An op-ed article by Mark Bauerlein in today’s NYTimes poses the question: “What’s the Point of a Professor?” The article contrasts the role of the professor in the 1960s and even the 1980s with the role today, and he finds that in today’s world the role is significantly diminished. Why?
When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.
He laments the fact that more students view college as a means to earn more money, citing a finding of a survey given to entering freshmen:
One prompt in the questionnaire asks entering freshmen about “objectives considered to be essential or very important.” In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” more than double the number who said “being very well off financially.”
…Since then… finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent.
What Bauerlein fails to note in his essay is that the federal government wants to use job placement and lifetime earnings as the primary metric for determining the quality of a college. And he also overlooks the fact that efforts to monetize public education and post-secondary education has emphasized the utility of schooling over its inherent virtue. In effect, both the government and the private sector are reinforcing the anti-intellectual notion that college is only worthwhile if it is financially rewarding.
He concludes his essay with this lament:
When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.
After reading the essay, I left this comment:
Our country’s obsession with standardization reinforces the notion that teachers and professors are accreditors and not mentors. When we place a higher value on test scores than on interpersonal relationships between teachers and students we set the stage for automated instruction to replace in-the-flesh teaching and learning. When we advocate measuring the value of a college degree by the earnings of graduates and/or workforce preparedness we replace idealism with utility. The good news for those who want to make colleges profit centers who serve customers is that these trends make operating a college more efficient. You can devise computerized curricula that guide students toward lucrative jobs and develop computerized assessments that determine if the students meet the entry standards for those jobs. When that’s completed you can eliminate those pesky professors who want decent wages and benefits and assurance of long term employment and put crazy ideas in student’s heads… ideas like critical thinking, for example.
There is a way teachers and professors could use computerized instruction to augment their classroom instruction and be more than accreditors. Indeed, in an ideal model the teachers could be the mentors, the individuals who “become the fearsome mind or moral light” for students, and it would be through providing the kind of writing tutorials that Bauerlein describes in his essay…. because writing more than any discipline requires intense human interaction and cannot be done algorithmically.
I just finished reading Natasha Singer’s NYTimes article “AltSchool Raises $100 Million and Plans to Open More Schools” and the 50 comments that accompanied the article. This exercise reinforced my belief that changing the existing paradigm away from the factory model will be an enormous challenge. The comments that garnered the most “likes” fell into the following categories:
- ad hominem attacks on the founders (technology executives) and funders (tech billionaires)
- assertions that this was all an effort to get more money (which may be a by product but appears to be a secondary motive)
- resource mis-allocation (e.g. philanthropists should advocate the abandonment of standardized testing)
- the outrageous cost for the school (the annual cost, excluding grants, was $20,000/year)
- the impersonality of technology.
I found the general notion described in the article to be appealing. If I understand how AltSchool operates, the teacher will serve as an intermediary when cognitive mismatches occur… as they do in classrooms today… and when engagement wanes… as it does in classrooms today. In today’s schools and the schools I grew up in cognitive mismatches are a given and engagement is not a primary focus of teachers. Teachers are responsible for covering material and if students don’t understand it or are not interested in it the blame and responsibility falls on them. Standardized testing has exacerbated this notion, driving parents of those with cognitive mismatches and parents of those hose disengagement is leading to emotional problems to seek alternatives to the factory model we have in place and are seemingly unwilling to abandon.
I have long believed that technology can move education toward an individualization model that was impossible 50 years ago and free schools from the sort-and-select factory model toward one of mastery learning. To those who do not want to consider a different model because it is promoted by technology executives and funded by philanthropists who may (or may not) profit from it , I offer this aphorism:
If you want to get what you’ve always got keep doing the what you’ve always done.
I have often referred to Marc Tucker’s monograph America’s Choice, High Skills or Low Wages, most recently on April 22 of this year. Written in 1990, it was highly influential in MD where I served as Superintendent and the organization he founded, the National Center on Education and the Economy, still works with State governments and school districts developing accountability systems. While Tucker is chastised by some progressive educators for his insistence on high-stakes testing and teacher compensation plans based on something other than longevity and degrees, I find his perspective measured and thoughtful. His recent essay in Education Week, “How Should We Gauge Student Success: The Accountability Dilemma” is a good example of Tucker’s willingness to offer complex ideas without trying to develop a simplistic solution. The essay describes his idea of what constitutes student success, and it isn’t just test scores. After providing a lengthy and elaborate list that includes affective issues like “initiative” and teamwork, he writes:
This is not a complete list. My point in creating it is not to lay out a full menu but to make a point. The point is very simple. High achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, science and problem solving is essential. Students who leave high school lacking in these essentials represent a profound failure to educate. We have an obligation to hold educators who fail to educate students against those metrics accountable for that failure. That is what the accountability movement is all about.
But success on these metrics does not mean that we have met our obligations to these students. Not at all. Because these metrics measure only a small part of what we really care about, or ought to care about.
He then lays out the major dilemma of high stakes accountability:
By using high stakes accountability systems to put great pressure on teachers to improve student scores on tests of reading, mathematics and science,we communicate that we do not care about any of the other goals we have in mind. That is a very foolish policy
On the other hand, if we forego high stakes testing, or make it optional for schools and districts, as many would now have us do, we communicate that we are quite comfortable with the outcome if school districts and states choose to do nothing if students do not achieve very much in any arena. That, too, is unacceptable.
So what are policy makers to do? Tucker’s answer is: trust teachers. He suggests that in order to get beyond measuring what is easy to measure and move toward measuring what is important, we should so what other leading countries do: pay teachers well, show them respect, and let them determine if students are accomplishing the crucial learning skills needed now. He concludes his essay with this perspective on what we’ve done in our country instead of trusting teachers and what has happened as a result:
The United States has responded to poor student performance by instituting draconian high-stakes accountability systems that create very strong incentives for teachers to teach only a small portion of what they should be teaching and, indeed, want to teach. The great irony here is that, since these high-stakes accountability systems were introduced, there has been no improvement in student performance at the high school level in the things the high-stakes tests measure, while, at the same time, there is every reason to believe that our students are doing far worse on the important things we should be measuring but are not measuring.
That is a terrible deal for our children and our country.
It IS a terrible deal… but we seem committed to continuing using the “draconian high-stakes accountability systems” despite their poor track record. As Einstein reportedly quipped, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. This isn’t just a terrible deal for out country, it’s insane!
Jacobin editor Megan Erickson’s essay, Edutopia describes the failed promise of educational technology, offering historic and current examples of forecasted breakthroughs in schooling that would result as a result of advances in technology. The most recent example of over promising is “design thinking”, whereby groups of individuals crowd-source solutions to thorny and seemingly intractable problems. Here’s Erickson’s description of the process as it was introduced to a group of teachers at a staff development workshop:
Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.
After providing a more detailed description of how “design thinking” might play out in schools, Erickson’s skepticism about this process comes out in this paragraph:
What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.
Erickson provides a history of “teaching machines”, beginning with Edward Thorndike’s ideas of precise measurement of mental skills in 1912, B. F. Skinner’s theories in the 1950s, the various individualized curricula designed in the 1960s, and the notions of technology billionaires today. She concludes that all of these conceptions are off the mark:
The fact is, education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on innovating out of existence. The most significant challenges faced today in education are not natural obstacles to be overcome by increasing productivity — they are man-made struggles over how resources are allocated.
Erickson then provides some stunning facts on how our country chooses to allocate it’s resources:
The United States is one of just three OECD countries, along with Israel and Turkey, where schools that serve rich families have better resources and more funding than schools that serve poor families. The other thirty-four countries included in the index either provide equal funding for all students or spend a disproportionate amount of money on students from low-income families.
In a country where the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, this inevitably leads to two distinct and parallel systems of education, one for the rich and one for the poor. It’s not that “money doesn’t matter” for reforming the education system, or that technology can be a substitute, but that children from working-class and poor families score lower on standardized test scores than their wealthy peers — and America has many more poor families than rich.
Erickson then describes Sal Khan’s efforts to provide individualized lessons for children in a wide array of topics, characterizing his work as “…a fine way to practice math problems or learn a didactic skill” but notes that it deemphasizes “…the importance of interpretation and critique in education“.
Erickson asserts that individualization in isolation is a flawed way to deliver instruction:
Teachers who encourage resistance are essential sources of support and guidance for kids. People do not learn to think critically and construct meaning in isolation — which is the assumption behind the trend of textbooks that respond individually to each student and allow them to move at their own pace.
Erickson is also dismissive of the notion that children need to be protected from some content for fear they will be guided in the wrong direction:
As Katherine McKittrick has pointed out in response to the idea of trigger warnings being placed on college syllabi: the classroom isn’t safe. It should not be safe. Teaching, for McKittrick, is a “day-to-day skirmish,” and teachers must work hard to create classroom conversations “that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence,” to engage with the history that students bring with them into the classroom and resist reification of oppressive thinking in practical ways.
Erickson DOES see one form of schooling that meets the needs of children… a method that minimizes the use of technology:
Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.
I agree completely with much of the thinking in Erickson’s essay, particularly her disdain for those who want to use technology to reduce costs and monetize schooling. But felt that she overstated the ineffectiveness of technology and oversold the status quo model of education. For example, Sal Khan himself would acknowledge the limitations of his “Academy”. He realizes that his lectures and lesson packets work most effectively when the content is hierarchical and objective because in those cases the need for intermediation is minimal. And while his work was underwritten by Bill Gates, I do not that Khan’s curriculum should be dismissed on that basis. It is conceivable that by using Khan Academy to deliver instruction that is hierarchical and objective that teacher-time could be used to engage and connect with with students and design lessons that stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans. Indeed, I could see public school teachers behaving more and more like Waldorf teachers and students progressing at their own rate on topics that are highly interesting and engaging based on their skill levels.
NYTimes columnist Zeynep Tufekci’s essay, “The Machines Are Coming” describes the impact of algorithms on jobs and offers examples of how computers are increasingly taking over more and more assignments that were formerly thought to require human interaction. Some examples are manning call centers, reviewing medical tests, serving as border guards, and “interviewing” applicants for jobs. One of the rationales for this is cost savings.
Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.
Tufekci describes how machines are deemed to be superior to humans because they don’t “…get sick, ask for higher wages, have a bad day, aging parent, sick child or a cold.” After suggesting way technology could replace humans in the workforce, she does point out one way technology could enhance the quality of the workplace and achieve more than better productivity and efficiency:
In the 1980s, the Harvard social scientist Shoshana Zuboff examined how some workplaces used technology to “automate” — take power away from the employee — while others used technology differently, to “informate” —to empower people.
For academics, software developers and corporate and policy leaders who are lucky enough to live in this “informate” model, technology has been good. So far. To those for whom it’s been less of a blessing, we keep doling out the advice to upgrade skills. Unfortunately, for most workers, technology is used to “automate” the job and to take power away.
I believe technology could be a boon to schooling if it was used to “informate” teachers instead of being used to “automate” instruction… and if schooling was based on “informating” instead of “automating” it would be providing children with a completely different set of skills. Pandora does a relatively good job of divining my tastes in music (they introduced me to many new bands and performers)… and the NYTimes and Google do a relatively good job of divining articles that might interest me (the Times sent me this one!)… and Amazon does a decent job of figuring out movies that I might like. But while Pandora plays music I might like, but my music teacher introduces me to music I can master and play for enjoyment… and while Google and the Times send me articles like the ones I’ve read before, I find the articles posted by friends on Facebook whose insights I value give me newer perspectives… and my daughters who go to movies regularly and viewed videos with me for years have a much better sense of the movies I’d enjoy than Amazon’s algorithm. Computer algorithms can give me information that’s helpful but only humans can give me information I trust. Schooling that uses standardized tests to measure performance could replace teachers with robots Schooling that seeks to motivate students to want to learn independently and values character development can only have humans in charge.
To date, teachers are among those workers whose jobs are envisioned as ripe for automation… especially if one holds the belief that schools are factories whose “product” is a batch of students whose “quality” can be measured using a standardized test. As noted frequently in this blog, the factory school paradigm is the basis for the standardized testing paradigm and contrary to the humanistic approach progressive educators value. If one holds fast to the factory school paradigm, automation is the answer to improved productivity and efficiency. If one believes that each human being possesses unique skills “informating” is the only way to go. Here’s hoping the liberal arts majors prevail over those who write code and prevail over the MBAs and engineers who value efficiency and productivity over human interaction.
A recent Slate essay, “Welcome to Kindergarten. Take This Test… And This One”, describes the testing gauntlet imposed on NOLA students in the name of accountability. Alexandria Neason writes about the experiences of third year Kindergarten teacher Molly Mansel’s challenges in administering computerized tests to her entering kindergartners. The first challenge was teaching them to use a mouse when most of them were used to swiping screens on phones and pads. Then came the test itself:
Mansel’s students started taking tests just three weeks into the 2014–15 school year. They began with a state-required early childhood exam in August, which covered everything from basic math to letter identification. Mansel estimates that it took between four and five weeks for the teachers to test all 58 kindergarten students—and that was with the help of the prekindergarten team. The test requires an adult to sit individually with each student, reading questions and asking them to perform various tasks. The test is 11 pages long and “it’s very time-consuming,” according to Mansel, who is 24 and in her third year of teaching (her first in kindergarten).
The rest of the demanding testing schedule involves repeated administrations of two different school-mandated tests. The first, Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, is used to measure how students are doing compared with their peers nationally—and to evaluate teachers’ performance. The students take the test in both reading and math three times a year. They have about an hour to complete the test, and slower test takers are pulled from class to finish.
The second test, called Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, or STEP, is a literacy assessment that measures and ranks children’s progress as they learn letters, words, sentences, and, eventually, how to read. Mansel gives the test individually to students four times throughout the year. It takes several days to administer as Mansel progresses through a series of tasks: asking the students to write their names, to point to uppercase and lowercase versions of letters, and to identify words that rhyme, for example.
These are pre-tests… and over the course of the year Mansel’s students will spend 95 hours taking these tests… and if Ms. Mansel’s performance rating is based on “growth” you can be certain they will spend many more hours in front of screens instead of playing with blocks or engaging in social play with classmates. All of this is being done in the name of maintaing international competitiveness with other countries. But when do other developed countries introduce reading and what does research tell us about this issue? David Elkind’s EducationNext article in 2012 addressed this question:
Evidence attesting to the importance of developmentally appropriate education in the early years comes from cross-cultural studies. Jerome Bruner reports that in French-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading instruction is begun at the preschool level, a large percentage of children have reading problems. In German-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading is not taught until age six or seven, there are few reading problems. In Denmark, where reading is taught late, there is almost no illiteracy. Likewise in Russia, where the literacy rate is quite high, reading is not taught until the age of six or seven.
So if research shows that premature instruction in reading increases the probability of reading difficulties, why are we introducing “academics” early? The short answer is that scientific evidence is immaterial in the politicized environment of American schooling today. The consequences on children are adverse whether or not they learn how to read earlier, for the 95+ hours they spend in front of screens are 95+ hours that could have been spent engaged in activities that would help them develop interpersonal skills and self-regulation.
Audrey Watters is always thought provoking, and her brief essay with the dating title “The History of ‘Personalization” and Teaching Machines” that I just came across teased out the question that is the title of this post. In the essay Watters suggests that personalized learning may not be a liberating force that enables students to learn what they want, when they want to. Instead it is a means of feeding students what they need at a pace that enables them to master the skills as defined by those “in privilege and power”.
The distinction is an important one. If “personalized learning” is defined as allowing a student to progress through the Common Core curriculum at a rate of speed that matches their capability to learn, then personalized learning is an efficiency to the factory model, akin to Skinner’s theories. If it is defined as allowing a student to learn what they want, when they want to it is more akin to Ivan Illich’s experiential De-schooling model.
From my perspective schooling should be designed to provide students with the tools— the foundational skills— needed to learn-how-to-learn and to connect them with those who can help them expand their knowledge once they have those foundational skills. The foundational skills can be delivered using a behaviorist approach: math and reading fundamentals, fundamental writing skills, and basic analytic skills are based on hierarchical frameworks that lend themselves to various forms of asynchronous on-line instruction. A teacher in these classrooms would intervene when a student is struggling with a particular concept but would not engage in “broadcast” instruction to a group of students. Otherwise, the teacher would serve as a facilitator, helping the student gain self-awareness and self-understanding through dialogue with the teacher, with peers, and with other mentors.
We have the technological capabilities to make the mastery of foundational skills more efficient and effective than it is today and the human resources available to provide each student with a mentor to help them find answers to the questions that they want to find answers for. “Personalized learning plans” should be able to achieve both ends.