Ask a thousand education experts and you’ll get a thousand answers for why we still have such an outdated, underperforming model for education in this country. For us, the answer is somewhat simple - given our past and current constraints, the current model “makes sense”.
Take your average classroom with 25 kids in it. Assume that you don’t have extraordinary resources and the children don’t necessarily all want to be there. How would you handle this? If I didn’t have any guidance, I’d probably split up the week into small chunks, perhaps 30 minutes in length, and make a plan for each window of time. I’d single out disruptive children and somehow pressure them into behaving. I’d most likely ignore the children who are disengaged but not causing problems. I’d change the scene often, every hour or so, and essentially run out the clock on the week.
Over time, I’d get to know the children better. They’d trust me more and I’d learn what works better with those kids in my class. What started as chaos would become more ordered. In other words, I’d get to the point where my classroom was the best version of that model that it could be. In mathematical terms, I’d work my way up to the “local maximum” or the highest level of effectiveness, relatively speaking -- given my specific model of teaching.
The problem with hitting your local maximum is that it’s hard to even picture what else is out there -- you know you are at your “relative best” but you don’t know where you sit in the grand scheme. Imagine ascending a mountain in thick fog. You work your way uphill and reach a peak – without visibility to where the next peak may be. You understand theoretically that there is a “global maximum” somewhere (a highest peak relative to all other peaks - the ultimate best way to teach, not simply the best within a single teaching model), but you have no idea which direction – or in this case, what education model -- to pursue. The only way to make it to the next peak is to break out of your current way of thinking and attempt something truly different -- an intimidating undertaking, given the 25 children that are tethered to you at the moment.
Taking a completely different path in education is not possible for most educators. Many worry that they may “throw out the good with the bad” and disrupt elements of the school day that are actually working. They consider that perhaps the school year should be longer, for example, but that means they must figure out a way to pay teachers more, or find teachers with a different setup at home; not to mention parents with different expectations for vacation.
At AltSchool, we are on a continuous quest for the global maximum. But we are carefully navigating the education frontier and checking in constantly with students, parents, and teachers to ensure we aren’t off base. We are doing our research as we go, continuously testing and measuring, and living our discoveries. While we certainly can’t say we’ve hit the peak, we are finding new local maximums regularly along the way.