Credit Seth Wenig/Associated Press
It knew enough about medical diagnoses and literature to beat âJeopardyâ champions at their game, and has been put to use in cancer wards. Now, an IBM computer 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.
âThe 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,â said Stanley S. Litow, president of the IBM Foundation.
âBy loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, youâd actually make Watson the teacher coach,â Mr. Litow said.
The Watson technology began as a platform designed to answer questions, as it did on âJeopardy,â 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 patientâs 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 teachersâ 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.
âWe have moved from memorization and application of mathematical formulas to helping kids think it through,â Ms. Weingarten said. âIf you donât really, fundamentally understand that,â she said of the new methods, âit is root canal for an elementary-school teacher.â
About 200 teachers across the country, including about two dozen in New York City, have been part of a pilot program using Teacher Advisor. Cara Madison, a special-education teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, R.I., said the program has been a big time-saver for her because the information, compiled by teachers who are math experts, has already been vetted.
âYou know whatever you pull is going to be engaging, is going to be effective,â Ms. Madison said.
The program can help design lessons for classrooms where students are performing at many different levels, she said, which is a constant challenge for teachers.
âIf you are a third-grade math elementary-school teacher in New York City, you might have 60 percent of the kids in your class doing math at a second-grade level,â Mr. Litow, of IBM, said. âSo a static lesson plan might not be helpful for you unless you can actually personalize it and customize it.â
Mr. Litow said that the program will not be completed when it is released later this year. IBM expects to add more content areas and new features, and crucially, the more teachers use Watson, the more the system will learn â even about individual users.
But while the program will get to know educators based on their lessons and searches, Mr. Litow said those queries will never be used to grade the teacher.
âThis is not going to be used for any other purpose,â Mr. Litow said. âThere shouldnât be any reason why a teacher would think, âI donât want to go on Teacher Advisor because if I ask a dumb question, this is going to be held against me.ââ