Monday, March 5, 2018

Some Tech Reformsters Don't Even Try

You know that a pop music trend is played out when the material starts to sound like a parody of itself. For example, when Eve 6 filled "Inside Out" with lines like "Want to put my tender heart in a blender, watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion," it became clear that a certain brand of uber-sensitive thrashy pop had played itself out.

I felt the same way reading the New York Times profile of one more tech executive who thinks she knows how to create a new education revolution.

"Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different," is a well-framed title, as if even the reform-friendly times knows this woman is blowing some serious recycled smoke.

Yes, all the feelings.
Susan Wu, the NYT notes, has been called "one of the most influential women in technology." The NYT does not note that Wu earned that title in 2010 for launching Ohai, a social MMO gaming biz that Wu said would be making money selling "virtual goods" (aka "things that only exist on line and not in the real world"). Wu, a former professional Quake 2 gamer, actually launched the company in 2008. In 2009 Ohai was "the next big thing." By 2011, they were "also-rans," Wu was no longer the CEO, and the company was up for sale. Since then, she's been entrepreneuring about Silicon Valley on things like Stripe, the tech company that lets folks accept payment over the internet.

All of which clearly qualifies her to disrupt education.

She's picked Australia as her launch point, perhaps because one would have to travel to another continent to make any of her rhetoric about the venture sound fresh.

Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.

If you are playing Ed Reform Bingo, you'll want to dig out your card, because Wu has mastered every single reform cliché out there.

At the school ("Lumineer"), "there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades," but there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.” The school is  "furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs" and of course, this "revolutionary" is needed because "Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago." The school's classrooms have been "rebranded" “studios.” Instead of desks there are "couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working." They have STEM. They work on emotional intelligence. They are founded on "first principles" a concept borrowed from physics "in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies, or biases." Because that's a thing you can do in education when dealing with tiny humans. And teachers will be lured to Lumineer "with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums."

And if you visit the school site, the hits just keep coming. Lifelong learners. Growth mindset. Critical thought. Holistic synthesis. Authentic.

I'll give NYT writer Adam Baidawi bonus points for this simile:

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.

Baidawi also notes that, well, tech entrepreneurs starting revolutionary private schools is not exactly a new thing (though having one of these projects turn out to be a big success would be). He particularly notes the failure to meet expectations of AltSchool, the Zuckerberg backed Silicon Valley wunderskool (though I think we might characterize that as a pivot to a more lucrative business model). But Wu says she's different, because of her model and location and team.

Wu does have some partners with education background. Sophie Fenton is an Australian-- well, she taught at some point, but a lot of her career seems tied up in the bureaucratic side of things. Amanda Tawhai has worked as a teacher at the Australia Department for Education.

But mostly this just seems like the same old, same old. Baidawi gets bonus points for getting a quote from Audrey Watters (Hack Education), who nicely sums up perhaps the only unique feature of Luminaria:

I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy. In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.

The Australian system is a bit different from ours, so I suppose we'll see how Wu's project manages to fit in and/or disrupt things. But despite the repeated insistence that they're shaking things up with bold new revolutionary ideas, it's getting harder not to think that these tech entrepreneurs are all reading from the same dog-eared handbook for revolutionary education amateurs. I look forward to the announcement about the next Tender Heart in a Blender Academy.


  1. I love the quote at the end. It is all just a con. But, hey, we have a con artist in the White House. What won't people fall for these days?

  2. It's funny that these "rephormers" are actually stating that they are trying to DISRUPT education. They flat out admit it and yet districts sign on for this crap? Districts are paying big money (tax dollars) for crap and disruption and the parents and school boards aren't outraged by this? This just makes my head spin!

  3. They should stop wondering why the traditional public school model is still in place: IT WORKS! Getting 50 million children into 100,000 schools, feeding them, caring for them, educating them, and returning them home, day after day after day is no small undertaking. There simply are no scalable solutions for making better schools - especially this type of magical fairy-dust concept school that treats ALL children like mini-googlers who will flourish academically if given the right beanbag chair.