Next Target for IBM’s Watson? Third-Grade Math
The New York Times | Elizabeth A. Harris
It knew enough about medical diagnoses and literature to beat “Jeopardy!” champions at their game, and has been put to use in cancer wards. Now, an IBMcomputer platform called Watson is taking on something really tough: teaching third-grade math.
For the past two years, the IBM Foundation has worked with teachers and their union, the American Federation of Teachers, to build Teacher Advisor, a program that uses artificial-intelligence technology to answer questions from educators and help them build personalized lesson plans.
By the end of the year, it will be available free to third-grade math teachers across the country and will add subject areas and grade levels over time.
“The idea was to build a personal adviser, so a teacher would be able to find the best lesson and then customize the lesson based upon their classroom needs,” said Stanley S. Litow, president of the IBM Foundation.
“By loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, you’d actually make Watson the teacher coach,” Mr. Litow said.
The Watson technology began as a platform designed to answer questions, as it did on “Jeopardy!,” but it has been broadened and adapted. Oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City have trained it to analyze research and a patient’s medical history to suggest potential treatment options to doctors. Watson for Oncology is now being used at more than 20 medical centers in Asia.
For teachers, one thing Watson will do is help them digest the Common Core standards and incorporate them into daily lessons.
The standards are learning goals, a map of what students should be able to do at a given level. Third graders should be able to measure area, for example, by counting out units, like square centimeters or square inches.
But rather than just listing a group of skills, Watson serves up the prerequisites those skills are built upon and a set of exercises to break down the standard.
Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers’ union, said that one of the challenges of the Common Core has been that teachers are asked to teach math in a way they were never taught it themselves. Watson, she said, should be able to help with that.
“We have moved from memorization and application of mathematical formulas to helping kids think it through,” Ms. Weingarten said. “If you don’t really, fundamentally understand that,” she said of the new methods, “it is root canal for an elementary-school teacher.”