math and 12% in English.  By last year, 62% were proficient in math and 40% in English.  That’s a big change.  And those results, at a minimum, reinforce the idea of the importance of differentiating instruction for each student.

Our own Quantile Framework for Mathematics is relevant here.  Quantle-based tools, like the Quantile Math Skill Database or the Quantile Teacher Assistant , are built around the idea or targeting the gaps for individual learners.  The Quantile Teaching Assistant, for example, is specifically designed to allow teachers to identify the prerequisite skills for any particular math skill or concept.  Once identified, teachers can then match students to lower-levle resources that allow for gradual scaffolding to the skill in question.

As many classrooms move away from whole-class instruction toward differentiating for individual learners, it is our hope that these tools will prove a valuable resource for each student, regardless of learning style or background.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.