Disrupting the Classroom, or How Self-Styled “Education Reformers” Always Get It Wrong, Part 1

A recent article in The New Yorker exposed some interesting aspects about why educational “reforms” often fail. Highlighting the efforts of a Bay Area private school system started by a former tech executive, the author, Rebecca Mead, gets into great detail of how the “disruption” that upended the cab and hotel industries across America, is a tougher road to tread with schools.

Mead’s article focused on a school system called AltSchool. The AltSchool was founded in 2013 by Max Ventilla, formerly of Google, who “had no experience as a teacher or an educational administrator.” According to Mead’s article, the idea of starting his own personal school grew out of his and his wife’s experience trying to find an acceptable preschool for their daughter, and the observation of “how little education has changed since he began school.” He set about reinvent it.

According to its website, this is “School, reimagined,” with “interdisciplinary, project-based learning” that educates the “whole-child.” (That’s a good idea—schools that only teach the left or right side of children make kids unbalanced.) One significant difference with traditional education is that AltSchools are festooned with cameras and audio recorders in a system called AltVideo, which records everything the children do and say (#notcreepyatall #TrumanShow).

AltSchool’s philosophy claims to upend the role of teachers in education, proposing:

...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.’ [Ventilla] defined a traditional teacher as an ‘artisanal lesson planner on one hand and a disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.’

I don’t think many actual teachers will appreciate that comparison, and I have no idea what the opposite of a “data-enabled detective” would be…a detective who operates solely on random guesses rather than facts? AltSchool seeks to be “data-driven” about its students—Mead describes a “faith in the revelatory power of data”—which is why the school monitors kids with video cameras and records their words and actions. Aside from creepiness of such recordings, the value of such data is questionable.  

The contemporary infatuation with the phrase “data-driven” reveals a disappointing lack of thought. Every decision we make is, of course, informed by data. That data may be faulty. Or the topic under investigation may not lend itself to quantifiable data; what, for example, is the quantifiable value of a student learning Hamlet? Or for a student learning Newton’s laws of motion? Can you rank on a scale of 1 to 10 the educational value of learning the process of photosynthesis? To say something is “data-driven” does not say much about it, but this phrase—a shibboleth for shallow thinking—does reveal something about those who use it.

A prime example of the infatuation with meaningless data is the radical way AltSchool approaches classic texts. One AltSchool class analyzed The lliad with a spreadsheet and data visualization, their teacher approvingly noting, “Analyzing a piece of literature this way will turn the work into a piece of robust data that can be understood quantitatively, in addition to allowing a qualitative reading.” Huh—what?

Despite this quixotic emphasis on data, AltSchool has virtues in both the way that Ventilla implemented his ideas in his own school (rather than trying to force changes in public schools), and some of the approaches he takes. At AltSchool children start class at a very reasonable time (9am) and are allowed great latitude throughout the day to work on what they want, at the pace they want, in a rich technological environment where each student works on a personal tablet. One recent graduate of AltSchool noted, “Here, we don’t do textbooks. We do computers and I really like that.” Students have “playlists” of their tasks, but few deadlines, and they are able to focus on topics that interest them, facilitated by teachers. (If this sounds to you a lot like Montessori mixed with iPads, you’re getting it.)

Despite these virtues, several statements by AltSchool’s founder are educationally problematic and deserve closer consideration. Which we will do in Part 2...

Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.