Automate vs. Accentuate

Last week, I reflected on our time at a number of education innovation and technology venues and some of the interesting premises about education, teaching, learning, schools, teachers, students, standards, etc…that surfaced when conversations happen devoid of educators for the most part. This is an extension of that previous post and serves as the first of three detailed observations we made during that time.

We distilled down much of our thinking to 3 general topics: Automate vs. Accentuate, Knowing vs. Understanding, Providing Resources vs. Teaching Students. Today’s episode is on the first item.

Automate vs. Accentuate

There is considerable focus on the use of data to make informed, automated calculations on student performance results and ultimately decisions on what a student knows and can do, and what might be better aligned to their needs instructionally at a given moment. Individualized learning ends up being the desired target of these efforts. When I consider Individualized Learning as a concept, I imagine a teacher working with just 1 student and intimately tying all of the instructional strategies, materials, projects, assignments, assessments, field trips, topics, etc…directly to that single child’s needs.

That would be an incredible experience for that learner. And given 5 students, the potency of this type of a learning environment could be retained by most teachers. Some teachers, maybe even able to keep the differentiated instruction at a high level for 10-15 students. But 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 students at a time? That’s not likely to happen with any real efficacy. Developing digital learning environments that attempt to create individualized learning structures based on formative and summative assessment data, even collected weekly in its most diverse forms…will not come close to the finely tuned teaching and learning experiences that could be engendered by a single, astute teacher. 

What we can do though is focus on technologies that serve as an accouterment to the classroom teacher. Systems that do use all available data, limited or detailed, to help accentuate a teacher’s role in the lives of her or his students.  Let’s develop technologies that increase a teacher’s ability to diversify their teaching strategies and materials with the same vigor as we are introducing ways to automate assessment and student data-tracking. Technology should look to enable the expensive, trained, systemically embedded human systems we have in place and not marginalize their intimate understanding of the students they serve.

Consider this: by the end of October teachers have spent over 300 hours with their students, and a teacher that has even just 3 years of experience has spent over 3,300 hours with students more similar than dissimilar to those they are serving now…let’s make room for that knowledge in our approaches. Make the student data clear and discernable, but don’t make it definitive. Use it as a supporting chapter to the story of a student to be combined with teachers’ understanding and inclinations about their kids to better consider materials and assignments. Use the technology to bring other competent, knowledgable people from the community, from families, from interested stakeholder groups into the classroom and the teaching process. Classes with 5-10 students might be fiscally unfeasible, but classes with 3-10 teachers any given week with one primary teacher every day of the week are possible. 

We have seen a number of systems designed to “know” more about students academic progress and create opportunities to generate more individualized learning pathways for students through their learning process. Some are pretty impressive, some probably over-sell improbable outcomes…most have beautifully developed marketing videos and all are interesting propositions. Our hope is that most end up being thoughtful about our most adept and integrated instructional asset in the public education system…Teachers.

Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform (

Amplify’s (Wireless Generation) mCLASS suite (

Compass Learning’s Odyssey System (

Our dream is that at least some end up as openly available resources and deliver critical services that aren’t kept from our schools and students of most need due to high cost structures wrapped around proprietary technical product.