What the Heck is AltSchool?

So I found out this week that “teasing” my next FAQ topic might not have been the best idea. Got some very positive feedback about my reflection on how Wooster School is learner-centered and making steady progress on being able to personalize learning for each student, but even more on my open-ended question “What the Heck is AltSchool?” Some people were like, “Good question, Matt -- but you should have given us the answer first.” One parent even suggested that I stick to bullet points on these messages — so turn my painstakingly crafted letters to the community into the equivalent of powerpoint presentations. Ouch. Fair enough, though.

Somewhat ironically, I’ll be writing a separate missive down the line about attention, and how screens and the internet are causing us all to slowly lose the ability to do what is called “deep reading.” In the meantime, I’m going to keep asking you all to give me your attention in this way: Reading deeply, and then thinking deeply and reflecting. Questions are a part of the process too, and I am happy to answer them at any time. Even if you don’t agree with the content, or it makes you slightly uncomfortable, just the act of giving it your attention, and thinking deeply about it, is good for your brain. In this age of distraction and sound bites, it gives me great joy to help our community members retain and strengthen the gift of deeper reading.

FAQ: What the Heck is AltSchool?

I’ll do my best to keep this missive succinct (kind of) and informative. And I’ll switch it up a little, because I too am listening and learning all the time. Facts first this time, then some reflection, and some quotes from members of the Wooster team along the way.

Fast Facts About AltSchool

AltSchool is not a school, it is a learning platform: Learning platforms -- Moodle, Google Classroom, OnCampus -- have become a fundamental part of schools and learning. At their most basic level, learning platforms use technology to provide tools to teachers that help them improve student learning. Once established, they can “superpower” the relationship between student and teacher because they give the teacher the gift of more time, the result of better organization of the learning, streamlined processes, and data management from the technology. No learning platform will replace the relationship-based “magic” that occurs at Wooster School, only make it better.

“Altschool has helped me to see that sometimes although I ask students to work on a problem set together during class, it is not the problem set itself that I am looking to see solved. Rather it is the human interactions, executive function skills, and ability to use time wisely in a way that is kind and supportive. When students do those things, the physics learning occurs almost as a side effect. It occured to me therefore that maybe those things are what students need feedback on.” -- Dr. Brian Sullivan

This is a pilot: We are currently piloting the AltSchool platform in our science classes, K-12. We call it a “pilot” because we are trying out the system to see if it works for us, and how the Wooster and AltSchool teams work together. Asking ourselves this question: Can it be “Woosterized” to our satisfaction? So far, the pilot is going well.

AltSchool is our partner: While we are learning about what the AltSchool platform can do, design engineers at AltSchool and our own teachers are iterating the capabilities of the system to fit a forward-thinking, relationship-based school like Wooster. They know that other schools want to be like us — eventually all schools, independent and public alike, will have to personalize their learning, because it is what is best for kids, and what parents want. They are learning as much from our talented teachers as we are learning from them.

AltSchool has bad press: Most of AltSchool’s bad press revolves around the fact that they started as a company that was trying to open its own schools, and make them what I would call “hyper-personalized.” It was not a great model and to their credit, they figured that out. Along the way, they developed what our research tells us is one of the best personalized learning platforms in a quickly growing market. So, in the parlance of the tech industry, they “pivoted” and started partnering with schools to improve learning using their software. They are also creating a community of practice focused on competencies and personalization. Should we persist, we will likely become a leader in this community for them.

For what it is worth, the most recent article about AltSchool in Forbes Magazine barely even talked about the learning platform or the partnerships that the company has formed with many schools. The writer seemed more interested in dredging up the failed attempt at starting schools and heaping snark on the founder. Who cares how hot it was in the conference room where you met, or what kind of shoes he was wearing? I wish she would have called me to ask what we were doing with AltSchool. She didn’t.

We are doing our due diligence: We knew about AltSchool’s evolution before we ever engaged with them. I’ve followed them closely since they were founded, engaged in long conversations about learning and school with some of their leadership team, and visited lab schools in NYC multiple times, before bringing the idea of a partnership to our leadership team and teachers. We are continuing to vet them as a partner. One thing that has impressed me? Everyone who I’ve worked with at AltSchool reminds me of the people who work at Wooster — curious, smart, passionate about student learning, unafraid. They also pick up the phone and make real changes to the platform when our teachers call. They have real expertise and feedback that benefits our team and ultimately our students. From long experience, I can tell you that this is rare, if not unique, in the world of educational software.

Who is AltSchool?

AltSchool is a group of people, including experienced teachers, administrators and software developers and engineers, that has developed a learning platform which helps teachers to personalize learning for students. Using AltSchool’s technology, teachers can take the curriculum that they have developed and present it to individual students, and a whole class, in ways that make it obvious to students how what they are being asked to learn in the moment relates to the bigger picture of mastery of the competencies that make up the subject matter for their course.

Taking all of the lectures, projects, group work, reading, writing, research, and other methodologies developed by our teachers and utilized in the service of learning, and restructuring them for personalization takes a lot of work. Organizing all of this information and aligning it so that the teacher is creating multiple pathways for students ultimately to achieve the same goal — mastery at their current developmental level — is also difficult. The result, though, is incredibly powerful because it also requires that the teacher think deeply about what is most important for students to know and be able to do, and what the different options are for them to make progress in their learning. Teachers are learning too.

“I see our implementation team as an authentic manifestation of a learning community. Acknowledging our individual jaggedness, there is no question that everyone in this group has made significant strides in both their conceptual understanding of what it means to be learner-centered, and what AltSchool's technology can do to help us keep making progress in this regard.” -- Chris Pannone

It’s All About Feedback, and Always Has Been

Once the curriculum is developed and aligned, and loaded into the system, it becomes a more powerful feedback loop between teachers and students. To be clear, the broad architecture of the feedback loop is similar to what it has always been. First, the teacher exposes students to new ideas and concepts. Teacher then asks students to do things designed to help them learn these new ideas and concepts (and develop valuable skills like reading, writing, thinking, etc. in the process). Students listen, read, watch, ask questions, accomplish tasks like writing, labs, discussions. Students then show teachers the evidence of their progress through essays, quizzes, tests, presentations, lab results, problem sets, etc. Teacher provides more feedback on what she sees, and what comes next.

From a learning standpoint, this feedback loop is as old as humankind, and when done correctly, works very well. When it doesn’t work for learners it is generally because we’ve put a whole bunch of them together — like in a chemistry class — and expect a one size fits all strategy to help each of them learn effectively: at the same pace and using the exact same methods. We all know from personal experience (and we now have the science to confirm this) that when we get to the end of whatever amount of time was allotted for the class to learn the particular concepts, some students have mastered the material -- maybe days before the time period ends -- some are close but not quite there, some are stuck on just one piece of the puzzle, some are completely lost. Regardless, we move on to the next thing. Rinse and repeat. It’s a system that is incredibly inefficient — and unfair — in that it slows down some students, while leaving others a little bit more behind each day. It largely ignores what modern brain science tells us about how people's brains work, and how they learn. See my previous missive for a brief touch on jaggedness.

Better Technology Produces More Time

The AltSchool platform enhances the feedback loop by using technology to better personalize what teachers assign to students and what students provide as evidence of their learning. The very simple, but most important, end goal is to create MORE time for teachers to work individually and in small groups with students, by reallocating time that is currently spent managing the tyranny of the “whole group” approach. At developmentally appropriate levels, students are asked to act more independently and with more agency (learning how to ask for help, voluntarily go deeper in their learning, working with peers). The teacher is better able to manage the feedback, both in and out, because it is now tied to the individual progress of each child, not in massive waves for the whole group.

“I am having a brief one-on-one meeting with every student (by pulling them briefly from their group work during class time) to look at a goal they have written in AltSchool, link it to an objective(s), and possibly add a second goal for them based on what I know of them as a student. I have just started these meetings, and I love them as it is another instance of having one-on-one time with students, which feels so rich in terms of getting to know them better.” --- Dr. Evelyn Fetridge

AltSchool is a far more sophisticated version of a Google classroom website because it actually helps the teacher gather that individualized evidence on student learning more quickly and efficiently while also looking at the big picture of individual students relative to the class at large so as to then tailor the “next steps” for each student - or small group of students - based upon the evidence. Because the overarching structure is built around competencies, it also allows the teacher to immediately see progress toward those goals, for the individual and whole class. We can also see it across grade levels. This is powerful data for future learning.

As I have already burst through the definitional boundaries of “succinct,” I’ll wrap it up. Those of us who are working with the system -- educators and learners ourselves -- are starting to see results, and are excited about the potential of this partnership. As I write, we are also starting to dig deeper into students’ experience by asking them how it is going from their perspective. Who better to tell us about the progress of learning than students themselves?

Want to Know More?

Once we’ve had a chance to gather and assess the data on how our pilot is progressing, we’ll be deciding if, when, and how we’ll move forward. At that point, we will be sharing more information about the platform and our progress, both digitally and with a series of meetings for community members. In the meantime, here is a video from AltSchool that helps provide some more context. Also, here is a blog post from Max Ventilla, AltSchool’s founder, which neatly sums up their history and vision for the future.

Thank you all for your reading, thinking, and questions. It is invigorating to be part of such a curious, smart, and passionate community!

Be well,

Matt Byrnes
Head of School

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