Can Technology Help Students Find the "Sweet Spot" for Learning?

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By Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith, American RadioWorks

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote a book called Why Don't Students Like School? The book is complex and fascinating - and 228 pages - but you can basically boil the answer down to this: Students don't like school because school isn't set up to help them learn very well.

The first thing to know is that everyone likes to learn.

"There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking," writes Willingham.


But it's not fun to try to learn something that's too hard.

"Working on a problem with no sense that you're making progress is not pleasurable," writes Willingham. "In fact, it's frustrating."

Working on a problem that's too easy is no fun either. It's boring.

What people enjoy is working on problems that are the right level of difficulty.

"The problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough to take some mental effort," Willingham writes. He calls this the "sweet spot" of difficulty.

The problem with most schools is that kids don't get to their sweet spot enough. There are 20 other kids in the class - or maybe 30 or even 40. Everyone is in a slightly different place. Some kids get it and want to move ahead. Others are struggling to catch up and need more explanation. It's a challenge for teachers. The best teachers try to meet each student's needs. But a lot of teachers end up teaching to the middle. That leaves a lot of kids bored, or frustrated, or both.

"I think teachers are acutely aware that this is an enormous problem," Willingham said in an interview. "I don't think it's easily solved."

You can trace the roots of the problem back to the Industrial Revolution. That's when American public schools as we know them today got started.

Prior to the rise of factories and cities, most people lived on farms and in small villages. Children were typically educated in one-room schoolhouses. "In such environments, education could be individualized," says Angeline Lillard, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written about the history of education.

Not everything was perfect in the one-room school. But if you were 10 and needed to learn addition, that's what the teacher taught you. If you were 5 and already knew how to write your name, you'd move on with the older kids.

Then in 1847 in Quincy, Massachusetts a new kind of school appeared on the scene. Instead of being together in one room, students were separated into classrooms based on how old they were. It was seen as a more efficient way to educate children.

"The whole country was so taken by this idea that we could improve through industrialization," says Lillard. "Mass production was going to be the wings through which we could fly into the future. And schools were no different."

By the early 20th century, some education experts were actually referring to schools as factories. Elwood Cubberley, dean of Stanford University's School of Education from 1917 to 1933, put it bluntly: Schools were "factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."

"What we lost from the one-room schoolhouse days was individualization," says Lillard. "We replaced that with an expectation that all children be the same."

Today it's a big challenge to deal with the 10-year-olds who haven't learned addition; they're supposed to be doing fifth-grade math. There's not a good way to deal with the 5-year-olds who are ready to move ahead either.

The problem of how to meet students' individual needs is at the heart of today's education debates: the achievement gap, tracking, social promotion. These are among the thorniest and most important issues facing American schools, and they all have something to do with the fact that we expect students of a certain age to be in a certain place with their learning, rather than working with each child individually based on their unique learning needs.

"All students are supposed to accomplish exactly the same goals under exactly the same circumstances by exactly the same date and demonstrate their learning in exactly the same way," says Carol Ann Tomlinson, sounding a bit exasperated.

Tomlinson is an expert on a teaching technique called "differentiated instruction." It's a response to the challenge of working with a classroom full of kids who have different abilities and interests. Rather than teaching to the middle, the teacher offers a variety of lessons or assignments so that the students who are ahead get more challenging work and students who are behind get more practice on basic concepts.

Tomlinson's research shows differentiated instruction can be done. But even she admits it's not easy. It takes talented teachers and good training.

Keona Walker says she learned all about differentiated instruction during her teacher training. When asked how she pulled it off in the classroom, she laughs. She says differentiated instruction is "possible, yes. Realistic? No."


Walker was an English teacher at a high school in Indianapolis, Indiana. In any given class she would have some students who were ready for college-level work and others who couldn't "tell you what the verb of a sentence was." She felt constantly frustrated and unable to meet everyone's needs.

Then she heard about a new school with a different approach to learning. The school is called Carpe Diem-Meridian. It's a public charter school that opened in Indianapolis in August 2012. Students spend part of the day in traditional classes, and part of the day learning on computer. There's an online curriculum; students move through each course at their own pace. When they demonstrate they've mastered the material, they move on to the next level.

Walker is the English teacher at Carpe Diem. She says because students spend part of their day learning on computer, she has more time to work with students individually. And she thinks when students work on their own at their own pace they actually have a better understanding of what they need help with. "These are the things I've mastered. I don't need help with that," they'll say to her. "These are the things that I can read and understand on my own. [And] these are the things that I really need help with." That's what she focuses on with them. She says it's a more efficient way to teach -- and to learn.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham is not familiar enough with Carpe Diem to comment specifically on the school's model. But he says technology is a possible solution to the "sweet spot" problem. He says learning on computers does not necessarily result in better learning, though.

"The technological solutions are more difficult to implement than would appear at first blush," he says. Teachers need lots of training. And he adds: "The software has got to be really good."

The software is getting better. So-called "adaptive learning" programs, which have been around for more than a decade, are designed to adjust to an individual's needs. A student answers questions or solves problems and the software adapts the level of difficulty depending on how the student is performing. Dozens of companies have developed this kind of software. The software varies in quality. Research suggests some adaptive learning programs do help students learn better, but the research is sparse and overall the results are mixed.

Willingham says technology may be a solution to the "sweet spot" problem for some students and some schools. When asked if he would send his own children to a school that uses computers to help teachers individualize instruction for students he says: "The answer would depend a lot on how old my child is." He's not sure putting young children on computers for large or even small parts of the school day is a good idea. He says his own kids, who are 6 and 8, don't use computers at all -- at school or at home. He doesn't see any reason his children need to use computers yet.

That's a personal choice, he says, not based on evidence that there's something categorically wrong with young children using technology.

Willingham does note, however, that research shows the emotional connection between a student and a teacher is enormously important when it comes to how much a student learns. He doesn't think students of any age should spend all of their time learning on a computer. The balance between time spent with computers and time spent with other human beings is important for schools to consider as they think about bringing technology into classrooms. Willingham says this may be the most important question -- even more important than how good the software is. Technology is only as good as the way it gets used.

Willingham says in a few years, when his children are in middle school or high school, he might be open to sending them to a school where they would spend part of their day learning on a computer. But he'd have to see the school first and make a decision based on what he thought of the school, and what the other options were for his children's education.

This article is part of the One Child At a Time series produced by American RadioWorks.