A Take-Home Mission

In depth with Pearson’s managing director for North America.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Alfred BinfordHis first year at the world’s largest learning company has been the most exciting of his career. One of the first things Alfred Binford realized when he arrived was how dedicated Pearson’s team is to truly improving education. “We have 40,000 employees around the world and more than 15,000 are former teachers or had careers in education,” he says. “Every conversation I have at Pearson has been focused in some form or fashion on improving learning outcomes, and preparing students for success in school, college and careers. This is also a personal mission of mine. My wife and I are parents of three sons, so this is a mission that I take home.” As Managing Director of Pearson North America, Alfred is in the hotseat and many eyes are on him as he represents Pearson (or what was Pearson Education, rebranded to simply Pearson in 2011, then split into an International and a North American division). The company generates about 60 percent of its sales in North America (though it operates in more than 70 countries). The international division is headquartered in London with offices across

Every conversation I have at Pearson has been focused in some form or fashion on improving learning outcomes, and preparing students for success in school, college and careers.

Europe; the North American division is headquartered in New York City, Alfred’s home turf. Pearson has a very long history for any company, having been founded 171 years ago, and that’s another story — but its publishing interests in particular began over one hundred years later, in the 1950s, with ownership of the Financial Times and a 50 percent stake in The Economist, and even later, buying paperback publisher Penguin in 1970. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were many more acquisitions, and between 2006 and today, the company had swallowed up enough testing, assessment and digital technology companies to place a large part of it squarely in the emerging ‘edtech’ sector; in 2013 there was further restructuring of the company’s education interests into three main groups: Pearson School, Pearson Higher Education, and Pearson Professional. As the largest for-profit company in one of the most important (it’s our future) and thus often politically-charged fields of human endeavor, concerns about the company’s influence on public education haven’t abated. In this interview, we go in-depth with Pearson’s Managing Director for North America to see where he comes from, his approach to learning, what his current mindset is, his impressions of some basic areas of education, even some of his thoughts on the most recent ISTE conference, and where he sees things headed. We hope you find it educational.

I understand that you are new to your role at Pearson. What made you want to join the company?

Alfred: The best things that have happened in my life are because of my family and education. My single mom made schooling a top priority for me and two older siblings, and I am a proud product of the Bronx Public Schools in New York City. Education has always provided “access to opportunity” for me and helped shape me as a husband, dad, neighbor, employee and citizen. Having the opportunity to work at Pearson brings my passion for family and education to my everyday work.

My first year at Pearson has been the most exciting of my career. One of the first things I realized when I arrived was how dedicated Pearson’s team is to truly improving education. We have 40,000 employees around the world and more than 15,000 are former teachers or had careers in education. Every conversation I have at Pearson has been focused in some form or fashion on improving learning outcomes, and preparing students for success in school, college and careers. This is also a personal mission of mine. My wife and I are parents of three sons, so this is a mission that I take home.

What are your responsibilities as Managing Director, Assessment and Direct Delivery, Pearson North America?

Alfred: I lead the teams who are actively helping our learners, teachers and schools, implement the various forms of assessment that we provide, and I also lead and drive the growth of our K-12 virtual learning business (which we also refer to as “direct delivery”). Pearson does everything from running virtual K-12 charter schools, to providing schools with courses, teachers, and even turnkey platform that power fully online and blended learning. Accelerated by the development of the Internet over the past two decades, the virtual learning space is very exciting right now, as it continues to provide learners with pathways for success and school districts with options to expand access and improve achievement. For example, we worked with one student who was very talented in math, but her school did not offer the calculus class she needed to apply to Stanford. She petitioned her school, and they found one of our Connections Learning online courses, and she was able to take the course and off to Stanford she went.

From your perspective, what is the role of assessment in education today?

Alfred: Assessment has — and always will — be a part of teaching and learning. From the weekly quizzes that we all took in grade school to end-of-course exams in high school, assessments provide teachers with ways to measure student progress, and then to adjust and personalize instruction based on the results and analysis. Also, I know firsthand how parents rely on feedback and progress reports to help them support their kid’s success.

While Pearson has a large profile for the work we do with state assessments, we also do a great deal of innovative work in developing and providing classroom and formative assessments as well as important clinical assessments. In fact, some of our products leverage technology in such a way that students don’t even view the assessment as a test. For example, at ISTE, we launched TELL (Test of English Language Learning), a tablet-based assessment developed to support schools as they ensure that the growing population of English language learners (ELLs) build English language skills and stay on track to meet today’s rigorous academic standards.

TELL is a totally interactive assessment experience. A principal from a school in California that pilot tested TELL told us he had never seen an assessment like TELL, and that students were overwhelmingly positive about it. In fact, he said the kids thought they were playing some kind of educational game and really tried hard to score well.

One teacher recently told me his students were able to write 33 essays last school year — a number that would have been impossible for him to grade individually. 

Another product we have with embedded assessment is WriteToLearn, an online literacy tool. Nearly half a million students around the country use WriteToLearn to practice essay and summary writing and receive automatic feedback on their work. One teacher recently told me his students were able to write 33 essays last school year — a number that would have been impossible for him to grade individually. He said they were all challenged to improve each draft by the feedback they received as they worked, while he was able to watch their progress through the teacher dashboard on the tool.

The bottom line is that assessments are a tool for improving student learning — showing what individual students have learned and how schools are preparing them for their next step in college or their careers. Getting it right and designing balanced accountability and assessment systems are pivotal to ensuring achievement for all students. We share a common goal with the teachers, parents and students we serve—to make certain that every single child graduates from school ready for success in life on her or his own terms and able to fulfill their full potential.

Speaking of ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia, what were a few of your impressions? What edtech trends did you see? What impressed you most? Any surprises?

Alfred: ISTE 2015 was an amazing experience! From the vast and busy expo hall to the nearly 20,000 attendees and educators who were engaged in talking about everything from how young is too young to teach students to code to what are the best tech tools for building literacy skills — the excitement and energy were palpable.

In her opening keynote, well-known journalist and TV personality — and child of teachers —Soledad O’Brien provided a great kick-off to the show by challenging educators to take students to new heights through technology. It was funny because I think she thought she was going to be a little provocative when she said “I think technology for technology’s sake is a complete waste,” but instead she almost received a standing ovation.

Then, in demonstrations on-stage involving volunteers from the audience, she showed how technology is an education tool — not a means to an end — with a virtual reality technology that allowed students to “test drive” from their classrooms, a career in veterinary surgery.

Her demonstration tied back into Pearson’s ISTE theme of “Reimagining Learning to Prepare Students for Jobs of the Future,” when she said, “You could actually let them experience a different career; they could dive right in.”

I was also privileged to spend some time in the Pearson booth in the expo hall where I watched our dedicated team engage with ISTE attendees, talking about the challenges that they face in their classrooms, and how Pearson might be able to help them.

You mentioned that Pearson’s theme for its Spotlight Session at ISTE 2015 was “Reimagining Learning to Prepare Today’s Students For Jobs of the Future.” What kind of a conversation did you have around that topic at the conference?

Alfred: Our whole theme for ISTE 2015 was “I Can Imagine…” We wanted to challenge attendees to think about the ways that learning must change to ensure that Generation Alpha — kids born after 2010 — and the generations that follow are prepared to succeed in a world that we may not have yet imagined.

As I prepared to moderate our Spotlight Session panel, it made me think back 35 or 40 years and imagine Steve Jobs in his garage, building the beginnings of what we now call the personal computing industry. It is incredible to think about the power of his imagination at a time when there were no jobs in the paper for computing in the Silicon Valley.

According to research at the World Bank, only one in five of today’s elementary students will find a job that exists today. So how do we shape our educational system to give students the tools they will need to be successful? This is a subject that’s important to me, both professionally and personally. I want to set my three sons in a direction that’s going to lead them to lucrative, fulfilling jobs.

Our stellar group of panelists inspired a thoughtful discussion about how we ensure that students will be successful in careers that we can’t even imagine today. There was a common theme among their points of view that we must help students build critical thinking skills versus train them for projected “jobs du jour.” They emphasized the continued importance of a liberal arts education, and building strong foundational literacy and critical thinking skills. They also discussed ways they are personalizing learning and reaching students through project-based and blended learning. I was particularly intrigued by the idea — mentioned by several panelists — that we have to change our educational system from one-size-fits-all to an environment where students chart their own pathways and coaches help guide them through blended learning opportunities.

One of the highlights of the panel for me was the participation of Briana Jamerson, a sixth-grade student, from Riggs Elementary in Chandler, Arizona. Briana is a member of Kids CoLab, a team of students who worked side-by-side with our product developers every week last school year to create solutions with “real world” applications, while building skills in subjects such as technology and math through hands-on learning.

It is understandable that, for now, Briana doesn’t know what her job of the future will be, but she likes playing soccer and creating things and is considering being a chef or an educator. Whether she chooses a career we know about today or one we’ve not yet imagined, there’s no doubt that Briana will be prepared. And Pearson is committed to collaborating with educators around the country to ensure that all students have access to the tools to create their own learning pathways so that they are prepared to become whatever they can imagine they want to be.

What is Pearson doing to help prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future? What else needs to be done?

Alfred: One critical thing that Pearson is doing to prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future is listening to and participating in the dialogue around what needs to be done. Our spotlight session at ISTE 2015 is an example of that and there are many others that

One critical thing that Pearson is doing to prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future is listening to and participating in the dialogue around what needs to be done. 

occur throughout the year — both formally at conferences and seminars and more informally when our team members talk to customers on the phone or visit their schools.

We also need to continue to look at all of our products for learning, especially assessments, and think about the ways they support helping students develop the skills that are requisite for being successful in careers we might not even imagine today — critical thinking, collaboration and creativity skills.

And, like today’s students, we need to be nimble enough to make changes and chart a new course as the world around us changes.

How does the way that the classroom looks need to change to prepare students for the jobs of the future?

Alfred: Maybe not this year or even this decade, but I believe that in the not-too-distant future, “physical classroom” might not even be the biggest part of our lexicon when we talk about education. As our panelists described at ISTE, “school” will be an environment — maybe not even one designated place — where students map their own pathways to learning, working with their teachers and parents to design a trajectory that will prepare them for the future, based on their skills, abilities and, most importantly, passions.

It is exciting to envision, and Pearson is committed to listening to and participating in the discussion as we make this transformation.

What role do you believe technology plays in improving learning and teaching for students?

Alfred: Like Soledad said, technology for its own sake can be a waste. However, as she also demonstrated, used well, it has tremendous power to transform learning and lives.

Virtual and online courses can present students with educational opportunities that might not have otherwise been available to them. A small rural school in Nebraska can offer high school Chinese language courses to the two students who are interested; or a student who is also an Olympic skier can keep pace for high school graduation while training on the slopes in Colorado.

If you asked them if technology should be a part of education, you would probably get a “duh,” an eye roll or a “look.”

The possibilities and the implications are endless. However, we must always keep a keen focus on the learner as we develop technology solutions to support learning and continuously study their impact on learning with an emphasis on efficacy.

Today’s students are truly digital natives. They have been tapping, swiping, texting and Googling from a very young age. If you asked them if technology should be a part of education, you would probably get a “duh,” an eye roll or a “look.” We really need to think carefully about the role it plays in education so that we maximize the impact of the investment.

What other formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your views today?

Alfred: My family heritage is quite diverse. I am an African American man, and my wife is part Latina and Irish. Raised by a single mom, I went to public elementary, middle and high school in the Bronx. I was fortunate to have a ”very good” K-12 educational experience; teachers who went beyond normal instruction and ensured I knew that going to college was essential and “accessible,” as well as extracurricular programs and coaching that led to a basketball scholarship which allowed me to avoid leaving college under the burden of student loans. But I know way too many other kids in my community were not as lucky.

Great teachers are key to any student’s success and I was privileged to have my basketball coach at W. H. Taft High School, Donald E. Adams, as a teacher, coach and mentor, who went beyond teaching physical education and helped so many kids (including me) dream beyond all the difficulties and socio-economic challenges in our neighborhoods. He helped us realize that graduating high school was just the start — if we were willing to work really hard and respond to the investments teachers and coaches were willing to make in us.

As it often is with so many important things we learn from parents, grandparents, teachers, and coaches, the most powerful insights and lessons often sink in much later in life. Great teaching has a way of echoing, and increasing in value, as you mature and your life unfolds.

What is your outlook on the future of education?

Alfred: As a result of my personal educational experience and that of our kids, I have always been optimistic about the future of education. The millions of dedicated teachers, administrators, parent volunteers and professionals in schools around the country are there because they care about students and learning and I know that companies, like Pearson, are in this business to support them in preparing today’s students for the world of tomorrow.

Everywhere I looked I saw educators engaged in spirited conversations about what does and doesn’t work with their students.

My experience at ISTE 2015 took that optimism to the next level. Everywhere I looked I saw educators engaged in spirited conversations about what does and doesn’t work with their students. They spent countless hours going from session to session to learn more about best practices on topics such as instructional design, coding, professional development and communication and collaboration tools. They walked the vast exhibit floors to preview the latest and greatest technology, and think carefully about what they are trying to achieve in their schools. In fact, according to an infographic from ISTE, the average attendee walked 24 miles over the four days!

After spending time with these passionate educators from around the globe, I am more excited than ever before about the ways we can all work together to improve learning, and teaching and cannot wait to see what the next year and the next decade holds.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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