Mia Learns From the Masters: An Update on the Mia Learning Literacy Experts Taskforce
We’re nearing completion of a more powerful model for making recommendations and offering coaching to develop motivated and purposeful readers.
by Darren Cambridge
Over the last six months, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with a group of diverse literacy experts—researchers, teachers, community literacy leaders, and librarians—as part of Mia Learning research and development work funded by the National Science Foundation. Together, this Literacy Experts Taskforce has built a deeper and more nuanced model of Mia’s learning objectives and how best to achieve them in conversation with children, including how she chooses books to recommend and provides reflective coaching. The model reflects both what we know from the latest research in education and psychology and hard-won knowledge of practice from educators currently working with children in classrooms, libraries, and after school programs.
Establishing Objectives and Outcomes
Mia Learning’s overarching goal are to help children have more satisfying reading experiences and to motivate them to read more and more often. The Literacy Expert Taskforce members believe Mia can advance this aim by helping children:
- Expand their agency and metacognition – Taking ownership and control of their own reading
- Increase their self-efficacy– Becoming more confident in their capacities and more engaged
- Improve their book choices– Choosing books that are best suited to their purposes and preferences
- Widen their interests and experiences – Getting out of a rut and trying books in unfamiliar genres, on new topics, and with characters of diverse backgrounds and experiences
The Literacy Experts Taskforce has specified a set of twenty learning outcomes that align with these four objectives. The outcomes represent reading attitudes, beliefs, skills, and understandings commonly held by motivated and purposeful lifelong readers. For example, such readers believe that they can grow in their interests and abilities. They also understand the range of books available and how those books’ characteristics align with different purposes for reading. Mia helps children develop such understanding through personalized recommendations that model how experts choose books and guided reflection on how well the children’s choices about reading have yielded satisfying reading experiences.
Defining Coaching Patterns
Mia guides reflection by initiating coaching when she identifies certain patterns in a child’s statements and behaviors. The Experts Taskforce is developing an expanded set of patterns that Mia monitors, each linked to a learning outcome. When Mia detects the pattern, she provides the corresponding, research-informed coaching. The Expert Taskforce has mapped out a library of coaching videos and reflective dialogues that the Mia Learning staff are hard at work adding to Mia. Videos often feature Mia’s “Anti-Boredom Squad,” composed of four fictional middle-school-age kids (played by real ones) who are junior secret agents and themselves growing readers.
For example, if a child reports a low level of confidence as a reader and has told Mia they were unsatisfied with two of the last four books about which they’ve talked, Mia might lead the child through a reflective dialogue about resilience. Through showing the child a series of “choose your own adventure”-style videos of Squad members encountering reading difficulties, asking what they ought to do next, and then sharing conclusions to the stories that model resilience and adaptability, Mia helps students see the value of these dispositions to powerful readers.
Mapping Recommendation Factors and Relationships
In addition to how Mia coaches readers, the Experts Taskforce is shaping the next generation of the Mia’s book recommendation system. Members have defined 17 factors—things Mia knows about the reader, the activity, and the books available to choose from at a particular type for a particular purpose—that are grouped in four dimensions:
- Similarity – Does the book have commonalities with the readers’ interests, preferences, and purpose?
- Accessibility – Is the likely level of difficulty for this reader in this context appropriate to their purpose? How hard will it be for the child to obtain a copy of the book?
- Social connectedness – Do similar readers’ experiences with this book suggest this child’s experience will be positive? Does the book have the potential to deepen a relationship with peers or adults?
- Variety – Will reading this book help the child experience new types of books, on less familiar subjects, from a broadened range of cultures and perspectives?
The Expert group has defined a detailed model of the weight to give each factor and dimension and how they influence one another. Mia takes these complex interactions into account when making recommendations.
For example, one factor that influences accessibility is how well the text complexity of the book matches with a child’s test scores: A strong match suggests the child will be able to read the book without frustration or boredom. More succinctly, how well do the book and the child’s reading levels match? However, the importance of this factor to accessibility is decreased if the child has a high level of interest in the topic (because they are motivated to take on a challenge and likely to have relevant background knowledge) or if they are planning to read the book along with an adult (because the adult can help). The importance of congruence between text difficulty and ability also increases if the child’s purpose for reading is to develop expertise (because that requires a higher level of reading comprehension than does reading for entertainment).
Setting the Stage for Machine Learning
The coaching and recommendation domain models developed by the Literacy Experts Taskforce endow Mia with the latest expert knowledge about reading development. However, that knowledge is just a beginning. Mia will refine the model based on children’s actual experiences as captured through conversations. The recommendation system will refine factor weights and interactions based on observed results, and the coaching system will prioritize reflective dialogues and videos that are proving most effective. Mia will discover new patterns that emerge from children’s collective conversations with Mia and add them to the model.
I think of Mia as being on the verge of completing her college coursework in reading education. She could hardly hope for a better faculty than the members of the Literacy Experts Taskforce! The next step in her training is practicum: Over the coming months, she’ll be challenged to put her newfound expertise to work in classrooms and homes, deepening that knowledge through direct and indispensable experience.