Tag Archives: education

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?

Vico helps “Develop the Intellect”

Image result for giambattista vico study methods

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?”