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Maybe Dewey Will Prevail Over Thorndike After All!

November 10, 2018

The Flaw of Averages“, a compelling essay by John McDermott that I read in Medium earlier this week, describes the research of Harvard Professor Todd Rose that is serving as the basis for the personalization movement in Silicon Valley. Dr. Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contends that our current education system is wrongheadedly based on the average student:

His research is in the field known as “the science of the individual”. He argues that the myth of an “average” person, around which today’s educational systems are built, stunts people’s intellectual growth and damages their lives. A class of pupils has an average height and an average score in a test but when you look closer at individuals, the elements are “all over the place”. Very few pupils are average across most dimensions: they learn in different ways, at different speeds and along different paths.He expounded his ideas in “The End of Average” in 2016.

As Mr. McDermott notes in his essay, this obvious observation often results in a “so what” response. But Dr. Rose sees the reliance on averages to measure progress as problematic:

“Average-arian” thinking gives rise to another problem, says Rose. Edward Thorndike, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, thought that, “the quick learners…are the good retainers.” To this day exams are time-limited; pupils are placed in age-specific grades; timetables feature specific times for each subject. All of which reflect the belief that there is a straightforward relationship between learning ability and learning speed. But it turns out that whether you can master a subject is not related to how long it takes to do so, says Rose.

To repeat an aphorism I often cite: in schools time is a constant and performance is the variable… and clearly it should be the other way around. But the age-specific batching of students IS efficient, especially if the purpose of schooling is to sort and select s opposed to achieving the optimal achievement by all students. And Mr. McDermott describes how technology could make it possible for schools to embrace a new model, one based on John Dewey’s ideas about education:

Though newly fashionable, these ideas have a long history… In 1916, John Dewey, a philosopher and psychologist, published “Democracy and Education”, arguing that the pupil, not a government-mandated curriculum, should be at the centre of a school.In ordinary schools, he said, the child is not allowed to “follow the law of his nature”, and is therefore “thrown into a passive, receptive or absorbing attitude”.

Technology has given these ideas a new momentum. Providing children with bespoke attention typically means hiring a tutor or raising the teacher-pupil ratio — too expensive for most parents or schools. But while a blackboard can show only one set of sums, new software claims to display whatever sums are appropriate to a child’s level and should free up teachers’ time to spend less time marking and preparing lessons, and more with individual pupils. In theory, then, such technology should put personalised education within the reach of every school.

Mr. McDermott describes Summit, a school in the Bay Area that is implementing these ideas, but he counterbalances this success story with some caveats:

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia worry that autonomy can be taken too far. If children can opt out of learning important facts, he says, they will find it harder to understand more complex ideas at a later stage.

Groups representing minorities have also expressed scepticism. They point out that it took African-Americans until 1954 to earn the legal right to be taught in the same school as white people, and almost another half-century before a president vowed to ensure that “no child [be] left behind”. The average-arian school may not be perfect — but at least it has minimum standards, for which they have fought long and hard…

Worries about such heavy reliance on technology do not relate only to its impact on the nature of education. Platforms like Summit’s generate vast quantities of data about the intellectual and social skills of the children using them. Pupils may benefit from this — but they may not be the only beneficiaries. Data are a resource, so these deep, detailed profiles could become exceedingly valuable to the companies that are supplying the technology. That’s why some critics suspect that the tech barons who are promoting personalised education may not be doing so purely out of altruism.

Dr. Rose acknowledges that this is all true, and also admits that these changes will not turn out well. But…. he also notes that continuing what we are doing now is unlikely to yield different or more improved results:

America is in the very early stages of a big pedagogical experiment based on old ideas given new life by digital technology and the techies’ money. There isn’t enough evidence yet to conclude that this blend of technology and personalised learning serves pupils better than the status quo, but the revolution is gathering pace.

It could, Rose acknowledges, “go horribly, horribly wrong”. If it does, a lot of children’s lives will have been damaged; but then it is hardly as though the existing system is releasing the full potential of America’s young people.For Rose, giving children more control over what they learn and how they learn it is central to achieving that. Ultimately, he says, “you should have a right to know who you are.”

Is the opportunity for every child to learn at their own pace worth the risk of some students taking longer to complete school? The risk of more data being shared and sold to advertisers? Mr. Rose thinks so… and if it is done slowly and deliberately by elected school boards I agree.


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