The Perils of Big Data: Don’t talk to the Profile

4 Dec

It is not an easy time for educationists. And an easy one for ideologues.

Ideologues have made their choices. They know what they stand for in education. Standardised classrooms. Common Core Curriculum, to use the name of the American version. Most countries have something similar. A taxonomy of learning styles – and lesson planning based on similar theories that evolved decades ago. Private schooling. Education as a (quasi) public good. Teacher training as academic instruction. The list goes on.

There have been traditional ways of doing things. And then, there have been grand experiments. Or what some people call experiments, others innovations. The sad truth that we have to acknowledge is that most of these have had little impact on improving learning outcomes.

As a teacher I would be very confused. Entertain your students, engage them with laughter. No, you are not a joker in front of the class, don’t demean yourself. OK then. Another one – Children learn more with peer learning methodologies, they learn more when they are doing things, they learn better with individual instruction. Children don’t need teachers, they need mentors. Teachers are just facilitators, they do not need to teach. Don’t teach, because no one can be taught, they can only be brought to learning and shown the path.

No wonder teachers have stopped teaching.

Thankfully, not all of them. We still have many wonderful teachers, inspiring school heads and balanced school boards. But many many more school teachers, heads and boards will just continue to do what was traditional. Not because they know it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only thing they know how to do. It has been done before, it must be right. We’ve survived so far, have we not?

For the non traditionalists, the news is not so good. After years, even decades of optimism about new ways of teaching, years of positive results that seemed to indicate that we are close to figuring out how to make sure that every child gets nurtured and reaches their potential – things have changed. Charter schools, experiments such as KIPP and Rocketship continue to have their ups and downs making them and private education an easy target. As a teacher, educator – I take no sides here. I stand, confused. Honestly confused. As does anyone else who dares to be honest.

Maybe it is as they said in KungFu Panda – there is no secret sauce.

Maybe it is as simple as this: Good teaching and learning depends on three things:

How much a Teacher cares
How much a Teacher knows
How many chances you get

There is no recipe, there are no fixed proportions. There is no fixed formula. Not for the whole of education anyway. One size does not fit all. Yet all solutions that seem to emerge these days are seeking scale and aiming for standardisation in the name of improving standards for all. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that such standardised education provides any improvement in learning outcomes. The quest for the secret sauce continues.

Evidence stands in favour of none: Neither the innovators, nor the standardisers. Not the private sector, nor the public sector. Each has had their failures, their moments of glory. Each has had impressive improvements that the others race to chase for a while. Often it works, even across countries and contexts. Often it does not, and we lay the blame on the ‘Lost in Translation’ effect. Am I oversimplifying this? Trust me, I am.  Even the ideologues would agree with me that we would love to see more proof, more evidence of what works in education.

There isn’t enough evidence, we complain. If only we knew more about what each student was doing, what clicked for them and where they zoned out. Maybe we should be watching them more. Let us monitor them using technology – keystroke analysis, pupil dilation, brain stimulation. Let us watch them in the thousands, millions across the world. Big data. And then try to reduce that to a simple formula. Then we will know, won’t we – that a child in the third grade who slows down after two hours is unlikely to make it to higher education. Right? Or similar results. Let us profile the children and then design for the profile. I am sure we will improve learning outcomes by teaching to the profile.

I am not a profile. I am sure none of you reading this are a profile either. Nor are our children. We are people. Creative, dynamic, unique and diverse. And we have had enough of adjusting to an education system – we now expect the education system to adjust to our aspirations. The goalpost has changed. No longer does the education-industrial complex work, nor are classes relevant any more. Classes serve one type of profiling, Edu-tech solutions serve another type of profiling. The hurdle ahead of us – as educators – is precisely this: How do we design for the person, not the profile?

I stand here, as one of the learners, and I repeat: Don’t talk to my profile. Talk to me.


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