Of course not.
That was my reaction after reading this lengthy, and very interesting New Yorker article about a small but massively funded startup called AltSchool hoping to “disrupt” education, in the way of startups everywhere. Let’s take a look.
It’s called AltSchool and the focus is personalized learning (although there is a reference to students reaching benchmarks in things like math, so I’m not sure how that works). The classrooms are homelike, casual environments, where teachers function more as facilitators, helping students find resources in the areas of interest and asking leading questions in those teachable moments.
Except for the screens. And the data collection. And the video cameras that record everything.
The décor evokes an IKEA showroom: low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears. There is no principal’s office and no principal. Like the five other AltSchools that have opened in the past three years—the rest are in the Bay Area—the school is run by teachers, one of whom serves as the head of the school. There is no school secretary: many administrative matters are handled at AltSchool’s headquarters, in the SOMA district of San Francisco. There aren’t even many children. Every AltSchool is a “micro-school.” In Brooklyn Heights, there are thirty-five students, ranging from pre-kindergarten to third grade. Only a few dozen more children will be added as the school matures. AltSchool’s ambition, however, is huge. Five more schools are scheduled to open by the end of 2017, in San Francisco, Manhattan, and Chicago, and the goal is to expand into other parts of the country, offering a highly tailored education that uses technology to target each student’s “needs and passions.” Tuition is about thirty thousand dollars a year.
Another teacher and a student were looking at a tablet computer that displayed an image of a pink jellyfish. The girl had been drawing her own jellyfish with a violet crayon. “Let’s see if we can learn a name of a new jellyfish,” the teacher said. “Which one do you want to learn more about?” She touched the screen, and another jellyfish appeared—a feathery white one. “This is a . . .hippopodius?” the teacher read, stumbling over the name. “I wonder if this one glows in the dark.” The girl said, “Do you have another pink one?”
Students at AltSchool are issued a tablet in pre-K and switch to a laptop in later years. (For now, AltSchool ends at the equivalent of eighth grade.) When I visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders, most of the children were sunk into their laptops. All were engaged in bespoke activities that had been assigned to them through a “playlist”—software that displays a series of digital “cards” containing instructions for a task to be completed. Sometimes it was an online task. Two children were doing keyboarding drills on a typing Web site. Their results would be uploaded for a teacher’s assessment and added to the student’s online Learning Progression—software developed by AltSchool which captures, in minute detail, a student’s progress.
“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card.
She might also send it to a parent’s phone, using AltSchool Stream, an app that enables instant communication between home and school. Meanwhile, above the students’ heads, a network of white audio recorders hung from the ceiling, and fish-eye lenses were embedded in the walls. The goal of this surveillance system, AltVideo, is to capture every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.
And here’s where I went….wait. You want a bespoke educational experience that you can monitor to the second? Why not just save 30K and stay home and do it yourself? Well, I guess you’d have to forfeit that 400K salary, so never mind.
The video surveillance creeps me out. Later in the article, it says the video is not saved, but Lord. Would you want to send your kid to a school where every move of theirs is tracked and monitored and recorded? This is so weird. These tech people really are closet fascists.
The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about.
Hahaha. Welcome to my educational ecosystem unusually responsive to the interests of children:
I’ll take your 30k!
Ventilla also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.” Ventilla loves languages—his parents are Hungarian, and he grew up bilingual before studying French and Latin in school. He later learned some Persian, so that he could understand what a girlfriend’s family was saying about him at the dinner table. But he’s not certain that his daughter should devote similar energy to language acquisition. “If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps,” he said.
This is legitimate and echoes conversations happening in education all over the place. What his answer misses, though, is that there are deeper reasons for studying math and language beyond skill acquisition. Both, for example, involve coming to an understanding of structure, and even as a non-math person, I find the study of math as a mean of encountering logic and structure, even at the elementary level, to be very useful.
None of these backers want merely to own part of a chain of boutique micro-schools. Rather, they hope that AltSchool will help “reinvent” American education: first, by innovating in its micro-schools; next, by providing software to educators who want to start up their own schools; and, finally, by offering its software for use in public schools across the nation, a goal that the company hopes to achieve in three to five years.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are convinced that the flexibility and innovation of the tech sphere can be productively and profitably applied to the education sector, which is perceived as sclerotic.
I don’t disagree at all. But software isn’t going to help schools attain flexibility. Only the freedom to be flexible will do that. That’s not a technical issue, but a political one.
Seyfert pulled up the Learning Progression spreadsheet of one of her students, a seventh grader. Grades from kindergarten to eighth grade were denoted on the X axis, and various subject areas on the Y axis. Areas of completed study—sixth-grade math, for example—were indicated by cells filled in with green. Areas the student was still working on—seventh-grade science, for instance—were colored orange. In English, he was working well ahead of his expected grade level. Seyfert could click on each subject area to get more precise information about his progress. The effect was rather like opening an online report from a credit-card company that can show expenditures by category—Shopping, Travel—as well as specific purchases. She could see how many articles the student had read on Newsela, a site that provides Associated Press articles edited for different reading levels. She could click to see the student’s scores on the quizzes that accompanied each article, and then go into the article itself to read his annotations and marginal notes.
Here and there a solitary orange cell indicated an area that the student had not yet mastered. A student might have been sick the week that his fifth-grade class consolidated its knowledge of fractions and might not quite have grasped the principle. “If I notice he is really scoring low on a standard, I can go and look at the cards that assess that standard and see where the breakdown is happening,” Seyfert explained.
At the same time, educators at AltSchool are discussing whether children really need to attain certain skills at particular stages of their educational development, as the Common Core implies. Seyfert thinks that it might be more useful to think of learning not as linear but as scrambled, like a torrent file on a computer: “You can imagine all the things you need to learn, and you could learn it all out of order so long as you can zip it up at the end, and you are good to go.”
I resonate with that last paragraph, but the first two, not so much. Every time I go to a parent night at a school – even our not-alt-schools – I feel so sorry for teachers. There is just a ridiculous level of complexity to that 50 minute class session now. You must account for all the different learning styles. You must incorporate all kinds of technology and digital media into your presentation and the students’ work. You might want to flip your classroom. You must have an inquiry-based classroom. You’ve got to prep the kids for the testing. All this in addition to the usual and pervasive cultural and social resistance to learning and insane parental expectations. I honestly don’t think I could do it.
And track every student move during the day?
So this struck me as true:
Daniel Willingham, an education scholar at the University of Virginia, told me that adopting technology in schools can be maddeningly inefficient. “The most common thing I hear is that when you adopt technology you have to write twice the lesson plans,” he told me. “You have the one you use with the technology, and you have the backup one you use when the technology doesn’t work that day.” Willingham also notes that the most crucial thing about educational software isn’t the code that assesses student performance; it’s the worthiness of the readings and the clarity of the math questions being presented onscreen. “People are very focussed on the algorithm,” he said. “But equally important is the quality of the materials.”
The gap between AltSchool’s ambitions for technology and the reality of the classroom was painfully obvious the morning that I spent in the Brooklyn school. One kindergartner grew increasingly frustrated with his tablet as he tried to take a photograph of interlocking cubes that he had snapped into a strip of ten. (He was supposed to upload the image to his playlist.) He shook the unresponsive tablet, then stabbed repeatedly at the screen, like an exhausted passenger in a cab after an overnight flight, unable to quell the Taxi TV.
Even when AltSchool’s methods worked as intended, there were sometimes questionable results. The two girls whom I watched searching for seals on Google Images found plenty of suitable photographs. But the same search term called up a news photo of the corpse of a porpoise, its blood blossoming in the water after being rent almost in half by a seal attack. It also called up an image in which the head of Seal, the singer, had been Photoshopped onto a sea lion’s body—an object of much fascination to the students. To the extent that this exercise was preparing them for the workplace of the future, it was also dispiritingly familiar from the workplace of the present, where the rabbit holes of the Internet offer perpetual temptation.
(I’m a long time skeptic of computers and now tablets in classrooms. I’m not impressed when a school brags about how hep they are to the new technology. It’s useful and important for reference and research, but other than that it’s a distraction, the kids play games, and even educational computer games are of very limited value.)
Anyway, you might want to pop over and read the whole thing. My final thoughts:
I was interested in this article because the AltSchool people disdain educational standards (as I do), but they replace the repressiveness of that particular idol with some sort of data-driven goal that is, if you can imagine, even worse.
Track every single blink and computer click, upload it, study it, share it with parents…why?
It seem as if it’s nothing more than a “educational” ecosystem modeled after tech companies.
Which makes sense, if you think about it, for what does most institutional education turn on? Creating new versions of the institution’s vested interest: citizens, consumers, parish loyalists, alumni whose success guarantees big future donations.
So it is not surprising that Silicon Valley types would be dissatisfied with John Dewey’s desired student product and instead strive to form theirs in their own image.
The result: Too many screens, not enough quiet with books and paper and colored pencils and music and distraction-free conversation.
The purpose of education in my mind, is to encourage a person to look at the world, begin to try to understand the world, and point them in the direction of contributing good to the world. Observe, think, create, narrate, problem solve.
There is some of this here, but in the end it fails. Too damn many screens and not enough wisdom-seeking.
Here’s an unpopular opinion, somewhat related.
We went through a very brief Minecraft phase here. It was brief because they could never quite figure out how to get the most out of the Minecraft experience – they couldn’t figure out mods, my computer doesn’t have enough memory (I think that was a problem) and I guess to really get into it, you need to play on a server? Or something? And, as I said, it was beyond us and their screen time is so limited, they preferred to use it for other things.
But I still see lots of Minecraft-related material and boosterism, saying how it’s great for teaching math and geometry and creativity, as they make their worlds and so on. Maybe it is! But…
Last night before he went to sleep, my 11-year old asked me to come into his room. There, he spent about twenty minutes showing me pictures he’d been drawing in a notebook, part of an elaborate story and world he is creating. Last night, I learned all about this planet’s place in its solar system, its religion, its mining system and the giant Lime Snakes that live underground and cause earthquakes when they fight.
I think he’s working on it again right now, sketching it out in a composition book from the dollar store and what he can’t get down on paper, storing data in a memory bank that is his very own, that not a soul – not even me – can ever, ever mine.
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