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Knowing Everything and Students with Names

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.  Humanity.

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!

Hat tip to @alexbitz for sending me this article!

**If you know an investor who might be interested in the Learning Genome Project, I’d love an introduction!

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  1. There are times I just want to crack the heads of educators together. The problem is that each sees the world from their perspective. Fill a room together with educators and there are those who talk about how to push the best students further and in another corner there are those who devote their whole being to helping students to just be able to read a simple instruction manual. When anyone from either group gets up to speak, those from the other group tune out or belittle the speaker as being irrelevant.

    I recently met with the principle of a middle school that told me that the first thing they ask incoming students to do is to write the alphabet and that many cannot. Until almost ALL students can read the simple instruction manual or do simple multiplication then simply knowing stuff is a valid goal and all the tools that support achieving the basics are needed.

    I would like to know what others think about this.

  2. Bill, the failure of many is to recognize that EVERY child is uniquely individual. The assumption of many (secondary education reformers, who may or may not have ever been educators) is that the foundational skills are a given. As you point out, this isn’t the case for many students around the world. Because the strong foundation has never been built, the focus on rote memorization is of little practical use in real world application. We have to change the way we approach what learning actually is. Learning, I would argue, has little to do with rote memorization. It has more to do with the ability to make connections, synthesize, approach a problem with agility, explore/indulge in curiosity. Without these, the memorization has no application to anything useful.

  3. Hi Admin, Thanks for the response. Based on your comments I suspect you are thinking of other than being able to read and Arithmetic when you say education. Unfortunately, the criticism of memorization and the like often blocks efforts to make sure every child learns to read and do basic Arithmetic. There are many 5th graders who cannot write the alphabet or do multiplication let alone division. In fact, about half of all US students are 1 or more years behind by the 3rd grade. In most of Germany, when a child is behind in the 4th – 6th grade they are blocked from continuing in a better school (more than half of all students – they are not worth the investment – late bloomers need not apply). I agree with you with regard to higher level learning but I am working on a project to ensure every child has 100% mastery of reading and Arithmetic by the end of the 4th grade and the debate about higher level learning often hinders helping those who are not even getting to the level where teaching creative thinking is relevant. Perhaps one needs to find new words for foundation education and the rest because the two groups cannot communicate (and probably do not need to). You close with “without these, the memorization has no application to anything useful.” I beg to differ. If the bottom 50% of students in most developed countries could at least read and do Arithmetic effectively they would have very different lives even if they formally learned nothing beyond that. (By Arithmetic I mean (add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions, decimals, rounding, percent, ratios and proportion, time, money, estimating, sizes and volumes, negative numbers and even some pre-algebra, etc.)

  4. Bill,
    I have to respectfully disagree with the last line. The drastically different, truly life-changing, education doesn’t come from memorization. I know students who can memorize addition/subtraction (know their facts inside and out) but can’t find perimeter or area. That is not a skill that is useful for any sort of life transforming implementation. Reading is of little use if it is skills based alone. If students can phonetically read a word or answer canned questions about a text, it is not the same as the ability to read and then DO something with the new information gained (apply it in meaningful ways). The skills are important, but I believe the better approach is learning in context.

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