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Schools are collecting new data in new ways about students with cutting-edge high-tech

Sophomore Lucinda Beard, meditated during a mindfulness class at the Cambridge School of Weston in Weston.
Sophomore Lucinda Beard, meditated during a mindfulness class at the Cambridge School of Weston in Weston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

WESTON — Ask 16-year-old Jack Vanourny about his schedule at the Cambridge School of Weston, and he’ll admit that it sometimes leaves him “incredibly stressed.” So when he put on an electronic headband that reads brain activity one recent morning, he expected it to glow brighter than a firetruck’s flashing red lights.

“It was the polar opposite,” he said. His headband illuminated a mellow blue light, indicating calmness. He was surprised at how relaxed he actually was.

The headbands are part of a new generation of technology being tested in schools nationwide, an effort to gather more precise information about the ways students learn in hopes of boosting achievement. The tryouts, if successful, could add a new dimension to school data collection, moving it well beyond standardized test scores and teachers’ grade books. There are other experiments in the works, as well.

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At a Montessori school in Cambridge, toddlers and young children wear Velcro slippers equipped with electronic sensors that track their movements around the classroom.

Students at other schools nationwide have donned high-tech glasses that track the movement of their eyes as they read materials or listen to lectures in an effort to identify what stimulates a student’s interest or causes it to wane.

While some educators see only possibilities in the data, others are concerned about the appropriateness of such monitoring and the potential invasion of privacy.

“Why do we need survelliance technology to promote play-based learning and wellness?” asked Leah Plunkett, associate dean for administration at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, and author of the book “Sharenthood,” which raises concerns about parents sharing too much information about children on social media and other digital platforms.

“It can put children at risk of potential cybersecurity breaches,” she added, noting “sensors and surveillance technology of all sorts can bring in a third-party commercial gaze to protected learning spaces.”

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On a recent drizzly morning, a swirl of energy swept through Capucine Montessori School, located in a former storefront in North Cambridge, as children darted from one activity to another. They painted pictures on an easel near a window, scribbled on hand-held chalkboards, flipped through flash cards, counted numbers on wooden blocks, or read quietly in a corner in a pint-size lounge chair.

All the while, every step they took was traced by low-power radio sensors in their slippers and by surveillance cameras hanging from the ceiling. Other sensors were embedded elsewhere in the room.

The intensive monitoring is part of an experiment to help reduce the notes teachers must take on their students and provide teachers with a more complete picture of their students’ day. Montessori teachers amass stacks of journals over the school year — a byproduct of an education in which students are given the freedom to choose what they want to learn.

“The basic idea is to support teachers with the kind of information they need to be scientists in the classroom,” said Ted Quinn, a partner with the Wildflower Foundation, which supports a network of Montessori schools, including Capucine, founded by MIT Media Lab professor Sep Kamvar and two Montessori teachers about six years ago.

The network is still trying to figure out the best use of the data, which are temporarily stored on an encrypted, password-protected server and destroyed after it’s no longer needed.

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“I think what the data will do is give us more observation questions,” said Marion Geiger, who co-leads Capucine with Séverine Meunier. “Identifying a pattern of movement for certain children can be quite informative in helping to understand them as learners.”

In some ways, the high-tech data collection is an awkward fit for a network of Montessori schools, where young students are forbidden from using computers or electronic devices, teachers said. At Capucine, the only visible technology one recent morning was a tablet a teacher used for observation notes. Parents can decline to have their children wear slippers with sensors, although none have, teachers said.

But controversy has followed other cutting-edge data-gathering experiments, especially in public schools. In one notable instance in 2012, national education blogger Diane Ravitch fueled a debate after she wrote about a little-known research initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which awarded grants to university researchers to test the feasibility of having middle-school students wear biometric wristbands that would attempt to measure their emotional responses in real time during class. The foundation’s hope was that teachers could use the data to help them assess how engaged their students were in class, but many teachers found it an unnecessary intrusion into student privacy.

A Gates Foundation spokesman emphasized last week that the grants were awarded to merely test the idea and “the results did not merit additional investment.”

In Weston, the high-tech monitoring of student behavior is also occurring in an unlikely place: mindfulness classes.

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The private school is evaluating whether electronic headbands will help students gain a better understanding of the states of calmness and focus, and strategies they can develop to conjure them up. Anxiety can disrupt both of those states, preventing students from focusing and from relaxing.

The notion of retreating into a state of tranquility is so foreign to some students that they may doubt it can be done, said Gustavo Brasil, a music teacher who led one of the meditation classes in which students were trying the electronic headbands for the first time.

“This is the proof,” he said. “Science is showing them meditation is not baloney.”

His 15 students, who lounged on yoga mats scattered across the hardwood floors of a dance studio, initially exuded excitement about the headbands, as they giggled and adjusted the devices on their heads while looking around at one another to see what color came up. Representatives from BrainCo, the Somerville company that produces the headbands, were on hand to assist.

It was a high-tech operation. The headbands, which rely on EEG sensors to detect brain signals, not only illuminated colors but also sent the information to Brasil’s laptop, which transmitted it to a large computerized screen. It revealed a mix of students who were focused or relaxed or somewhere in between. Beyond measuring brain activity, the devices can also teach students how to focus and relax through a series of video games.

Brasil then led the group in their first meditation exercise. The goal was for the students to grow as many trees as possible on the large digital screen by allowing themselves to drift into tranquility. The more relaxed they became, the more trees would grow.

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“Close your eyes and focus on your breathing,” Brasil said in a soft voice. “Don’t fight with your thoughts. Relax. Don’t worry about the time.”

As several headbands shifted from red to yellow and blue, a tree began to flourish on the screen, and then another and another. Brasil commended them on a great job.

BrainCo has been researching various ways the headbands can be used in schools to improve student well-being and academic performance. In China, the company has been testing the devices on thousands of schoolchildren.

“For teachers, this device gives them an extra lens into their classroom; just because students are looking at you doesn’t mean they’re engaged,” said Joshua Varela, implementation and partnership manager for BrainCo.

He said the goal is not for students to be red throughout class, but for there to be a relative flow of various brain activity patterns. In a mindfulness class, though, he said a prolonged state of blue is ideal.

Austin Sa, 15, who was in a different mindfulness class, said his teacher had him and other students walk around the room barefoot, and it was interesting to see how relaxed some of his classmates were while others were very focused. He said he wished he had a device like this three years ago, when he was trying to train himself to be more focused on stage for performing arts.

Lily Thomson, 16, said she found it hard to focus or be calm when they first tried the devices. But she thought the headbands held promise — especially in academic classes that last 90 minutes.

“For me, it’s difficult to stay focused for an hour and a half consistently, so I think finding out what helps students to focus would be helpful,” she said.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.