February 13, 2018
Helping Schools Unlock Time to Individualize Learning
“What we need to do is relieve the teacher of all but teaching work. Then the teacher, in contrast to today, would have time to teach individuals.” – Peter F. Drucker, 1969
This past summer I stopped to visit a college student of mine at the sleepaway camp where he was working. When he showed me his cabin, he pointed out the names etched into the wooden walls and ceilings. I asked the obvious, “Did you carve your name here?” His response surprised me. He looked at me askance and said with emphasis, “No! These names are all from back in the 1900s, like 1997!” I laughed and retorted, “Look out, buddy. I am from the 1900s!”
Those of us from the 1900s sometimes overlook the passage of time. It is significant that it was almost 50 years ago that management expert Peter Drucker perceived that the education system needed to adapt to what he called the knowledge economy. He knew it had to move to a model that truly takes into account the individual needs of students. Over four decades later, we may finally have the technology and tools needed to make individualization a reality, thanks in great part to the passion and perseverance of Adam Pisoni.
“I have a ‘bridges and islands’ theory about creating large-scale change,” Pisoni told me. “People go off to islands, like progressive schools, where they have the flexibility and resources to prove what is possible. This creates demand for change, but the people on the mainland can’t get there. So, we need to go back and build bridges.”
Pisoni saw that progress was being made on these experimental school islands; he and his company, Abl, are now working to build the bridge. Abl stands for “always be learning” and is “helping all schools redesign the learning experience for the 21st century.”
When the enterprise social network company Yammer, co-founded by Pisoni and David Sacks, was sold to Microsoft, Pisoni knew that he wanted to do something that would enable him to give back. His own difficult school experience turned him in the direction of K-12 education.
As an elementary student, Pisoni was repeatedly teased for being “the smart kid.” This led him to disengage at an early age, even as he maintained high enough grades to keep his parents at bay. He remembers the first day of high school, in algebra class, when his teacher opened the class saying, “Look, I don’t want to be here, and you don’t want to be here. Let’s just get through this.” In the same time period, he dated a girl that lived a couple of towns away in a more affluent suburb. Her school had a wider variety of after-school activities and more passionate teachers. When he realized that all schools didn’t offer the same opportunities, Pisoni was angered and became further disenchanted. He dropped out in his junior year, went to college for a year, but then found the Internet in its early days. He started several companies, with some successes and some failures.
Fast-forward to his post-Yammer success, he decided to figure out how schools could use his help by taking a year-long listening tour to talk with teachers and administrators around the country about their biggest challenges to innovation. Pisoni encountered a happy surprise. Most schools are trying new approaches to give students more autonomy over their learning, using strategies such as flexible periods, advisory, and flipped classrooms. Many schools know where they want to go to deepen the learning experience for all students but they keep running into the same blockade: master scheduling.
Master scheduling is the laborious process that schools undertake to match students, teachers, classes, special services, and all of the other variables needed to construct a schedule. Over the last fifty years there’s been a nationwide attempt to individualize through special programs, learning levels, and designations. From a master scheduling standpoint, this has inadvertently made it unmanageable to actually follow through on getting all kids the help or classes they need. It’s created a scheduling mess and it’s no wonder schools can’t make the progress they want. Already, master scheduling takes thousands of personnel hours per year, juggling white boards, spreadsheets, and Post-it notes. It’s frustrating and complex.
Adam Pisoni began to understand that principals and administrators didn’t have the tools to manage the growing complexity of their jobs, let alone to move in the direction of individualization for all students. No stranger to complex systems and creating solutions, he knew he could help. Abl is now building a suite of applications, starting with master scheduling, designed to help administrators “unlock time.” Next it will create tools to help students with course requests and to help districts manage and share resources.
Abl has finished its development year with schools and districts around the country. The program is now open for new schools to sign on. With its beta users, Abl established a continuous feedback loop to build out the master scheduling software to the specifications of those in the trenches, the actual users. Administrators using the system are amazed at how much easier it is than using whiteboards and spreadsheets. It also makes it more transparent to get the data necessary to consider more student needs. Usually near the end of the master scheduling process there’s a handful of kids that did not get what they needed. Now it’s possible to easily shift variables to understand the various domino effects of moving kids around even when most schedules are set. This ensures that some don’t get left out.
Fundamentally, Pisoni is concerned about the intersection of policy and the classroom. Master scheduling is what determines whether a school is equitable or not, whether students are placed well to learn to their capacity, and whether schools can respond to the rapid pace of change that is characteristic of our times. He believes these software tools are the bridges that will finally make it possible to improve the school experience for all students and set them up for success in the future.