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Teachers become senseis while tech handles drills

A school finds success moving drills to software. Is there a model here?

Can kids really learn from computers and mobile devices? And if so, should they? When we talk about children learning from software instead of teachers it conjures up a sterile picture of kids staring at computer screens with no human contact. It triggers an automatic aversion to losing the human touch and warm insight we associate with great teaching. We suspect the only thing a computer has to offer is rote learning at the lowest possible common denominator. So when representatives from High Tech High, a San Diego school where teaching is centered around collaborative projects and ensuring every student is known, told me about their proposals to use intelligent tutoring systems, I was more than intrigued.

Last year, High Tech High performed an extensive search for a computer-based system for learning math, in particular to drill students in areas where they needed more practice. They found that the ALEKS intelligent assessment and tutoring system was the best fit for their particular needs, but budget cuts kept them from obtaining the software for more than three or four classrooms. Ben Daley, COO and chief academic officer of High Tech High, explained how ALEKS captivates students by giving them simple feedback in the form of pie charts that represent how thoroughly they have mastered a given topic. It’s just a report, but there is a serendipitous magic in smart experimentation — in this case, presenting information in a certain way changed students and inspired teachers.

It turns out that, simple as it is, students get pretty serious about getting their pie charts filled out. The smart design of the ALEKS math programs also does a good job of giving students math drills, feedback, and help that is at the right level for what they know, making them highly independent in making progress. Although they are still in the preliminary stages of analyzing the data, the teachers at High Tech High were surprised by the increase in student achievement when kids were turned loose on the ALEKS system. The administrators were surprised to learn that although only a handful of licenses had been purchased, ALEKS had spread through the school like a virus as teachers talked to each other about what they were seeing in the classroom and found creative ways to finance additional licenses.

This story presents an interesting counterpoint to the recent emphasis on using technology primarily in developing 21st century skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. These “higher order” skills are associated in the education dialogue both with students taking more ownership of their learning through access to rich original source material and collaboration via the Internet, and with students learning through solving authentic problems or working on long-term cross-disciplinary projects that more resemble the work of professionals than traditional lecture/worksheet/multiple-choice-test schooling. The notion of “computer tutors” echoes back to the unrealized ideals of Artificial Intelligence from the 1980s, and the success of intelligent tutoring systems suggests that there is something important in traditional, time-intensive individual practice. Yet, it also evokes a distasteful undertone that the complex role of a teacher can be reduced to a set of algorithms impersonally enacted by a machine — the absolute antithesis of the teaching environment at High Tech High.

Drills, chunking, and attention to spare

Perhaps there is some reconciliation of these ideas in the nature of expertise-building and the quirks of the human brain. When it comes to logical problem solving the human brain is brutally slow, linear, and limited. Our minds can only reason with the building blocks we are able to hold in working memory, which for most people is about seven items (not coincidentally the number of digits in a phone number.) When we are novices in an area, such as when learning to drive a car, it requires all our attention to take our foot off the gas, push in the clutch, push on the brake, put one hand on the gear shift, move the gear shift up and to the right, and turn the wheel with the other hand. By the time we add in glancing in the rearview mirror and watching out for pedestrians, our working memory may well overflow, causing us to stall the car or get into an accident. With practice, through repetition, all of these separate actions get “chunked” together in long term memory, and making a right turn gets simplified to a single integrated action. Eventually, the complex actions of driving become so automatic that we sometimes bypass working memory altogether and find ourselves waking up at our destination with no real memory of having driven there.

This chunking and automatizing frees up our cognitive resources when performing mundane tasks. We now have attention to spare for other things. An experienced driver might choose to focus this attention on listening to the radio, talking with passengers, or thinking about work. An expert driver, however, uses those resources to become a better driver — having mastered the art of the right turn he or she begins to master the art of defensive driving or perhaps race-car driving as a true professional, putting all his or her attention on increasingly sophisticated nuances of expert driving. Similarly, as an expert in any field gains experience, elementary ideas get chunked together into a single concept. As the concepts held in working memory become increasingly complex, the expert can address increasingly complex problems. The more information working memory can hold, the more room there is for multiple constraints and real-world variables and the less a problem has to be simplified to be tractable.

Athletes and musicians drill endlessly on simple tasks that are fundamental to their field. Coaches ensure that the drills are performed with proper form since it takes far longer to unlearn a bad habit than to learn a good one. Martial artists practice katas for years that eventually become the subroutines they automatically execute during competition and sparring. Does drill play a similar role in math and other learning? Is it necessary to free up working memory from the mechanics of addition and multiplication in order to solve problems in algebra? Do the patterns of algebraic manipulation need to be chunked into long-term memory to free up attention for a problem in calculus? What is the role of drill in math, and is it one a computer can provide better than a teacher?

If we view a teacher as a coach or a sensei, then software takes on its proper role as one of many tools available to teachers and students. With human guidance to ensure students are gaining understanding and with software tools to drill that understanding into automaticity, it is possible to structure learning so that every student can advance at his or her own pace. Individualized learning is far more efficient than when students are required to learn in lockstep, listening to the same lectures or completing the same assignments regardless of whether they have already mastered the material or are hopelessly behind. Self-paced intelligent tutors can help students learn more independently, more quickly, and more deeply.

How will mobile and 24/7 connectivity change learning?

At High Tech High, the reason for turning to intelligent tutoring systems is simple: if they help teachers enjoy a coaching role that supports kids in learning basics more independently, it gives them far more flexibility in how teachers spend precious classroom minutes. High Tech High has applied for grants to provide students and teachers with mobile devices that are connected to the Internet 24/7 via mobile broadband. In large part, High Tech High is exploring how technology can support anytime, anywhere collaboration within communities of learning, but they will also experiment to see how intelligent tutoring systems have an impact in the snippets of time available to mobile device users — beyond the results they see with students using the software only in the classroom. They suspect that 24/7 connectivity will support and enhance the human connection in learning. If it also lets kids move through curriculum basics more quickly or more independently outside the classroom, it gives back something the High Tech High community never has enough of: more time for cross-disciplinary, collaborative projects that build higher-order skills and ground the basic curriculum.

The High Tech High programs will also give the education community something it doesn’t yet have enough of: concrete data. Does anytime, anywhere learning with technology help teachers and students be more efficient in what they already do? Does it enable new ways of learning? How should those two different goals be balanced to leverage great teachers? What approaches increase community versus fostering isolation? There are countless opinions and plausible theories. Leadership like that at High Tech High will provide the data to ground the debate.


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  • Frank Diaz

    In looking through many of my FastCompany and Inc. magazines to re-read lot’s of great articles and to pick up any juicy bits of information I may have missed, I came upon your involvement with Southwest High School in Jacksonville NC in the Novemeber 2009 FastCompany. We launched a program in Miami Dade County Public Schools to focus on mentoring high school students by matching them with mentors who graduated from their same high schools and are now successfull community leaders (www.revenueclub.org). I wondered what type of involvement Qualcomm could make even though Miami is not situated in your company’s market?

  • Michael B. Horn

    Great piece. This is fascinating. Thanks!