altschool and a new look at education

Tue 16 June

altschool What if someone wanted to really personalise education? REALLY personalise it? Where would you start?

Altschool is a school in the San Francisco area (and soon Palo Alto CA and Brooklyn NY) which was started by former Head of Personalisation at Google, Max Ventilla. He sought a better school for his own children and was prepared to design it from the ground up. We met today with Carolyn Wilson, Director of Education at Altschool, and were provided with an very in-depth session on the rationale of the school.

It’s an independent school, with staff as shareholders. Other investors include Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and other venture capital providers. The school is actually a collection of microschools with a couple of larger campuses, largely because SF real estate is not easy to find and the school thus leases existing buildings that have been gyms, restaurants, etc. The Folsom St campus sits between a metal fabrication workshop and a gym, in a neighbourhood that Carolyn describes as “gritty”. This is not a negative – the school believes education should take place in the real world.

To develop the tools to support education, a team of developers is employed by the school and works onsite with educators via intermediaries. The software is thus developed to do what the school wants, not what a software company wants. This has resulted in the “Sorting Hat” admissions tool and more importantly a student-centred teaching and learning application that links tasks and activities with standards and assessment. This gives students a “playlist” of designed activities that they follow (these are by no means necessarily online activities) and student work is recorded (by them) and assessed. Parents have access to the assessments online and via weekly meetings.

Lessons are recorded with a series of classroom cameras so that teachers can analyse the lesson and look at individual sections to improve their practice. a watch device will allow them to bookmark moments of note so they can find them easily later. Teachers who don’t want lessons recorded simply don’t work at altschool – and they have thousands of enquiries for jobs.


Maker movement and its relationship to education ( part two)

So… the wider community has realised that making things is often a valuable educational experience. So how do schools respond?

Well… some schools determine that they should be “doing makerspaces” and set up a facility with various bits of hardware and tools to let students create things. But without some curriculum context, this can become the “wooden shoe-cleaning box” made by countless students over the years in woodwork classes, that is, another situation where every student creates the same thing with no real purpose other than to learn the specific skills in making that thing. This leaves the process as devoid of curriculum relevance as the subjects it replaced.

The evidence so far suggests that makerspaces in schools work best when seen as a tool to assist the design process, that is to help solve a real problem, rather than as an add-on or after-school part of the curriculum.

The water has been muddied by terminology, as names such as makerspaces, hackerspaces, fablabs. etc have been used interchangeably by some.

talk box talkbox2

photo – talk box (audio recording box) at Stanford dschool

Maker movement and its relationship to education ( part one)

After a number of discussions with educators, colleagues and “makers” it might be useful to look at the Maker Movement and its relationship to education.


Indications here are that US schools started to lose their “shop” facilities sometime in the last two decades, in response to perceived lack of relevance in the modern economy and in an era where making was something that happened in factories. Thus a generation of students did not gain the basic skills in using a range of materials. The emergence of “no user serviceable parts inside” devices, cars that could not easily be repaired at home, cheap furniture and appliances and in particular the rapid changes brought by digital electronics meant that interest was lost in actually making things.

An example was the teacher who told us how when his father was at a well-known university there were fabrication workshops on each floor where students were expected to construct their own prototypes. then when he attended there was one per building, then finally the whole construction side of things was outsourced to some contracting team.

A backlash seems to have emerged, from a confluence of  the “craft” movement along with those who see a future in universal coding skills and the launch of low-cost smart manufacturing machines. Along with other forces, this has created a “perfect storm” where the importance of thoughtful design and actual hands-on making have gained recognition.

stone tool 3d printed
photo – 3D printed stone tool, to allow students to actually feel how a shaped tool fitted the hand and to speculate on its likely use.

Next post – impact on education

Lighthouse Community Charter School, Oakland SF

Fri June 12 2015: Spent most of the morning with the wonderful Aaron Vanderwerff and Sherene Judah, two innovative educators at Lighthouse Community Charter School, Oakland. This school has a maker-focussed component but more importantly has a highly personalised approach to supporting students, with very high levels of success. Looked at some programming being done by Kindergarten students, using simple programmable cars and also some robotic animals being designed and built for a “robot petting zoo”.
Again, the makerspace role was integrated into curriculum areas like science, english, history etc

Also met a volunteer from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, who had on a unique T-shirt bearing the chemical symbols Lr, Bk, and Cf for Lawrencium, Berkelium and Californium, all discovered at Berkeley. May as well have added Americium so they get the full address of the campus.

Afternoon was spent with Cat Stam and Marie Phillips (two other members of our Hardie STEM inquiry group) at Exploratorium. SF. Lots of clever displays and a real-life version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (well, two actually – one accurate, one a bit less so using a drinking fountain and a squirting jet. “Prisoners” had to decide between drinking and squirting their fellow prisoner, with a payout matrix that I think needs more work.

tshirt lawrence hall of fame

Hardie Fellowship Day 1 – the work begins!

Part of our Hardie Fellowship group heads off today.  One member is already in the US and has begun her study, while two of us head to San Francisco today to start a week of interviews and meetings with innovative schools and school systems. Our focus is on STEM, but this naturally spills over into other areas such as personalised learning and the role of technology in a C21 school.

We are very grateful to the schools that have agreed to meet with us, especially at a time of year that is very busy for them.