We could see that a number of pupils had the potential to make expected outcomes but clearly needed additional support.

Making the challenge of meeting each child’s distinct learning needs manageable

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As children move through primary school there are always concepts or objectives that some children fail to master before it’s time to move the class on. This means that each child has a unique set of strengths, as well as the potential for small gaps in their knowledge and skills, and areas about which they feel less confident.

The new higher standards required in the English curriculum have heightened the issue further with the September 16 cohort of year 6s having had just two years to adapt to a curriculum that expects higher standards to have been built up from Reception. Coupled with this is the shift in the teaching of mathematics to a mastery approach, a key feature of which is to stay on a maths concept for longer, and which expects firm foundations that can be built on.

Speaking to teachers, and reading the paper by the educational research group, EdSurge on ‘Decoding Adaptive’, this means many schools are facing the challenge of trying to provide children with targeted teaching based on their distinct learning needs to fill the gaps. Providing every child with the right learning experience at the right time is already a challenge. Adding into the mix the pressure on school budgets with resulting reduction in support staff means there are often far fewer teaching staff available to meet the individual needs of each child. As a result, many schools are turning to adaptive learning technology to support teachers in addressing the gaps.

At Bruce Grove Primary School in London, Ian Jenkins adopted an adaptive learning programme as the school had identified pupils who were not low attainers but, with the increased demand of the new curriculum, were in danger of falling behind.

Phil Brett, Year 6 teacher

As a result of trialling SuccessMaker which has adaptive assessment and sequencing 96% of children mastered the skills at their level, and one child made nine months progress in the 22 hours they spent in the adaptive learning programme. Ian explained that the adaptive programme freed up teacher time whilst having.

A significant impact on the children and their learning. It does push them along quite quickly and, you know, it can have a great impact on their results and their progress.

Ian Jenkins, Bruce Grove Primary School in London

So what is adaptive learning?

With the pressure on schools from Pupil Premium funding to demonstrate the value and impact of any programme they adopt, the jargon and claims of adaptive learning providers can be confusing. This is because there is a wide spectrum of what support adaptive learning can provide children.

In EdSurge’s paper they aim to clear things up and define adaptive learning as:

Education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support.

In other words, technology that does things such as track how a child answers a question and changes the next question a child is asked or the teaching input a child receives straight away.

What are the different types of adaptive software?

Adaptive learning can happen in three places, and if you’re considering using adaptive software then it is worth understanding which you are looking for. From the most straightforward to the most complex.

  • Adaptive content: provides feedback on a child’s specific response rather than just marking an answer as correct or incorrect. 
  • Adaptive assessment: assessment that ensures children are assessed at the level that is right for them. No teaching input is provided, but the system should accurately pitch the level at which a child is working.
  • Adaptive sequence: a programme continuously collects data and uses that data to inform what a pupil learns next. This is either more practice to help master an objective, intervention to address misunderstandings or moving on to the next objective in a granular prerequisite skill progression/programme structure.

Why does it matter what type of adaptive software you use?

The quote below from the EdSurge white paper pulls out the benefits of tools that offer a real-time adaptive sequence:

While adaptive content tools differentiate content for students they do not have a truly adaptive sequence. They do not continuously collect data on a student’s performance within the content or assessments, and use the data to automatically adjust a student’s learning path. What we found is that tools with adaptive sequences engage in a three step process. First, the tool collects data. Then, it analyses the data. Finally, the tool adjusts the content a student will receive next.

From a learner’s point of view this means that the adaptive sequence matches where a child is in their learning. It is widely accepted that progress is not linear, all children experience periods where they plateau and others where they make rapid progress. The assessment expert David Didau explains there is a key myth at the heart of education that progress happens in a linear fashion where children are empty vessels and simply move from a state of not understanding to understanding at a steady rate. Research in cognitive psychology has disproved this and understands progress as more like waves, whereby children make a ‘wave’ of accelerated progression but can equally take steps backwards.

If you are aiming to meet the needs of each individual child then look for a programme that goes beyond adaptive assessment or content, to a programme with an adaptive sequence in order for it have the most impact. Adaptive sequencing ensures that the instruction and practice a child works on relate to what a child can already understand, in other words the task is always within the child’s zone of proximal development. This avoids children getting frustrated as they are either stuck on content that is too easy, or demotivated by the steady rise in difficulty that doesn’t match where they are. Adaptive sequencing provides rapid progress when children are ready, and reassurance when a child struggles. SuccessMaker is a programme that offers the gold standard of adaptive technology by providing the full adaptive sequence: both assessment and intervention.

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