It’s personal

When it comes to alternative education, is it possible to go too far?

rawImageAll advances in education are emblematic of their time, arising out of a specific political context and cultural experience. The education that Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner knew as children, for example, was severe. Classrooms were institutional, teaching was rote, punishments could be brutal. The methods they developed were intended to provide an alterative. In some ways, they simply took what was happening in typical classrooms and did the opposite: support rather than punish, encourage creativity, and treat them with all the the kindness we would like to develop in them. There are aspects of their work that we might not care to adopt as readily—Steiner’s anthroposophy, for example—though what distinguished their methods was that they created caring educational environments. That, perhaps more than anything else, was revolutionary.

It’s easy to wonder where the Montessoris and the Steiners are today. What are they reacting to? What ideas are they trying to put into practice? What problems are they trying to solve? Yes, we think that education on the whole could be better, and that innovation is an important part of it. We also like words like “personal” and “disruptive.” We are seduced by technology, and look to the corporate world for our models of success, Silicon Valley for innovation. Given all of that, AltSchool, might be the school for us. With 10 locations in the US, AltSchool is promoted as a collaborative network of micro-schools. For the people behind AltSchool, it’s an opportunity to change the nature of education in North America.

“The décor evokes an IKEA showroom,” writes Rebecca Mead, with “low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears.” A staff writer with the New Yorker, Mead visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders at Manhattan AltSchool location. There she found “most of the children were sunk into their laptops.” All were free to describe the course of their academic day; as at home, the laptops—each student is issued one on enrollment—are endlessly seductive. Kids were often working alone, engaging with online curricula, including BrainPop and typing games. AltVideo, a surveillance system installed throughout the school, including cameras mounted on classroom ceilings, allows parents to check in, watching on their iPhone as their child taps on their iPad.

It’s the kind of school that a Google employee might develop, and indeed, that’s exactly what it is. Max Ventilla, still just 35 years old, left Google to start AltSchool in 2013. He had studied math and physics at Yale, and when he founded AltSchool he had no experience as a teacher or school administrator. Whatever he may have lacked in educational experience, he made up for as a corporate fundraiser: the school raised in excess of $100 in venture capital in 2015, including sizable donations from Mark Zuckerberg and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, among others.

“We started the company with the ambition to create a new model of how to experience school in the 21st century,” says Ventilla. Certainly he succeeded in that. It’s different. Really, really different. What the school doesn’t do, however, is reflect any of the centuries of academic thought that grounds education, something that is less oversight than benign ignorance. The school gives “individual teachers autonomy to make changes without affecting everyone else.” That is, to do whatever they want, whenever they want to, without requiring any of the checks and balances that we find in more typical classrooms. In a Forbes article, Ventilla asks, “Why doesn’t a teacher use the best lesson plan out there instead of having to use one of their own?” It’s not perhaps a question that we all would answer in the same way that Ventillo does (let alone formulate it in the tortured way he does). He defines a traditional instructor as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.” Real teachers, that is those with teaching degrees and classroom experience would and should take exception. They feel that they represent a tradition that is bigger than themselves, because education is, actually, bigger than ourselves. But Ventilla has other ideas. “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” (Hunh?)

“We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.”–Max Ventilla, AltSchool founder and CEO

“There’s a healthy amount of skepticism for anybody coming in with what they purport to be a new model,” he ventures. “But something needs to change in the education space, and the problem is so complex that we need all kinds of organizations and people working to a solution.”[1] The guiding principle of AltSchool sounds just as good, and is equally vague: “every child should have access to an exceptional, personalized education that enables them to be happy and successful in an ever-changing world.”

But is AltSchool the kind of institution that is best suited to provide that? And what does “exceptional” mean? For one, it doesn’t include languages. Says Ventilla, “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.”

Indeed, it’s the efficiencies and redundancies of industry that provide inspiration for the school. “Facebook started as, essentially, a bulletin board for Harvard students,” Ventilla told Rebecca Mead. “Uber started as a private chauffeur that Garrett [Camp] hired and rode around with. This is a relatively common occurrence. You start in a very narrow way that you control and that really represents a kind of fundamentally different approach. And then you iterate.”

Christie Seyfert, a teacher that has been with the school for its entire history (it opened last spring) uses Torrent files as analogies for how children learn: scrambled rather than sequential. “What we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains,” says Kimberly Johnson, AltSchool’s head of product success and training. “Anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it.”

One of those things is assessment. Student progress is reported online, in real time, with parents able to check an app whenever they like: in-app scores, in-class snapshots of breakthrough moments, and tallies of Newsla articles read (or at least clicked on; Newsla is a site with Associated Press articles graded to specific reading levels). Teachers do have a role, including taking those snapshots of breakthrough moments, though Johnson feels that there is room for automation there as well.

AltSchool does meet with a healthy amount of skepticism, as it should. It offers a format that, unlike that of Montessori or Steiner, indulges the prejudices of the culture rather than providing an antidote to them. We like disruption, and the school proposes disruption as a goal, (though not for its investors, presumably). While the CEO and the board members are well-versed in the buzzwords of education and the language of change—“something needs to change in the education space”—it’s unclear whether they realize that the task of education isn’t coding a website, or building a better Uber, but in creating a caring, expansive, value-laden environment in which children can learn things that they can’t learn anywhere else.

Ventilla remains undeterred, using those millions in financial backing as evidence of the veracity and validity of his claims. “You are going to see, ideally, many more people enter the teaching profession and the role of the teacher be elevated,” he says, at a stroke congratulating the future and condemning the past. “Now we have the capital and leeway to learn ourselves by doing.” Indeed, whatever that means, he apparently does. Unsettlingly, his money is where his mouth is.


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