You’ve been there before. Your head face-down on your school desk daydreaming while your teacher delivers a required lesson on something you couldn’t have cared less about. It wasn’t your fault for being bored and it wasn’t your teacher’s fault for boring you. For most schools, the lesson plans are set in stone for each grade level and there is no room for personalizing them based on their students' interests. This way of approaching education is something that the AltSchool is trying to change. This startup school has set up small “lab schools” in both New York and California with a mission to create personalized curriculums for each of their students to help ignite their curiosity for learning.
AltSchool has taken a new approach by pairing teachers and administration with engineers to create a curriculum that gives students incentives for excelling in different subjects. Students can take a subject as far as they can go until they find where they start to have difficulty. The engineers take this data and upload it into a system that can keep teachers and parents aware of what areas the students need help with. It’s almost like students are promoted into new grade levels rather than simply meeting the requirements to advance on. This new approach led to a large group of investors, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, to donate over $170M to help open more AltSchool locations across the country.
This accelerated approach to teaching has will help nurture students who may feel held back by the restrictions of rigid grade-specific lesson plans. Julia Egan, an Internal Operations Specialist for the school, has a perfect analogy for what they are trying to accomplish at AltSchool. “Traditional schooling is like getting on a train. You don't have a say in where you're going. You can move around within the train but it's pretty confined,” she explains, adding “We want to shift to a ‘driving a car’ model where each child still has to follow the rules of the road … but they have a different sense of control over what they are learning.”
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Alex Ragone, the Head of School at the newly opened location in New York City’s Union Square, believes that encouraging a student’s curiosity is a great way of preparing them for life outside of school. “Our goal,” he says, “is to help every child know who they are as a person, as a citizen and grow up in that context.”
Walking through the big open plan of the union square location, it is hard to think of it as, well, a school at all. Upon entry, there is a large meeting area known as the with a colorful modern take on Greek chorus style bleachers that looks like something straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. The school was designed in partnership with famed NYC Architecture firm A+1 in a way that gives it less of a stuffy old school house and more like a trendy start-up that most people would be thankful to work for. The school is outfitted with high tech features such as tablets embedded outside of each classroom for teachers to schedule lessons. As we walked through one specific room, Ragone showed me the recording booth and editing bay where he teaches students a class on how to “tell stories through podcasting.”
With teachers going along on the journey with their students rather than being the gatekeepers on how quickly they can skip ahead in any given subject, it will cut down on any sort of resentment they may feel towards school. “The example I think of is: how many teachers have impacted your life?”, explains Ragone, “for me, I can count them on one hand. If we can increase that to two hands for our students, we’ll know we’ve made an impact.”