Thursday, July 7, 2016

How to do Adaptive Learning Right

I was fortunate enough to receive a blog-post with the above title from the educationalist and blogger Larry Cuban (

I love the title from the authors Keith Devlin and Randy Weiner.  After 20-plus years of working in classrooms worldwide, I still am no further towards discovering a “right” way, either for myself or my learners.  For me educational practice is a continual process of trial and error – more error than trial, to be honest.

Both the authors work in the edtech industry, and they describe the creation of what they term an “adaptive engine,” to supply players of their launch product, Wuzzit Trouble, with challenges adjusted to individual ability levels.  Based on research conducted by mathematics professionals, they created something that was designed to make education not a process of rote-learning, but an “experience,” one that takes a real-world mathematics problem and invites users to solve it.  Learners have to acquire two abilities as a result – they have to develop problem-solving knowledges, as well as acquiring mathematical thinking .

More importantly the engine encourages what the authors term adaptive thinking, rendering learners in full control of how to move forward and what degree of success they should accept.  Through such means they develop the 21st century skills of holistic thinking and problem solving.

A well-designed technology should not only help learners to explore problems but provide information on how their hypotheses varied from their actual experience and how they might revise their strategy accordingly.  Mathematics should be something learned through practical experience; through a method that breaks through what they term the “symbol barrier,” and provides instead a range of tools that individual learners can adapt for themselves to plot their own course of study.

I do not know enough about the edtech industry to make any comment on the efficacy of the materials discussed.   Mathematics was never my strongest subject at school; I could never get used to algebra, and differentiation and integration largely remained a closed book.

But what I would ask is this: although I am in favor of any edtech scheme that advances the cause of adaptive learning, surely we need people to ensure its successful operation?  Not just technicians and/or experts to enhance learner experience of that material, but coaches and other educators to provide support and counsel whenever necessary?  Learners can discover solutions for themselves, I grant you; but they do need to talk to someone to sustain their morale as well as offering pointers for future mathematical (or any educational) research.

Online communication offers a valuable tool – I use it frequently myself through various forms of email and social media – but I still believe that there is a place for human interaction that stand-alone technology cannot provide.  Adaptive learning is not just subject-related; it requires learners to understand something about the world around them; how people react to different situations, both verbally as well as nonverbally.  Sometimes I find that the best “classes” – if they can be described as such – take place in caf├ęs or restaurants, where educators and learners alike learn how to observe one another’s body language as well as the nuances of stress and tone in their spoken language.  We also learn to look at others, and try to infer from their body-language what they might be thinking.  Such processes are the bread and butter of all creative writers.

Our learners might not be creative writers in embryo (they might enter totally different professions), but it is essential that they learn something about the worlds they inhabit, so that they can refine their adaptive processes.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, a product of a pre-edtech era when we did a lot of our classes sitting outside on the grass; but over the last few years or so I have come to realize the importance of looking and listening to people as the basis of all forms of learning.  We might not find any answers to our questions, but it’s worthwhile hypothesizing.

Laurence Raw

7 July 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mistaken Metaphors

I was alerted to a recent blog-post by the educationalist Larry Cuban in which he claims that the literature on the use of computers in schools is “bipolar.”  At one extreme are the success-stories of those who managed to involve disengaged children in new learning experiences; at the other are those who find technology disappointing, a means to disrupt than reinforce the benefits of learning.  Cuban claims that this distinction frequently leads to “a grossly inaccurate picture of computer use and its effects in US schools”; or a rehearsal of long-established ideological struggles between different factions of the progressive education movement that date back over a hundred years (

There are two observations that can be made on this.  I think that Cuban’s observation is in itself over-simplistic; like all educational questions, there are intellectual and methodological shades of gray that require elaboration.  We need to know what technology has been used for, in what subject, for what kind of learners, and why; and we also need to bear in mind questions of geography and demography, both of which play a significant part in the educational experience.  More importantly, we should realize that technology per se does not actually improve educational standards; we need to know far more about how educators and learners adapt themselves to new methods, which has far more to do with negotiation and collaboration rather than technological aptitude.

Secondly, I would object to the term “bipolar” as a means to describe an opposition more aptly termed “binary.”  Cuban claims in a reply to his blog-post that “bipolar” is a metaphor, with strengths and weaknesses that become visible if that metaphor “is pushed too far.”  This is an unfortunate use of language to describe a mental condition that involves a brain disorder causing unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.  Put more simply, “bipolar disorder” refers to someone whose mind has extended “too far” in the depressive direction.

Cuban’s choice of term denotes a basic misunderstanding of how the individual consciousness is shaped and reshaped through education – not the kind of education provided by “technology” (used here in the abstract sense), but an education produced through a series of learning experiences, both individual and collective. 

I was reminded of how that process works, as I recently watched a twenty-two-year old disaster movie, Alive (1993).  The film tells the story of how a plane carrying the Uruguyan rugby union team (as well as other passengers) crashed in the Andes mountains, killing the crew as well as a few passengers.  Initially the survivors believe that they will be rescued fairly soon, but eventually learn that the search has been called off, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Confronted for the first time with life-or-death experiences, at least two of the rugby team react in a fashion characteristic of temporary bipolar disorder; their moods shift, they lack the energy to do anything and want to be left to die in the snow.  Yet the film shows how most of the boys learn – through painful experience – what teamwork actually entails, both on and off the sports field.  They have to deal with adverse as well as favorable situations, while realizing that any solutions to their predicament have a limited chance of success.  They endure pain and suffering, which can be dealt with through mutual support as well as by praying to God.  Sometimes fate works in their favor; at other times it can destroy them; the rough needs to be endured as well as the smooth so as to move forward.  To deal with bipolarism, however temporary, it is necessary to find a balance between acceptance and action, while understanding that their teammates are undergoing similar traumas.

Cynics might dismiss such notions as banal – the kind of things you might find in any Hollywood (or British) movie set in the frozen wastes (remember Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic (1948)), emphasizing the virtues of keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip in the face of adversity.  Yet they still have an important function in any educational exchange for educators and learners alike – far more significant than that of “technology.”  We can only learn how to learn through teamwork, a notion that requires us to accept the good with the bad.  There will be occasions when we feel like giving up (as I experienced with one class in the previous semester), but we have to persevere, in the – sometimes quixotic – belief that we are achieving our goals, whether individual or personal.  Sometimes we might experience depressive symptoms – as I have over the last two years or so in the wake of my medical history – but they can only be dealt with by trying to talk about them, not just to professionals, but to our learners, or our peers as well.  That process is not easy, especially for introverts who hitherto have kept themselves to themselves, and might be a long one.  But if we trust our team, each step, however small, can be perceived positively.

I have to admit to being slightly hurt by Cuban’s post, as it suggests that he does not really understand the true implications of bipolarism.  Yet I am loth to criticize him; rather I should be grateful to him for prompting me to reflect on my own educational philosophy, which has been shaped by the experience of depression.  I also thank him for making me understand the importance of learning as a 24/7 process, not dependent on technology, but something that can be appreciated even through the experience of watching old Hollywood movies.