For four exciting years, I was Director of Education at AltSchool, a start-up of educators and technology professionals building a network of lab schools and platform designed to put students at the center of their learning. Our little start-up, launched in a storefront, raised substantial venture capital which led to an abundance of press. Inevitably articles written about us would proclaim that we were “reinventing school” or “reimagining education.” We even used the phrase in our material. I confess it makes me cringe. AltSchool’s interdisciplinary team has always focused on improving the experience of school for all stakeholders, but we didn’t start from scratch. The foundation of AltSchool’s approach to education is a deep understanding, derived from sound research, observation, and experience, of children and what they need to learn. The first step in working for meaningful change in education is to examine beliefs about learning and the purpose of school. Then hit pause. Take time to learn from children by knowing them well, not solely as students but as humans. That is the heart of personalization. The master of personalization was not a technologist or a practitioner of data-driven instruction. He was a twentieth-century schoolmaster named Frank Boyden who led Deerfield Academy from 1902 to 1968.
In his profile of Boyden, The Headmaster, author John McPhee focuses on the leader’s dedication to knowing each of his students well and finding authentic ways for them to contribute their talents and interests to the school community. When Boyden arrived at Deerfield, he moved his desk out of an office to the center hallway of the school. That was the ideal location for keeping his eye on all of his students. He was not monitoring decorum. He was building relationships. In 1906 Broyden wrote, “The object of the school should be the development of character, to help each pupil to do that for which he is best suited.” McPhee interviewed generations of Deerfield graduates and concluded that the Headmaster’s first-hand relationship with his students awakened a high degree of ethical sensitivity in them. Excellent educators have always valued this type of personalization.
At AltSchool the development of positive character habits, sometimes called social-emotional skills, is at the core of personalized learning. Character habits are as essential as academic coursework. We ran pilots to understand how children learn to identify and internalize their character goals. We discovered weekly individual conversations with teachers were essential. An effective curriculum can help frame the dialogue, a well-designed technology platform can make it easy to document reflection, but the positive connection between student and teacher is critical. AltSchool continuously iterates on technology while, like Boyden, never losing sight of the child.
Positive human connections, not rigorous standards or personalization technology, are the foundation of successful learning in any organization. The schools of the future, independent or public, must create communities of learners where everyone is known well and has the opportunity to contribute to others. That is not the sole ingredient for success, but it is fundamental to success. Anyone who wants to launch a school or build new technology for learning must follow Frank Boyden’s example and take an authentic interest in students, their work, and their activities. Without that fundamental commitment, innovation will be mechanistic and most likely short lived.