School of One

Not an Integrated Learning System: A New Vision for Teacher Collaboration and Specialization

This week I went to see School of One, declared a futuristic, 21st century classroom (NYTIMES, GOTHAMSCHOOLS). And it has taken me a while to process.

I met with architect of the system, Joel Rose, last year. He described a vision of a learning environment that met students exactly at their levels with lessons adjusted to their individualized learning styles.  As he spoke, I thought to myself, this sounds just like an integrated learning system (ILS), except it is more complicated. Trying to be helpful, I even sent him a link to an ILS system after our meeting.

For those who don’t know what an Integrated Learning System is, this was the first cut at computer-aided instruction designed to let children learn at their own pace, be constantly assessed, and move up at their own levels. More sophisticated ILS systems started to aggregate content from a number of different content providers to offer students the best of breed content and meet their specific needs. Can you see how I might have been confused?

Joel’s vision went beyond the traditional ILS, because he was talking not only about computerized individualized instruction, but live-online tutoring, and teachers delivering their favorite lesson plans. Still, I knew one of the main challenges of these systems is that teachers usually do not align their instruction to take advantage of the technology-delivered content or assessment data they offer. (Maybe for good reason, but that is why these systems often fail.)

When I visited the School of One prototype in the redesigned library of PS 131, I saw four teachers, four assistant teachers, three online tutors, high school students, and a back end team of data analysts (in the most impressive educational control room I have ever seen). Each educator was focused on teaching or assessing a different skill in a different way.

And I still didn’t get it.
I liked it, but I didn’t know why.

All I could think about was reducing the educator-student ratio (1 to 10 - not including the online tutors) so that this could be scalable.  But the more I reduced the ratio, the more it felt like a traditional ILS system.

So it was after trying to convince another education technology expert, that SCHOOL OF ONE was not an ILS, (he read the Times article) that I finally nailed my source of confusion.

This wasn’t about using technology to teach students, it was about enabling a more complex teaching organism…maximizing the ability of a large group of educators to act and react in real-time. The computer-aided instruction is about reinforcement, practice, differentiation but it is not the exciting technology in the room or the essence of the innovation of this model.

The human dynamic is the key. In a group of eight educators, no one teacher is likely to say, “hey I am not going to do this.”

You can ignore a computer (even when it can help you), but it is a lot harder to ignore eight colleagues all working at a level of collaboration enabled by technology. Teachers will change practice for each other. In fact, the end of teacher isolation is one of the best promises of the model. Imagine the naturally occurring modeling and mentoring opportunities that could occur when new and experienced teachers work together in these classrooms that offer varied roles for teachers.

So now I get it Joel. Sorry I was a little dense when we met the first time. I was working from an old mental model. The potential of School of One is to empower groups of teachers to work in tandem and to specialize in ways that meet the needs of each child. It is a vision well worth the experiment.