The War on Admissions Testing

The Wall Street Journal

What’s behind the move to drop ACT and SAT scores for college entry?

The War on Admissions Testing
PHOTO: ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The “test optional” movement has won its most high-profile convert in the University of Chicago, which announced last month that applicants to the school would no longer need to submit ACT or SAT scores.

The University of Chicago has become known in recent years for its commitment to academic rigor and resistance to coddling and group think. But in this decision it has increased the momentum of a fashionable but damaging ideology overtaking elite education: That standardized metrics of any kind are discriminatory and elitist, and that each student is so special that he or she can only be evaluated according to uniquely personal traits.

No test is perfect, but the ACT and SAT are powerful predictors of college performance. As psychology professors Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett wrote in The Wall Street Journal in March: “Longitudinal research demonstrates that standardized tests predict not just grades all the way through college but also the level of courses a student is likely to take.”

Standardized tests are especially important in a time of severe grade inflation, especially in more affluent high schools. That doesn’t mean students who don’t test well can’t succeed, or that students with high scores are guaranteed to graduate summa cum laude. But it’s clear scores are at least as valid a predictor of college performance as a students’ roster of carefully selected extracurricular activities or “personal essays,” which may be rewritten by tutors.

So what’s behind the campaign against standardized assessments? A University of Chicago spokeswoman says the test “may not reflect the full accomplishments and academic promise of a student.” This is true but could be said of any single part of a college application, including high school grades.

Grades may be the next metric to fall out of fashion. Last year a coalition of private high schools, including Phillips Academy, joined a campaign to eliminate grades on grounds that “a GPA shaves off a lot of humanity,” in the words of one prep-school principal. One wonders if the aim isn’t really to shield well-off students from rigorous assessments so they can skate by on testimonials and extracurriculars alone.

The University of Chicago also says eliminating testing requirements “levels the playing field” for “under-resourced and first-generation students,” who may not have access to test-preparation courses. But contrary to myth, most such courses produce only modest gains. And last year Khan Academy and the College Board unveiled a free course they say boosts SAT scores for students at all income levels. By contrast, low-income students are unlikely to have access to exotic summer internships or other activities that impress admissions offices.

What really gives students an advantage on tests, in addition to studying hard and reading widely, is attending a good school and having parents who value education. On that score, when will leading college admissions offices become a voice for changing the status quo in poorly performing urban public schools? Simply scrapping an admissions requirement won’t make students from disadvantaged backgrounds more prepared.

The case that test-optional policies increase diversity is mostly speculative. But they do have their uses in the race-in-admissions game: Schools accused of discriminating against Asian-Americans, who tend to score higher, may find them a convenient way to conceal their use of racial preferences.

Universities like Chicago should enroll students from a variety of backgrounds—even if the academic-bureaucratic conception of diversity now in vogue is stilted and narrow. The University of Chicago’s “Empower” initiative in its admissions office contains some admirable reforms to further that objective.

But the momentum of the “test optional” campaign is not a win for diversity in higher education. It looks more like an opportunity for universities to game the college-ranking system. If test scores are optional, only high-scoring students will submit them and this will make schools like Chicago rank higher. It might also lower their acceptance rates because more students will apply. Accolades for “increasing access” are undeserved.

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What We Can Learn from Higher Education: A New Era of Collaboration and Exploration

NAIS

A study by strategy consultancy EY-Parthenon titled “Strength in Numbers: Strategies for Collaborating in a New Era for Higher Education” recently caught my attention. Many analyses of higher education portray an industry in decline, with a forecast of many institutional closings, but this study suggests a potentially different outcome if higher education institutions adopt a strategy of collaboration. Although not new, this strategy’s day has come, and in my opinion, not just for higher education but for K–12 as well. The study’s authors, however, note that not every institution may be a candidate for collaboration if too many risk factors are currently present; in that case, institutions may need to look at complete transformation if they are to survive. The authors describe those risk factors as:

  • Enrollment under 1,000 students
  • No online programs
  • Annual tuition increases of more than 8 percent
  • Tuition discount rates higher than 35 percent
  • Dependent on tuition for more than 85 percent of revenue
  • Endowment that covers less than 33 percent of expenses
  • Debt payments more than 10 percent of expenses
  • Deficit spending

Trends Driving Demographic and Economic Changes

Let’s take a step back and review the trends that are cause for concern:

  • From now through 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the under 18 population is expected to experience the least amount of change of any population segment, with projected growth from 74 million in 2016 to 80 million in 2060, while during the same time period, the population over 65 is expected to double in size.
  • Young adults who are starting families today are projected to be downwardly mobile compared with previous generations at this time in life, due to rising costs, lesser attainment of wealth producing vehicles such as home ownership, and accumulation of student debt. That debt now stands at $1.48 trillion.
  • Sharp cuts in funding to higher education have driven tuitions up at public colleges and universities, and cuts in subsidies to both public and private higher education have shifted more of the tuition burden to students and their families, resulting in an ever-expanding debt burden for the consumer and more discounting for the institutions.
  • According to a study just released by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, in 2016–2017, the average discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen reached 48.2 percent. By 2017–2018, it is expected to have reached the highest level recorded since the organization’s tuition discounting study began—49.9 percent. The discount rate for all undergraduates in 2017–2018 is also an expected all-time high, at 44.8 percent.

In response to these trends, Moody’s recently downgraded its rating of higher education from stable to negative, predicting that “the growth of the industry’s expenses will outpace revenue growth for the next 12–18 months, with public universities in particular facing money woes.” Independent schools face many of the same trends as higher education, resulting in enrollment declines and escalating financial aid in many corners of the industry.

There is no question that there is cause for concern as we look to the future, but there is also cause for optimism. There is still very strong support among the American public for quality education at all levels. However, if we are to be successful, K–16, over the long-term, we need to rethink our models.

Segmented Strategies for Collaboration

The EY-Parthenon study concludes that this new era “demands a significant shift in strategy for institutions around the idea of collaboration and the development of much deeper partnerships than higher education has ever seen before.” The authors frame the problem as too many institutions chasing too few students and the strategy as deep collaboration to cut expenses and to enhance the student experience. What most intrigued me about the approach was the division of the higher education market into four buckets, with a different strategy resulting from the market conditions for each segment. Here’s how they divided the higher education market:

Picture1.png

Their categorization could easily be applied to the independent school world and the strategies resound as well. I would like to build off the recommendations from the school context.

  1. Strong niche: Schools in this category come from a position of strength, as they have a clear value proposition and a particular niche in the market. However, that may not be enough to keep them solvent in the years ahead. The study authors suggest that this group consider partnerships as an opportunity to further differentiate. For example, a successful single-sex independent school could partner with similar schools, as well as other nonprofits and corporate entities, to create a STEAM focused-school unrivaled in the marketplace. The partnerships could reduce costs and drive much larger fundraising dollars, thus making the school more accessible financially to a larger segment of the market.
  2. Large and thriving: These are also schools that come from a place of strength. The authors suggest that schools in this category should think enhancement. Like schools in group one, they grow stronger from collaboration, offering even greater opportunities for students. Collaborations could allow them to build on their current strengths or fill a gap for which there is a growing market. For example, a few independent schools have experimented with partnering with existing social service agencies to address student needs that they can’t fill within their own institutions. Schools also have partnered with colleges and universities to expand advanced curricular offerings.
  3. Small and at risk: These are perhaps the most vulnerable institutions for which survival is questionable. The authors suggest that these schools can’t cut or tweak their way to survival, rather they have to come up with a totally different strategy. Merger is certainly a potential option for these schools, but also there is the option to partner with one or more schools to come up with something completely different in the marketplace—the blue rather than the red ocean strategy. In the higher education world, think of Western Governors University. It was founded when a group of governors got together to solve this problem: “How can we ensure more of our residents have greater access to a college education that fits their schedule?” Could a group of independent schools collaborate to solve a problem such as a high-quality, affordable independent school within reach of the middle class?
  4. Large and languishing: There is probably a slower march to extinction for schools in this category, but the authors suggest that they need to adopt newer models of efficiency if they are to survive long-term. In the independent school world, schools in this category could think about partnering around infrastructure services such as database, finance, and human resources. Instead of launching new programs, they could partner with online programs or other schools. If they take a systems approach to structuring themselves and breaking down silos, they will no doubt find new efficiencies.

Exploration of New Models Also Needed

In addition to collaboration, I believe we need exploration. If we look at the problems that need to be solved in our society and partner around those, we may come up with novel educational approaches and business models. Consider MissionU, a partnership of academics and businesses trying to solve the problem of students graduating from college laden with student debt, yet finding it difficult to find a job because they do not have the requisite skills. They offer an intensive one-year program that charges no tuition up front, rather the student pays it back once they have achieved a certain earning level. WeWork’s WeGrow, an enterprise that is opening its first elementary school this fall, just purchased MissionU. It also acquired a coding bootcamp and developed a partnership with 2U, which operates online graduate programs. According to WeGrow CEO Rebekah Neumann, its mission will be to unleash every human’s superpowers, as opposed to every child’s. “The purpose of life, in our opinion, is to be a student of life, for life.”

It’s an interesting value proposition and an organization worth watching as we enter this third education revolution of continuous learning.

AUTHOR

Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.

There’s only one way to truly understand another person’s mind

 

Quartz 

By Ephrat Livni

It’s often said that we should put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to better understand their point of view. But psychological research suggests this directive leaves something to be desired: When we imagine the inner lives of others, we don’t necessarily gain real insight into other people’s minds.

Instead of imagining ourselves in another person’s position, we need to actually get their perspective, according to a recent study (pdf) in the Journal of Personality and Psychology. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Northeastern University in the US and Ben Gurion University in Israel conducted 25 different experiments with strangers, friends, couples, and spouses to assess the accuracy of insights onto other’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and mental states.

Their conclusion, as psychologist Tal Eyal tells Quartz: “We assume that another person thinks or feels about things as we do, when in fact they often do not. So we often use our own perspective to understand other people, but our perspective is often very different from the other person’s perspective.” This “egocentric bias” leads to inaccurate predictions about other people’s feelings and preferences. When we imagine how a friend feels after getting fired, or how they’ll react to an off-color joke or political position, we’re really just thinking of how we would feel in their situation, according to the study.

In 15 computer-based experiments, each with a minimum of 30 participants, the psychologists asked subjects to guess people’s emotions based on an image, their posture, or a facial expression, for example. Some subjects were instructed to “consult their own feelings,” while others were given no instructions, and some were told to “think hard” or mimic the expressions to better understand. People told to rely on their own feelings as a guide most often provided inaccurate responses. They were unable to guess the correct emotion being displayed.

The second set of experiments asked subjects to make predictions about the feelings of strangers, friends, and partners. (Strangers interacted briefly to get to know one another before hazarding guesses about the preferences of they had just person they met.) The researchers wanted to see if people who had some meaningful information about each other—like spouses—could make accurate judgments about the other’s reactions to jokes, opinions, videos, and more. It turned out that neither spouses nor strangers nor friends tended to make accurate judgments when “taking another’s perspective.”

“Our experiments found no evidence that the cognitive effort of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes, studied so widely in the psychological literature, increases a person’s ability to accurately understand another’s mind,” the researchers write. “If anything, perspective taking decreased accuracy overall while occasionally increasing confidence in judgment.” Basically, imagining another person’s perspective may give us the impression that we’re making more accurate judgments. But it doesn’t actually improve our ability to judge how another person thinks or feels.

There were no gender differences in the results. Across the board, men and women tended not to guess another’s perspective very accurately when putting themselves in the other’s position. But this did increase self-confidence in the accuracy of their predictions—even when their insights were off.

The good news, however, is that researchers found a simple, concrete way we can all confidently and correctly improve the accuracy of our insights into others’ lives. When people are given a chance to talk to the other person about their opinions before making predictions about them—Eyal calls this “perspective getting” as opposed to perspective taking—they are much more accurate in predicting how others might feel than those instructed to take another’s perspective or given no instructions.

In the final test, researchers asked subjects both to try putting themselves in another’s shoes, on the one hand, and to talk directly with test partners about their positions on a given topic. The final experiment confirmed that getting another person’s perspective directly, through conversation, increased the accuracy of subjects’ predictions, while simply “taking” another’s perspective did not. This was true for partners, friends, and strangers alike.

“Increasing interpersonal accuracy seems to require gaining new information rather than utilizing existing knowledge about another person,” the study concludes. “Understanding the mind of another person,” as the researchers put it, is only possible when we actually probe them about what they think, rather than assuming we already know.

The psychologists believe their study has applications in legal mediation, diplomacy, psychology, and our everyday lives. Whether we’re negotiating at a conference table, fighting with a spouse, or debating the political motivations of voters, we simply can’t rely on intuition for insight, according to Eyal. Only listening will do the trick.

“Perspective getting allows gaining new information rather than utilizing existing, sometimes biased, information about another person,” Eyal explains to Quartz. “In order to understand what your spouse prefers—don’t try to guess, ask.”

The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Imagine you are a fly on the wall in a corporate training center where a management team of 12 is participating in a session on executing strategy. The team is midway through attempting to solve a new, uncertain, and complex problem. The facilitators look on as at first the exercise follows its usual path. But then activity grinds to a halt — people have no idea what to do. Suddenly, a more junior member of the team raises her hand and exclaims, “I think I know what we should do!” Relieved, the team follows her instructions enthusiastically. There is no doubt she has the answer — but as she directs her colleagues, she makes one mistake and the activity breaks down. Not a word is spoken but the entire group exude disappointment. Her confidence evaporates. Even though she has clearly learnt something important, she does not contribute again. The group gives up.

What happened?

In an earlier article, “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” we reported our research findings that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity performed better on these kinds of challenges. In these groups, we observed a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But in the case of these 12 managers, they did show a cognitively diverse approach. So what happened? We returned to our data to find out. In this team, as well as other under-performing teams, we observed a smaller percentage of the group contributing, longer intervals between testing ideas, and greater repetition of the same mistakes.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

So the question is, how do you establish and maintain psychological safety with a cognitively diverse group?

The Generative Organization

Over the last 12 months we asked 150 senior executives from different organizations across the world to rate their organizations in terms of cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the extent to which they consider their organization able to anticipate and respond to challenges and opportunities, i.e. their adaptability. Not surprisingly, adaptability correlated very highly with high levels of both cognitive diversity and psychological safety. We called these organizations “generative,” and labelled the worse-performing organizations oppositional (high diversity, low safety), uniform (low diversity, high safety), and defensive (low in both).

We also asked the same 150 executives to choose five words (from a list of more than 60) that best described the dominant behaviors and emotions in their organization. To identify which behaviors correlated with the best- and worst-performing groups, we matched the chosen words with the levels of reported psychological safety and cognitive diversity. The table below shows the most common behaviors selected by each group:

W180326_REYNOLDS_THEMOST

In the Generative quadrant, we find behaviors associated with learning, experimenting, and confidenceTogether they facilitate high quality interactionInterestingly, “forceful” appears here too, which at a first glance might seem surprising. Exploring this further, participants were identifying the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas. “Forceful” therefore relates to having the confidence to persist in expressing what you think is important. Psychologically safe environments enable this kind of candour without it being perceived as aggressive. Note that we also see more positive emotions in the generative and uniform quadrants.

By contrast, in the other quadrants we find words associated with control and constraint. These behaviors are conspicuously absent from the Generative quadrant. We see more negative emotions as well.

The Behaviors That Count

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

For example, hierarchical behavior is cited as one of the top 5 dominant behaviors 40% of the time in the non-generative quadrants. It is only cited 15% of the time as a top behavior in the Generative quadrant. This is not because the organizations in the Generative quadrant have a flatter structure — hierarchy is a fact of organizational life — but because hierarchy does not define their interactions. We see controlling cited 33% of the time as a top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared with only 10% in the generative quadrant. We see directive cited 24% of the time as top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared to only 5% in the generative.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.


Alison Reynolds is a member of faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School where she works with executive groups in the field of leadership development, strategy execution and organization development. She has previously worked in the public sector and management consulting, and is an advisor to a number of small businesses and charities.


David Lewis is Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme and teaches on strategy execution and leading in uncertainty. He is a consultant and works with global corporations, advising and coaching board teams.  He is co-founder of a research company focusing on developing tools to enhance individual, team and organization performance through better interaction.

Laptops in the Classroom

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

Professors are banning laptops in class, driving college students to revert to handwriting—and to complain about it; ‘a hand cramp in government’

The Wall Street Journal

Handwriting notes in class
Handwriting notes in class PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Adam Shlomi says he is a good student at Georgetown University. But the sophomore is failing in one unexpected area: note-taking.

Back in his Florida high school, he brought a Chromebook to class, taking “beautiful, color-coded notes.” So he was shocked to learn many professors at the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., don’t allow laptops in their lecture halls.

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

With nearly illegible handwriting—a scrawl of overlapping letters with interchangeable t’s and f’s, g’s and y’s—Mr. Shlomi, 20 years old, begs notes from friends, reads textbooks and reviews subjects on YouTube when it’s time to take a test.

As professors take a stand against computers in their classrooms, students who grew up more familiar with keyboards than cursive are struggling to adjust. They are recording classes on cellphones, turning to friends with better penmanship and petitioning schools for a softer line.

Chris Seeley, a senior political-economy major at the University of California, Berkeley, can handle an hour-long class that bans laptops. Ninety minutes gets tough. A two-hour lecture, such as one this semester, is brutal.

Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes
Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes PHOTO: ADAM SHLOMI

“My hand is yelling at me, basically,” he said of the feeling after handwriting final exams.

Mr. Seeley, 22, has established some shorthand, such as writing “nat” for “nation” or “national.” He isn’t always consistent with how he abbreviates, he said, and if he waits more than a few weeks to review the notes, deciphering the terminology can get confusing.

Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students’ faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?

Some lament that students’ speedy typing lets them transcribe on autopilot, rather than synthesize class information.

“I got really tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me,” said Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas associate journalism professor. She banned laptops three years ago from her Visual Storytelling class and now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point.

Students complain professors just don’t understand how hard it is to write by hand.

Students using laptops to take notes
Students using laptops to take notes PHOTO: JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s hard to know how many college classes have gone laptop-free, as schools generally leave the policies up to professors. Some students can get to graduation logged on in every lecture hall, while others bemoan that the majority of their courses have banned electronic devices.

Laptop bans come as a generation of students who didn’t learn to write in script enters college. Though some public-school districts do require cursive instruction, Common Core education standards that guide many states’ curriculum policies don’t emphasize it.

Many public schools now encourage students to work on computers, some providing devices for them, making it all the more shocking when they enter college.

Faculty members say they make exceptions for students with disabilities, though those concessions are sometimes criticized because they “out” students who otherwise might not publicly disclose issues such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, an inability to write coherently.

University of Connecticut junior Christopher Wojick, 21, who studies landscape architecture, was tempted to lobby his sociology professor for a laptop allowance last year.

“That class was ridiculously hard to take notes in,” he said, recalling the professor’s speedy pace. “I was thinking, ‘Hmm. Do I have a disability?’ I was very close to making something up.”

He thought better of it and stuck to scribbling for the rest of the semester.

Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes.
Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes. PHOTO: ISABELLA BAHNER

Isabella Bahner, 19, a sophomore music-education major at Oklahoma State University, is sick of classmates nudging her for notes.

She has an elaborate system: a 12-pack of Sharpie pens and highlighters to organize her text in real-time, each color assigned a meaning. Red is for terms that are relatable or opposites; yellow for new vocabulary; green for people; light blue for dates. Highlight too fast, and the colors blur together.

“I definitely get a hand cramp in government and physical geography,” she said.

Friends know Ms. Bahner has thorough notes, and she’ll help out if they missed a class. But when someone comes calling who was at the lecture and didn’t bother to pick up his pen, she draws the line.

“They’re skipping or being lazy and then trying to bank off the fact that I go” and take good notes, she said.

The Cornell University student government last year unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the faculty to allow “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” Charles Van Loan, an emeritus professor of computer science and faculty dean at Cornell, said there was “zero interest” from the faculty senate in having such a policy for laptop use. “Keyboard noise is not protected under the First Amendment,” he said.

Noah Chovanec, 21, a senior industrial and labor-relations major who co-sponsored the resolution, said he prefers to write by hand, though it’s often disorganized and carries in smudges when he writes fast. “I probably should be pre-med, with my handwriting,” he said. “People have asked for my notes, and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to translate for you.’ ”

Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class.
Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class. PHOTO: NOAH CHOVANEC

Articles by professors instituting bans go viral every few months, often inspiring another set of teachers declaring tech-free zones.

Many of them point to academic studies showing that students taking computer notes retain less than those who handwrite, that multitasking makes people less effective at any single task and that grades can suffer when internet distraction is an option.

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., had one student drop his class last fall because of a no-laptop policy.

Still, he’s pushing on with his device-free stance. “You’re not trying to be court stenographers,” he said, but rather learning how to identify important information.

This semester, Mr. DeYoung is going a step further in Pastoral Ministry, requiring students to participate in a weeklong digital fast. Afterward, they have to type a paper about the experience.

Mr. DeYoung got pushback from one unexpected source: his father, who works in radio. “He said, ‘You did what? I would never take your class.’ ”

Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different

Photo

Students at Lumineer Academy in Williamstown, Australia. The school uses an alternative learning model based on technology businesses. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.

Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”

If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.

That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.

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.

“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”

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.

Photo

Instead of classrooms there are “studios,” which contain no desks but often have beanbag chairs instead. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.

In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.

Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.

Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.

Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.

Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.

Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.

Photo

“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Susan Wu, a former tech entrepreneur who founded the school. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.

“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”

Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.

Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)

Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.

“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”

Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.

“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”

There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.

Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.

“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “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.”

Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.

“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.

One wall at the school displayed students’ work with the Asylum SeekerResource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees hoping to resettle in Australia.

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Student-made decorations. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.

One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.

“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”

The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.

But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.

Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.

When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”

Modeling Assertiveness With Students

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Simple role-playing exercises can show students how to stand up for themselves without being unkind to others.

 

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Assertiveness is a key concept in social and emotional learning and represents the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity. When people behave aggressively, they prioritize their own needs and may use threats to get what they want. When people behave passively, they do things they don’t want to do because they feel pressured or threatened by others.

But when people behave assertively, they stand up for themselves without diminishing or hurting others. In other words, they’re strong, not mean.

Assertive communication is a hard skill to learn. Our culture tends to reward aggression. Putdowns are framed as humor in cartoons and sitcoms, and the internet can be a platform for bullying. It’s hard to find examples of assertiveness in the public sphere.

What does assertive communication look like and sound like in real life? How can we resist the pull of aggressive or passive choices, which may be easier in the moment but don’t solve our problems in the long run? How can we get our needs met without hurting others?

In the classroom, students who lack assertiveness skills may hesitate to share their thinking openly or ask clarifying questions when they’re confused, or allow a classmate’s bullying to go unchallenged. And teachers who lack these skills may struggle to set clear behavior expectations in the classroom or hesitate to seek support from coaches and principals.

Teachers can boost their students’ assertiveness skills—and their own—by teaching some simple communication techniques that can be used in and out of the classroom. Explicitly teaching these techniques can make all of us more comfortable using them in real life.

After introducing and discussing these assertiveness techniques, engage your students in role-plays to give them a chance to practice using them. You may want to present various conflicts or problems, brainstorm about which assertiveness techniques would be the most useful, and then allow students to role-play and evaluate the effectiveness of their choice.

TEACHING ASSERTIVENESS

The “nice no”: Students and teachers may feel pressured to go along with other people’s ideas or invitations. Examples include: “Do you want to trade snacks?” and “Do you want to co-plan this lesson?”

These invitations can cause anxiety if we want to decline them. A simple technique for responding assertively to such requests is a “nice no.” We might say, with a smile, “Thanks for asking me, but I’m not interested.” Sometimes a simple “No, thanks” does the trick. Making a counter suggestion often works as a follow-up to a nice no.

Setting a boundary: Sometimes students are asked by peers to do things that are outside their comfort zone, such as “Will you let me cut in line?” or “Can I copy off your paper?” An assertive technique for responding to such invitations is to set a clear and firm boundary by saying, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Students don’t need to explain why or negotiate about it—they can simply set a clear boundary and hold to it.

Asking for some thinking time: People sometimes ask us questions that we’re not ready to answer. We might need more information, a chance to weigh other options, or time to reflect on our feelings about the situation. An assertive technique for responding to such questions is to ask for some thinking time: “I’m not sure how to answer that right now. Can I get back to you later today?” A key point is to ask for the amount of time we need, whether it’s later the same day or next week.

Stating your needs: We sometimes run into misunderstandings because we haven’t communicated our own needs clearly. It may seem that other people are ignoring or disrespecting our needs when in fact they’re simply not aware of them. If we recognize this, we can address the problem by stating our needs calmly. For example, a student might say to a peer, “I need space to hang my coat in the closet.” And a student might say to a teacher, “Could you please repeat that? I need to hear the directions again.”

Using an “I feel” message: Sometimes we have misunderstandings that are more personal. If we feel hurt by someone we’re close to, we may respond by being aggressive, making an accusation, or withdrawing passively to protect ourselves. But with friends, teachers, and colleagues who care about us, students and teachers can use an “I feel” message to assertively communicate their feelings and emotional needs. A student may say to a friend, “I feel sad when you cancel our plans, because I love hanging out with you.” This gives the friend a chance to understand the speaker’s needs and try to meet them.

Knowing how to respond to aggression: Sometimes when we communicate assertively, we’re met with an aggressive response that might diminish the validity of our feelings or perspective. The best thing to do in this situation may be to calmly remove ourselves from the conversation by saying something like, “I think I communicated my thoughts clearly, so there’s not much more to talk about.”