Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Can Data Tell Us Who We Are? And Does It Matter?

Christian Rudder’s book Dataclysm explores who we are when we think no one is looking – our lives told through every Google search, tweet, Facebook like. He is one of the founders of OKCupid, an online dating site; data, he says, unlike surveys or small scale experiments doesn’t merely tell you what people say they prefer, but shows how they actually act and interact in private. This information, he argues, is not only useful for selling and surveillance, two of the most common practices at present, but it also tells “the human story.” Rudder’s idea “is to move our understanding of ourselves away from narratives and toward numbers, or rather, to think in such a way that the numbers are the narrative.” He promises to “put hard numbers to some timeless mysteries” that had previously been considered “unquantifiable.” His title captures this grand vision for data use: data is not only an “unprecedented deluge” but “the hope of a world transformed – of both yesterday’s stunted understanding and today’s limited vision gone with the flood.” 

So what are the “timeless mysteries” that are uncovered? Using millions of pieces of data, he reveals the “nexus of beauty, sex and age.” As she ages, women find older men attractive. For men, no matter his age, a women’s at her best when she’s in her very early twenties.  Although people say they aren’t racist, they make choices and draw conclusions according to race. Woman are overwhelming judged by appearance. We pick on the weak. These are the “facts that need facing,” Rudder says, proved by the data that will “ends arguments that anecdotes could never win.”

It seems na├»ve to hope, however, that more proof of racism, sexism, meanness as an act to inflate importance, even with incontrovertible facts, will change actions. In education, we know the Big Data stories well. They, too, aren’t new stories. Here are a few: if you live with poverty or with a learning exceptionality, if you belong to one of the involuntary minorities, then your likelihood of success in our current system is limited. The data, however, even when gathered in the millions, while noisy with never-ending streams of information about “what’s wrong” and “what works” is silent about how to change actions in the future.

Still, more data has become the new answer to every question. Gathering data, of course, feels like action – parsing, graphing, creating colour graphs, pointing fingers. I’m not sure there are any fresh insights to be gleaned at scale, though. We simply get confirmation of what we already know. All the surprises exist on the edges, after all, the outliers and anomalies, the information outside of our data entirely. Big Data, Rudder argues, lets us tell the story of Everyman. Perhaps. But how can Everyman’s story help us? In schools, we become mired in inevitability (what can you and I do about poverty and its grip on the future of our children?); we see the deluge of “facts that need facing” instead of the child who surprises us, if we pay attention, by being entirely unique, unexpectedly extraordinary (I haven’t met a child, yet, who isn’t). 

What we need in the midst of this deluge of data that tells us that we bully the weak, our children aren’t learning and our prejudices continue are heroic stories to remind us of how we can act differently anyway. We need to see the one child, never data sets, who looks at us in hope, her big brown eye flooded with despair, and know this: we must move mountains today so she can learn unobstructed by prejudice tomorrow. No other data is necessary.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why Some Slow and Boring in Schools is Good for Kids

I recently listened to Will Richardson’s TedX Talk. He is an advocate for revolutionizing schools. Like many, he believes that our current system makes no sense of the world we live in today where extraordinary learning is now in our pockets. Based on his conversations with about 50,000 people, he constructed the lists below: what we want for schools (the items on the left) and what we don’t want (the right).  Yet what we don’t want, he says, still describes schools today. (I won’t quibble now about his description of schools except to say that it doesn’t describe the schools I’ve been in; they are a blend, rather, of the two lists.)

He argues that the disconnect between the way we all intuitively know we learn best and the way we are taught in schools points him to this surprising truth: “Schools aren’t built for learning.” He notes that his own children learn deeply on their own as they follow their passions, thanks to the abundance available through technology.  He shows his son’s chemistry vocabulary quiz (pity his children’s teachers who are routinely held up as examples of what not to do). His son, he says, got 100% on the quiz, but no doubt will forget the words, because it isn’t something he wanted to learn more about. This shows, he says, another example of why schools are unproductive. Why not make the work relevant? Meaningful? Connected to his passions? Engaging? Our challenge, he says, is to make schools amazing places of learning for kids. We know what to do, he argues. All we need is the commitment and courage to shift the description of schools to the items on the left.

It sounds so right, doesn’t it? But I keep wondering if it is important for each moment of our children’s lives to be exciting, creative, thought-provoking, personalized to their particular interests. Are there things kids ought to learn even if they don’t want to learn them? (“Gimme never gets” springs to mind.) Are there things that can’t be – or shouldn’t be – wrapped up in student’s “passions” or particular interests? (The history of residential schools, for example.) Certainly, as many argue, why learn anything, when everything can be looked up (is it sufficient to simply look up respect for others or calculus?) but that only works if you know what you don’t know. Or are interested. Or can learn independently. Giving students a set of base concepts and vocabulary opens possibilities for all students that they might never know existed. Passions, after all, always fall within our knowns. But what if our goal in schools is to spark new passions? Then we need to present what kids don’t know yet - which is never as comfortable or as easy.

What’s more, forgetting isn’t just what happens when you learn in a straight row in age-related groups with no real world application. When I was 18 I learned to speak Dutch by being deeply immersed in the language. It was powerful, relevant, real world, challenging and self-directed learning. But I’ve forgotten the language now. Remembering demands that we use what we learn, not merely that we are taught in a particular way.  It’s hardly surprising that many students forget many things they learn in school. Not all of us will be mathematicians or chemists or study literature. We won’t continue to practice many of the concepts we learned in school. But some of us will. And all of us will have had an introduction and opportunity to understand the basic literacies in key learning disciplines that will allow us to learn further when/if we choose to in the future.

And there’s something else. I couldn’t fully articulate my unease with personalized learning and this fashion for following passion (although I’ve tried) until I read, recently, this excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness.
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
Yes. That’s it exactly. No harm will come to children from the slow processes of memorization, of copying notes, of listening, of reading long texts, of learning “boring” things, of waiting. Not all the time, of course, but in balance with exploration, discovery, passion.  And perhaps they will grow stronger, drawing on inner resources, building the capacity to accept that the pace of life varies and we must often adjust our own to others. I worry, instead, about this “cut flower” generation we are cultivating with personalized learning. How will they resist the lure of instant, fast, fun, intriguing that has always beckoned but now sits in their pocket? How will they step outside of their personal desires to meet the slow, hard, effortful and other-focused demands of healthy relationships, peace on earth, environmental stewardship? Their future, our future, depends on it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Short Love Letter to Teachers

School’s out!  I just wanted to be sure that after the mad month of June with stuffy classrooms, report cards, endless end-of-year events and summer-crazed children added to your usual litany of things to do someone took the time to tell you how much you are appreciated. I wish there was a parade in your honour, a brass band playing, and a rousing round of “For s/he’s a jolly good fellow!” I wish confetti came pouring down from the ceiling as the last bell rang and a huge cheer went up as each child you taught shook your hand and thanked you. I wish a TV crew was outside of the school and ran up to you as you left asking for an interview, begging for just a few words about how you managed to get Jimmy to read, Suzy to sit long enough to hear a story, Janice to stop hitting the other children when she’s frustrated, Calvin to stop crying long enough to engage in activities. But even if that didn’t happen, even if you didn’t get a single card or mug, not one thank you as children ran out of the room cheering (not for you), I hope you know that you are amazing. Your work is a gift beyond measure to our children and to our community. Thank you.