Saturday, February 2, 2013
A couple years ago I wrote a short post on the book Driven by Data.
I was pretty impressed, and felt my school was pretty disorganized. So yesterday my current school had a professional development day where we discussed the ideas in the book. The administrators had gone to a conference where they talked about how to implement a more effective assessment strategy and they wanted to share the wisdom with all of us.
I was convinced about the possibilities for better testing the first time. There is a lot of room for improvement at making schools more efficient. This time around, however, I have some qualms.
I am skeptical of "efficiency" because I am skeptical of metrics unless they are grounded in value. The bottom line is that our education system should be making people's lives better. This is a pretty subjective goal. So what is the connection between this goal and our metrics?
All other things equal, people would be better off having a big vocabulary and knowing algebra. We reason that we can develop a curriculum based on these and other skills that are widely accepted as useful and then teach it to everyone.
But all other things are never equal. There are trade-offs and unintended consequences. Primary among these, in my view, is that in order to achieve our metrics we have adopted a system of coercion. Because we think that on average most people would be better off if they knew X, we have undertaken to punish anyone who thinks that they personally don't want to learn X.
This is not only problematic from the point of view of maximizing freedom, it has serious consequences for learning. A coercive learning environment is a limited learning environment. Lessons will always need to be designed around the fact that a large portion of the students do not want to learn. Classroom management goes from being an important consideration to being the central focus of many teachers.
After school yesterday a few students stayed after to get help and do some homework. One of them was working on a programming project. I told him upfront that it was going to take some commitment. I gave him a few easy questions to warm up, and then gave him one that I knew would be pretty challenging. (Find the coordinates of the corners of a square given one corner at (0,0) and the next at (2,4).)
He struggled for a while and tried a few things. Without guidance he may have given up. But with just a little support he persevered, and found the answer before too long in his own way. This is what data has (have?) a hard time capturing: determination, creativity, problem solving.
Ultimately, for me the goal is self-actualization. Are students learning to take their desires and make them reality? Mathematics can be a tool for teaching self-actualization, but "efficient" schools can lose sight of this goal and create a factory-style learning environment that is actually the antithesis.