Confronting Our Fears: Early Learning and Artificial Intelligence

With potential to improve classroom engagement and empower educators, is there a right way to do A.I.?

GUEST COLUMN| by Matthew Mugo Fields

Many of us can picture our kindergarten classrooms with nostalgia. And there’s a reason for that—early learning classrooms are unique. They are fun, vibrant and engaging spaces where young learners explore the world around them, create relationships and grow.

So when the tech community talks about introducing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in early education settings, it’s no wonder the concept stirs up fears of a dystopian future. We imagine a scary world where educators are replaced by machines and children are disconnected from one another, where joyful activities become robotic and isolating.

After all, these classrooms are rooted in the power of social-emotional experiences and relationships—won’t we lose a critical human connection if we introduce bots and voice-recognition AI? Not if we do it the right way.

AI has the potential to improve classroom engagement and empower educators so they can deepen their focus on building critical relationships with their students and differentiate instruction.

Facing Our Challenges 

The cornerstone of early learning is building literacy skills, yet despite this focus, data shows that many children are falling behind. According to an assessment by The Nation’s Report Card, only 35 percent of public school students were at or above “proficient” in fourth grade reading. Research also reveals that students who are not reading proficiently by third grade will continue to struggle throughout their school years, and they are four times less likely to graduate from high school than their peers.

We have some fundamental and nuanced challenges to tackle, and we shouldn’t be afraid of taking nontraditional, creative approaches. For educators, who are often stretched for time given the myriad pressures of their roles, the literacy challenge is twofold—they must accelerate reading skills among diverse learners and dedicate significant time to assess and measure students on proficiency and oral fluency.

According to research, teachers spend an average of 16 hours doing a single round of observational assessment for each class. At times, the tedious reporting can yield inconsistent results. The difficulty of following complex scoring rules in real time leads to 40 percent measurement error and enormous variability across teachers. While educators are burdened with rote tasks associated with these assessments, students may miss out on opportunities for the one-on-one, personalized guidance that will help them reach their potential.

Empowering Teachers

In addition to deep subject matter expertise, the empathy, humanity and intuition that teachers bring to the classroom can never be replaced, but they need more support so they can focus on their students.

When used effectively, AI in service of early literacy does just this—it gives teachers precious time back for reading instruction, providing additional opportunity to focus on nurturing their students and offer one-on-one lessons for the students who may be lagging behind. New technology can also improve the teacher’s accuracy of oral fluency testing.

For instance, an AI-based solution can evaluate word usage, oral reading, naming the letters of the alphabet and more by measuring on an automated scale. The teacher can then use those results to develop customized exercises for each student. AI-based solutions empower the educator to focus on helping students gain confidence in their literary skills and establish a solid foundation to be successful moving forward.

Looking Forward

The dystopian future we should fear most is one in which more students are left behind and educators face burnout at an alarming rate; one in which disparities continue to widen for our young people. Sadly, we already see these symptoms today in many districts. If we embrace AI for the right reasons and in the right ways, we’ll begin to chart a new path for our teachers and students, and we’ll dispel our imagined nightmares of an automated classroom.

More time given back to teachers means more opportunity to focus on each individual student and how they learn. What are their strengths and weaknesses, interests and skills? How do they absorb and retain information? AI in the classroom amplifies a teacher’s instruction and places focus on a diverse array of learning needs, which not only benefits the student, but also educates the teacher on the best ways to personalize instruction and build trust with students.

Imagine a world in which we can ensure that all learners are reading on grade-level by the end of third grade and raise the threshold for our students, opening the door to new possibilities and broadening growth opportunities because we are now focused less on catching up and more on moving forward.

All children deserve to see a path for future success, and if we embrace innovative support in all its forms—whether it is AI technology lending a hand to give educators more flexibility, or larger systemic changes—we’ll step that much closer into the future in which all our learners can reach their potential.

Matthew Mugo Fields in EVP and General Manager of Supplemental and Intervention Solutions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. HMH and Amira, an edtech startup, have recently launched a partnership to empower educators with AI. Contact Matthew through LinkedIn


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