Test Data and Objectivity

According to Leonard Peikoff in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

To be ‘objective in one’s conceptual activities is volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man’s form of cognition.

My understanding of objectivity is that it is a realization that knowledge is an interaction between reality and man’s consciousness. The rub is that in any act of cognition, you need to take into account at least two identities–the relevant fact(s) you are looking at, and the nature of your consciousness.

When thinking on the nature of one’s consciousness, there is much to consider: consciousness is an integrating mechanism (it should integrate facts without contradiction, i.e. use logic), consciousness needs to take into account context and hierarchy, and consciousness must take into account purpose.

So, how does one objectively look at standardized test data? First one must ask, what are the relevant facts to look at? It turns out, it is more than just “the data.”

  • The nature of the test (For example: Since the test is multiple choice, a student can have no clue about the knowledge assessed, and still have a 25% chance of demonstrating that he does indeed have the knowledge assessed. Also, the “passing” grades for these tests are all in the 40-50% range, bringing into question their efficacy as assessments.)
  • The nature of the students (For example: My coworker found that the students on our campus are much more likely to miss the last 5-10 questions on the test, regardless of the subject. This points to a fact about our students that we already knew–they have poor cognitive endurance.)
  • Our purpose as educators (What is the result we are after as educators? Is it a student who does well on the assessment? Or, is it a critically thinking, productive, confident, and happy young adult with a reverence for knowledge? What is the relationship between these two options? Does one lead to or encompass the other?)

Dr. Peikoff also mentions one usage of the term “objective” in common use today that I think is telling:

People often speak of “objective reality.” In this usage, which is harmless, ‘objective’ means “independent of consciousness.”

But here is where I think harm is indeed done. Objectivity for most people is the goal, but since they see objectivity as meaning “independent of consciousness,” they do the exact opposite of what objectivity requires. Instead of using their consciousness more by making sure to apply it to all the relevant factors, they see it as a distorting factor and actually make a point to use it less.

This explains the popularity of any kind of test that can be transferred into a number. The number is considered objective, because no conscious effort was required to generate the number. Whereas an essay, a situation in which the student could more fully display what he does or doesn’t know, is considered not objective because the assessment of an essay requires an act of consciousness to assess it.

Of course, the tests, in the name of objectivity, are almost all multiple choice; and in the name of objectivity, the various numbers the tests generate will be debated and will somehow generate school policy. At this stage of our public school culture, the process is unavoidable. Let’s just make the effort to honestly and rigorously analyze all the relevant factors and keep the process as truly objective as possible.

Sisyphists and Principles in Education

According to economist Frederic Bastiat in his essay “Effort and Result,” there is always a ratio between an effort employed and a result obtained. As expected, people in most tasks try to increase their results while minimizing their efforts. This is what Bastiat calls progress. However, in some cases, people do the opposite. Their approach to a task causes an increase in effort, with a simultaneous decrease in the result. To the extent that people do this, Bastiat calls them sisyphists, since if they were entirely consistent and succeeded in creating a maximum effort with zero results, they would be like poor Sisyphus, engaging in a life of toil that produces no benefits.

Bastiat, being an economist, was referring to sisyphists in the realm of economic policy, usually advocates of a protectionist policy, those who put artificial obstacles like tariffs in the way of producers and consumers. While this is certainly a relevant discussion to have today (see President Trump’s views on free trade), my concern, being an educator, is the presence of sisyphism in education.

During this time of the summer, the more conscientious school districts are looking forward to the upcoming school year, discussing appropriate strategies to serve their students best. Sadly, for most, this will be based on a break down of the school’s/district’s state test data. Why sadly?

There are many problems with state testing data, but that’s for another post, and not really relevant here. Assume that the data is good and reasonably accurate if you like. Let’s also assume that the data indicates that students in the district are underperforming on a certain test, or even a certain part of a test, since each test is broken down into multiple categories. Now what? The answer will be something like, “We need to teach the material assessed by that part of the test better, or longer, or differently.” Why? “Because the students need to improve their scores on that part of the test.”

But notice, where is our attention?  Is it on how we can best spend our time with the student so that he has the knowledge and reasoning capacity to flourish as an adult? Is it on how we can develop a culture of excellence in our classrooms, a culture whose fundamental is students and teachers taking their learning and creating seriously? Is it on how to best foster intellectual independence in our students? In our teachers? While it could be the case that an analysis of state test data could lead to these fundamental questions, I suspect this rarely, if ever, happens. And yet, the answer to these fundamental questions is the real driver of a school’s success. So why not start there? After all, addressing these fundamental questions is difficult and time-consuming. Instead, it appears that a primary purpose of the organization is using test data to drive our ability to increase test scores. This is an obstacle. We are becoming sisyphists.

Not only is the emphasis on test data an obstacle, it is a red herring. Can you imagine an honest, conscientious staff at a school thinking they had successfully created a culture of excellence and intellectual independence amongst themselves and their students, such that students left the school as beneficiaries of their education (not products), ready to flourish intellectually as an adult, and yet were proved wrong by test scores? I can’t. If we are worth anything as educators, a focus on test scores will only tell us something we should already know (that in some area we need improvement), or allow us to evade our poor job if by chance the test scores are acceptable, which is entirely possible considering what counts for passing on these tests. In both cases, it diverts our focus away from a principled approach to education. Our attention will be directed away from how to address those fundamental questions that truly determine the success of a school. We will have hampered our ability to create legitimate educational results because our focus will be on something other than proper goals.

Bastiat saw sisyphists as people who needlessly (even purposefully) create obstacles, but this formulation misses the root cause. What sisyphists do is change the goal of an organization (or emphasize a contrary or derivative goal). To those who still cling to the old goal, the steps to the new goal seem like obstacles which increase effort and minimize results. So, if we are not going to be sisyphists in education, we need to make clear our goals as educators and ruthlessly integrate all that we do to the service of that goal. So, let’s do it. Is our goal to be educators whose vision is driven by state test data—the test data-driven approach with a change in that data the implicit goal? Or, is it the explicit goal of helping foster knowledgeable, intellectually independent thinkers who can flourish and be happy as adults—the principled approach?

One Last TWRC Lesson from Saenz (Sapere Aude)

The following is a yearbook essay for my students. We had daily Thinking, Writing, Reading, and Composition lectures last year (called TWRC lessons), hence the title of the essay.

The great 19th century economist, Frederic Bastiat, said that in a general way, production is an effort followed by a result. And progress is when you increase the ratio of the result to the effort. In other words, to progress, you either produce more with the same effort, or produce the same with less effort. Now this kind of progress isn’t just desirable when talking about a country’s economy; we, in our own individual lives, hope for a similar kind of economic progress. For instance, at 18 you may work 40 hours in a week and gross $400 ($10/hour). At the age of 28 or 38 to make “progress,” one might hope to make much more ($800, $1,600, $3,200!) but without working any more than the original 40 hours a week. How does one achieve this magic?! After all, the amount of work (40 hours a week) is the same.

Let’s go back to the macro level. In the history of man, the norm for 400,000 years was (to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes) a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short life. Life expectancy was in the 20s or 30s and starvation was always just around the corner. However, (see chart below) at some point, “progress” was made. It wasn’t the case that men worked more; it was that their work was more efficacious, more powerful, more wealth-producing, more life-enhancing and life-furthering. What happened?

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Western Civilization went back to school and relearned all that was lost from the Ancient Greeks and Romans.Then came The Enlightenment, or some call it, The Age of Reason. At this time the West took the Greeks a step further. They took reason from Aristotle and realized that when applied to the material world, “progress” (more wealth for the same effort) could be made. The motto of the intellectuals of the period was Sapere Aude, or, “dare to know.” Their work led directly to the Industrial Revolution and the happy reality of our generation being by far the most prosperous in the history of man.

Sapere Aude, or “Dare to Know,” is a phrase we push at Falls (along with “Eat the Frog”). Our guiding philosophy is that a “daring to know” will create the kind of life-giving progress that Bastiat speaks of. Our hope is that you leave Falls with the connection firmly in mind that an abundance of knowledge leads to an abundance in prosperity, in a civilization but also in the individual, in economics but also in spirit.

Sapere Aude,

Saenz

Vico helps “Develop the Intellect”

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In my last blog post, I critiqued the fragmentation of knowledge in our schools and promised another post that would better answer what it means to “develop the intellect.” This is part one in my attempt to fulfill that promise.

In 1708, the humanist philosopher and rhetorician, Giambattista Vico, wrote the book, On the Study Methods of Our Time. I think if there should ever be such a thing as a teacher training course (and that’s a big “if”), this book should be required reading.  In the book, Vico says,

“…(the) capacity to perceive the analogies existing between matters lying far apart and, apparently, most dissimilar. It is this capacity which constitutes the source and principle of all ingenious, acute, and brilliant forms of expression.”

Connecting things “far apart and, apparently, most dissimilar.” Notice that Vico’s point is backed up by near universal teacher experience. When does the teacher get most excited? When a student finally gets the lesson? I don’t think so. I think it is when the student makes a connection from the lesson that the teacher never thought of; that’s when he really gets excited!

That teachers and Vico both get excited about these kinds of connections make sense. Surely “developing the intellect” does not just mean having a lot of knowledge, but rather being able to do something with that knowledge, namely, making a connection that adds to the previous knowledge held. Aristotle addresses this early on in his Topics.

“Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them.”

So as a teacher, you teach the student A and B. Hopefully the student understands A and B, but more importantly, can the student come up with a C? That derivation of C is the challenge of the educator because that’s real reasoning by the student. That’s an intellect being trained. And if Vico is correct, (and I think he is) the farther away C is from A and B, the more impressive the accomplishment. (Sadly, this derivation of a far away C is rarely encouraged in our schools today.)

Why is this kind of thinking so important? Because the individual, in order to survive and flourish, must be a value creator. The individual must take what is given (and A and B), and create something better (a C). Then, he can enjoy the benefits of the better thing he produced, or he can trade it with others and enjoy the values that others have created. Developing the intellect to do this kind of thing is what I call, “getting ready for adult life.”

Notice, this success is not just on an individual level; it is the story of mankind’s success to date. Mankind was given raw nature: rocks of various kinds, trees, bushes, dirt, other animals, etc. From these materials, mankind has created things so “far apart and apparently most dissimilar” that most people in history would consider them magical — things like airplanes, laptops, air-conditioning, space ships, etc. These are the products of the value creator mentality.

So developing the intellect involves reasoning, getting a C from an A and a B; and it involves analogical thinking, “perceiving analogies existing between matters lying far apart and apparently most dissimilar.” That gives a rough idea of what a developed intellect is, but how does one promote such a thing in education? That is the subject of the next post.

“When am I ever going to use this?”

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As an educator, there are some questions from students that should just not be answered. “When am I ever going to use this?” is one of those questions.  Sadly, many teachers make the mistake of trying to give an answer, (note image of the poster above from a classroom in my school) and in doing so they undermine the very notion of education itself.

“When am I ever going to use this?” contains a dangerous premise about the nature of education. It implies that in life, various situations will arise in which a particular skill or a particular piece of knowledge will come in handy, and it is the job of education to provide you with that knowledge or skill ahead of time when you are young, so you will be ready when the need arises as an adult.

The tiniest bit of reflection upon this idea will either cause disbelief in the premise, or a belief in the utter uselessness in the idea of education itself.  Sadly, I think most people today default to the latter.

Let’s reflect upon the data in our own minds to illustrate this point. Suppose you are a relatively successful, forty-something adult. What percentage of facts learned in high school have you used to date? The difference between meiosis and mitosis? The symbolism in “The Minister’s Black Veil”? The significance of The Battle of Hastings? Ok. Maybe not so many particular facts, but what about particular skills? How to measure a flagpole using only its shadow and trigonometry? Factoring trinomials? Determining the momentum of a moving object? Formatting a works cited page and parenthetical citations? Depending on your interests, you could have used some of these, but for each skill used, most of us can think of dozens not used. So then, what’s the point of education? Is most of it just useless knowledge and skills, never used, and justifiably forgotten?

Benjamin Franklin tells a story that helps illuminate the nature of education. He tells of a time when the state of Virginia offered to educate six young men from six Native American tribes. The tribal leaders said thanks, but no thanks. In explanation, they told of a previous time when some of their young men were taught at universities in another colony. These young men came back poor hunters, poor warriors, unable to survive in the forest, and unable to speak the language properly. In short, they were considered useless, uneducated. Summing up his story, Franklin says that in the colonies, education was for developing the intellect, while for the natives, education was for survival.

In short, the “When am I ever going to use this?” mentality is using the natives’ “survival” view of education. According to this view, there are a certain number of tasks a person must be able to accomplish in life in order to survive, and education is to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish them. But there is an alternative to this mentality, the colonists’ “developing the intellect” view. Detailing what “developing the intellect” consists of is a topic for another post, but the advantageous results of developing the intellect are easy to see. I live in Texas, and while driving across the state this week I observed large fields of trees and grass, seemingly untouched by man. Now imagine standing in the middle of that field, and using just the materials present, creating a cell phone, or an air-conditioned car, or even the fancy thermos that somehow keeps my ice water cold for over 24 hours. The list could go on. How do you look out at the field of grass, cactus, weeds, trees, dirt, and rock, and develop paper and ink, plastic containers, rubber tires, centrifuges, airplanes, watches, and laser pointers? For most of these things, I don’t particularly know; but I do fundamentally know that it is done with an intellect developed a certain way, and not with an intellect taught only things that answer the question “When am I ever going to use this?”

Glenn Gould and Course Customization

Glenn+Gould+gould02Canadian Pianist Glenn Gould surely ranks as “great” because he is so passionately loved by much of the serious music listening community while so passionately hated by the rest. (I’m on the passionately love side for what it is worth.) He is also, as far as I know, the first classical pianist to write extensively on the recording process.

In his article titled “The Prospects of Recording” from 1966 Gould speaks of a “new kind of listener.” One who is “more participant in the musical experience.” He supposes the listener will become even more participant in the future and envisions a new kind of product from the recording industry. He imagines a packaging of a work, say Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, that includes many different performances and the ability for the listener to cut and splice the parts of each performance  together such that in the end he has his own performance of the 5th with all his favorite interpretations in one piece. (For instance, you may enjoy Bernstein’s exposition, but  Solti’s development, and Barenboim’s recapitulation.)

I forget when I first read Gould’s article, but I do remember that CDs were relatively new and most of my music was on cassette tapes. Over the decades, as far as I can tell, Gould’s vision has not materialized even though I’m quite sure the technology to achieve it has been available for some time. Sadly (because I would love to have it), I now think it will probably never happen. Why not?

Quite simply, I think people just aren’t that interested. They are not interested in being such an active participant in their musical experience. They just don’t love the music to the point that they wish to pay that kind of minute attention to its production. After all, that is spending a lot of highly focused time with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Where I teach we use a curriculum software package, Odysseyware, that has wonderful customization features. The teacher can easily click and drag lessons from other courses or units to build a better course, and more importantly, the teacher can write his own lessons within the platform and easily format them so that they flow with the rest of the course. This second feature I’ve used repeatedly such that now in my 5th year, over half of the lessons my students experience (roughly 600) are written by me specially for them.

The benefits to this kind of system are obvious. The teacher is much more participant in the educational process. He can better make the course fit the needs of his students. His personality is stamped on the course, making it a unique experience for the student that the teacher can stand behind 100% because it is the manifestation of the teacher’s vision of what the educational experience should be.

And yet, I’m repeatedly told that I’m the exception when it comes to taking advantage of this technological feature, other teachers using course customization tools rarely if at all.  Why so? At the risk of becoming extremely unpopular with other teachers, I think the reason is the same reason Gould’s music customization idea never took hold. That kind of active participation, that kind of responsibility for the educational experience, that kind of passion for the end product being a part of your soul, just isn’t wanted enough.

With Responsibility Comes Love: The Joy that is Teaching

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(Note: This was intended as an article for an education and technology publisher, but it didn’t have a strong enough technology focus for them.) 

It is often said that teachers teach because they love their work (the pay not being much of a draw). Yet for all the talk of teachers loving what they do, studies consistently show that teacher turnaround is higher than most professions. I’m convinced a reason for this turnover is because when teachers are asked about why they love their work, their explanations are vague. Common are statements like, “I love it that I’m making a difference.” Left out is a good explanation of how they make a difference. Left out is why this difference is so important. Since a joy only superficially understood is easily toppled, a deeper exploration of the joy that comes from teaching is key for educators.

Of course, teaching isn’t the only profession with members who love their work. Regardless of profession I think people who experience joy at work do so because they not only enjoy the activities of their job, but because they recognize the value in what they are doing. At a time when technological advancements in a year outshine centuries of advancements in the past, the lover of his work today can tangibly see himself as a part of the progress of humanity. That’s job fulfillment. I, as a teacher, however, enjoy my job because the products I provide are the reason and knowledge that underlie all progress.

Reason as an explicit pedagogical goal can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks about 2,400 years ago. However, the importance of reason wasn’t fully realized until the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment’s application, the world’s first technological boom, the industrial revolution. Since then, man’s comforts have skyrocketed, his life expectancy has doubled, and his population has grown well past what anyone previously thought supportable. Today’s technological boom has the potential to be a New Enlightenment with another round of previously unforeseen benefits to mankind. Additionally, the technological boom spilling over to education gives educators new and better tools to lay the intellectual foundation required for further growth. I enjoy my job because my successes are the foundation of man’s continued progress.

But doesn’t our modern age have problems of its own? It surely does, but I’m inspired by the great educational theorist, Horace Mann, who saw education and the training of the intellect as the cure to even our modern ills. “Now, what can save us from endless contention, but the love of truth? What can save us, and our children after us, from eternal, implacable, universal war, but the greatest of all human powers,–the power of impartial thought?” I enjoy my job because if a future peace in our world is to be achieved, I will have helped create it by instilling in future adults the love of reason and knowledge.

But isn’t part of teaching drilling and testing of students over facts? Isn’t this just an academic exercise? Certainly, but let’s look at a smartphone. Every tiny component’s location, material, design, shape, function, relationship to the other components is an answer to the question, right or wrong? And since the designers were well-versed in determining facts, every answer was right. Now we have what would seem to anyone in the history of mankind, a magical tool, a tool of the gods. I enjoy my work because I teach the skills that make the tools of the gods.

You may think I’m engaging in hyperbole. Not everyone creates cutting edge technology. Maybe teaching should be geared toward training average folks so they can get a job with a livable wage. Perhaps you believe that civilization is propelled by a tiny fraction of the populace and the rest just go along for the ride. This may have been true, but seeing that it must continue to be true is selling today’s students short. The great educational theorist Shinichi Suzuki’s great breakthrough was realizing all Japanese children speak fluent Japanese! An obvious fact, but Suzuki, recognizing the enormous complexity involved in mastering a language, determined that children must be further capable of equally complex tasks and set his expectations for every child accordingly. People are capable of more than we think. I enjoy teaching because I see potential for greatness in every student and work to actualize it.

Finally, in today’s age we are flooded with technological opportunities (all products of the reasoning mind) unavailable to the great teachers of past generations. With the entirety of the public domain at my fingertips for free, being the scholar my students need to see has never been easier. With customizable software that allows me to both compose courses that match my vision of the subject as well as meet the individual needs of my students, being a teacher has the potential to be more effective and more creative. I enjoy teaching because it prompts me to be a scholar and an artist.

I love my job for all these reasons. Why do you love yours?

Data Data Data (Part 1) – Preaching to the Choir

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There is a fascinating new article titled Charlotte, N.C. Gave Principals Power Over Teacher Layoffs. What Happened? The article points to a “study” done in which data was “examined” and “analyzed” to determine that in a particular instance when “less effective teachers” were laid off, “student achievement benefitted.”

Really? Firing less effective teachers benefits students? Of course it does. This is common sense, which in fairness the article states. But why is a “study” needed to tell us this? If somehow the study showed otherwise should we come to the opposite conclusion? Should we then make the research-based decision to refrain from firing bad teachers? Perhaps we should fire the capable teachers instead, wait a few years and do another “study.”

Our reliance on “data” before we make even the most obvious of decisions is a sad sad indicator of our intellectual state. Especially since either the data is impoverished (the passing rate for the Biology or Algebra EOC when 38% is passing and the test is multiple choice – a 25% chance of guessing right on each question), or the conclusions based off the data aren’t reasoned through (a curriculum pedagogue once told me “data showed” it wasn’t beneficial to do work from previous grade levels if students weren’t up to speed, ignoring hierarchy in learning). Let me be clear, studies of this kind are more than a waste of time. They are an affront to the reasoning mind.

Enlightenment thinkers everywhere are turning over in their graves. Reason is dying in education.

The Missing Element in Technology Integration: The Teacher

The advent of the car in American culture was a great boon. People could easily go places in relative comfort that were previously impossible or impractical. But while cars allowed people to go places more quickly and easily, they didn’t tell people where they should go. The technology was good in that it created the possibility for more value-producing actions, but the car didn’t say what those value-producing actions were. The technology available for education is similar. The entire public domain (tens of thousands of titles) is now available in an instant for free online. If that weren’t enough, a dizzying number of apps, software, and websites are specifically designed for educators and learners. In essence, educators now have a nice fast car, but how do they decide where they should go?

Currently technology is being gobbled up by schools at a mind-numbing rate. Much of the purpose for technology relies on the idea that the curriculum for any given subject is a static body of knowledge and we must find a way to make it engaging by changing the form of our delivery. Why? Because we believe on its own, schoolwork is boring. So we find an app that delivers the lesson as a video game, we look up videos on youtube, we have the students use Twitter or Surveymonkey to turn in answers, etc. We buy into the quote by Isocrates, “The root of education is bitter, but sweet are its fruits”, and we try to add a little sugar to the bitterness. But my suspicion is that when students seem engaged by these new forms they are really enjoying the forms, not the subject matter. (At least, that’s what my students usually tell me.)

Now almost everyone has a class or two that has a special place in his or her memory from school. I haven’t done a poll, but I would bet that nine times out of ten that special class wasn’t special or effective because of the technology; it was special or effective because of the teacher. That’s because of the simple fact that teachers teach, and whatever technology they use to teach (a chalkboard, an online curriculum, or the latest software) is a tool they use to help them teach. (I don’t mean to get all warm and fuzzy about teachers in general. On the contrary, that most adults only mention one or two teachers that resonated with them is pretty damning.)

My memory of those special teachers is that they knew their subject, were passionate about it, and showed their passion through life-long study of their subject and its importance. They didn’t see “the curriculum” as a static body of knowledge that they needed to make palatable. They saw it as a vibrant, living, important story to be passionately told. They were scholars and their courses were compositions. Their courses were integrated products from the mind of a competent composer designed such that at the end, the student understood a single unit. The student “got” literature, “got” math, “got” science, “got” history.

So, when assessing technology options, this special teacher should be considered. What technology will best help him more thoroughly bring his unique qualified vision to reality? What technology will help him adjust his vision quickly and easily to fit the needs of his particular students? What technology will allow him to present a course that has the appearance of an integrated whole? (And not the appearance of a patchwork of supplementary materials from disparate sources) And if he isn’t that special teacher, what technology will help him become one? What educational technology will help the teacher become the passionate, life-long learning scholar he needs to be to make his subject come alive?

Currently there are wonderful technologies that help the dynamic, passionate, teacher present a better educational product, and I happily use many myself. Sadly, there are many other educational technologies that instead sacrifice the matter of education to the form of education. Remembering the importance of the role of the teacher in teaching is an easy way to tell the difference between the two.

Value and Data: The Fletch Principle

Toby Fletcher was a wise coworker of mine at Falls. While we worked together we were both trying to get back in good running shape and each day we would ask each other how our respective runs went. If I ever reported that I ran that morning but it didn’t go very well, he would respond with something like, “Heck, at our age it’s a win if we just walk out the door with our running shoes on.”

Getting in good physical shape, like learning, doesn’t always appear to follow a nice smooth upward curve.  But if Fletch was right, and I think he was, then every time you hit the gym in earnest, or every time you open a book in earnest, you are indeed making good progress toward your physical or intellectual well-being.

The point is that it usually only appears that learning takes steps back. The reason it appears so is our misuse of data.

For example, if I ran today and fell short of the time I ran a few days ago I could interpret the data as a step back. (“I’m getting slower!”) But Fletch’s point keeps a better context and focuses on the essential. Will I be in better or worse shape after my run today? Surely better. Certainly better than not running at all. Why? Because exercise is a value. I don’t need daily data to tell me this, and I better not let daily data convince me otherwise. Exercise is a value, period, regardless of how fast or far I am able to run on any given day.

Likewise with learning. My oldest son is just learning to read. It’s pretty slow going, but I’m convinced that taking small, simple words and sounding them out together is a valuable process.  If I were a typical data hound like many in education (see Applied Behavior Analysts for the best examples) I might be keeping track of every time my son reads a word correctly so I could see if we are “progressing” or “regressing.” Two days ago he misread a word. Let’s mark it down as another step with no progress, right?

Wrong! It was a great breakthrough! For the first time, on his own, he sounded out the phonemes, and then combined them into a word. He misread the vowel sound, but no matter! He showed an understanding of how to produce sounds from letters on a page and then to combine them to make a meaningful mental unit. The pertinent data is not that he misread the word, but that he sounded it out and combined the letters intentionally.

On a more significant level, the pertinent data is that we simply spent another day working on his reading in a systematic way. Intellectual pursuits of this kind are valuable for many reasons (apart from just learning to read) and can’t be measured by checking a multitude of boxes. Just like, according to Fletch, the pertinent data from my run isn’t so much my time (after all, I’m just trying to get in shape), it’s that I went running at all, because exercise is valuable for many reasons beyond being able to run fast.

There’s more to say about the supposed objectivity of the “data driven instruction” movement in education, but that’s for another post. Until then, let’s see valuable pursuits for what they are and not let impoverished data divorced from essentials and context turn us away from our physical and intellectual health.