Nick Gaehde and Liz Brooke discuss Lexia Learning’s solutions for diverse classrooms and tell us what to expect next
Daniel Ward: We’ve gone through a period of ten to 15 years where everybody expected certain things from technology. It’s delivered different things to a certain extent and it’s going in different directions. We haven’t got what we expected—we’ve got something else which might be better or it might not. And so, I was hoping that you both might be able to give me your take on the advent of blended learning and how we see blended learning developing, how we see fundamentals like access to technology developing.
Nick Gaehde: Our focus has really been to help teachers with the kinds of tools they need to address what is an increasingly diverse set of needs in schools. The schools and the students that we work with are clearly becoming broader in terms of their needs than they have been in the past. There are so many schools where we see 50, 60 different languages spoken, and we see a very broad range of vocabulary foundational knowledge from the first day of kindergarten. Our goal is to give teachers the data they need to make instructional decisions and to give students the personalized learning path that is engaging, effective, and relevant. This is what we call the PEER framework and the belief is that through technology we can help teachers gain the information they need without the burden of as much testing as they’ve had to do in the past. That’s where Assessment Without Testing comes in, and a new assessment that we’ve launched in partnership with the Florida Center for Reading Research called RAPID that is just a much more efficient and much broader and deeper screener than has been possible in the past. It’s giving teachers the information they need to connect data to instruction in real time.
Liz Brooke: RAPID was developed in partnership with the Florida Center for Reading Research, where I worked prior to coming to Lexia. They had two IES grants—one specifically around measurement of adolescent comprehension and the second grant around what are the skills that best predict comprehension developmentally across K–12. Our Assessment Without Testing and RAPID both follow the philosophy of “how can we get the most meaningful and impactful data while minimizing the time taken away from instruction?” In RAPID, focusing on the three domains of word recognition, academic language, and reading comprehension and following the simple view of reading, we get the most predictive skills at a developmental scope and sequence across K–12, but in those same three domains so that you can get powerful information to your teachers in a short space of time. As a speech language pathologist, I would do individual batteries for two to four hours to get information similar to what you get in RAPID. In RAPID, there’s a K–2 component that is teacher administered, and we believe it’s critical at those ages to have the teacher involved in the assessment process, but we still make it very quick and efficient. And then in grades 3–12, it’s group administered on computers. So even in K–2 it’s computer driven and administered but teacher guided.
NG: Our focus is to give teachers the most relevant data in the least amount of time. I was in a middle school classroom this morning, actually, and one teacher said, “I’m so tired of being bombarded with data that isn’t tied to what’s happening actually in the instructional process in the classroom. It is becoming overwhelming to sift through all that information, and often that information doesn’t help me to make instructional decisions.”
EB: With both Assessment Without Testing and RAPID, the number-one purpose is to connect back to instruction; you connect as soon as the students finish the assessment. In RAPID, the data is available, instructional groups are made, and instructional resources are suggested. And then in Assessment Without Testing, every click of the mouse or tap of the iPad is being captured and analyzed and an action plan is being created for the teacher at the class level, so that he or she can plan as a whole class, and so each individual student has an action plan, so that the teacher can drill down to very specific skills based on the data that is being captured while they work.
DW: And with that data, can the teacher then create groups within the class? Is that done automatically, or would that be the teacher’s assessment?
EB: RAPID provides that three-times-a-year screener with a more broad diagnostic profile in those domains. We suggest instructional groups or instructional focus areas for different students in the class, so the teacher can use those three-times-a-year groupings to help focus his or her whole-class instruction or small-group instruction. And then with Assessment Without Testing, you’re getting your daily, weekly, monthly progress-monitoring data, and that data also forms groups based on skills. So if some students are struggling on short i, for example, the program will group those students together, and then we provide a lesson on short i for the teacher following the gradual release model—the “I do, we do, you do” model of instruction. We have follow-up for adaptations if students are still not understanding it, or some additional practice for those who are ready to move on. We also provide other ways that they could use our data in conjunction with other data from their classroom to help inform their groupings if they’d like to do that too.
NG: One of the things that I think is an ongoing debate and I think is a misconception about some technology in the classroom is that it’s intended to replace teachers. For us, it’s absolutely the opposite. What we’re trying to do is empower teachers so that they can meet the diverse needs of those students in the classroom, saving them time in terms of collecting data, but also automatically and very quickly grouping students with similar strengths and skill deficits and pointing teachers to the resources they need to continue to move students forward. Without technology at the core of the literacy curriculum, that would be incredibly time consuming—an almost impossible task.
DW: Even with technology, it still can be difficult in such diverse classrooms. Can things be customized to take that into account where you have incredibly diverse classrooms so that you don’t end up with too many groups? Is it then basically task focused?
EB: It is a very difficult task to differentiate and personalize in a classroom when a teacher realistically has 35 students with very different profiles. In RAPID, there is a maximum of five groups based on the domains in which they are struggling, be it one of the three domains or multiple domains, or if they are in a more advanced grouping. Thinking about profiles of strengths and weaknesses for the class allows the teacher to group the students for his or her in-person instruction and even target questioning during whole-group instruction based on profiles they’re seeing in the data. And then it’s in the technology piece where we can potentially have 35 different pathways through the content. It’s this combination that’s really empowering the teachers to use their talents and their skills and allowing them to effectively apply them in the most-needed areas, and then allowing technology to do what it can to get at the 35 different pathways. The other piece that’s so critical is this ongoing progress-monitoring loop. Once the students are working online and the data is being captured, the teacher then intervenes and the students are back on the program. It’s not just delivering the lesson and then moving on. It’s this ongoing progress monitoring. You’re constantly adapting the student’s pathway based on his or her performance in the online activities. Then the teacher can modify the lessons—if they continue to struggle in a particular area, they can move to the adaptation section of the lesson, or if the student is ready to move on, we also offer resources for independent student practice where they can generalize those skills that they learned online to an offline environment.
DW: What have you got in the pipeline? What’s going to happen next?NG: When I think about where the future is headed, I think people think that schools as systems are very slow to change, but I believe that we’re right now in a period of rapid change. People also talk about education as the last place where technology has disrupted processes. Clayton Christianson, in his book Disrupting Class, made a real point of that. I’ll talk about it using the PEER framework of personalization, effective, engaging, and relevant. When we talk about personalization, obviously the more granular and more accurate you can make that personalization, the better. That requires data—data that is helping you understand specifically on a very granular level where to intervene, where to target instruction. We’ve been gathering data online since 2007 and probably now have one of the largest databases of how students acquire literacy, those foundational literacy skills, of anybody in the world. Maybe the testing companies have more data, but it’s not the kind of data that we have, which is actually data that is derived during the learning process. I believe we’re just starting to scratch the surface of how we use that data to continue to drive personalization and to make the algorithms behind that personalization more and more effective. When we think about effectiveness, the trend over the past few years is to think about curriculum the way we think about the medical industry. We are taking valuable time from students and valuable time from educators, and we’re working with students in a period that is incredibly transformative for them. Making sure that we use that time wisely is one of the things we take very, very seriously. And so, continuing to drive the science behind what’s working and what’s not working, what’s effective, is something we’re incredibly committed to. We have, I think, more peer-reviewed, gold-standard research than anyone in the industry, and we do that not just to drive the credibility of our products but to really understand what’s working and what’s not working. On the engagement side, certainly there is a lot of information that we are looking at from the gaming world and thinking about how we drive engagement, because quite honestly a program can be as effective as possible and yet if the student doesn’t use it, it doesn’t matter. So how do we make the products and how do we bring lessons to students in the most engaging way, while still maximizing the amount of time that students are learning and not just putting gratuitous videos in place and wasting valuable time? As regards time maximization, I think as an industry we’re getting better and better. And then there’s relevance, which is one of the things we think about. It’s really important that students understand from a metacognitive standpoint why they are doing the work they are doing, and this is something which has changed.
DW: The relevance is changing so quickly as well.
NG: Absolutely. And there are some tools emerging that we are beginning to think about. In the further term, what’s the promise of AI and augmented reality to make the learning process much more relevant to students’ interests and to students’ environment?
LB: One of the things when I think about the big trends goes back to where we started the conversation, with schools seeing 50, 60, 70 languages spoken. Now I’m going to put on my speech and language hat and look at the connection between oral language and written language. We know very well from research—many, many years of research—that those who struggle with oral language are four to five times more likely to struggle with reading or written language. And research shows that it is often the ELL and Title 1 students who struggle with oral language. We know that many of them are coming in with a gap in language and exposure. So in our program, we focus on building oral-language skills, skills that kindergarteners are learning, how to visualize when they hear a story or sequence when they hear a story. So that later, when they’re able to read those stories themselves, they have those skills in place. Not only do you have to instruct in those skills, but you also have to assess. That’s why RAPID not only assesses reading skills but also language skills. It looks at vocabulary knowledge and syntactic knowledge. Academic language is such a critical component, and it’s often not assessed, and then it’s not connected back to instruction. If we don’t start focusing in on both the oral language and the written language, both in our assessment and our instruction, then I think we’re going to see this achievement gap widen instead of close.
DW: One of my particular interests is the encouragement of creative writing. I feel that kids thrive through creative writing, through that sort of production of language. Is any of that built into your systems in use now or in the future? Is there a way to really encourage children to do, rather than to listen and react?
LB: So, currently how we incorporate the creative writing aspect primarily is in our offline activities and resources. In the Lexia Skill Builders, there’s the opportunity for students to write a response or to write an ending, a different ending to a story or things like that. We are thinking about how we might incorporate written responses into the online component, potentially more for older students than we are for the younger students.
NG: I agree with you that the ultimate goal is to give students the ability and the platform to express themselves. As a company, we take what we do extremely seriously. I talked about the science of reading and really thinking about it using the same kind of bar as the medical profession. And there’s a passion that we all have; for Liz, it comes from having been in the classroom as a teacher and then being a researcher, and for me it comes from being dyslexic and an ESL student growing up and struggling tremendously in school. Then having two children who inherited my dyslexic gene and seeing the kind of gains they’ve made with the right instruction at the right time. One of the real injustices in society right now is the fact that we understand the science of reading. It is well proven, and yet it’s still not making it to classrooms. That is our goal. I think there’s a huge societal need, especially right now, to make sure that students have the ability to think critically, to assess information, and to do that, they need those foundational literacy skills.
DW: Is it is a civil rights issue?
LB: Yes, exactly. I was just going to say that term, civil rights issue, because it really is. When you look at all the national results showing that two-thirds of our students aren’t reading proficiently—that is a crisis. The thing that’s hardest about that is we know what works. We just need to get it to all of those students. It’s a passion for all of us here. That is our mission and what drives us.
Nick Gaehde has been the president of Lexia Learning for twelve years and was previously president of Educators Publishing Service. He has a B.A. in Psychology with a focus on early childhood development. Dr Liz Brooke has been with Lexia for over seven years and is chief education officer of Lexia and Rosetta Stone. Liz was with the Florida Center for Reading Research in 2010, where she served as the director of interventions. Prior to that, she worked on the Learning Disabilities Team at Massachusetts General Hospital.