July 14th, 2012

Valuing the Immeasurable

One of my new favorite bloggers, Justin Reich at Harvard, writes:

I could imagine learning environments where parts of the student experience (learning grammar, practicing math algorithms) are optimized in thoughtful ways using personalization technology, where other parts of the student experience allow for individual experimentation and research, and where time still remains for students to form learning communities devoted to the study of our shared history and civic responsibilities. I can also imagine learning environments devoted to personalization that obliterate meaningful opportunities for collaborative, connected civic learning.

My fear is that we are staring down the barrel of the latter, not just in the area of civics and history but in just about all areas of schooling. And for me it comes back to this fairly simple statement: We define an “education” by what we assess, which in turn defines the value (or lack of value) of this thing we call “school.” 

Up until now, society won’t see someone as “educated” until he or she has passed some type of test or received some type of diploma. The requirements to pass that test or earn that diploma are narrowly built around a discrete body of knowledge and a few necessary skills to apply that knowledge in fairly limited ways. When Diane Ravitch or I or others create lists of what we consider to be other important, broader skills and understandings we want kids to have, we do it (in my case, at least) as a response to the continued narrowing of the current education experience to those things that can be easily measured.

As Justin puts it in his post, the tension is clear: we optimize the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable. And make no mistake, there is a lot of money out there for those who can “optimize the measurable” if we don’t change the assessment. As he writes in another entry a few months ago, the market driven “reformers” need “measurable” badly:

They view learning as the process of delivering learning objects for the individual consumption of students, and they have great faith that this delivery process can be optimized by algorithms and data mining. It is incredibly important for them that we have quantifiable outcomes of learning (standardized tests), since they can only optimize on quantitative metrics.

No question, this is the crux of the reform issue right now. When our definition of being educated can be achieved by “optimizing the measurable” via personalizing technologies, what then is the societal value of this thing we call “school”? Access point? Babysitter? Something else?

We have a case to make, I think, for valuing the immeasurable over that which can be easily measured, and that the powerful role that schools can play now is not delivering that narrow curriculum (which is now in a million places) but in developing the skills and dispositions or the “opportunity to participate in civic and deliberative discussions” which, at the end of the day, is kinda hard to machine score. It’s not an easy case to make in this world of competition and ranking and sorting. But it is where our real value is now. How we articulate that value and move it into the mainstream thinking is where our collective laser focus needs to be.

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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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