Amy Satin Spinelli is founder and CEO of Earshot, an app that uses real-time analysis of class discussions to help teachers improve instructional strategies. She has served as Vice President of Business Development at LearnTech, where she helped develop online platforms and portfolios for K-12 teachers to share and store their work. She held executive positions at Taskstream in New York, growing a cutting-edge business to assess learning in higher education, and at Thomson Reuters in Hong Kong, creating interactive information experiences for legal and financial professionals. At ACTV she worked with school districts around the U.S. to incorporate video and Internet-based curricula into their school systems. Spinelli studied philosophy and Japanese at Colgate University and holds a law degree from Harvard Law School.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Earshot?
I have been fortunate to have studied with some outstanding teachers, and I am driven to do this work as a way to "pay it forward." All students need that teacher who can open their minds and push them to achieve their potential. For me, there were a few teachers who challenged and guided me to think and to learn, and, because of them, I avoided the pitfall of ending up in a career by default. I am always learning and re-inventing myself. As a student I taught Spanish to elementary school kids while in high school, environmental issues to students while in college, and peer mediation at a high school when I was a law student. My mother was a teacher so I guess it’s in my blood to teach. Yet I never made that leap into the classroom full time. Rather, I’ve been driven to think about how we teach and why we teach (I was, after all, a philosophy major in college.) and I’ve been on a mission for the past twenty years to tap into the power of technology to help teachers teach better. The most powerful tool we have to improve the future is great teachers, and if I can help more teachers be great and improve instruction to better prepare students for the careers of the future, that is the legacy I hope to leave.
How do you hope your work at Earshot will change the way educators approach professional development?
Professional development is often seen as compliance; it’s something teachers must do to retain their teaching certification and as part of their jobs. Earshot has the potential to tap into educators’ curiosity about their own behavior and help teachers take control of their own learning. Going forward, it will not be sufficient for anyone to just passively learn, take tests, and perform to succeed in the next generation of careers. There are many smart people thinking about what the jobs of the future might look like and how the skills students need are less about compliance and retention of information, and more about complex problem solving and critical thinking. Teachers are no different. It will no longer be sufficient for teachers to attain competency in a subject area and perform basic classroom management functions. Teachers need to re-imagine their role as a coach, or guide, to challenge students to ask good questions and break complex problems into pieces. Earshot can help teachers get the feedback and encouragement they need to shift their role and succeed as the next generation of educators.
What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
I think the term "lifelong learning" will go away because constant learning will be taken for granted. The pace at which we need to learn will continue to accelerate, and the paradigm that people "finish" their education after college or grad school will break down. I think models such as badges, micro-credentials, and e-portfolios;, ways to demonstrate and succinctly describe one’s skills and experiences, will become increasingly relevant, yet there will be ubiquitous learning so we don’t necessarily separate out learning experiences from experience in general. For schools this should manifest itself in breaking down barriers, literally and figuratively, so students are working to solve real-world problems and applying their knowledge outside the four walls of a school building. Beyond schools, everyone will be able to quantify their learning with tools such as Earshot and others to help people set goals, track and monitor progress. The traditional resume will be replaced with a more dynamic portfolio of curated experiences, examples, and artifacts of the way people think, approach problems, and create. Essentially, the line between "school" and "career" or really, "life" will be blurred and we will understand that to be human is to constantly learn, and we will reflect on our learning throughout our lives.
What has been the response from educators who have used Earshot?
When teachers use Earshot they are surprised by their data. They almost always underestimate how much they talk or how long they wait before calling on students. Being able to see that type of data quickly and easily is a revelation. Teachers can decide they want to improve their performance on one metric and they can go right back into the classroom and see improvement. That is exciting and encouraging. We see teachers go from asking 4% open-ended questions to 50% in a matter of weeks. The most gratifying experiences are when we have the opportunity to see how this behavior impacts student learning. Students say class is more interesting when they have more opportunities to speak, and sometimes those kids who rarely volunteer to talk manage to raise their hand with a little more wait time.
Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?
Sir Ken Robinson, author, education and creativity expert, person behind the #1 most viewed TED talk of all time.
Jeff Livingston, former publishing executive who has deep knowledge and insight into ed tech field.
Nate Bowling, high school teacher in Tacoma, WA, WA state teacher of the year and finalist, national teacher of the year, visionary teacher with a huge heart.
Image: Courtesy Amy Satin Spinelli