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Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker Article on AltSchool Describes Paradoxes of Technology

April 10, 2016

I’m several weeks behind in reading New Yorker articles and am therefore late to the game in reacting to “Learn Different“, Rebecca Mead’s article on AltSchoolIn the article Ms. Mead describes AltSchool’s model for teaching and learning, which combines progressive education’s assumption that children learn best when they study materials that interest them at their own pace and in their own way with Big Data’s assumption that the collection and analysis massive amounts of information on teaching can make the delivery of content more efficient and effective. The article is full of observations Ms. Mead made in AltSchool sites in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn and does an excellent job of describing the promise and perils of progressive personalized schooling that might replace the factory model in place today. The main characters in the story Mead weaves about AltSchool are its founder, Max Ventilla, a former Google technologist who is the founder of AltSchool, and an AltSchool lead teacher, Christie Seyfert, described as “…an energetic young woman with green hair“. Ventilla was dismayed over the standardization he witnessed when his children began school and decided to bring his technology background (and considerable access to funding) into play and create a new model for schools:

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. Ventilla’s vision fit the prevailing ethos of middle-class child rearing, in which offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them into rewarding nonconformity.

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.

Later in the article Mead describes a day in Seyfert’s life and the way she and her colleagues use technology tools to continuously and rapidly improve the curriculum:

Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.”

Ventilla’s vision is to use the power of Big Data to change the role of a teacher:

Ventilla told me that these tools were central to a revised conception of what a teacher might be: “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” He defined a traditional teacher as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.”

But Ventilla and the hedge funders who are backing his school also have another intention: they want to monetize public education and change the motivation of teachers. Not only are teachers expected to become “data-based detectives”, they are shareholders in AltSchool and therefore especially invested in its success.

I’ve written three previous posts on AltSchool, each expressing full support for AltSchools efforts to move away from the Factory School paradigm but expressing some un-ease with the funders’ ultimate rationale. Mead puts her finger on the source of that un-ease in this paragraph describing the paradoxical underpinning of AltSchool:

Personalized education promises an escape from the more recent Gradgrindian practice of standardized tests. In a world of personalized learning, the argument goes, every child’s particular genius will be permitted to shine. But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

As an advocate for the liberal arts, it is at once unsettling and heartening to find that the kind of education liberal arts promotes is “utilitarian”… It is unsettling because he liberal arts promote unconventional and creative thought and education for its own sake, not as a means to and end. But it is heartening because having more open-mindedness and open-heartedness would be a welcome development in schools.

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