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Cambridge Is Using an AI Algorithm to Figure Out Why Kids Struggle at School

Insights like these can change the way educators address kids with different cognitive disabilities, and that's not something to ignore.


For teachers, parents, and well, just about everyone involved, trying to figure out why a child is struggling in school can be one of the most stressful activities imaginable. That’s because every kid is a totally different human being, various medical diagnosis’ can be difficult to navigate, and most notably, the child can’t always communicate exactly what the problem is. Now researchers at Cambridge University have figured out a way to use machine learning algorithms to specifically categorize a child’s learning difficulties.

Researchers found 550 children who were struggling in school and then used an AI algorithm to measure certain skills like vocabulary, problem-solving, and memory. Rather than break them up based on what their different educational difficulties are, researchers looked at the group as a whole. This way they could cross-reference their own findings with previous information about the child’s learning difficulties and identify any overlap.

The AI algorithm ultimately found that most kids who struggle in school fall into four categories. “1) children with broad cognitive difficulties, and severe reading, spelling, and math problems 2) children with age‐typical cognitive abilities and learning profiles; 3)  children with working memory problems; and 4) children with phonological difficulties.”

Importantly, the study found some vital links between certain cognitive struggles that had not previously been identified. For example, researchers noted that kids who struggled with memory struggled with math, and how that’s linked to phonological issues that affect reading. So more plainly, kids who struggle with math often struggle with reading comprehension as well.

This only gives more credence to the idea that broad “learning styles” aren’t really a thing. In the face of these observations, it makes less sense to tell a kid that they’ll learn to read better if the teacher uses a drawing. Rather, this research suggests that a child’s struggle with reading could actually be linked to a memory issue, not an inability to understand the information in the way it’s being presented.