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Students Have Names

|Originally posted on Dreams of Education on July 18, 2013|

This post is in response to a Newsweek article titled “What if You Could Learn Everything”

“Imagine every student has a tireless personal tutor, an artificially intelligent and inexhaustible companion that magically knows everything, knows the student, and helps her learn what she needs to know.”

Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Knewton, has made this artificially intelligent companion a reality for k-12 students. He has partnered with three curriculum companies including Pearson, MacMillan, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as part of his vision for making Knewton the adaptive learning tool that will make textbooks obsolete. This “adaptive learning will help each user find the exact right piece of content needed, in the exact right format, at the exact right time, based on previous patterns of use… Knewton, at base, is a recommendation engine but for learning. Rather than the set of all Web pages or all movies, the learning data set is, more or less, the universe of all facts. For example, a single piece of data in the engine might be the math fact that a Pythagorean triangle has sides in the ratio 3-4-5, and you can multiply those numbers by any whole number to get a new set of side lengths for this type of triangle.”

Knewton works as you might suspect, it begins with a test to see what a student already knows. Content is pulled in the form of reading and videos to teach the student the things that they do not know. This is similar to what many other “personalized” adaptive learning systems are doing. What makes Knewton stand apart is the way that the technology “reads” the student. As the student is learning, the technology is recording timing, confidence, tabulating each keystroke, and whether the student is guessing or taking their time to answer questions. So, the more that a student interacts with Knewton, the smarter it becomes and the better that the study recommendations get.

When I see technology like Knewton, it astounds me. I am always excited about technology that has the potential to improve learning and that feels seamless for humans to interact with. While the geek in me rejoices that someone is tackling a project this substantial to increase learning, the educator in me is disappointed. Knewton is all about knowing things. It is about facts. But, is it really worth all of the effort for technology to train humans to be computers? I mean, that is essentially what this is doing, no? We are creating a new factory model, this time the technology is programming us. Ironically, this is exactly what Knewton’s CEO is working to overcome.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that are worth knowing. Important, foundational things that shape the rest of what we are able to do. But, who gets to determine what is foundational and essential for a student to know? As far as I’m concerned, most curriculum companies are already overreaching in what every single child MUST know. So, with the vast amount of knowledge available in the world, how do we determine what is really critical for us as a society to know? The rest of it, while interesting and important, is not necessarily worth forcing. Even the title of the article, “What if You Could Learn Everything?” makes me cringe. I don’t want to know everything. I don’t want to be so crammed full of facts that I can rock a game of Trivial Pursuit, but I can’t actually DO anything useful.

My bigger problem is that once again, we are introducing a tool into education that intends to personalize the learning experience for the student, and in doing so, strips away their humanity. You see that don’t you? This is turning children into computers and fact recallers.

But students have names.

They have stories.

Teachers have a different kind of urgency to make things better because we begin and end with students who have names. This goes beyond the altruistic, “wouldn’t it be great if education worked better” motivation of politicians and curriculum companies who have the ultimate goal of improving our rank in math and science. As a teacher, you deal in humanity. You are concerned with the life that is being shaped. You want kids to know that they are more than the collection of facts that they have memorized. The are unique and have something important to offer the world.

That they matter.


So, while I find the concept behind Knewton fascinating, it isn’t what I want for education. It may fill a need for a piece of the puzzle (namely the foundational knowledge piece), but it isn’t going to make education better if it becomes education. Being educated is more than just knowing facts (and I’ll remind you again that we already have computers for that). Being educated means that a child can make connections, synthesize, analyze, evaluate, apply, create something new. It is learning that is applied.

Technology will play a critical role in the evolution of the classroom. The role will be different from what Knewton offers. Instead of assuming that all kids need is facts, the technology will recognize and embrace the humanity. It will offer more than one way to learn, because while some kids will really enjoy sitting and reading, watching videos and taking an online multiple choice test, others will want to try out a concept through experimentation. They will want to build something new with their knowledge, or launch further investigation into a concept, or take a field trip and see the learning for themselves. Learning cannot be reduced to a computer. This changes the recommendation engine and relies heavily on skilled educators. This takes into account who a student really is and makes learning recommendations based on that. The recommendations aren’t relegated to a computer, they can be field trips, videos, apps, projects, activities, experiments, books, and anything else that can be used to learn. This is utilizing technology for personalization beyond pacing and content exposure to pass the next multiple choice test. This is empowering teachers to truly shape the learning experience for each student. This is recognizing that students should have a say in how and what they will learn.

This is why I created the Learning Genome Project.

The Learning Genome Project recognizes that learning is more than just a collection of facts. It embraces humanity and rejects the idea that humans should be computers. It will be transformative because it works to make each student the best that they, individually, can be. It works to strengthen the WHOLE child, not just the fact reservoirs in the brain. It goes beyond remembering content and challenges students to do something with their knowledge. I can’t tell you how many students I have met that know their multiplication facts inside and out, but have no idea why finding area requires multiplication. Knowledge is useful when it can be applied. The Learning Genome Project urges students to go beyond knowing into the other, rich areas of learning. Blooms Taxonomy is a useful for thinking through what it means to learn. Knowledge and understanding are a portion of the learning, but so is the ability to analyze, evaluate, apply and create. Learning is multifaceted and alive. It can’t be so neatly all contained in this sort of adaptive learning technology. Education should utilize technology (I tend to believe this will be the Learning Genome Project) in order to reach the individual. It must reach outside of itself and meet that student with a name. It must be able to recognize a student’s need without demanding that the need be met with a predetermined question/answer set.

This post took me some days to think through and write. It spurred some new thinking for me. It made me go back through the Learning Genome Project wireframes to dig out any hidden corners that may harbor something that would strip the humanity. It caused me to think of a new Bloom’s Taxonomy image. I welcome your thoughts and comments!

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