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The Omniscient Classroom

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
Paul France teaches 12 students at AltSchool in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Jeff Singer)

Paul France teaches 12 students at AltSchool in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Jeff Singer)

A former Google executive has cooked up Silicon Valley’s most fully imagined alternative to a standard grade-school education. Now his idea, called AltSchool, is spreading across the country, one micro-campus at a time. Drawing on the concepts of personalization that power much of the modern Web (think of how Google customizes your search results based on how you’ve searched before; how Facebook’s algorithms determine which news stories you read), Max Ventilla has designed a classroom that turns each child’s experience into a stream of data, easily tracked and tagged by parents and teachers alike. That data, in turn, leads to a customized curriculum for each child. While some of AltSchool’s trappings are sci-fi—video cameras monitor the classroom, and facial-recognition software may eventually help teachers track group dynamics—the model mainly uses technology to strengthen something more old-fashioned: the teacher-student relationship.

Kevin Carey's Pacific Standard cover story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, May 05. Until then, an excerpt:

There are about 50 million children enrolled in American public schools. We can’t hire 50 million adults to teach them, so instead we’ve designed our schools to facilitate a relationship of one-to-many—on average, 20 to 23 students per classroom, although the number can be much higher in poor neighborhoods.

The overwhelming challenge for any teacher faced with a room full of 23 students is how different they are from one another. Children come to school from different home lives and cultures, and in the classroom demonstrate different levels of socialization and emotional development. Their interests and motivations aren’t the same; a book or film that resonates with one might utterly fail to connect with another. Their skills and natural abilities can vary widely, too: A room full of third graders might include some children reading at the first-grade level and others at the sixth. Their respective fluency in mathematics might be the reverse.

The best education meets students where they are. If a child is reading at the eighth-grade level, she needs to be guided and prodded toward the ninth, regardless of how old she is. If she struggles to stay on task and manage frustration, she needs a teacher who understands that and reacts accordingly. If she has certain passions—robotics, the Paleozoic Era, basketball—she’ll benefit if those interests are used as vehicles for learning to read, write, and think.

Nobody seriously debates any of this. Parents with money overwhelmingly choose to buy personalized, supportive learning experiences for their children. But it’s very difficult to deliver customized learning to many children simultaneously. Historically, the only way for a school to pull that off has been to spend a lot of money hiring unusually good teachers to lead unusually small classes. Most schools can’t afford to do that. Instead, they fall back on process and procedure, dividing a child’s educational life into yearlong chunks, so that eight-year-olds are all taught “third-grade reading,” for example, which is defined as being somewhere near the midpoint of where eight-year-olds tend to be. The instruction itself is often mechanical. At best, teachers modestly differentiate lesson plans and curricula that are essentially the same; at worst, they broadcast a uniform set of facts and instructions from the front of the room.

The educational shortcomings of this model accumulate over time: Older students suffer its consequences even more than younger ones do. Most teachers and school leaders understand this, but they haven’t had available to them a cost-effective means of solving the one-to-many dilemma. That may at last be changing, thanks to recent developments in information technology.

There’s nothing new about using information technology in the classroom, of course. Written words are a kind of technology; so are printed books. Two generations ago, teachers used ditto machines and A/V equipment to improve education. By now, most public school classrooms in this country are wired for the Internet, and many feature some combination of computers, tablets, and expensive interactive whiteboards that can project video or educational software onto a screen. Pretty much all of these technologies have been deployed for the same purpose: to bring children into contact with knowledge and wisdom that doesn’t reside in their teachers’ minds.

But while all this information technology has vastly expanded access to information, a major challenge remains: How do you figure out what kind of information each child needs, when, and in what way?

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