Lessons from Starbucks

Most mornings I stop at my neighborhood Starbucks and order “my” drink: decaf-grande-nonfat-skinny no-whip-mocha. Sometimes, out of curiosity, I listen to others order “their” individualized drinks: a caramel macchiato with two shots of espresso, a skinny vanilla latte – no foam, or a pumpkin spice latte with three Splendas. The well-trained baristas work the Starbucks coffee making system, and out pops my drink and others’ drinks, perfectly made to suit our individual preferences. According to Starbucks, their coffee making system has 87,000 permutations to match each customer’s unique desires and their system works in 21,160 stores in 63 countries.

We stand at the precipice of a revolution to personalize education in a manner similar to how Starbucks revolutionized the morning coffee ritual. Picture this: A student comes to a learning center – which may or may not be a traditional school. She has a learner profile based on interest data collected initially and then ongoing by the learning system. She logs onto her laptop or notebook and her individualized lessons for the week – most of which will be engaging digital content tailored to some degree to her interests– come onto the screen. The system tracks her progress of mastering the learning objectives through daily mini-assessments. Since the system is an adaptive learning system, if she has difficulty with some of the material, it can automatically move her back to material that reflects where she is stuck. By the same token, if she is accelerated, the system can move her forward. With this system, she becomes to a great degree the owner and driver of her education.

What does the teacher do, you might ask? Are they going to be relegated to barista status (which is not so bad – I think my baristas are terrific) and become mere technicians?   No, but they will not be doing what they have been doing for well over a hundred years – standing in front of a classroom delivering instruction to the middle. Nor will they be doing what has been the norm for 30 years – working like maniacs to individualize instruction in a classroom of 25 very diverse students with activity centers, work folders, and modest digital content. Instead, they will be highly trained to manage a sophisticated LEARNING SYTEM that will produce real time data on each student, allowing them to target small group or one-on-one instruction as needed. They will facilitate student learning.

Imagine such a learning system being able to offer even 10,000 options to personalize students’ learning – to millions of students all over the world. Right now, the best software engineers from Facebook and Google are working with two schools to develop the kind of system just described. They are very close to making this vision a reality.

Watch out Starbucks. You think personalized coffee is important? Personalized, mastery-based education can and will change the world.

Marina Ballantyne Walne