It’s a sunny afternoon in the mountains of northern California, and 15-year-old twins Laurel and Bryce Detterling are hard at work on their studies. Bryce Detterling is building a vehicle that can test water quality remotely. He’s printed the propellers and is struggling to figure out how to waterproof the vehicle.
Laurel Detterling is interested in robotics, and trying to figure out how to teach robots empathy. As part of her research, she spent a lot of time listening to three elderly Navajo talk about their lives.
“They didn’t have running water, didn’t have electricity,” Laurel Detterling says. “They had 54 sheep and their only source of income was weaving rugs from wool.”
This, of course, isn’t a typical high school class. It’s a day at Tahoe Expedition Academy, a school that is on the cutting edge of what is now known as “personalized education.” Hannah Kuchler describes this tech-based movement in this lengthy article from the Financial Times.
I’ve written about this sort of tech-based education before in writing about AltSchool, most recently here. Although AltSchool is profiled in Kuchler’s article, the news in Kuchler’s piece is that these highly individualistic schools are now a movement, and that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is prepared to spend hundreds of millions developing them.
As Dale Russakoff noted in The Prize (which I wrote about here) Marc Zuckerberg’s first foray into education philanthropy was a $100 million attempt to reform public schools in Newark. That money was mostly squandered.
Personalized education marks Zuckerberg’s second foray into education philanthropy. Since the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a corporation and not a foundation, it’s making investments in schools rather than grants. Other tech billionaires involved in this project are Peter Thiel through his Founders Fund and Laurene Jobs through her Emerson Collective.
The initiative has hired James Shelton, a former deputy secretary of education and a former education program officer at the Gates Foundation, to oversee the personalized education project. The idea, he says, is to fund “good tools” so enticing that other schools will be compelled to use them. These tools, he says, “should not be cumbersome for learners and teachers to implement. Then, when they try it, they can’t imagine living without it.”
As Kuchler notes, many of the ideas behind personalized education have been around for a long time. She mentions Maria Montessori, but I believe Waldorf schools are based on the same individualistic principles, as were John Holt’s “unschooling” version of homeschooling. These thinkers all believed that children did best in school when working on projects that they initiated rather than the more conventional school where teachers drone and students fidget.
Previous generations, however, did not have to face a future where many jobs will be lost to automation. Technology guru Marc Andreessen says the future will consist of two classes—those who tell computers what to do and those who are given their daily orders by computers. The goal of personalized education is to prepare students for niches the robots can’t fill.
Some of the schools that teach personalized education, such as Tahoe Expedition Academy, are private. (Tahoe’s tuition is $17,000 per year.) But others are charter schools, most notably Summit Public Schools, a chain with a large number of schools in the Bay Area in California and three in the state of Washington.
Each Summit student has a personalized lesson plan, which is called a “playlist”, which describes the tasks to be done on any given day. The school keeps records of what is done and how far each student has progressed. They also have detailed records of what each student’s interests might be. “A Summit teacher’s job,” Kuchler writes, “is to turn these interests into a personalized curriculum that keeps every child engaged in learning through class, college, and career.”
Summit’s founder, Diane Tavenner, says her goal is to persuade colleges that the data Summit has acquired is a worthy substitute for SATs and ACTs. Mark Zuckerberg says that when he walks into a Summit school, “it feels like the future, it feels like a start-up to me.” The big education companies—McGraw-Hill, Pearson—are prepared to spend billions on adaptive learning. What could possibly be wrong with it?
One obvious answer is how adaptive learning deals with students who aren’t motivated, or who aren’t destined to be part of the cognitive elite. As noted Harvard education professor Howard Gardner told Kuchler, personalized learning schools suffer from “the Bill Gates fallacy: You think everyone is a little Bill Gates.”
Let me offer a critique from the traditionalist side. It used to be that one reason you went to school was to study the virtues that made you an exemplary citizen. You read the lives of the great (Washington, Lincoln) so that you could learn to be like them.
The idea that schools should teach virtue was destroyed in the 1960s and never revived. I don’t see anything in personalized education that says there are any values all students should hold, or anything that all students ought to know. “Be smarter than the computer” may thrill HR directors in Silicon Valley, but it’s not a strategy for living a good life.
What a robust system of charter schools offers are options from which students can choose, based on their abilities and temperaments. Personalized education should be part of the options available to students and parents, but so too should Great Books schools and schools with a Core Knowledge curriculum. The success of school choice is based on a robust variety of schools available.
The great danger of personalized education is the notion that because the money behind it comes from Silicon Valley they have discovered the one best way to run schools, and that there is no alternative to a high-tech curriculum. If personalized education supporters adapt that sort of arrogance, they will have committed a philanthropic mistake and will ultimately fail.