Posts Tagged ‘Self-awareness’

Those Opposing Personalization Based on Data Collection Fail to See Technology’s Insidious Trade-off

November 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a post by Diane Ravitch about a group of Brooklyn HS students who are protesting “Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” used to personalize education in their school. Their protest was based on the following: some students played games on their computers; cheating was easy; teachers’ over-used computers; there were all kinds of technical difficulties, and the platform “… is collecting a huge amount of personal data from thousands of students without their knowledge or consent or that of their parents.”

Here’s a few reality check based on my experience in high school in the early 1960s:

  • My friends and I used graph paper we secured from the math classroom to play five-in-a-row tic-tac-toe throughout classes, engaging in tournaments we developed in homeroom
  • Some of my friends (not me, I swear!), devised ways to cheat on quizzes and tests… but almost everyone I knew (including me) used “flexible grading” for the “individualized” SRA reading programs that one progressed through by passing self-graded tests that were periodically audited by teachers.
  • Some teachers, especially social studies teachers, overused films to “teach” us about the wars that constituted their course of study

The equipment glitches that plague “Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” didn’t exist, but there were some days where we had more than one substitute teacher which meant we could play tic-tac-toe openly.

What we DIDN’T have was the privacy issue… but then we didn’t have the conveniences that come with the technology that students, parents, and teachers rely on today. And here’s the irony about those who complain about invasions of privacy: while they complain about “Zuckerberg’s Summit Platform” they are probably walking around with their cell phones inter pockets, purses or backpacks and, in doing so, providing all kinds of data. And if they are making any on-line purchases with any company, or streaming any videos or music of any kind, or using any social media of any kind, students and parents are providing a treasure trove of information to potential sellers.

This just in privacy advocates: We have evidently unwittingly made a trade-off: we get all the goodies technology offers us in exchange for information that can be used to market stuff to us.

My thought: We need to develop a new curriculum that teaches children how to ignore the propaganda that is the basis for advertising and the noxious politics in our country…. Maybe the tech billionaires can develop it, we personalize it, and develop a standardized test to see how well the children are learning it. Or maybe teachers can do that without the standardized testing part.


Thomas Friedman’s Rosy Analysis Overlooks One Reality: We Are Becoming China; They are NOT Becoming us!

November 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Thomas Friedman, an incurable neoliberal optimist, wrote a column yesterday extolling the capacity of the United States to compete with China, asserting that our system of governance will ultimately prevail over China.

I disagree because I fear the US is becoming more like China instead of the other way around. Instead of encouraging China to adopt OUR values we are adopting theirs… especially the “Darwinian system of capitalism” where billionaires can buy support from the government to increase their profits. (see previous posts on Amazon for recent examples of cities squandering resources to entice a business to locate in their community while short-changing public services). And has Mr. Trump championed the WTO or any “globalist” organization that fails to bow down to America? And I seriously doubt that Mr. Trump or the GOP leadership understands the importance of our navy in the Pacific. Have you ever heard him mention it or read a tweet about it? China IS a plutocratic state… we’re becoming one. But I was incredulous to read these three paragraphs describing why our country is capable of competing against China:

America’s formula for success, which dates from our founding, also had multiple components: We always educated our children to take advantage of the prevailing technology of the day.

When it was the cotton gin that meant universal primary education; when it was the factory, it meant universal secondary education; once it was the computer, some form of universal postsecondary education was required; and now that it is becoming big data and artificial intelligence, it’s going to be lifelong learning.

We also always aspired to have the best infrastructure (roads, ports, airports and telecom), the most government-funded basic research to push out the frontiers of science so our companies could innovate further and faster, the best rules and regulations to incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, and the most open immigration system to attract both high-energy low-skilled workers and high-I.Q. risk-takers.

Finally, we always stood for universal values of freedom and human rights, always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary, and therefore always had enduring allies — not just intimidated neighbors and customers like China does.

He later expresses his worry that “...if we get away from the formula that actually made us great, we’re not going to enjoy sustainable, inclusive growth” and concludes his column with this message for the President:

America became great with a formula that every great American president refreshed and reinvested in. And you’re not doing that. You’re actually undermining and neglecting some of its key elements — immigration, allies, rules and regulations. 

Here’s my message to Mr. Friedman. Contrary to his rosy passage about the governments support for public education, we have fallen behind in the past two decades thanks to our focus on standardized testing.  If we want to MAGA, we need to  educate ALL our children to take advantage of the prevailing technology of the day… and we are NOT doing that now and we HAVEN’T BEEN doing it for decades.

And in case Mr. Friedman didn’t notice, the plutocratic class hasn’t suffered from underfunded public schools,  …they’ve survived by residing in the nicest communities and neighborhoods or going to private schools and now THEY think THEY are the fittest. It’s past the time for us to offer the same chances the plutocrats had to ALL children in our country. IF we do so, we can ultimately demonstrate to China that democracy is superior to plutocracy.

Who Has Better Schools: Germany or the US? Who Has Higher Taxes? Where is Life Better?

November 14, 2018 Leave a comment

This past Sunday the NYTimes featured an op ed piece by Firoozeh Dumas, who was identified as “a humorist and writer”. His essay was a humorous recounting of his recent move from Germany to California meant that he’d be leaving a school system with robust curricular and extracurricular offerings (i.e. Germany) to one that required fees for every service imaginable (i.e. California). 

If you are reading this blog, you probably know the background on California where, in 1978 voters approved California Proposition 13 (officially named “the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation“) which amended the Constitution of California by limiting property taxes to “one percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property”. Here’s a description of the Proposition taken from Wikipedia:

The proposition decreased property taxes by assessing property values at their 1976 value and restricted annual increases of assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2 percent per year. It also prohibited reassessment of a new base year value except in cases of (a) change in ownership, or (b) completion of new construction. These rules apply equally to all real estate, residential and commercial– whether owned by individuals or corporations.

The other significant portion of the initiative is that it requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for future increases of any state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates. It also requires a two-thirds vote majority in local elections for local governments wishing to increase special taxes. Proposition 13 received an enormous amount of publicity, not only in California, but throughout the United States.

After this was passed via the referendum process in California, similar propositions were passed by voters and legislators in other parts of the country, having a devastating impact on property poor towns everywhere the bills were adopted. Proposition 13’s impact is the backdrop for Mr. Dumas’ piece, which contrasts the tax situation in this paragraph:

We are fortunate to live in a part of Munich with top-notch public schools, similar to where we lived in America. We pay a few percentage points more in taxes than we paid in California, but holy Betsy DeVos, do we get more!

After describing the rich program his children experienced in Munich– and making a passing reference to the fact that they benefitted from a tracking system that he found distasteful– Mr. Dumas’ contrasts it to his experiences growing up in California:

The schools I attended growing up in California were nothing like this.I was in middle school when Proposition 13, a law meant to ease residents’ tax burden, passed in 1978. The impact on the state’s school budgets was immediate. I still remember art, music and language programs being gutted seemingly overnight, and counselors and librarians disappearing. As a parent, I assumed that for schools to get what they needed, we would have to pay significantly more in taxes, and who wants that?Parents are expected to donate time and money to make up for what the government can’t provide. In addition to raising funds for our own schools, I and many others raised money for schools in areas with fewer resources. It was the little Dutch boy and the dike, but for every hole we plugged, a dozen more appeared.

And, as Mr. Dumas noted, the German way of life had much more ease and spaciousness. When the government provides reliable transportation and a sound education system, when employers do not expect their workers to put in 60 hours a week and/or work on “flexible schedules”, when parents are not expected to help their children raise money for the school by selling wrapping paper, family life is better. Here is Mr. Dumas’ closing paragraph:

As I prepare to return to California, I am looking forward to seeing my family and reuniting with dear friends, many of whom I met while chaperoning, organizing auctions, selling cupcakes, supervising the playground and doing lice checks. I will undoubtedly take part in fund-raising for my child’s new school, but please forgive me if my homemade cupcakes taste like resentment frosted with betrayal and sprinkled with exasperation. Unfortunately, I’ve now enjoyed a system where for a little more in taxes, I get a lot more in services. And that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

It would be a lot funnier if it weren’t true.

Medium Blogger Wendy Buchholz Provides the Naked Truth About Standardized Tests

November 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Medium blogger Wendy Buchholz offers a humorous but accurate analysis of standardized testing in her satirical riff on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale titled “The Emperor is Naked! Hegemony in Education“. After recounting the familiar story of the wealthy emperor who is duped into walking naked in a parade by being convinced that he is wearing a glamorous outfit that only the intelligentsia can observe, Ms. Buchholz draws a parallel to standardized tests:

There is a similar fairytale being told in the public education system. It is labeled “standardized testing,” and it is, in fact, naked educational hegemony. This can be defined as a leadership or dominance of the policy makers and testing corporations over their consumers, advocating a standard of knowledge or ideology that is based on that which maintains their power. In this case, standardized tests are advocated and promoted as adequate measures of intelligence, knowledge and capability, and are maintained as the status quo among public educational leadership. This educational hegemony is dominating a generation of children.

The roots of cultural hegemony are found in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. Gramsci defined cultural hegemony as an ideology that maintained a capitalist state, which thereby normalized the ideas of those in power and maintained the current power structure.Power is not achieved through force, but rather the advancement of an ideology that becomes the “common sense” of the masses. Educational hegemony in the public system is built on an ideology that is largely constructed for the purpose of maintaining a power structure, using the vehicle of standardized tests.This practice of testing and test preparation has now fully clothed the public education system, enveloping a large portion of the time that a student spends in school. According to the Washington Post article, Confirmed: Standardized Testing Has Taken Over our Schools. But Who is to Blame? (October 24, 2015), this initiative, brought about in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, consumes 20–25 hours of child’s life, every year. This does not include test preparation time. The average student will take 112 standardized tests from Pre-K through 12th grade. The standardized testing industry is a 1.4 billion dollar industry (Buchholz’ emphasis). That is not including the test prep industry, computer industry, tutoring, coaching, and the assortment of services that are necessary for the implementation of the standardized tests. And the results of standardized tests have never been shown to improve student achievement or teacher performance. (again, Buchholz’ emphasis) In short, the Emperor is, in fact, naked!

Ms. Buchholz is spot on in this analysis of how NCLB led to the takeover of public education, and I think she is correct in her view that standardized testing has the effect of reinforcing the current economic system since affluent children tend to score higher than children raised in poverty. But I am not convinced that most affluent parents see “the vehicle of standardized testing” serving as a means of maintaining the economic status quo nor do they fully appreciate how the political use of testing to advance privatization in lower income communities and neighborhoods ultimately works to the advantage of their children. The effects of the standardized testing paradigm are invisible, and, as Peter Senge would observe, we are prisoners to paradigms we cannot see. I am glad that Ms. Buchholz is showing how this paradigm plays out in public schools.


Maybe Dewey Will Prevail Over Thorndike After All!

November 10, 2018 Leave a comment

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.


A New Digital Divide Emerges as Affluent Families Scale Back on Screen Time

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Over the past six years I have written countless posts on the adverse impact of the digital divide on children raised in poverty and/or children raised in parts of the country where high speed internet is not readily available. But now, with the widespread use of cell phones and an increase in the use of computers in classrooms of all socio-economic levels, a new digital divide is emerging: children raised by affluent parents are spending less time in front of screens that children raised in poverty. Why? According to a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles it’s because affluent parents, particularly those in Silicon Valley, realize the addictive nature of screen time, especially the algorithms of products like YouTube that keep feeding viewers more and more links that are likely to pique their interest. This paragraph captures the essence of the new digital divide:

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

It is increasingly evident that the internet tool is used in different ways by different families, and affluent families tend to limit use of screens while less affluent families plop their children in front of the screens as a means of giving themselves the time they need to unwind. And the technology whizzes who know how the technology works are the most wary of its overuse:

“There’s a message out there that your child is going to be crippled and in a different dimension if they’re not on the screen,” said Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel executive now on the board of trustees at Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School. “That message doesn’t play as well in this part of the world.”

People in this region of the world understand that the real thing is everything that’s happening around big data, AI, and that is not something that you’re going to be particularly good at because you have a cellphone in fourth grade,” Mr. Laurent said.

Understanding how to use a phone is not the same as understanding how the phone affects your thinking and your well-being… and those who understand the impact of the phones and screens on children are the most reluctant to encourage their use.


Birds of a Feather: The Sacklers and Silicon Valley CEOs

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Several months ago the New Yorker published an article on how the Sackler family made billions of dollars through the sale of oxycontin, a drug their researchers knew was addictive but their marketing department insisted was not so. The article was one of the first ones I read that underscored what I call the philanthropy paradox. The Sacklers have used their massive fortune earned by selling an addictive drug to open museums and support cultural endeavors that are a clear benefit to the public. Should they be praised for the investments in the arts or condemned for the way they earned their fortune? This seems like an easy call: the Sackler’s names should be taken off every arts project they underwrote, their stocks and inheritances liquidated and given to public addiction clinics, and charges should be brought against them for knowingly harming the citizens of our country.

This past weekend a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles titled “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley” raises a similar question about the technology billionaires. What is the “dark consensus”?

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high.

Ms. Bowles then offers several chilling quotes from Silicon Valley executives who have personally witnessed the damage electronics are doing to their own children and concluding that they have opened Pandora’s Box by unleashing phone technology on the world. Here’s a sample:

Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”…

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company and founder of said of screens:

“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine”… “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks.Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.

John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.

“I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

How are these executives any different from the Sackler family? How can we possibly lionize them as entrepreneurs and philanthropists when they are knowingly promoting a product that damages the thinking of citizens?

I’m not sure how to get the genie back in the bottle on technology… but it is evident that one of the motivating factors in providing children with phones is the pervasive fear that harm might come to them. One of the defenses offered by parents who provide phones to their children was this: they want to be able to keep track of where their children are at all times. As one who experienced what is now called a “free range childhood” and laments that such a childhood now seems abhorrent, the notion that my parents would need to keep track of my every move seems overbearing. But while getting the genie back in the bottle would be problematic, it seems to me that the people who invented and profited from the advent of these addictive gadgets bear some responsibility for developing a counter measure… even if the counter measure does not make their shareholders happy.