The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Each Child

“The memories of raising our family makes me deeply appreciate the magnitude of the challenge facing classroom teachers who work with dozens of children daily.”

Donald Deshler | September 12, 2014
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A young boy, with specific and individual needs for education, love, and attention, stands in his driveway.



We have four grown children. My wife, Carol, and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to best understand and meet the unique needs of each of our children. Regardless of the favorable ratio (i.e., two adults to raise four children), we often felt overwhelmed and as if we were falling short of our goal to understand and meet the needs of each of our children. The memories of raising our family makes me deeply appreciate the magnitude of the challenge facing classroom teachers who work with dozens of children daily. Teachers strive to understand and meet the unique needs of each of the children that they teach. This ideal has long been at the heart of education for practitioners. If it’s hard to individualize for four children in a family – imagine how hard it is to individualize for 30+ students in a classroom!

Teachers strive to understand and meet the unique needs of each of the children that they teach.

Fortunately, there are some potential solutions on the horizon for this challenging dynamic. Specifically, the unprecedented growth and sophistication of technological capacity that organizations as well individuals possess today, has resulted in dramatic changes relative to how data can be captured, processed, measured, visualized, and instantaneously fed back into the system to increase its “smartness” and accuracy in informing decision-making. So-called “big data” is an extraordinary knowledge revolution that is sweeping, almost unnoticed through business, government, health care, and everyday life. Some speculate that big data may be more transformative than the Internet. In a nutshell, big data refers to our newfound ability for machines to process vast quantities of information, analyze it instantly, and produce it in forms for humans to use it to inform future actions.

Every student’s path to learning will be custom-made through a process of personaliz-

ation.

Big data holds the potential to enable us to provide all students (including those with especially unique learning needs and challenges) highly sophisticated, individualized assessments and interventions – in short, every student’s path to learning will be custom-made through a process of “personalization.” As an example, think about Amazon.com and the way the company personalizes a recommended set of purchases for each customer based on that customer’s prior purchasing behaviors and the buying habits of others in similar circumstances. Now imagine the vast amounts of data existing in the learning process and think about how that data, when combined with meaningful analysis, technology, and a highly-educated professional, could transform learning for all students.

While a foundational ideal of education has always been individualization, there are limits to the amount of data that professionals who serve a given student can observe, take in, quickly process, compare with all previous student responses, and remember. Not to mention also taking into account learner preferences (among other things) and then repeating this process for every other student in the class! But systems are now being developed and piloted—largely in collaboration with industry partners—to do these tasks. These prototypes combine learner variability with advanced and intelligent resource processing to support personalized learning experience for every learner. In short, big data will give teachers the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. Thus, by designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, teachers will be able to address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback, and detailed learning trees in the curriculum. All of which hold the promise of promoting a better and richer learning experience.

The surface is just being scratched relative to the amount of work that needs to be accomplished conceptually, technologically, and in terms of instructional design. In the meantime, we need to seriously consider issues such as how the role of all teachers will change; how teacher preparation programs must change; the impact on ongoing professional learning, including how instructional coaching will need to change to support teachers in their different roles. Finally, with increased student access to computers, more learning will take place outside of traditional brick and mortar schools. Consequently, we need to consider the implications for learning in non-school environments; and what we need to do to support parents in the new roles that they will inevitably be asked to assume.