« The One Where I Got a Bad Review | Main | Bye Bye NTDEV? »

September 10, 2006

Microsoft High School

A story has been floating around about how Microsoft designed a high school in Philadelphia (also discussed on Slashdot). Is this another case of ISTYS at work? It turns out that Philadelphia approached Microsoft, and there are some interesting aspects of what they (we?) are doing.

First of all you have the obligatory "I read a lot of science fiction and now I'm designing a high school" touches. From the CNN article: "There's no library, but an 'interactive learning center' where information is all digital and a 'multimedia specialist' will help out students." I'm constantly amazed that anybody who has ever actually watched a child read a book--body twisted into some pretel-like arrangement, head cocked at an angle that would induce vertigo in an adult, face a mask of concentration--can really believe that an interactive learning center is better than a library. But, whatever. You've got that nonsense, the laptops for every student, the intelligent whiteboards...zzzzzz clunk, gimme an E-27 without the motor...this is the same stuff Bill Gates has been dreaming about since his 1990 "Information at Your Fingertips" Comdex keynote, and probably before. It may be pointless or even harmful, but at least you have a $63 million high school that people are paying attention to that serves a primarily low-income student body.

What I found interesting, however, was this tidbit from the article: "The high school will use an 'education competency wheel,' patterned after a set of desirable traits Microsoft encourages among its employees. Officials, teachers and students are to be trained in dozens of skills, including organizing and planning, negotiating, dealing with ambiguity and managing relationships." Microsoft does use a set of competencies to guide interviewing and career development. I can't find them listed in an official spot but they do pop up on the Web; for example look at these job listings from Microsoft Turkey and search for "Microsoft Competencies", or here's an article from the International Trademark Association (whose site is iffy so I used the Google cache version) about interviewing that mentions the notion of core competencies that says "The existence of these core competencies is not necessarily kept a secret from applicants before or during the interview, but specific competency documentation is not shared with candidates ahead of time." It's actually not a fixed for everyone, it varies between disciplines (engineering vs. marketing etc). But we do have a notion of competencies and it's not just for interviewing, they are also used for monitoring your growth and deciding what new opportunities to pursue.

So it's interesting to think of a high school taking that approach--rather than think about teaching kids such-and-such specific skill, think about possible core competencies. And if you take it a step further, as Microsoft does, actually evaluate where people sit with each competency and use that to customize how they are trained.

The other thing that Microsoft tries to do in our training is do proper instructional design. You may scoff at this but there is some theory and experience out there about how to best transfer knowledge to students. The quick summary is: gain attention, present, reinforce, rinse/lather/repeat. It can sometimes come across as silly, as when we take our anti-harrassment training and each bit of information is followed up with an excruciatingly obvious question ("During a meeting, Joe whips out his penis and lassos Mary's coffee cup with it. Is this a) acceptable, b) not good, c) it depends?"). BUT it really does stand out in contrast to the way people would probably prepare training with no guidance, which is to just blast out the facts in order and then ask for questions at the end. I'm working on developing a new course for Engineering Excellence and after reading up on instructional design I find myself almost alternating one-for-one between a slide that presents information and a slide that has a quiz/discussion/story/etc to reinforce the previous slide.

Of course this involves teaching to adults, with material that they typically want to learn. The articles I have seen don't say if the new high school is going that far in applying corporate wisdom to the high school experience, and I don't know how applicable that wisdom is. But if they do try it, I think it would be different from the way high schools normally approach teaching, and I would be interested to see how it goes.

Posted by AdamBa at September 10, 2006 09:58 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


So this post sort of ranges all over, not sure what your point is.

1. Don't completely write off charter schools. It totally depends on their goal. I certainly think there are innumerable alternatives to the Department of Education and Teacher's Union Educrats money pits that exist out there.
2. Libraries, totally with you there. Which is why if I have something to read...I print it and read on paper. Nothing better than contorting onself and my Toshiba lap"heater" just doesn't fit well there.
3. Microsoft competencies in the classroom? We don't even do those well here. I feel sorry for these poor kids not even getting the basics of life out of what I remember school to be.
4. When are we at Microsoft going to learn, it's not about the gadgets. It's about passion for learning. And I got passion for learning LONG before PCs were en vogue, LONG before devices. That comes from the heart and from teachers who have heart.
5. To answer your question...A

Posted by: Huh? at September 11, 2006 04:09 PM

"This post ranges all over" -- is that supposed to be a criticism? Ho ho.

It's not Microsoft competencies, it's the notion of competencies. There's a bunch more information at http://www.microsoft.com/Education/SchoolofFuture.mspx.

Reading more, it looks like they have a competency wheel, like Microsoft used to have for our competencies: http://download.microsoft.com/download/3/4/7/3477e49d-315d-4ee7-a8ca-ff653a4455d6/Competency_Wheel.pdf. However it looks like that is for school employees, not students. There's an article at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2006/jul06/07-31sotf.mspx which talks about "achieving educational excellence that centers on identifying and nurturing the right talents in a district’s employees, partners and students" but it's still not clear if they have student competencies, or are going to use the educator competencies for students, or aren't using competencies per se for students.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 11, 2006 09:23 PM

Well, that certainly makes more sense. But still, all that focus on competencies and gadgets and all that seems to be clouding over the basics of just good old teaching the kids the basics. I would have to see this in action, but my experience with my oldest now is high school here in WA is that the school system is a dismal failure. Math and science courses lag where I was at her age, and she's accelerated. I say, bring back the slide rules, bunson burners and protractors. Oh...and chuck the Macs out the window too. :-)

Posted by: Hm, OK at September 12, 2006 02:04 PM