Visual sense making

Over the past few years I’ve spend a part of my free time developing content for my science education site SciencePrimer.com. I was actively teaching when I launched the site and I used it to host material I created for my students. The motivation for the site came from the strong positive feedback I got (and continue to get) from students. The site contains short video lectures, problem sets, and calculators, but the interactive illustrations are at the heart of my efforts. Continue reading


I do not trust DreamBox

As a parent who watched DreamBox fail to teach my daughter simple mathematical concepts I don’t trust DreamBox. I have not given the program much thought recently, but reading this teacher’s description of DreamBox on edsurge brought the memory of my experience back to the forefront of my mind:

The more help a teacher gives the student, the less the program is able to identify what the student truly knows. So, although teachers may be inclined to explain activities to students, this somewhat diminishes the functionality of the program.

Can an algorithm identify what a student really knows? No software should make a teach feel like they need to get out of the way and let the program do its job. This is not appropriate use of technology. Especially in early grades. The comment resonates because is matches exactly how I felt watching my own daughter work with DreamBox. Any help I offered, moved her through the exercises too quickly and was not welcomed by her.

My final, sincere effort to give DreamBox a chance involved packing boxes. Packing boxes is the abstraction they chose to illustrate base 10 notation. In the activity, students click and drag individual objects to pack them into a box. Once a box is filled, the box moves to another area of the screen, leaving the remaining objects to be packed into another box. Each box holds 10 items. If you have three full boxes plus four items left over, you have 3 in the tens place and 4 in the ones place: 34 items.

Sounds great, BUT it did not work. My daughter got the abstraction right away. She could pack boxes like no ones business. Click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag. Full box. Move it over. Repeat until you get a star. The problem was that she never recognized the importance of a full box holding exactly 10 items. The assessment was ineffective, her ability to pack boxes allowed her to pass on to the next level without understanding base 10 notation.

Of course, without actually learning what she was supposed to learn she was completely unable to do the next level of activities. After watching her struggle for a while, I did some adaptive teaching. I turned off the computer and found a different way to make sure she understood base 10 notation.

Abstractions are ubiquitous in education. I use many in my own teaching. When they work, they work well. However, they can also get in the way. I see this all the time. As an instructor, part of my job is to gauge student understanding, recognize when a particular abstraction is not working and be ready with an alternative.

This is what I did two years ago when DreamBox could not and did not adapt to my daughters situation. Younger students do not need adaptive learning, they need adaptive teaching.

Who is working on that?