Spring 2014

Creating Learner-Centric Environments

Student-centered Learning Powered by Technology

Student-centered Learning Powered by Technology

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of teaching is effectively reaching all learners. With 20, 30 or even 40 students in their classrooms, elementary teachers have the daunting task of meeting every student right where they are, supporting progress toward grade-level standards and cultivating the development of the whole child.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of teaching is effectively reaching all learners. With 20, 30 or even 40 students in their classrooms, elementary teachers have the daunting task of meeting every student right where they are, supporting progress toward grade-level standards and cultivating the development of the whole child.

On a daily basis, teachers make student-centric decisions by providing remediation, grade-level work or enrichment as appropriate. But this requires significant amounts of time, resources, data and content-area expertise. So when a fourth grade student doesn’t understand second grade mathematics, teachers rarely have the time or opportunity to revisit foundational number concepts with her. And with education funding cuts, the school may not have staffing resources to work with this student outside of class. At the same time, another fourth grader might understand mathematics at a sixth grade level, but she also may not receive the required support. The school’s schedule and resources are often limited and thus don’t enable teachers to make student-centric decisions for each student every day.

Despite the challenges, dedicated teachers design and implement student-centered lessons to gain insight into what each child knows and understands. Teachers could make the best use of precious class time if they had better information about what each student is thinking throughout any given lesson or learning experience. Yet with all that teachers are expected to do on a given day for a class with dozens of students, how learner-centric can classrooms become?

Potential of Technology

Many teachers and schools are looking to educational technologies to support and enhance student learning in their classrooms. Many of these technologies digitize certain instructional practices such as video lectures, textbook explanations and worksheets. But if greater access to textbooks and lectures were the key to closing achievement gaps, we would have witnessed high achievement for all students long ago. From a pedagogical perspective, static resources that simply transmit information in one direction to student “receivers” are limited in their ability to improve student understanding and enable the transfer of learning. Therefore, student-centric learning environments require engagement, independent thought and interactivity on the part of each individual student. Every classroom teacher needs lessons and resources that engage students in meaningful learning, and technology can provide support by differentiating for students while they are active learners rather than passive receivers.

Such technology needs to invite students to think independently and be capable of responding to their thoughts and ideas just as a teacher would — moment by moment — observing what each student is doing and how she is approaching each problem along with analyzing the strategies she uses. Ideally, this information can be used by both the teacher and the software to inform decisions about the student’s progress along a developmental pathway. Technology can therefore complement teachers and classrooms by first empowering individual learners when they are working independently, and then by providing data that inform teachers’ instructional planning, communication with parents and student goal-setting.

An ideal online learning experience for students provides classroom teachers not only with data about individual student understanding and performance, but also intelligently adapts in real time to provide a differentiated experience for each child. It engages students in a rigorous curriculum, reflects evidence-based learning principles and provides a personalized environment that supports motivation and inspires persistence. Online lessons also should include continuous formative assessment and provide meaningful feedback to students that is tailored to how they are solving problems. Just as in student-centric classrooms, effective learning technology can create an adaptive environment that improves student learning and closes achievement gaps.

Research-based Learning Principles

The pedagogy inherent in online lessons must engage students in “thinking and doing” rather than “sitting and getting.” It also must be informed by research-based principles of learning and cognitive development. Learning is a complex process, in which students develop understanding and expertise by connecting ideas, working across multiple contexts and engaging in experiences where they reason inductively and deductively. Decades of cognitive research validate the need for students to develop understanding by making sense of ideas in ways that honor their unique prior knowledge and skills. As teachers successfully do in classrooms, student-centric learning technology must effectively activate students’ prior knowledge in new situations that require critical thinking while engaging in achievable challenges.

The pedagogy inherent in online lessons must engage students in “thinking and doing” rather than “sitting and getting.” ...students develop understanding and expertise by connecting ideas, working across multiple contexts and engaging in experiences where they reason inductively and deductively.

In addition, the learning process should not be linear. Instead, each student should move through developmental learning progressions and pathways that are informed by decades of research and that differentiate for students based on their growth in reasoning, rather than their birthdate and grade level. Student-centric learning is at the core of a competency-based approach in which students progress through lessons, units and courses based on demonstrated proficiency. Educators must be sure that the competencies aren’t simply checklists of skills and isolated facts. Student learning must be measured by the ability to transfer knowledge in unfamiliar situations, performance in authentic situations and demonstrations of expertise in other contexts.

Partnering with Teachers and Empowering Students

To ensure high achievement for all students, we have to think differently about how to design and implement a student-centric environment for all students. And we therefore have to think differently about how new technologies can help accomplish this goal — when they’re designed in student-centric ways and honor principles of learning and cognitive research. Technology also should provide teachers with real-time, actionable data that improve their effectiveness in tailoring classroom instruction to personalize teaching and close achievement gaps.

At DreamBox, we build student-centric lessons and teacher-centric reporting to help realize the goal of high achievement for all students. Our technology enhances student thinking and complements what teachers are trying to accomplish in their classrooms. As demands on teachers increase and school resources decrease, teachers can’t always find time to connect with each student every day to know what they’re thinking and understanding. Therefore, we design DreamBox to be a trustworthy partner for teachers that supports student-centric learning so that each student will persist, progress and achieve.

Dr. Tim Hudson, Senior Director of Curriculum Design for DreamBox Learning, is a learning innovator and education leader who frequently writes and speaks about the goals of learning and educational strategies. At DreamBox, he oversees the development of innovative and interactive digital lessons that differentiate and adapt uniquely for each student. Prior to joining DreamBox, he spent over 10 years in public education, first as a high school math teacher and then as the Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator for a K–12 school system of over 17,000 students, where he also helped facilitate the system’s long-range strategic planning efforts.

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