Mary and I attended a talk last week delivered by Jaime Casap, Education Evangelist at Google. Although most of audience probably enjoyed the presentation, I was disappointed because he spoke much more about the business culture at Google than about their efforts in schools and education.
Casap didn’t discuss the schooling of the Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, but they attended Montessori schools, which had great influence in shaping Google culture. Journalist Barbara Walters says that the fathers of Page and Brin are college professors, but the Google guys don’t credit their success to drive or brains; instead, it was Montessori nursery school, and the training in not being forced to follow rules or orders, developing the ability to be curious and motivate themselves, questioning conventions, that brought success. Most students in conventional schools develop a passive attitude similar to a prison inmate and when they enter the workforce, employers become frustrated with their lack of initiative and poor education. Maria Montessori explains:
Discipline must come through liberty. Here is a great principle which is difficult for the followers of common-school methods to understand. How shall one obtain discipline in a class of free children? Certainly in our system, we have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. If discipline is founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.
How is a Montessori business unconventional? According to Steven Levy, author of In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives:
One day in 2005, Marissa Mayer was trying to explain why the looniness of Google was actually the crazy-like-a-fox variety and not the kind calling for straitjackets. Responding to the company’s ventures beyond search, outsiders had been charging that Google was out of control, tossing balls into the air like a drunken juggler. And that was before Google decided to remake the energy industry, the medical information infrastructure, the book world, radio, television, and telecommunications. She conceded that to an outsider, Google’s new-business process might indeed look strange. Google spun out projects like buckshot, blasting a spray and using tools and measurements to see what it hit. And sometimes it did try ideas that seemed ill suited or just plain odd. Finally she burst out with her version of the corporate Rosebud. “You can’t understand Google,” she said, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids.”
“Montessori” refers to schools based on the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician born in 1870 who believed that children should be allowed the freedom to pursue what interested them. “It’s really ingrained in their personalities,” she said. “To ask their own questions, do their own things. To disrespect authority. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In Montessori school you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is really baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking ‘Why should it be like that?’ It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”
Casap stressed that Google is selling Chromebooks, laptops equipped only with a web browser, to schools and that they use GoogleDocs. According to Fast Company magazine, Google is losing this battle, as iPads are selling better in schools. Casap mentioned that there are Internet-only schools in Arizona, and I’d like to know more, but I could find only one school, Primavera Online High School. How much teacher labor is saved, if any, when students use the net? Do students learn more online, or do they squander their time playing games and sharing trivialities of everyday life on Facebook?
OpenClass has a Facebook-like news stream that captures activity and comments for each class, and a page that highlights different people taking a course, along with the questions, troubles, and solutions that they post online. “So it’s easy for you to find someone like you and interact with them, kind of like sitting with your friends in class,” Mr. Kim says. “It provides a comfort zone.”
It also provides opportunities for traditional college students, says Kay Reeves, the executive director of information technology at Abilene Christian University, which has been trying out OpenClass in a psychology course, an art course, and an English course. “Not only do students share resources, but faculty have the ability to collaborate across institutions, sharing pedagogy tips. Someone at my college could contact someone in the network at, say, Harvard, and say ‘Hey, how are you handling this topic in your course?’”