AltSchool: The tech sector’s answer to Montessori

As the parent of three children, one of whom is navigating his way through secondary school, I’m always happy to see leading entrepreneurs openly talk about the important of adapting education prepare students for the future. My youngest is a digital native, and the rapid-fire developing of the connected world means that not only do schools need to teach students to innovate technologically, but also to add value as a human in an increasingly automated world.

At the end of 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan declared that they would divest 99% of their Facebook shares, worth US$45bn, into the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative to promote health, education and equality. Since then, they have made several noteworthy investments, including joining a US$10m Series A round for a childcare software app provider called Brightwheel and investing US$120m into the Bay Area public school district in 2014. Most notably, however, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative participated in the US$100m Series B of AltSchool, the tech-oriented, individualised education ecosystem startup founded by former Googler Max Ventilla in 2014.

Founded nowhere other than San Francisco, AltSchool has since added three more locations in Palo Alto, Chicago and New York. Touting itself as a disruptor of the traditional education system, it uses milestone building blocks to define the specific knowledge and skills that students must achieve by the time they graduate, including curiosity, resilience and collaboration. Max developed the concept when he found himself unsatisfied by existing options for his daughter, fearing that none would prepare her for the quickly-changing nature of the world. In an interview with The New Yorker last March, Max noted that he was inspired by how little education has changed since he was in school when compared to the students themselves: “A three-year-old today isn’t that different, but a thirteen-year-old is really different.”

Max Ventilla founded AltSchool when he was dissatisfied by the options available for his daughter

Although the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative has backed only AltSchool, other similar concepts exist, such as Tahoe Expedition Academy and the Summit Academy chain. Their common denominator is the use of technology to track student progress – with AltSchool using a proprietary technological platform called My.Altschool – and personalised learning. These are used in combination, with both AltSchool and Summit Academy using proprietary software to track students’ individual learning and to develop a curriculum that allows families and students to choose their own priorities and to manage their own daily routine. This new breed of schools emphasises independent project-based learning, ranging from the “cards” that populate AltSchool’s Playlists, to the 130 days spent on adventures by the oldest students at the Tahoe Expedition Academy.

The idea behind these schools is to give students a place in the increasingly tech-reliant world, developing a set of skills broader than those that come from the rote memorisation of traditional education models. According to the parents of two Tahoe Expedition Academy students, schools must now give pupils the skills not only to innovate, but also to remain valuable as artificial intelligence develops – which Accenture predicts will increase labour productivity by up to 40% by 2035.

But while the issues addressed by the AltSchool and its counterparts may be very modern problems, its method and philosophy are less so. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian physician and educational specialist Maria Montessori developed a teaching system characterised by its emphasis on independence, freedom within limits and a respect for children’s natural psychological, physical and social development. The Montessori education system encourages questioning the status quo, freedom of movement and pursuing individual interests.

Within the tech sector, the Montessori system is already highly-regarded. In 2011, American technology reporter Steven Levy gained inside access to Google and wrote a book on the company’s growth from an academic project to the biggest tech company on Earth, called “In The Plex”. On the back cover, Marissa Mayer, employee number 20 at Google and current CEO of Yahoo, attributes Google’s success to the educational system: “You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids … They’re always asking, ‘Why should it be like that?’ It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.” The Montessori system also claims video game pioneer Will Wright and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales among its graduates.

The new generation of alternative education emphasises a mix of technology and personalisation

The core difference between the Montessori method of the twentieth century and that of AltSchool, of course, is the use of technology – that is, its non-existance several decades ago and its prominent place in the classroom now. Critics of tech-based schools say that students shouldn’t be spending more time in front of a screen and that the individualistic nature of the programme will diminish the social maturation of students. Others argue that the lack of curriculum and structure will leave students unprepared for their next stages in life, including university.

However, it is increasingly clear that the disruptive nature of the tech sector requires a different mentality to the one developed by the traditional schooling system. Rote memorisation doesn’t guide students to develop the cognitive abilities needed to create ideas and develop them into businesses, but giving students the space and encouragement to experiment with ideas and to enhance their own passions promotes the type of thinking that leads to innovation. And it’s not at the expense of traditional subject matter: at AltSchool, one class undertook a study of the Iliad by designing a spreadsheet based on the theme of “rage” and using data-visualisation techniques to show their findings.

Other challenges within the system surround scale: the cost of small classes, tech-based platforms and individualised teaching is high, and tuition at such a school isn’t affordable to much of the population. But nevertheless, it’s clear that disruptive schooling is key to reorienting the consumer-facing world to align with customer values. As all sectors become digital-first and convenience-focused, humans will need to be on deck to make experiences memorable and personable – and the youngest generation of entrepreneurs will have to disrupt the tech sector to do so. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup