Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
Nov 7

The Future of Curriculum: Interview with Seth Andrew

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Co-Founder and Board Chair of Washington Leadership Academy and former Senior White House Advisor Seth Andrew.

This is the second installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology and shifts in the way we learn will continue to shape public school education.

In this episode, we chat with Seth Andrew, who just ended his term as Senior Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer in the Executive Office of The President. He is the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing public charter schools in Harlem, New York and Camden, New Jersey and Alumni Revolution, a college persistence and advocacy platform working to equip scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. Seth currently serves as the Co-Founder and Board Chair of Washington Leadership Academy, which was recently awarded the XQ: The Super School prize.

A selection of Seth Andrew’s insights on the future of curriculum are excerpted below:

I’m excited for what’s possible.

We can’t project exactly what will happen in ten years, but … what we’ve done for the past hundred years has been pretty similar and has preserved almost an artifact in time the inequities and ridiculous opportunity gaps in our country, and so I’m excited for what’s possible in thinking about this in whole news ways and trying to really transform what school looks like and not just replicate old practices on the computer.

We have to figure out what we want kids to learn.

I believe that having high standards that are common — which is to say across states, across schools, across rich and poor schools — is a very important underlying element. The distinction is that kids start off trying to achieve those goals at very different points.

So whether we’re talking about outside-of-school factors—home and family and poverty, all of the factors that make learning harder — we should absolutely take those into consideration, but setting the goal posts, setting where we want kids to go… setting that goal post clear[ly] is the first step you have to take.

Then we get to start to say, “Okay, how are we going to make sure that every kid gets there?”

And the first thing you see is that, obviously, personalization is essential to that. We can’t say that every kid is going to get to the same goal via the same means, and that’s what we’ve done for so long so poorly, and now we need to say “Every kid is going to get there in a different way, at a different pace, using different tools.” That’s where the plethora of education technology tools is part of the equation.

The most important thing is having a world-class teacher in every room.

There’s nothing in technology that is going to diminish the importance of the quality of the teacher in every room, so we still need to train, prepare, recruit, hire, retain, [and] compensate teachers in smarter, better, [and] faster ways in the classroom.

But I think what we ask teachers to do today is wrong.

And this is the thing that brings the 10-year horizon into play. We currently ask them to do four things, and the best teachers in the country, the top 1% of teachers, struggle to do all four things well every day. So the idea that 99% of teachers who aren’t the best 1% are going to be able to master these four things every day is fallacy.

I break these four things down into:

1. Teach content and knowledge.

So, specifically, what is the content they’re going to learn?

I think that ed tech has actually come a long way in being able to deliver content knowledge to students in ways that it is sticky, and meaningful, and exciting, using multi-modal tools, whether that’s a YouTube clip, or an ed tech activity, or a Powerpoint slide, that is a step in the right direction.

On the content side, I’m really excited for the potential of virtual reality, including tools as cheap as cardboard, which is, you know, $5 per kid. You can now imagine accessing content knowledge in whole new ways. It’s not just that we’re learning about ancient Egypt in abstract ways, in a textbook or even watching a YouTube clip. We’re now actually able to go into the pyramids, or to see what it looks like in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

And those are things you can do now with virtual reality that take the knowledge acquisition to a whole other level.

2. Teach skills.

Have kids actually practice doing the thing they’re supposed to do and the skill of the thing, so not just the knowledge of what it is, but how to do the thing.

We’re working right now on a project to build a virtual reality chemistry lab where you can take chemicals out of the periodic table, you can mix them in a graduated cylinder, you can turn on a bunsen burner, you can use chemicals that we wouldn’t be able to use in real life now in this skills-based chemistry lab, and all of those tools are made possible by virtual reality.

3. Cultivate dispositions or habits.

That’s really making sure that kids are excited to come to school every day and are fired up by the challenges and the problems in front of them so that they have an intrinsic sense of motivation, as opposed to just an extrinsic sense of motivation.

4. Build relationships.

We can [all] remember the teachers we had who changed our lives, and it was based on a relationship.

Relationships and habits are the responsibility, first and foremost, of the teacher in the room working with kids every day, and they’re the ones saying: “How do we get excited about this chemistry. How do we get excited about this unit in Egypt? How do we take kids to a new world and get them to see how it applies to their lives. How do we build a project around the things we just learned so that kids are working in groups collaboratively in thoughtful ways.”

And that’s the role of a teacher, building that relationship and developing those habits that build on the knowledge and skills that can be developed using really sophisticated technology.

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