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Big Data in education

In this episode of the Education Futures Podcast, we chatted with Dr. Cristóbal Cobo, director of research at the Ceibal Foundation in Uruguay. He is an expert on Big Data in education, and he shared his thoughts in our exploration of Cathy O’Neil’s provocative book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.

O’Neil exposes the opaque, black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These “weapons of math destruction” score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health. In an era where we are obsessed with measurement, there are some huge implications for the world of education!

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The need for invisible learning

Note: This is the first article in a three-part series on a new theory for invisible learning.

Five years ago, Cristóbal Cobo and I published the book Aprendizaje Invisible (“Invisible learning”). The work analyzed the impact of technological advances and changes in formal, non-formal, and informal education –and the meta-spaces in between. The product was a journey that offered an overview of options for the future development of education that is relevant for this century.

A lot has changed since then, and we need a theory for invisible learning more than ever:

First, society needs knowmadic workers who work with context, not rigid structure. One key reality is that the jobs schools typically prepare us for—work as factory workers, bureaucrats, or soldiers—are disappearing. They are being replaced with knowledge- and innovation-based work which requires people to function contextually, working almost anytime, anywhere, and with nearly anybody. These emerging workers are knowmads, and they apply their individual knowledge across different “gigs” or contingent engagements to create new value. By the year 2020, we project 45% of the workforce in the U.S. will be knowmadic. This is a huge shift considering that only 6% of the population in the U.S. was self-employed, contingent, or some sort of contract worker in 1989.

As unique individuals, knowmads possess personal knowledge with developed explicit (i.e., “book knowledge”) and tacit (i.e., soft skills) elements. They are comfortable with change and ambiguity, applying their personal knowledge contextually to solve new problems.

The challenge for schools and learning programs is now to enable individuals to thrive in a world that needs more imaginative, creative, and innovative talent, not generic workers that can fill seats at an office or factory. The pathway to meeting this requirement is through the development of schooling environments and professional learning settings that foster invisible learning.

Second, many beliefs and practices in mainstream education are antiquated and have no grounding in reality. We would be hard pressed to find a study that argues that kids learn best from 7:45am to 2:37pm, yet we model our schools around absurd hours and times that better mirror industrial practices that are fading into extinction. We further separate them by age into grades, assuming children learn best when they are separated from each other. This, as Maria Montessori observed, “breaks the bonds of social life” (p. 206).

We too often assume that the motivation to learn must be extrinsic. That is, we have grown to believe that kids will not learn anything unless they’re told what to learn. This cannot be any further from reality as it can be argued that kids’ main activity is learning whether or not it is in a school format. Even more troubling, the most meaningful ways kids learn –play, curiosity, and exploration– are discounted in formal learning, unless if directed in a top-down, structured activity. How can we dare say we are enabling kids’ curiosity if we are telling them what to be curious about? How can we justify labeling activities as exploration if we already know the destination? And, why are we so afraid to allow children to play freely?

If we wish to develop children that can thrive in a knowmadic society, the consequences are grave. Peter Gray wrote:

By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.

Finally, we simply cannot measure a person’s knowledge. Tests only measure how well a student completes the test. Soft skills and non-cognitive skills can be difficult or impossible to measure. Yet, we have become obsessed with measurement in schools. So much so that we’ve convinced ourselves that we can measure what a person knows. This is not true. As we wrote in Manifesto 15:

When we talk about knowledge and innovation, we frequently commingle or confuse the concepts with data and information instead. Too often, we fool ourselves into thinking that we give kids knowledge, when we are just testing them for what information they can repeat. To be clear: Data are bits and pieces here and there, from which we combine into information. Knowledge is about taking information and creating meaning at a personal level. We innovate when we take action with what we know to create new value. Understanding this difference exposes one of the greatest problems facing school management and teaching: While we are good at managing information, we simply cannot manage the knowledge in students’ heads without degrading it back to information.

At the same time, yes, we do need to demonstrate accountability in our schools. Cristóbal Cobo, in his lectures, beats the drum that we should not value what we measure, but rather measure what we value. We need to find a way beyond high-stakes testing that do little to reveal what students know. It is time to focus on what we value as individuals, schools, and as communities.


Posts in this series

  1. The need for invisible learning
  2. A theory for invisible learning
  3. Approaches for enabling invisible learning

Manifesto 15: Evolving learning

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From John Moravec:

Like many of us, I did some reflecting over the New Year. It seemed it was time to re-center, and get back to basics. It’s too easy to get distracted and lose track of our principles and where we want to go with them. It was time to write a manifesto on what we’ve learned so far.

Read Manifesto 15 at manifesto15.org.

All of the manifestos that have inspired me are strongly associated with a date. The U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Charter 77 emerged in January 1977. Dogme 95 was crafted in 1995. Also, as ideas transform and develop over time, Manifesto 15 represents a snapshot of our ideas, visions, and what we have learned to date on January 1, 2015. It serves as a reference point to help us understand how we’ve done so far, and what actions we need to take next.

As I wrote Manifesto 15 at the beginning of last week, I opened it for public edits, contributions, and comments via Google Docs as soon as the first draft was completed. The response has been phenomenal. In just the first few days since being released on January 1, it has received thousands of views and offers for translation into various languages. As I receive the translated (and proofread) documents, I will post them as well.

Please give Manifesto 15 a read. If you would like to sign or have thoughts to share on our principles for education as we move forward, please do share. Let’s see what conversations we can spark and what initiatives we can inspire.

To my collaborators on the project, and to our supporters, thank you!