So Much Data Yet Still So Little Meaning

I had a mentor early in my career, also named Jack, who was a very well respected and well liked business owner. I worked at his company in the summers of my high school and college years as a delivery boy. Jack took me under his wing and would entertain my questions about the systems he employed in his business; an interest I have spent my entire career translating to education as a practitioner.

I was particularly intrigued by Jack’s incentive system for his delivery people; and not just because this impacted my bottom line. Growing up wanting for little, my adolescent motivation was not moved by financial incentive structures. Like many product-based business managers, Jack employed his delivery force as salesmen. We were given bonuses for new account creation and upsells. All of the incentives were financial. Even route preference awards were ultimately financial because of the potential for new accounts they held.

Jack explained that his structure was largely inspired by Skinner, who I have since come to know is a behaviorist. Jack’s basic argument for the incentive structure boiled down to this, “If my workers do something good that generates revenue for the company, I reward them with more money. If they do something that hurts our business, I remove privilege or fire them. Humans are simple.”

The problem was that as an adolescent I was not motivated by Jack’s incentive structure. I respected my co-workers who had families to take care of and bills to pay, but that wasn’t me. The financial incentive for me was relatively small. I had to save for college bills, but really, I wanted to learn, and delivering bottled water in Manhattan was a ripe opportunity for exactly that. My conversations with Jack even more so.

I was not the world’s first adolescent not to be motivated by financial reward. While there are some recent studies that show paying kids for grades can improve student grade achievement, my experience as a teacher is that the – still – Skinnerian token economy that we use to motivate student performance in secondary education is limited in it’s effectiveness. Most kids don’t understand the value of money. The 75% of U.S. students who do not live in poverty never want for a meal, and as measured by a recent Pew survey, don’t even want for a smart phone. The things that money can buy, have already been bought for them.

Grades are our proxy for money in the secondary environment. Get good grades, get into college, succeed in college, get a higher paying job than you would otherwise if you did not get good grades. The problem is that most kids are like I was. They want to learn. They want to be good at things. They want to make friends and do things with them. They want to play. Most kids who get good grades do so likely because they feel a sense of mastery not of the material (though they may), but of the grading system. In other words, they are working toward mastery of the game of getting good grades.

Big data 1.0 is failing to improve student learning. Our current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires us to evaluate our education system in an ongoing way based on student grades, and it has failed to inspire learning. Many argue that our emphasis on unidimensional testing and analysis has removed much of what does motivate meaningful learning: the opportunity to achieve mastery, increased social interaction, the generation of wonder.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Data collection is valuable. Understanding year to year improvement on certain types of multiple choice tests can prove valuable to both educators and students, but not as a summative analysis. Rather, these data should be used formatively to assist educators and students in understanding the extent to which the teaching and learning are effective at inspiring very basic knowledge acquisition. For example, the California Standards Tests in science are simple multiple choice exams that gauge basic concept knowledge recall and problem solving. Used as a benchmark in an ongoing way, these tests can offer information to educators and students about where to direct re-teaching and review. The Common Core benchmark assessment concept being evolved right now by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium intends to take this benchmark concept and extend it to more meaningful assessments that require students to write; a much more effective way to gauge higher level learning than multiple choice assessments.

The edtech sector is heated up about more and better used data. There are some examples of well used data that seem likely to prove effective at increasing meaningful student learning and by extension, student engagement. Adaptive mathematics platforms that gamify the learning of basic manipulation skills for young students seem to be a likely winner. By that same rubric, the gamification of foreign language learning and computer coding also show promise.

I am less excited about more sophisticated Skinnerian systems that track things like time on task, and count the frequency of logins. While useful, these analytics alone will not adequately prepare the millenials for a life of omnipresent data and the constant need for source evaluation. It is useful to know when a student has not been active in a learning system for an anomalous amount of time, but that is probably not something that would be unknown to an educator anyway. While useful, time on task is not a measure of higher level intellectual engagement.

What gets me out of bed in the middle of the night is a future of data collection, analysis, and reporting systems that inspire social engagement and encourage the frequency and sophistication of the written and spoken word. The Golden Gate Bridge was not built solely by engineers with cracker jack trigonometry skills. That bridge happened because of people who understood the scientific process, the subtleties of diplomacy and politics, the complexities of long term finance, and perhaps above all, the bridge was built because a group of people were inspired to do something excellent. Such excellence comes from people who can think, write, communicate, and collaborate. I stay up at night when I am thinking about technology that can inspire that.

I anticipate that the day is near, when educators, parents, and students will have up to the hour evaluation of the complexity of their writing. Peer evaluation systems for written work, art, and mathematical manipulation will dramatically improve in the near future. Social networks that are safe and promote intellectual discourse will emerge from the embers of web 2.0. And the holy grail of evaluation of student argument, both written and spoken, is not too far away. The future is bright.

Behaviorist systems might work to move the meter a little toward a simple outcome. I have certainly taken hazard pay for undesirable duties in my career. But learning is beautifully complex. If we want our education institutions to generate inspired makers of bridges and diplomatic bottled water delivery drivers alike, then our edtech is going to need to do more than count bottles delivered and hours worked. Jack is retired now, and spends his days chasing golf balls and musing over a life of hard work. Without the pressure of his children’s mouths to feed and college tuitions to pay for, I suspect, in his reflective repose, he might very well agree.

About Jack West

Teacher, team member, father, neighbor.

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