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(Not-So) Secret Agent Man: The Next Gen in Ed Tech

Anyone with a younger sibling – or who’s been one – understands the value of a ‘Teachable Agent.’  An entity whose behavior and thinking you can dictate, who will then enter the world (or pantry) and demonstrate your version of reality (steal cookies for you).betty


In innovative Ed Tech circles a ‘Teachable Agent’ refers to an artificial intelligence computer program, usually disguised as a customizable avatar. Learners of all ages can ‘program’ him/her by simply creating a visual web or map, indicating relationships between phrases and concepts. The Agent then uses this visual representation to embark on assess-able activities such as answering auto-graded questions or conversing Siri-like with humans.

Can you imagine a young boy programming this Agent with all he knows about elementary science, then going out for recess while the Avatar takes a standardized test for him?  Can you picture students creating representations of their analysis and synthesis of multiple primary documents, then sending their Agents off to compete in a History-themed jeopardy game? How about a teenager creating a map reflecting her literary analysis of Macbeth then commanding her Agent to defend her thesis in a conversation with experts and peers in a virtual classroom?

And those are just the first gen applications.


Why not just stick with our straight-forward Q&A assessments, you ask? Why insert a middle step of asking kids to construct a multi-variable representation of their understanding, followed by a Q&A with a robot, not the learner?  Three possible reasons:

  1. Because it’s cool and more engaging? Yes, though admittedly this is a matter of opinion.
  2. Because the Agent scenario satisfies an oft-heard desire to improve learning by providing learners with opportunities to ‘teach’?   Yes, runner-up to #1 reason.

We’ve all heard the pedagogical and philosophical beliefs that a learner can learn by teaching, bolstered by Vygotsky and cognitive scientists who made a convincing case that the act of articulating one’s understanding is an essential step in truly grasping concepts. However, the students-teaching-students scenario is controversial.  On the other side of teachers are actual learners, aka humans with multiple needs, learning styles and intelligences, as well as prior misconceptions, interests, and motivations.  Teaching is never really about subject knowledge alone; it is about psychologizing the subject – google ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ if this is news to you.

Replace the human learner with a rational, attentive Teachable Agent and voila! Learners can ‘teach’ – pushing their learning to the next level – without the human learner factor muddying the waters of the original learner’s learning experience.

3.  Because it assesses higher up Bloom’s taxonomy? Yes, rendering this is a game-changer.

The Agent approach is less granular than the Khan-like One-Two punch requiring a learner to

1] passively watch/read then 2] answer targeted questions.

That Ed Tech formula gives learners immediate feedback and provides bite-sized, learn-then–demonstrate-learning efficacy but it doesn’t really scratch the surface of broader thinking, analysis, synthesis, and other more complex learning objectives.


Now is pre-Teachable Agents’ time.  The Agents mostly exist at universities (see links below).  Ed Tech ventures can safely pronounce the realm of learning and assessment that relates to higher order thinking as an offline experience of papers and presentations graded by teachers. Sure there’s a bit of talk around auto-essay grading software, but it has mixed results and will
Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 3.43.08 PMnever emotionally satisfy learners who pay (through tuition or taxes) and who feel the creative and unique effort they put into writing warrants a human reading their opus.

Once the Agents are out in force, Ed Tech offerings without them will be deemed, incomplete and inferior to the options that utilize Agents.   Check out the links below and imagine the possibilities.

Here’s info on Betty’s Brain, a TA at Vanderbilt University.

Here’s info on Stanford School of Education’s TA project.

9/11 and NYC’s iSchool

9-11 MemorialBorn from the joint visions of two progressive educators, the iSchool is an amazing program.  Founders Alisa Berger and Mary Moss were handed only one design parameter from New York’s DOE – rethink high school. After spending some time there last spring, I can confirm, mission accomplished, high school re-thunk.

The school is focused on two distinct goals:

1) Preparing students for state tests, and

2) Developing critical thinking, independent learning, and other goals that are not measured on state tests, but are relevant for success beyond high school.  

They chose these goals after interviewing 200+ high school teachers and countless graduates of their middle school (Mott Hall II), who were enrolled in college.

Goal #2 is reached by engaging students in MODULES, also called challenge-based learning. The 9-week, interdisciplinary explorations immerse students in ‘real world projects’ for two hours, daily.  Talk to any student at iSchool and you will hear enthusiastic praise for the Modules; they are hands-down the highlight of the program.

I have been thinking about one of iSchool’s Modules today…Called Voices and Memories, it relates to September 11.

Students experienced a seminar-like class giving them foundational (historical) knowledge moving through time from 9/11/01 backwards to the Crusades, investigating conflict and connections between Islamic/Western civilizations. Then, the students chose a part of the world to study and analyze the reaction to 9/11 there. Next, they conducted video conferences with students in that part of the world to get their feedback on drafts of the 9/11 Memorial. Finally, they reported their findings back to the Memorial committee, which incorporated student analysis into the Memorial plans.  Now, student work is part of the 9/11 Museum archives and is on exhibit at the Tribute Center.

What’s cool in schools?

Students at High Tech Middle San DiegoThe kids.  Definitely.  Have you ever heard, “That is a great school, fantastic program, but the kids…eh, horrible, really what a terrible bunch” ?

A school is only as great as its students.  Beautiful building, top-of-the-line technology, every curricular resource imaginable, teachers with master’s degrees and credentials… all add up to nothing if kids are bored, not learning, and counting the minutes until they are ‘free’ from school grounds.

In this blog, I’m taking it as a given that the kids are the coolest part of the school. Therefore, I consider a ‘cool school’ one which recognizes this fact and puts student needs front and center. In other words, a ‘cool school’ strives to provide engaging learning experiences and a healthy community designed to bring out the best in the kids. And by ‘best’ I mean, achievement on the standardized tests tax payers have been spending millions on, and also visible signs that students are developing and exhibiting qualities we know are truly valuable – curiosity, thoughtfulness, responsibility, focus, creativity, perseverance, discipline, grit.

In this blog, I hope to highlight those places – an entire school, a single school component, a particular class, or a moment in time – worthy of an Academy Award in creating these types of learning environments.

If you know of any cool schools, please send that info my way.