To School Or Not To School. That Is The Question.

A few years back, I attended a panel at SXSWEdu featuring three very important people. At some point, the topic of adaptive learning came up – how good it was now, where it was going next – and one of the panelists said something that has really stuck with me. Or, rather, it’s what she didn’t say that has stayed with me.

What she did say, essentially, is that adaptive learning is much trickier to make work than we imagine – the assessments, the decision-making algorithms, the number and variety of content – and so we’re not there yet.

What she didn’t say is that we already have something in schools that is incredibly good at doing these things, and it’s called a teacher. Trained, skilled teachers know how to “read” their students' needs using a variety of assessment formats, how to process that information, how to differentiate instruction. They do it every day, over and over again, as teachers have for centuries.

Change: The Only Certainty

We will figure out adaptive learning, of course. It’s only a matter of time (and not a great amount of time either, I suspect) before we create a system that not only does what a teacher does but does so tirelessly, more accurately, and more scaleably (oh and much more cheaply). Our adaptive learning systems are getting closer all the time, and thanks to the drumbeat to put devices into the hands of every child, we’re paving the access road.

On the one hand, all students will get the benefit of a master teacher, not just the lucky few. I have no doubt that achievement levels will generally rise when we get to other side of this mountain.

On the other hand, what’s the point of it all?

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the purpose of education was “to school” children.

To School - A verb meaning to go through the process of attending a formal learning environment in order to be exposed to important things.

To School - A verb meaning to go through the process of attending a formal learning environment in order to be exposed to important things

Learn the periodic table. Learn algebraic equations. Learn to write a five paragraph essay. Prove that you learned them using a test. Get remediation when you fail. Take a master test at the end to demonstrate that you successfully schooled.

A computer will be able to do all these things very well, and if that’s the point of school, then maybe it’s what we deserve – not just in terms of our schools but in terms of our society. If we can create a computer system that’s a better teacher than a human, there’s not much left that computer systems won’t best us mere mortals at. So what, exactly, is the point of “schooling” on all that science and algebra (or writing or art)?

The Future of School

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a luddite. This future doesn’t scare me. But I’m also not a pie in the sky optimist who sees a utopian post-work world. That vision strikes me as a bit too ”I.G.Y.

What I do believe, though, is the world we’re moving into will change society at a deep, fundamental level and in ways we can’t currently imagine.

And I also believe that we need to have a very hard conversation right now about what schools are for. If they are simply a place “to school,” then their time is probably coming to an end because adaptive learning systems will do that better than humans, and that would be dire for our democracy. We need schools, perhaps now more than ever, but we need them to be more than a place for schooling.

"It Is the Child Who Makes the Man"

The purpose of school is not a forgone conclusion any more than is its future. A century ago, John Dewey wrote:

"The school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.”

His contemporary, Maria Montessori, argued that “the child is not an inert being who owes everything he can do to [adults], as if he were an empty vessel that we have to fill.”

What was true then is double so now. Together, these argue for an alternate vision of the school as a place to explore and create, to be given the opportunity to become an individual who can contribute to society in meaningful ways. And that means more than just the ability to do what now passes for academic work. It means the ability to reason. To practice ethical decision making. To learn how to create and how to be.

Let the adaptive learning algorithms do their thing. We teachers can do much more.