Radical Reform: iPad Schools Seek to Transform Education

PHOTO: A second grader works on an Apple Inc. iPad as part of his classroom work at Park Lane Elementary school, in the Canyons School District, in Sandy, Utah, U.S. on May 20, 2013.
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Plenty of schools use iPads. But what if the entire education experience were offered via tablet computer? That is what several new schools in the Netherlands plan to do. There will be no blackboards or schedules. Is this the end of the classroom?

Think different. It was more than an advertising slogan. It was a manifesto, and with it, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs upended the computer industry, the music industry and the world of mobile phones. The digital visionary's next plan was to bring radical change to schools and textbook publishers, but he died of cancer before he could do it.

Some of the ideas that may have occurred to Jobs are now on display in the Netherlands. Eleven "Steve Jobs schools" will open in August, with Amsterdam among the cities that will be hosting such a facility. Some 1,000 children aged four to 12 will attend the schools, without notebooks, books or backpacks. Each of them, however, will have his or her own iPad.

There will be no blackboards, chalk or classrooms, homeroom teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, seating charts, pens, teachers teaching from the front of the room, schedules, parent-teacher meetings, grades, recess bells, fixed school days and school vacations. If a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it'll be okay. And the children will choose what they wish to learn based on what they happen to be curious about.

Preparations are already underway in Breda, a town near Rotterdam where one of the schools is to be located. Gertjan Kleinpaste, the 53-year-old principal of the facility, is aware that his iPad school on Schorsmolenstraat could soon become a destination for envious -- but also outraged -- reformist educators from all over the world.

And there is still plenty of work to do on the pleasant, light-filled building, a former daycare center. The yard is littered with knee-deep piles of leaves. Walls urgently need a fresh coat of paint. Even the lease hasn't been completely settled yet. But everything will be finished by Aug. 13, Kleinpaste says optimistically, although he looks as though the stress is getting to him.

'Pretty Normal in 2020'

Last year, he was still the principal of a school that had precisely three computers, which he found frustrating. "It was no longer in keeping with the times," he says. Soon, however, Kleinpaste will be a member of the digital avant-garde. He is convinced that "what we are doing will seem pretty normal in 2020."

The Steve Jobs school will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 on every workday. The children will come and go as they please, as long as they are present during the core period between 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The building will only be closed for Christmas and New Year's. The children's families will be able to go on vacation when they please, and no child will have to be worried about missing class as a result, since classes in the traditional sense will be nonexistent.

Only in exceptional cases will a teacher direct classes in groups. Normally, the children will learn by calling up a learning app on their iPad -- which will be turned into a sort of interactive, multimedia schoolbook -- whenever they want.

The program is more patient than any person ever could be and turns learning into a game-like experience, partly with the help of amusing noises and animations. In each exercise, the children are corrected the way players are in a computer game. They don't have to work through entire chapters, as they did in the past. The goal is to enable them to reach the next level in the learning program at their own pace. The teacher's role is to help them, not as conveyors of knowledge but as learning coaches. "The interaction between the child and the teacher remains the foundation of the lesson," as Kleinpaste puts it.

As such, the school day never really ends. Pupils are welcome to keep working on their iPads at home, on weekends or on vacation. But as much as the program offers freedom and continuity, it also comes with a substantial monitoring component. The iPad keeps teachers and parents constantly informed about what children are doing, what they have learned and how they are progressing. If a math app is neither enjoyable nor successful, the teacher simply orders another one. The supply of educational programs never runs dry in Apple's online app store.

Not Truly Relevant

Arithmetic, reading skills and text comprehension are the core subjects in the elementary school. Good handwriting has been downgraded to a secondary skill, nice for industrious pupils but not truly relevant.

Every six weeks, teachers, children and parents decide together what is to be achieved in the next learning period. To do so, they meet at school or virtually via Skype. The era of the 10-minute parent-teacher meeting once a year is a thing of the past in the Steve Jobs schools.

And when they are not working on iPads, the future principal insists, students at Steve Jobs schools will lead the lives of perfectly normal children. Drawing, building things, playing and physical activity are all part of daily life at the schools.

"It isn't as if the children will just be sitting in front of a screen here," Kleinpaste promises.

Debbie Hengeveld, 41, found the concept so convincing that she promptly enrolled both of her children, her seven-year-old daughter Freeke and her 10-year-old son Joep. "Children innately want to learn things," says Hengeveld. "Here they can remain who they are. They aren't shaped by teachers and lesson plans."

The initiator of the iPad schools is the well-known Amsterdam public opinion researcher Maurice de Hond, 65, a man with an affinity for digital life. He is proud of the fact that he has known how to program computers since 1965. His daughter Daphne, born in 2009, pointed the way for him.

'Revolution of Little Children'

Before she was even three years old, Daphne was learning how to draw letters with the help of an iPad app. De Hond is constantly astonished by the things she can now do with the device, effortlessly and of her own volition. "We are experiencing a revolution of little children," he says. This generation, he explains, experiences real and virtual life as one big entity. But analog schools threaten to suppress half of that equation, he says.

"At home, Daphne learns naturally, according to her own pace, interactively and using multimedia tools," says de Hond. Why should she feel "like she's in a museum" when she's in school, he asks? The classic chalk-and-blackboard teachers, he adds angrily, "are preparing children for a world that no longer exists."

Steve Jobs died in California in October 2011 -- at about the same time that de Hond decided to instigate an uprising in the Netherlands. Within weeks, frustrated teachers, well-known education professors and dozens of parents had joined his cause. Together they wrote a manifesto for iPad schools. Meanwhile, independent groups in many places began establishing iPad schools, a process that is relatively easy in the Netherlands.

'Unstoppable'

According to a current poll by the daily newspaper De Volkskrant, all parties in parliament support the basic idea, with one exception: The PVV of right-wing populist Geert Wilders is opposed. It wants to see "more structure" in the classroom.

"The movement has become unstoppable," says school reformer de Hond. "I would be very disappointed if we didn't have at least 40 Steve Jobs schools by August of next year." Each of the schools will be publicly funded and open to all children. Parents unable to afford an iPad will receive a subsidy from a solidarity fund.

Whether the schools will actually be allowed to call themselves "Steve Jobs schools" is questionable. The organizers fully expect to hear from Apple's attorneys in Cupertino. "We would like to honor this man in this way," says de Hond. He admits, however, that he hasn't told Apple or Jobs' widow about the honor yet.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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