We need to change the way we teach our children

23 Mar 2019 |

The fundamental promise of education has always been to help children understand the world and find their place in it.

But the world is changing faster than ever before, and there are huge global challenges that need to be overcome.

Children don’t just need to understand the world, they need to be able to continually adapt to it, and they need to learn the skills necessary to change the world for the better.

The Global Education and Skills Forum 2019 brings together experts from around the world to share their research and stimulate the debate of what makes a 21st century education.

One of those is Hanna Dumont, Senior Researcher at the German Institute for International Educational Research, whose research in adaptive teaching has shown a positive impact in the classroom.


Classrooms still look the same

The classroom of today looks much the same as it did 100 years ago. The tools are more modern, of course, but how the class is organised is similar.

A teacher stands in front of the class imparting knowledge to their students. The teacher picks what information to provide, and all students receive the same learning content at the same time.

In most education systems around the world, those children are grouped by age and competency. The brighter students are placed with those with a similar ability, while the less able are grouped together.  

But here’s the problem with this approach, explains Dumont:

“At the time public education was invented, this was a perfectly efficient way of organising schools, because what you needed at that time was routine expertise - the ability to apply knowledge quickly to routine problems, and the knowledge base that existed at the time was still manageable.

“But today, the tasks we are asking people to do require them to adapt quickly to new situations and new problems. It’s not solving routine problems anymore.”


Adaptive teaching

Adaptive teaching, as the name suggests, is an approach that requires teachers to “micro-adapt” their instruction on a continuous basis.

Teachers perform a continuous and often informal assessment of their students’ strengths and weaknesses, and modify their teaching accordingly.

For instance, the class topic might be water cycle, but each child will ask their own questions, and search for their own answers.

One student might want to know why water evaporates and will be happy to go online to figure it out, another student might want to know how a tap works, but will need much more guidance from their teacher on where to start finding the answer. The degree of structure and guidance given depends on the student’s needs.

The adaptive classroom will also feature mixed ability students working together and teaching each other.

The theory of adaptive teaching is based on relatively new research on how people learn, as Dumont explains.

“In the early days, we thought new information was just entering people’s minds, that’s not really how it works,” she says.

“New information is actually interpreted by everyone on an individual basis and it has to be connected to and integrated with existing knowledge.”

In addition, she adds, learners have to be actively involved in building up that new knowledge base, just sitting and listening to a teacher doesn’t work nearly as well.  

The key aspect of this approach is that it makes children become responsible for and drive their own learning.


Teachers forever

Dumont studies the effectiveness of classrooms in real world settings and has seen the benefits of adaptive teaching first hand.

“You often hear about the big divide between research and practice, and that teachers should pay closer attention to learning sciences. True, there is a great knowledge base accumulated in the last decade that can inform.

“But we can also learn a lot from practitioners - from the teachers who are doing the job on an everyday basis at school.”

Indeed, the adaptive classroom is not trying to dispense with the need for a teacher. Evidence suggests that leaving children to discover new concepts entirely on their own is problematic.  

“It takes expertise to make expertise, sometimes all you need is the missing piece of the puzzle and someone gives that to you.”

In addition, argues Dumon, humans are fundamentally social creatures, and the best learning takes place through interaction in a social environment.

“Where there is meaningful interaction between students and teachers, as well as between students, they are more capable of taking in new information.”

What adaptive teaching does is dispense with the idea that students have to be in homogenous groups.

“Adaptive teaching arranges environmental conditions to fit students where teachers capitalise on student differences.

“It’s a concept which I believe has the potential to rethink how schools are organised and hopefully to equip everyone with competencies to reach their full potential.

“We don't know what the future will look like, we can be sure it will change again and we will have to re-adapt.”