During an April trip to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, California, SSATB’s Think Tank committee peered into the future of learning and assessment, which we know will be closely and powerfully intertwined. In addition to our visit to Stanford University, we took advantage of our presence in the world’s technology hotbed to visit with programs on the cutting edge, including a brand new, venture capital-funded startup named AltSchool.
Carolyn Wilson, the school’s founding Director of Education, welcomed us and showed us the school’s first (and still only) site, a one-room classroom with about two dozen children, ages five to 10, in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco, a mile or so from AT&T Park. Next year, AltSchool intends to open two or three more sites, all the same size and configuration—and they are in conversations with other educators across the U.S. about further expansion through licensing agreements.
Launched by Max Ventilla, a technologist who sold his social search engine to Google for $50M in 2010, the school received more than $30M in startup capital from optimistic Silicon Valley investors. The company promises to “go far beyond the conventional ‘one size fits all’ approach to education … [to] reimagine the entire educational experience from the ground up.” According to a December 2013 article in Fast Company, half the employees are former Google engineers determined, “as any tech startup would [be], to use the schools as labs to learn, iterate and improve on the model.”
In addition to a commitment to real-world and project-based learning, the school intends to use technology to accelerate its continuous improvement. Students use mini iPads to organize and manage their learning via individual “playlists” (think of your iPod). The school is currently using the Trello platform for this, though the engineers in the back office are fast developing their own superior and proprietary platform.
In this model, students are assigned or select their own set of cards for that week’s learning, and monitor their own progress by tracking which cards have been completed. As FastCompany wrote, “Much like a playlist on Pandora, it adapts to feedback and preferences from the listener. Two kids could be building a birdhouse, but one would be working on the designs and the other learning how to measure and make sure the walls line up. There is not much of a notion of grade level, just loose groupings by age, since most children have different strengths and weaknesses. Some might read at a fourth-grade level and do math at a sixth or vice versa.”
The school is constantly monitoring student learning with technology, including video cameras. As explained in TechCrunch: “Teachers, parents and students who have been able to actually watch a breakthrough moment … have been able to help their children learn better.”
During our visit, Wilson explained AltSchool’s use of a mastery (a.k.a competency-based) approach. “The kids love being able to pace themselves, knowing where they are now, what challenges they need to work on, and what progress they are making.” Both teachers and kids add cards to their playlist all the time, and moving and manipulating the cards is empowering. Parents can also monitor the playlist at all times.
Wilson explained: “Our analytics are super important to us; they allow us to go so far beyond what current high stakes testing can do. Now we have the metrics to show what students are learning in all kinds of ways, and what progress they are attaining at all times.” These systems also generate color coded charts of what children are spending their time doing, and soon will be aligned with standards so that there will be built-in competency-based progress tracking.
Admission plays a role as well in their vision of honoring children as individuals and of building a personalized learning program. The website explains in some detail its admission assessment process for Kindergarten applicants: “We take our cue from the children themselves to see what they are drawn to, observe how they play, and ask them questions about their experience. One of the interview activities we have for younger children involves exploring different materials. Our teachers lay out game materials on a table - checkers, marbles, backgammon pieces, dice, and others. During the activity, we ask children questions such as, ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think you can do with these materials?’ and ‘What do you wonder about them?’ Our goal in asking these questions is to make thinking visible. We look to see where their curiosity and strengths lie through the way they engage with these materials.”