Disrupting the Classroom, or How Self-Styled “Education Reformers” Always Get It Wrong, Part 2

Last time we examined an article by Rebecca Mead about AltSchool, a “disruptive” Silicon Valley educational system founded by a former Google executive, Max Ventilla. Let’s look now at a few of Ventilla’s statements to get a better sense of how AltSchool’s educational “disruption” happens.

Mead’s article quotes Ventilla about the value of foreign language instruction:

If the reason for 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.

The value of foreign language instruction is not merely to speak with people in another language. The point of learning a foreign language is to understand your own language. Of course it would be unrealistic to expect that a few classes would, decades later, allow one to carry on a conversation—but that’s not why schools almost universally require foreign language classes. Understanding syntax and practicing declensions isn’t about equipping you to order at a restaurant; rather, students learn to think about language with a new perspective, and from that perspective, to understand their own mother tongue.

It’s a bit unsettling that a would-be education reformer gets something so basic as the value of foreign languages so wrong, and would recommend instead the lazy crutch of using an app. Translation apps are limited and convey little of the idioms and nuance involved in communication; a sarcastic “Get out of here!” is very different from an angry “Get out of here!” but a translation app makes no distinction. In the case of “Get out of here!” such a miscommunication might result in fisticuffs. To envision what is lost by relying on a translation app instead of personal knowledge of a foreign language, imagine using a translation app to translate a poem.

Moreover, my colleague Minda Berbeco, was quick to point out that her own young son visits a playground daily with children speaking 3 or 4 different languages. The exposure to other languages at a young age has helped in his language and social development. She shivers at the thought of him pulling out a smartphone to translate “hand me the shovel”.  Do we really need a computer to intercede on our most basic daily interactions? Can't we teach children how to connect on multiple levels without the aid of a plug-in device?

Even more disturbing is the assumption that the value of learning languages derives from its practical use. When we apply the standard of practical use, much of science education falls on the chopping block. Of what practical use to students is learning the difference between mitosis and meiosis? Of what practical use is learning that penicillin does not kill viruses? Of what practical use is knowing that force equals mass times acceleration, that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around, or that atoms have electron shells? Of what practical use is evolution or climate change for that matter? 

Once we start down this slippery, philistine path, where every education subject is judged by its relevance to future employment, then we have descended from education to training. Training is for pets; humans should be educated. You train a dog to do a trick, but teachers educate students to think. Education is so much more than simply learning how to do one narrow task in one specific way; education is about learning why something is true, why something is important. 

The philistine approach to education, where all topics must fit some future employment, was skewered by Charles Dickens in Hard Times, as Rebecca Mead notes. When a character in Hard Times declares, “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts,” it means that working-class children were fit only as cogs in a factory assembly line. They were meant to obey, not to innovate. They would punch a timecard, but not own a business. Education that focuses on employment rather than knowledge cripples the minds of students and will, at best, prepare them for narrow jobs that will probably no longer exist when they are of working age.

Mead quotes Ventilla:

‘A three-year-old today isn’t that different,’ he told me. But, largely because of technology, ‘a thirteen-year-old is really different.’

This observation has a lot of problems. Because so much of human behavior and learning is hard-wired in the brain, saying that today’s thirteen-year-olds learn in a different way than their peers several decades ago posits major alterations to brain structure and genetics. Moreover, these changes are proposed to arise largely from using gadgets. That’s a leap that seems, to me, unjustified by the evidence. Let’s see proof of new, unique genes related to technology use and brain development; let’s see fMRIs demonstrate how thirteen-year-old brains today are structurally different from thirteen-year-old brains in years past. Absent such evidence, radically altering how we do education seems unjustified, especially when we can draw upon a deep experience and historical precedent in how people learn.

Mead reports:

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.

First, historical precedents exist because they work, and the value of knowledge handed down over generations cannot be underestimated. It may be an impulse of tech leaders, like revolutionary Jacobins, to sweep away the old, launching a new calendar with Year One, but this has rarely turned out well in history or in education. Without guidance from the knowledge of the past—that maligned “historical precedent”— youth look to each other for what to do, a descent into the blind leading the blind. 

Second, it is exceptionally naive to assume that education has not changed or been updated over time. Teachers are keenly aware of their students’ needs, using time-tested approaches and new techniques to connect with their students. The notion of education as trapped in the past is dismissive of educators and the hard work they do.

Teachers are natural innovators, constantly wanting to bring new concepts, methods of teaching, and the latest and greatest science into their classrooms, guided by their front-line teaching experience. We expect workers in other professions—doctors, lawyers, carpenters—to adapt and improve as they gain experience. But for some reason people who have never spent a day in front of a class feel free to tell teachers how best to do their jobs. (Could this condescending paternalism toward teachers reflect lingering misogyny from a time when so many teachers were women?)

We don’t need to “reform” education. We need to stop the disruption from endless “reforms” and let teachers teach using the methods that in their personal experience have achieved success.

We also need the courage to admit the real causes of educational failures. The problem in education is not teachers, unions, lesson plans, or schedules. The real problem is poverty. We will explore this more in Part 3.

Short Bio

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