Education Evolutions #115

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I was not sure that I was going to actually put this issue together. With the Thanksgiving weekend and lot so family time at the forefront, I had originally planned on skipping this week but forgot to mention that last week. Plus, as things settled down and I waited for the snow to arrive, I couldn’t help myself. So here it is, issue 115. Maybe you will have a chance to peruse some of these links over the week to come.

This week’s selection of articles really caught a wave that started last week but didn’t quite hit shore until this one. As I mentioned, I had been reading so much high-quality, interesting material, I had more than enough to share. So I had to make some hard editorial calls, a point that is repeated in the final selection. This week another loose theme emerged, involving some myths about data and empiricism, the notion of objective scientific truth, and perpetual problems with interpretation that are at the heart of being human. That sounds a little grand even as I write those words but there is definitely a thread that can be pulled through these pieces.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. It is not as long a read as last week’s but presents some awfully important ideas. While it is easy to look for quick answers to such a big question suggested in the title. There simply are no easy answers and there is no shortage of factors involved. Some things are definitely different but not everything is. This article does a nice job of drawing the distinctions and helping craft a multi-faceted answer that at least helps answer the question it poses, even if it may not be able to do so completely.

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

The Wrong “Scientific” for Education – radical eyes for equity blog – PL Thomas (6-minute read)

Whenever the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are published there is a predictable cycle of nonsensical claims across the media of how awfully inadequate our public education system is. The whole event sparks a tired trope that is both inaccurate and ill-conceived. For one, the whole NAEP phenomenon remains a bit of a farce. Back in issue #111, I shared the Peter Greene article The One And Only Lesson To Be Learned From NAEP Scores. Greene reminded everyone NAEP proficiency does not mean grade level, as well as the folly that data will somehow settle anything. In this piece, PL Thomas takes down the foolishness of calls for “scientific” research in education.

There are so many reasons why I love this post. My main reason is that it takes direct aim at the “narrow type of quantitative research” that “scientific” research is supposed to mean. He explains quickly and clearly why even beginning with that approach is flawed. Apart from being expensive and time-consuming, it would simply leave an enormous number of students behind. What is appropriate for medical research may not necessarily be appropriate in another context. Quite simply, teaching is not diagnosis, even if they might share some commonalities.

Thomas then goes onto advance the idea of action research, which is the kind of research that more teachers should be encouraged to conduct and more administrators and policy-makers would do well to grow more acquainted. So much of the current fetishization with “scientific,” quantitative approaches to every problem is predicated on the false notion that there can ever be a single solution or prescription that will address student learning. This flawed view is deepened by the desire for scale, the market-think equivalent of this quantitative privilege. As Thomas points out rethinking what “scientific” means and how it applies to education would benefit everyone.

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing – Creative by Nature blog – Christopher Chase (5-minute read)

This post is a few years old now but remains relevant. It is the most popular post on Christopher Chase’s blog, an American teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan. It features an interview with Noam Chomsky from The Progressive Magazine with a number of quotations by other prominent education professors on the subject of standardized testing.

I have been fond of Noam Chomsky since I was a college student. While I am not exactly an aficionado of his work, I have read quite a bit of his writing and watched plenty of films where he appears. Still, I am surprised I had never seen this before now. I know for some people, he is almost immediately dismissed on political grounds. Yet, I rarely read or listen to him without thinking there is quite a bit of wisdom to what he has to share. For me, he represents America’s general cultural discomfort with intellectuals.

Chomsky’s comments about standardized testing are as insightful as ever. The whole accountability regime is ultimately about ranking and sorting, which we continue to see overwhelming evidence in real-time observation of the damage that it can cause. Again, it is an expression of this strange desire to want to make everything a data point, especially a numerical one, so it is easier to count. Yet, ranking students, teachers, or even schools by this kind of metric is all a lie, based on misleading and even false oversimplifications. The worst oversimplification is the very concept of the economic man. As Chomsky asks, “What kind of human being is that?” my answer is not one I would ever want to be or even want to know, to be honest.

Here is the video version of the interview.

Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more? – The Guardian – William Davies (20-minute read)

As usual, the last selection is the longest. However, this piece is exceptionally insightful and important. Being published in The Guardian some of the finer details make it a bit more Brit-centric but it speaks to a much wider context that more than includes America. It is a well-crafted and researched piece by sociologist and political economist William Davies that makes strong claims and backs them with well-reasoned and compelling warrants. It is a valuable read for anyone trying to make sense of the current mediascape.

One thing that I try to explain to students all the time is that all media is a construction. Everything that we see or hear is the product of design, be it conscious or unconscious. Implicit in all design are certain biases. It is the province of human beings and we are incapable of escaping all bias or point of view. Davies essentially explains how this is at the root of the problem that we now face. Add the sheer volume of information now available and some of our own human frailties and we wind up right where we are in the present moment. Davies explains much of these phenomena with detail and nuance.

For decades, we have been seduced by the idea that our journalistic media is impartial or unbiased. While that might be a worthy goal, it can never truly happen. Human beings are always making decisions about what to include and what not to include in any story that they are constructing, be it fiction or non-fiction. Journalists pursue the truth, not some abstract truth that cannot be reached but journalistic truth, the story as it develops supported by evidence and verified by multiple sources. Unfortunately, that means that a story changes and evolves over time as more information is sifted and included.

As Davies, explains much of this is down to framing. Even that fact seems to be lost on a lot of people. It seems that there are plenty of people that have fallen for the lie that there is some ultimate scientific objectivity, unmediated truth or reality, free from human perception desperately trying to make sense of it in conjunction with others for some shared understanding. That is a dangerous fantasy that seems to be catching. Davies’ piece reminds us all of some the changes that have accelerated that fantasy, as well as ways that we might be able to fight it.

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