Squirrel’s approach may yield great results on traditional education, but it doesn’t prepare students to be flexible in a changing world, the experts I spoke to say. “There’s a difference between adaptive learning and personalized learning,” says Chris Dede, a professor at Harvard University in the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program. Squirrel is doing adaptive learning, which is about “understanding exactly what students know and don’t know.”
But it pays no attention to what they want to know or how they learn best. Personalized learning takes their interests and needs into account to “orchestrate the motivation and time for each student so they are able to make progress.”
Jutta Treviranus, a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University who pioneered personalized learning to improve inclusivity in education, breaks it down further. “Personalized learning has a number of levels,” she says: she calls them to pace, path, and destination.
If the pace of learning is personalized, students with different abilities are allowed different amounts of time to learn the same material. If the path is personalized, students might be given different motivations to reach the same objectives (“Here’s why statistics is relevant to your love of baseball”) and offered the material in different formats (e.g., video versus text). If the destination is personalized, students can choose, for instance, whether to learn with a vocational school or a university in mind.
“We need students to understand their own learning. We need them to determine what they want to learn, and we need them to learn,” Treviranus says. “Squirrel AI doesn’t address those things at all. It only makes it more efficient to bring all of the students to the same standardized place.”
That doesn’t mean that adaptive learning systems won’t have any place in the 21st-century classroom. David Dockterman, a colleague of Dede’s, believes their strength in training people on structured knowledge is still valuable. But it would be a mistake to make them the predominant “teacher” in the classroom: “The kinds of rote activities—knowledge retrieval, skill acquisition—that are more readily reachable with a smart tutor are also the things that are more readily accomplished by a smart machine,” he says.
Li, Squirrel’s founder, is tall and lanky and has severe cheekbones. When he speaks English, he punctuates every few sentences with “Right?” eyebrows raised, to make sure you’re on the same page. When he speaks Mandarin, his words tumble out twice as fast.
A week after my visit to the learning center, I meet him at Squirrel’s headquarters in Shanghai. In the style of an understated showman, he gives me the grand tour. The modesty of the learning center stands in sharp contrast to the office décor here: each wall boasts of different details about the company and milestones it’s reached. Here’s one with all its media mentions. Here’s another with all its awards. And here are some examples of students who were deemed “hopeless” and then saved. I run into another tour before I’ve finished my own.
A few steps past the first door, Li points out a screen to my immediate left playing a TV clip on repeat. It’s a game show featuring a showdown between Squirrel’s tutoring system and a human teacher—one of the best in China, he says. Three of the teacher’s students, whom he has taught for three years, stand alongside him on stage solving problems. The system and the teacher compete to predict which ones they will get right.
Li doesn’t wait for the clip to end to reveal the punchline: “In three hours we understand students more than the three years spent by the best teachers.”
On-screen, the teacher looks increasingly crestfallen and humiliated. “He looks so sad,” I say.
“You noticed!” Li laughs.
Much of Squirrel’s philosophy stems from Li’s own experiences as a child. When he was young, he didn’t have very good emotional intelligence, he says, and reading books on the subject didn’t help. So he spent half a year dividing the skill into 27 different components and trained himself on each one. He trained himself to be more observant, for example, and to be an interesting conversationalist (“I spent a lot of time finding 100 topics, so I have a lot of material to talk with others,” he says). He even trained himself to keep smiling when others criticized him. (“After that, in my life, I do not have any enemies.”) The method gave him the results he wanted—along with the firm belief that anything can be taught this way.
Li uses an analogy to lay out his ultimate vision. “When AI education prevails,” he says, “human teachers will be like a pilot.” They will monitor the readouts while the algorithm flies the plane, and for the most part, they will play a passive role. But every so often, when there are an alert and a passenger panics (say, a student gets bullied), they can step in to calm things down. “Human teachers will focus on emotional communication,” he says.
Li thinks this is the only way humanity will be able to elevate its collective intelligence. Entrusting teachers with anything else could risk “damaging geniuses.” He’s playing out this philosophy on his own kids, using Squirrel’s system as much as possible to train them. He boasts that his eight-year-old twin boys, in the second grade, are now learning eighth-grade physics, a testament that his method is working. “Only adaptive systems could make such miracles,” he says.
Squirrel is already exporting its technology abroad. It has cultivated its international reputation by appearing at some of the largest AI conferences around the world and bringing on reputable collaborators affiliated with MIT, Harvard, and other prestigious research institutes. Li has also recruited several Americans to serve on his executive team, with the intent of pushing into the US and Europe in the next two years. One of them is Tom Mitchell, the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon; another is Dan Bindman, who led the user experience and editorial teams at ALEKS.
Treviranus worries that Squirrel’s educational philosophy is representative of a broader flaw in China’s pursuit of intelligent education: its emphasis on standardized learning and testing. “The tragedy of the China experiments is that they’re taking the country to a point of education that any progressive pedagogue or education system is moving away from,” she says.
But she believes that China also has one of the best opportunities to reinvent a more teacher-friendly, learner-focused classroom environment. It is less entrenched than the West in older models of education and much more willing to try new ideas. “China needs to look at a completely different form of AI,” she says. The question is: What does that mean?
The answer may lie a dozen miles west of Squirrel’s headquarters, across from the Huangpu River that courses through Shanghai. There, Pan Pengkai, a children’s educational expert, is conducting experiments of a different nature.
Source: Technology ReviewRelated posts: