A study of 36,000 students just backed Bill Gates' favourite style of education

Students Classroom Computers OnlineMelanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty ImagesThird grade students study on computers using online learning in the lab at Rocketship SI Se Puede, a charter, public elementary school, on February 18, 2014 in San Jose, California.

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has said repeatedly that one of his favourite ways of teaching kids is by letting them guide their own education, typically with laptops or tablets, and moving the teacher more into the role of coach.

The style is known as “personalised learning,” and a study involving 36,000 students just upheld it as a major driver of improvement in reading and maths skills.

Since personalised learning has had scant formal evidence showing its success as a teaching method, the new study also adds some empirical support that Gates and many other techies have been on the right track in their endorsements.

Conducted by the education consulting company Education Elements, the study spanned five districts across the US for 2-3 years, tracking how students performed on the NWEA MAP test. On average, personalised learning led to 130% growth in reading and 122% growth in maths.

Certain districts saw outsized improvement from the new method. In Alabama’s Piedmont City School District, for instance, 72% of students in grades 3-8 hit their target scores on the ACT Aspire standardised test compared to 28% in the 2014-2015 school year.

Personalised learning has won favour with Silicon Valley types because it blends traditional education with cutting-edge technology. Schools often use both hardware and software to help kids learn at their own pace and in the style they prefer most.

There’s the literacy app Newsela, which is in 75% of US schools and helps kids build reading skills by automatically adjusting the difficulty of the language on each kid’s tablet, depending on their reading level. There’s also DreamBox, the maths education tool backed by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings that performs a similar function for multiplication and division and is used by 2 million kids nationwide.

Both have research behind them suggesting that kids make noticeable gains in proficiency when they don’t feel rushed to keep up with their peers.

Kids who use Newsela for four months jump up to 12 percentile points on in-app reading quizzes, regardless of the student’s initial ability. DreamBox, in use by 2 million kids, helps kids make bigger improvements in maths the longer they use it, a 2016 Harvard study found.

Personalised learning more generally has seen early validation from researchers.

One study from the RAND Corporation found that among 62 schools using personalised learning, the majority of kids scored higher in maths and reading comprehension compared to kids with teachers who stood at the head of the class and lectured to students all at once. Many who were below-average scorers ended up above-average.

The study offered evidence that teachers seem to be adjusting to the new style, too, as 70% of teachers said they were more effective having adopted the method. And district leaders seemed to be noticing: 92% of them said teachers were more effective in helping students grasp new material.

But most importantly, the study found personalised learning helped students: 90% of district leaders said students were more engaged with their education.

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