Takeaways from the Pioneers fireside chat with Peter Nilsson

In mid-April 2021, 27V launched the Pioneers community; an EdTech-focused watering hole for school administrators, teachers, parents, and students – the real stakeholders in the education ecosystem. We wanted to build a space for them to learn about global trends, meet peers, swap war stories & build relationships. Read more, and apply to join, here.

For the Pioneers community, we hosted our first fireside chat last week, with Mr. Peter Nilsson, the Head of School for King’s Academy in Jordan. Since its founding in 2007, King’s Academy has been a pioneer at using technology in the classroom – to increase engagement and effectiveness of learning for all students. Read below for a slightly edited version of our chat with Mr. Nilsson, including insights gleaned from deploying technology in individual classes and across the school.

Introduction

PETER: I’m Head Of School at King’s Academy, a co-educational boarding school from grades 7-12. I’m both a tech skeptic and enthusiast at the same time. After studying Music and English at Middlebury College, I went on to teach English at Deerfield Academy. After a short stint away from education, I went back to graduate school after which I rejoined Deerfield and subsequently launched my own non-profit tech platform for educators called Athena. I also started my own education related newsletter called Educators Notebook.

Prior to arriving at Kings, I was heavily involved in deepening leadership experience at boarding schools and leveraging technology to scale knowledge and impact in education. King’s Academy, founded by King Abdullah, represented an intersection between academic rigor and impact at scale.

On his experiments with the Wolfram language

PETER: The Wolfram language is a high level programming language that combines Wolfram Alpha with Mathematica. My foray into Wolfram started with my research on the “preparation gap”, a gap faced by all students who enter into higher education with varying degrees of knowledge about subjects. While this is grounded in skill and content gaps, I found another crucial component to qualitatively account for this struggle- the character gap. If students have the right character traits, they could help close skill and content gaps more readily.

So I set up a taskforce to help glean insights from qualitative assessments of students by teachers. I ran word frequency analyses on words used most frequently for students who excel and those who remain at the bottom. What did we find? Words that appear most frequently and are statistically significant for students who perform poorly related to consistency, sufficiency like “more” and “enough”, and focus. For students who perform well – curiosity, creativity and grit. Most surprisingly, I found these characteristics to be reflections of each other.

We realised attention, productivity and consistency at different levels become core elements of a character essential to success.

Wolfram helped me bring these analyses to classrooms without computer science experience. I now lead a year-long course in Digital Humanities, called ‘Distant Reading’, at King’s Academy. The course uses Wolfram Language to introduce students to new ways of engaging with literature – all with the purpose of deepening skills in question formulation, problem decomposition, and argumentation. Students have run their own statistical analyses on literature ranging from civil rights speeches to rap lyrics, from the Bible to even Donald Trump’s wikipedia page.

On technology in the classroom

ATIN: How else is technology embedded at King’s? Has it been helpful in enhancing the learning experience?

PETER: A lot of interesting applications of technology are happening not only within the classroom but also outside. We use an information system to track traffic patterns on campus – who’s going in and out. With the pandemic, we were able to include temperature checks into the software.

But does using technology lead to measurable differences in outcomes? Does having an LMS drive improvement? It has certainly enabled King’s to have classes asynchronously and to deal with the fallout of a pandemic. However, even this watershed movement towards online learning will never fully replace in-person education. We must ask what our objectives are in the classroom, and if technology can enhance those objectives. But in a time when there is no classroom, technology is critical.

At King’s, we did a two week January term that was asynchronous and remote where teachers developed curriculum that was interest-driven and passion-based. Examples of some classes include – How To Lead An Interview and Mysteries Within Math. They were developed in a mastery-based format with peer feedback so it was scalable. That was an opportunity of need – to leverage tech to advance pedagogical needs.

On opportunities borne from the COVID challenge

PETER: As the world was reacting to the pandemic, King’s decided to take a moment to pause and learn about the situation. Over the course of 2 days, we hosted a COVID-19 Symposium with epidemiologists from the American university of Beirut, health statisticians from the University of Aberdeen, and leading statesmen in Jordan. These explorations and sessions were designed as a virtual experience open to all students, faculty and parents in the King’s ecosystem.

One year later, students are now leading the second edition of this symposium. The process of reflecting on this unique moment in history is important for our students, in order to encode the learnings from our collective experience.

Looking back

ATIN: What are some key takeaways from this experience in online education?

PETER: One year on, the question of [effective online] education still hangs in the air. But what is clear is that care and relationships matter. As human beings, our social engagements are important. That translates into our learning. Our middle school, which doesn’t have a residential option, has a virtual ‘tea and chat’ every day to foster connection between students and teachers.


That’s it for this conversation! We’ll upload the full chat on YouTube soon. To stay abreast of future events hosted by 27V, sign up for updates on our website (see footer) or become a part of the Pioneers community!

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