Monday, 18 May 2015

Ctrl, Alt, Delete: Refresh Education... with Alt School?

This post details why I like the sound of the Alt School model and explores the relationship with startups and education. 

I also explore if and how some commentators may be right that Alt School could be a model that works well in Silicon Valley, but may not elsewhere. 

However, unlike these commentators I will not see this as a "failure," but will question if we need to return to the way education was once managed and organised

Are startup schools like Alt helping education return to a more traditional model?  

A recent Wired article called "Inside the school that Silicon Valley thinks will save education" observed that

"By Silicon Valley standards, AltSchool is already a runaway success. But the world of education doesn't operate by Silicon Valley standards. To be a true success, Ventilla and his team still have to prove that AltSchool is more than just another private school for the tech elite, and that it can actually make a difference in some of the country's neediest schools"

But another non-state system that I am a fan of, KIPP, has made a difference in some of the most deprived areas... but this model also comes under fire from various education stakeholders. 

In the 14 years since I've been involved with engaging the education sector I've come to understand that it's quite a complex space to operate in. Here is a successful new model, but the rhetoric above and in other articles is hardly what you'd call a ringing endorsement. How about we compare this runaway success with how the status quo has dealt with issues like social mobility?

"The real tragedy is that, broadly speaking, the areas of deprivation in the UK have not shifted a great deal since Dickens Day, and any talk [by policy makers] of a new approach of the kind I fervently believe would work has led to nothing but lots of strategizing, meetings, papers, conferences, seminars, websites...and when the money runs out, there is nothing left to show, no tangible results and so, of course, the show moves on." Andrew Mawson, The Social Entrepreneur 

A philosophy of becoming is not possible without change
As you read this post it might be useful to ask yourself: If Aristotle or Plato was an administrator or a startup founder who had "a good idea" about education, learning or critical thinking, would all education stakeholders jump up and down and say "Hey that's a great idea," or would there be individuals/groups who had issues with the proposed idea?

Out of all the various projects I've worked on, and the reaction I've had from the various groups and stakeholders, I've come to the conclusion that;

1) The projects that policy makers (and even educators) roll out have just as much chance of having questionable value as an EdTech supplier... if the ideas are not assessed properly.

2)  Policy makers are unlikely to reform education in the way that is required (At least not in the UK)

3) Senior administrators can tend to be "too expert” to realize how much of an overhaul is required

Where I have seen the most progress and potential for EdReform is with

·       Young teachers who have grown up with social media and are not encumbered with  “expertness” ...They are young and idealistic enough to believe that they can change the world

·         Innovative startups... especially the Silicon Valley variety

I am also beginning to wonder if the gulf between educators and innovative Startups may be too great a divide. 

The motives of any company involved in education can tend to get a lot of negative press from educators "These startups think they know it all," "They are only interested in money and making a profit" and other such comments can, unfortunately, tend be the norm.

Alternative Views & Attitudes... To the same Message?
As I've highlighted in the past, the same message can get a different reaction depending on the context;

Sir Ken Robinson talking about the need for reform because "schools kill creativity" at a Ted Talk gets applauded.

Meanwhile any talk from startup founders on how and why their idea will "disrupt education" at events like the ASU/GSV Summit can (and does) get condemned as "those greedy startups who are only in it for the money"

The next moment educators are praising Ipads, Twitter or Google Chrome books in education. So there's a bit of a mixed message.

The message is the same, but the perception and reaction is very different. This is not a positive development, as the culture is all wrong. 

There is something that I've come to rely on as I navigate my way towards "Product Market Fit" and it's this... Culture! Culture, in particular the right core values, along with a shared goal are key to the success of any project/organisation.

"Every venture, at its inception, is imbued with a core purpose and set of values that emanate from the founder, shape the organisations culture and largely define its future, for good or ill.

Amazon is famous for its "customer obsession" largely because of its founder, Jeff Bezos, is hell bent on making it the "world's most customer-centric company." Google's mission to "organise the world's information" reflects its founders surroundings - Silicon Valley and Stanford" David Robertson, Brick by Brick

So culture matters. A lot. So when we add everyone's faviourite group to this startup/edu mix, our politicians, you have a fantastic recipe for a cohesive culture and unity... Erm, well, maybe not!

I've become way more interested in politics than I should have through being fascinated by the SNP during the Independence Referendum and the UK General Election. It's not easy to explain that my support is;

1) Not universal: I think that most politicians are self interested ego maniacs, who crave power.

The SNP might be good for Scotland but their record with Education "could do better"

2) Is the result of a positive culture during the Scottish independence referendum. 

My interest here was because I recognised some similarities between the referendum and the culture of technology companies and the way they roll ideas out (See Freakanomic Politics: Why SNP Domination was Inevitable)

In my opinion the SNP had an opportunity to do some great things in various areas, but they decided to settle on using it for petty party politics.

100,000 new members of the SNP, who does this ultimately benefit? The 56 people who were sent to Westminster to have a laugh and a joke in the Commons Bar with the rest of the "Political Classes" in their ivory towers.   

So the people in the SNP who came up with the "Yes" movement was inspired!

The people responsible for education, using the unique momentum and conditions of the referendum to attract new members to a political party and not managing the culture to allow the rise of the "Cybernats" = Erm, questionable. 

While I have expressed more interest in politics because of the culture during the referendum my views remain unchanged, and have been compounded, as a result of following the General Election.

"A man cannot rob, exploit or rule - alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. Rulers... create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar and the bandit" The Fountainhead

If people in politics crave control then the opposite might be said of many Silicon Valley startups... They want to push the boundaries and give other people control.

Some founders start things off as a prank (Like Facebook) others like Tim Berners Lee created the world wide web to connect and share information with colleagues, Ev Williams wanted to give people a voice with blogger and Twitter.

These startup founders are keen to change the world, and they are in a hurry too... So they can be very impatient. What happens if they find the pace of implementing their ideas too slow?

They find other ways of doing things, they create Circle the Schools and they establish alternative schools.

Something that might compound their desire to do things differently might be if these successful tech investors and entrepreneurs found the traditional school setup was not a good "Person Environment Fit" for them.

The fact that a group of successful techies are getting together to create an "Alt School" doesn't surprise me at all! In her book about introverts Susan Cain discusses how Steve Wozniak worked;

"Did Steve Wozniak huddle with fellow Homebrew club members to work on computer design? No. Did he seek out a big, open office space full of cheerful pandemonium in which ideas cross pollinate? No. When you read about his account of his work process on that first PC, the most striking thing is that he describes the period of quiet midnight and solitary sunrises as "the biggest high ever" 

In his memoir he offers this advice to kids who aspire to great creativity;

"Most inventors and enginners I've met are like me - they're shy and they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact the best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an inventions design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don't believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you're that rare engineer who's an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is : Work alone.You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you're working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team."

As for the model, a one room school house, its the way things used to be! Who said that a school has to have administrators, gyms, cafeterias or hallways in order for it to be a school? Why can't people learn better in this environment?

Will this roll out across America seamlessly? Maybe not. If it doesn't does that mean that its a failed experiment? I would argue that it does not.

“Until the 19th Century, the small scale enterprises which provided the bulk of formal education were, typically, private concerns. The early universities were also independent; while in some societies there was a mixture of religious and charitable concerns. With the rise of the Nation State, and the development of the industrial society, all this changed. Education came to be viewed as a core responsibility of the state, and came more and more under tight state control… [as part of the] increasing tendency for government to actively involve itself in every area of social life.”  Alison Wolf  Does Education Matter

Wolf goes on to discuss how the curriculum for these local schools catered to the economic needs of the region. Richard Florida picks up on this in his Economic Impact of Knowledge Clusters article, so there's an argument to suggest that education and economic conditions remain closely linked.

IF this model does not work out elsewhere, maybe it's more a case of a return to "the good old days" ...maybe these visionary tech startups are just going back to basics?

I wonder how some of the educators who don't like the idea of these "meddling profit making companies coming in and disrupting education with crazy ideas that end up not working" feel about the suggestion that 

Startups like AltSchool are being as traditional as you can get in education.

With the exception of an ipad and some coding, the Alt School appears to have taken education back to the 19th Century: A single room school, with a strong focus on the local economy's needs... How much more traditional can you get?! Of course;

1) This won't be to all education stakeholders liking, and
2) This perhaps isn't the best possible model we might hope for

But these two points above are in conflict with each other...

A preferred model might be for these crazy startup people to be allocated a classroom and conduct their startup experiments under the supervision and guidance of qualified educators.

But getting consensus for this would take a lifetime and the techies, who perhaps didn't like school too much as they were introverts and/or because they just wanted to code all day, now have successful careers. They may also have school age kids which can obviously be a powerful motivator for wanting change sooner rather than later. 

"The U.S. education sector is highly fragmented and politicized; it's hard to win major contracts for radically new approaches without a lot of tussles. By contrast, in countries such as Chile and Australia, the national authorities can embrace new tools quite quickly and decisively" Ramona Pierson, Declara CEO via Forbes

We all want the best for our kids and, if parents who work in startups feel something isn't working in education and if they have the time, money and influence... Of course they will approach the problem in the way they know best, by getting creative and disruptive. I'll leave you with Susan Cain and the political classes; 

"The kids break excitedly into their groups, seating themselves in three large clusters. there's no need to move any furniture. Since so much of the curriculum is designed for group work, the classroom desks are already arranged in pods of seven desks each. The room erupts in a merry din. Some of the kids who'd looked deathly bored during the 10 minute lecture are now chatting with their peers.

But not all of them. When you see the kids as one big mass, they look like a room full of joyfully squirming puppies. But when you focus on individual children - like Maya, a redhead with a ponytail, wire-rimmed glasses and a dreamy expression on her face - you get a strikingly different picture.

In Maya's group, the "executive branch," everyone is talking at once. Maya hangs back.

Maya is an introvert; she is out of her element in a noisy and over stimulating clasroom where lessons are taught in large groups. Her teacher told me that she'd do much better in a school with a calm atmosphere where she could work with other kids who are "equally hardworking and attentive to detail," and where a larger portion of the day would involve independent work." Susan Cain, Quiet  

Meanwhile, back at the "political class" unlike these startup founders, politicians don't even use the service that they are in charge of... as they opt to send their kids to private school instead.

Or what about the fact that many commentators have highlighted the role that social media has played in the 2015 General Election, something that David Cameron dismissed in 2009 with his comment that;

"Too many Twits might make a Twat"

Given that 92% of MPs who were elected earlier this month are now on Twitter, I'd be tempted to agree with our PM, as well as highlight the short sighted thinking of our politicians. 

As for Twitter going from being dismissed to 92% roll out in 6 years? Not bad for a small Silicon Valley startup that is only 8 years old. Who's to say the founders of Alt School won't help the politicians and, more importantly, our kids win at education too? 

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