The Intellectual Father of Personalized Education

Patrick Suppes saw AltSchool coming in the 1950s.
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Patrick Suppes.

Patrick Suppes.

In November 2014, Patrick Suppes, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford, died at the age of 92. He had lived and taught at the university for 64 years. Although not a household name, Suppes was a 20th-century intellectual giant in philosophy and mathematics who made major contributions to fields ranging from quantum mechanics and decision theory to cognitive psychology and the philosophy of language.

But the obituaries that ran in national newspapers following his death did not begin with any of that work. Instead, Suppes was remembered as one of the very first people to use computers seriously to personalize children’s learning.

Suppes was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1922, and raised in a family of oilmen. He was unusually bright, and eventually made his way to the University of Chicago, where he studied the Great Books. After a stint in the Army in the Solomon Islands during World War II, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia and landed a teaching position at Stanford.

In 1956, after his eldest daughter entered kindergarten, Suppes became intensely curious about how children learn mathematics. He threw himself into the science of learning and was amazed by its depth. “Even a subject as relatively simple as elementary-school mathematics,” he wrote, “is of unbounded complexity in terms of understanding the underlying psychological theory of learning and performance.”

He was also interested in how the computer technology being developed by men like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard (at the nearby Stanford Research Park) could help improve education. In 1963, with IBM’s help, he set up an educational-computing laboratory at Stanford, where elementary school students would take math courses on computers. Three years later he published a landmark article in Scientific American titled “The Uses of Computers in Education.”

"The millions of observational records that computers now process in the field of nuclear physics will be rivaled in quantity and complexity by the information generated by computers in the field of instruction."

Suppes began with a grand prediction. Soon, he wrote, “millions of schoolchildren will have access to what Philip of Macedon’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal prerogative: the personal services of a tutor as well-informed and responsive as Aristotle.” Computers, he believed, would be able to diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, and customize their education accordingly. The math and language programs on the Stanford computers contained questions and problems of escalating difficulty. Students who got the easier questions right would ascend quickly, while those who got them wrong would get more problems of an appropriate difficulty to solve. Suppes found that the learning variation among elementary school students of the same age was enormous: Some progressed through the curriculum five or 10 times faster than their peers.

Initially, all of this was accomplished with early-1960s technology. The computer posed questions with a Teletype machine—essentially, a typewriter hooked up to a computer, with the words and numbers typed out on spools of paper. (The cathode ray tube was about to change that, Suppes noted, because “messages can be generated directly by the computer on the face of the tube, which resembles a television screen.”) The computer itself was more than up to the task. “With modern information-storage devices,” Suppes wrote, “it is possible to store both a large body of curriculum material and the past histories of many students working in the curriculum.” This was in 1966.

The real challenge, Suppes understood, was “not technological, but pedagogical.” As education goes digital, this problem will only become more acute, because teachers aren't trained to recognize how new sources of data can help improve their instruction. “The millions of observational records that computers now process in the field of nuclear physics,” Suppes wrote, “will be rivaled in quantity and complexity by the information generated by computers in the field of instruction.”

If that information can be fully utilized and understood, it will help solve a fundamental education-policy dilemma of the modern world: how to deliver personalized education to millions of people who learn and progress and understand information differently. But if we solve that challenge, we’ll be confronted with a new dilemma—one that Suppes foresaw. “We shall for the first time be faced with the practical problem of deciding how much diversity we want to have,” he wrote. “That is the challenge for which we should be prepared.”

I met Patrick Suppes about a year before he died, in his home on the Stanford campus. He was hard at work on a book about personalized learning, and was enjoying watching the emergence of new companies, among them AltSchool, built on the promise he had identified decades earlier. Even back in the 1960s, he had seen the shape of things to come. In education, he wrote, “we probably should expect a revolution.” That time may finally have arrived.

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This sidebar originally appeared in the May/June 2015 print issue of Pacific Standard alongside "Our Schools All Have a Tragic Flaw; Silicon Valley Thinks It Has the Answer." It was adapted from Kevin Carey's most recent book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, published by Riverhead Books in March.

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