Contemporary psychological theory situates adaptive teaching at the nexus of art and science. Adaptive teaching may be construed as a teacher’s immediate response to the challenge of addressing individual student differences within a group setting. Adaptive teaching is intellectually demanding. Adaptive teachers draw upon both technical and creative skills to assess students as individuals and create opportunities for different students to learn within the common teaching ground they establish in their classrooms. Adaptive teachers are experts both in assessing students’ knowledge and skills and in improvising strategies that bring all students into this common teaching ground (Corno, 2008).

The idea of adaptive teaching traces back to research on aptitude treatment interaction (ATI). ATI research sought to understand what treatment combinations best predicted response to instruction for learners with different aptitude combinations. Cronbach and Snow (1977) defined aptitude as any individual learner characteristic that increased or impeded the probability of success in a given treatment. Findings from ATI studies underlie a major tenet of adaptive teaching, namely that learners benefit from being treated differently. In later work, Snow (1992) redefined aptitude as “readiness” to learn in particular situations. More than 40 years of research on aptitude has led to an understanding that instruction can be designed not only to address the aptitudes students bring to a class but also to develop aptitudes for future learning (Stanford Aptitude Seminar, 2002).

Adaptive teachers vary their own instruction, deciding whether students need more or less instructional support or more or less challenge at any given moment (Corno & Snow, 1986). At the same time, they adapt learners to instruction. Corno and Snow (1986) defined adaptive teaching as “teaching that arranges environmental conditions to fit learner differences” (p. 621). Adaptive teaching depends on teachers’ understanding that the challenge is to teach different students within a group setting, balancing individual learners’ needs with common goals.

Since Corno and Snow’s seminal work on adaptive teaching (AT), the theory has been elaborated and extended, largely by drawing from examples from contemporary diverse classrooms (Randi & Corno, 2005). These examples provide insight into the complexities and nuances of AT. New theory on AT views teachers as valuing diversity as a means to help fill in gaps in knowledge and learning strategies and to enrich the group as a whole. Ultimately, students become more alike than different, by exchanging strengths and erasing weaknesses. The whole group learns and changes as instruction proceeds (Corno, 2008).

Recently, more attention has been paid to the other aspect of adaptive teaching – adapting learners to instruction by developing an aptitude for learning. By developing students’ capacity to self-regulate their own learning, teachers create a classroom environment that facilitates both teaching and learning. Thus, teaching and learning are synchronized to create a learning environment that addresses individual learner differences with the group setting (Randi, 2017).

Adaptive teaching has been construed as a response to the realization that adaptive teaching cannot be scripted or guided by any particular model of instruction (Dumont, 2018). The complexity and multi-faceted nature of AT is reflected in the range of descriptors used to characterize adaptive teachers (e.g., assessors, improvisers, adaptive experts, decision-makers). No single descriptor can capture the complexity of the concept (see Parsons et al., 2018 for a review of adaptive teaching, including terms that have been associated with AT). Adaptive teachers draw upon a repertoire of research-based strategies as well as their own invented strategies to address individual differences, blending the art and science of teaching. As self-regulated learners themselves, they persist at finding or devising whatever it takes to reach and teach their students (Randi, 2005). They are at once adaptive teachers and adaptive learners.