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Innovative Practice - Custom-made

'Playlists' of activities can personalise learning according to each pupil's level, needs and interests

'Playlists' of activities can personalise learning according to each pupil's level, needs and interests

The background

Joel Rose was teaching 10-year-olds in Houston, Texas, through the US equivalent of UK charity Teach First, when he found himself pondering how he could personalise lessons for his pupils. "If, as a teacher, I was working with just a small number of students in my class at one time, what would the rest of the students in the class be doing?" he asks. "In the absence of a good answer to that question, most educators teach largely to the middle."

Rose was unsure how to fix this problem until he visited a friend in Miami, whose company trained adults to use specific technologies. Students learned in a variety of ways, including from an instructor, from a computer and with guidance from a teaching assistant.

Each of the training centres featured a large sign saying "Choose your modality". "I thought, 'That's the answer I've been looking for'," Rose says. "If a teacher was working with only a handful of students, then the rest of the students in the class would still be learning - but through different modalities."

Rose, who was by then working in New York, wrote a plan for his scheme, which he called School of One. With financial backing from technology company Cisco, the city's education department launched a $1 million (#163;626,000) pilot over the summer of 2009.

The project

On arriving at a School of One lesson, a pupil's first port of call is a computer screen, where they find that day's "playlist": a lesson plan, personal to them, that is designed to optimise their learning of maths.

These plans are generated by a computer program that uses algorithms to assess the level, needs and interests of each child in order to create the most effective sequence of activities. These can range from large group sessions to individual quizzes or one-on-one tutoring with a teacher, all of which happens simultaneously in a specially designed teaching space.

At the end of each day, the pupil takes a test. The algorithm then uses the new data to reassess the child's progress, strengths and weaknesses in order to craft the next "playlist".

Rose has recently launched a not-for-profit company called New Classrooms Innovation Partners to expand the project. The initial focus of the scheme was on maths, but Rose now has plans to cover more subjects and age groups.

Tips from the scheme

"We can't simply assume that one teacher and 28 or so students in a class is the very best way to organising learning," Rose says. "There can and must be better ways to re-imagine the role of educators, time, physical space and technology to get better outcomes for students."

Evidence that it works?

The New York City Department of Education carried out an independent evaluation, comparing those who participated in the project and those who did not. The researchers estimated that School of One students learned at a rate 50-60 per cent higher than those in traditional classrooms. The effects were most pronounced for the two lowest-performing quartiles.

This project was highlighted by the Innovation Unit in its report 10 Schools for the 21st Century. See http:bit.lyx9y41w


Approach: Using computer software to create individually tailored lesson plans for each pupil to optimise their attainment in and enjoyment of maths Started 2009

Leader: Joel Rose, chief executive of New Classrooms Innovation Partners

Age range: 11-14

Number of pupils involved: 1,400.

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