13 September 2006

McSchools---Microsoft Style

“I hope that Philadelphia becomes the center of a debate that asks, ‘What’s a better learning environment that we can create?’” says Microsoft’s Mary Cullinane. For her, that doesn’t just mean new lesson plans. It doesn’t just mean new computers. It means “better strategic practices, better hiring practices, more efficiencies — not going back to looking for the silver bullet that’s going to change education, because that silver bullet does not exist.” Now, an adaptive, continuous, relevant bullet just might be another matter all together.

This excerpt is from an article recently published in Philadelphia Magazine about the "School of the Future." The name, for whatever reason, engenders an image for me of the 1950's and all of the space age futuristic items that were supposed to come to our homes and make life easier. The other image I get is of Tom and Jerry trapped in such a place. What we're really supposed to be talking about here is the new $65M high school that Microsoft designed for Philadelphia at their urging of their superintendent.

170 freshmen are about to walk into a brand-new building at 41st and Parkside in West Philadelphia. They’ll pass through a hidden weapons-detection system and step into a wide corridor dubbed “Main Street.” They’ll swipe their “smart cards,” and a screen will display their photographs and register their attendance. They’ll move quickly, carrying only a small laptop from class to class and home at night (no more overloaded backpacks). Passing the administrative offices and the “interactive learning center” (read: a library without books), they’ll come to a mall-style food court, where purchases will be tracked with the same card. (No more telling Mom you had broccoli while really subsisting on Kit Kats and Snapple.) In the gym, plasma-screen televisions and video cameras will bring pro-style instant-replay access to the varsity level, and outside, a futuristic anti-graffiti coating on the walls will make washing off tags easier. This technological utopia of high-density fiber-optic cable will be virtually paperless, although there will be printers on hand (just in case). And the entire building — a green building, complete with solar panels and grassy roof — is wired, powered and online.

Microsoft was even generous enough to design a "competency wheel" with 37 characteristics they determined to be important. The wheel comes with interview questions to guide the hiring process and suggestions for developing the skills—and not only do new hires have to demonstrate the competencies, but the students have 11 competencies of their own to master before graduation.

There's much more to be found in the entire (and lengthy) article, but it's this statement which haunts me: ...Microsoft model may have laid the groundwork for corporations to design high schools from scratch. Am I the only one who finds this idea a little more than frightening? In a time where government seems to know better than local parents and teachers what kids should do, are we really interested in extending this role to corporations? I do think that there are places where business and schools could learn from one another, but the bottom line is that schools are not making widgets. We have human beings inside of our walls that we are valiantly trying to prepare for life outside of those walls. We expect them all to attain a certain level of skills and do our best to nurture their dreams---yet, we aren't making Big Macs. The author of the article does seem to realize this and appears to view The School of the Future with a wary eye: Microsoft might help students video-conference with Tanjiang, but it can’t create a parent who helps with the homework, or a neighborhood free from drug corners, or friends who don’t think studying is for losers.

I will definitely be interested in keeping an eye on this grand experiment. I'm not cheering for its failure, but I also can't imagine it being successful.


Amerloc said...

I have an experience-derived bias against the whole one-size-fits-all concept. If it were valid, Cinderella's step-sisters would not have had to amputate portions of their feet to fit the slipper. And Starbucks would have replaced all the little local coffee shops.

I also firmly believe that there is no single magic bullet - were there such a thing, given the truly marvelous teachers who have worked since they were teaching youth to paint in caves, it'd have been discovered by now - but rather, a frustratingly diverse arsenal of techniques and approaches that work for individual teachers with individual classes in individual years.

Those things said, I laud corporate investment and experimentation. It signifies an expansion of the educational community in a positive direction: if Microsoft cares about a local school, won't other, smaller, more local corporations be encouraged to pay attention and to bring their (smaller) resources to bear? We have here a huge corporation, the model (perhaps) of American corporate success, saying, in effect, "We can try to help make it better."

And of course, I share the sentiment of your final 'graph, but I'll keep my fingers crossed for 'em nonetheless.

The Science Goddess said...

I agree---and yet corporate support seems a lot more palatable to me vs. corporate design of schools. The "School of the Future" is definitely going to be an experiment worth watching.