Thursday, May 8, 2014

When Adaptive Isn't

I've been very interested in the concept of adaptive leadership lately.  If one views language learning as an ongoing, dynamic, nonlinear process, then this model could be useful in language teaching.  (Scroll down this blog post by Ben Ramalingam to see a table comparing this kind of leadership to the traditional form.)

But in conversations with other teachers, I can't seem to get very far in discussing adaptive leadership.  I even get the sense that some are actively pushing the subject away!  That surprises me, because my impression is that most of the teachers I've worked with feel the same way I do: that we're struggling to do a dynamic job within a linear framework.

Recently, though, a lightbulb flashed on. I noticed that a lot of teachers dislike something called adaptive learning.  I would have guessed that this described flexible learners, or maybe the way a small experience at the right time and place can stimulate an avalanche of growth in a ready mind.  But no.  It refers to a variety of educational software systems that, according to the Wikipedia entry, "develop new knowledge to guide the student down paths to correct answers."  It's the software that adapts; all that students need to do is show up and, sooner or later, produce correct answers. Sounds to me like an automated form of PPP. ("Present, Practice, Produce" -- it's useful for concrete solutions to static problems, such as studying for a vocabulary test. It's not useful as an overall model for language learning).

Adaptive learning and other similar terms -- adaptive education system and adaptive hypermedia, for example -- do NOT have anything to do with learning as a complex adaptive system but rather the opposite: someone (not the learner) loads the system with information to be imparted and the software "reads" the learner's actions and performance to infer interests and needs.  It then tailors the the method of delivery accordingly. The learner may not even be aware that this is happening.  The product of such a system is "information successfully conveyed" and the customer is the one who wants the information delivered, not the person receiving it.
thanks to Dennis Skley
Personally, I'm going to avoid the use of the word "adaptive" going forward and refer to complexity theory or complexity leadership.  Maybe I'll be able to get the attention of other teachers ... which is critical to the kind of leadership I'm talking about!

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