Memphis School Adopts a Digital Learning Approach in Math

The Presbyterian Day School in Memphis, Tennessee has adopted a new method of learning in their classrooms. Gone are the desks facing the blackboard with the teachers in front of it, teaching the same concept to all the students regardless of their individual skills. Instead, the room – which now resembles an employee lounge in a new tech start-up more than anything else – is filled with boys of different ages moving along at their own pace through their math curriculum using modern technology.

What makes it possible is the rigorous regiment of data collection by the school which allows the learning platform to adapt to the skills of every student from the gifted to the struggling. According to headmaster Lee Burns, even in the small classroom the range of ability is wide. Burns says at any time students could be learning material from grades 2 through 9.

Although it was considered a risky experiment, it appears to be working if the math assessment exams are any indication.

Eight days are allotted for each math unit. Boys who think they understand the concepts may take the unit test on Day 4. If they score 90 percent or higher, they’re off to “guided challenge,” a range of math activities that allow them to work on more sophisticated problems, either virtually or with a teacher. Or they might look at the real-life ways math comes into play in people’s lives.

Those who don’t master the materials in the time allotted go to a different space in the building where more intensive help could be provided. There they will work with a tutor over the internet – using messaging tools like Skype – and use adaptive software to test their knowledge so they won’t progress too rapidly or too slowly. They will rejoin their classmates when they’ve caught up and taken the exam again on Day 8.

“Our scores are stronger than before,” Burns said. “And anecdotally, students are much more engaged. So many boys now say their favorite subject is math. They love the approach. They own the learning, so there is great engagement in it.”
PDS is in its second year of smart math, a concept it adapted from things happening in charter schools and other public schools.

One of the schools that served as a model for PDS is the Rocketship Academy in California. Rocketship Schools, a chain of charters around the country, have been experimenting with technology in learning to an unprecedented degree.