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How Children What?

John Holt and Paul Tough are a half-century apart. Both were interested in children and how they learned. One wrote a book called How Children Learn, the other a book called How Children Succeed. Their juxtaposition has a lot to tell us about how we think about and treat our young people.

In 1967, John Holt published How Children Learn. In 2013, Paul Tough published How Children Succeed.

Holt was following up on the publication of his 1964 book, How Children Fail. Beginning in 1952, Holt taught elementary and middle school—first in Colorado, then Boston. For eleven years, Holt kept a journal of his experiences. This journal grew into his first books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn. The first explored how children, "used their minds badly." The second explored what it looked like for children to "act as bold, effective learners." Both were grounded in Holt’s own, concrete stories and experiences. The fundamental thesis of both is that learners’ motivation is essential and that because this cannot be forced, we must trust learners, working with them and their interests if they are to grow into empowered adults. Semiotically, Holt now parses as hippie, especially given his position as father of the United States homeschooling movement.

Tough is a journalist who has covered education, child development, and poverty for the past decade. Tough has never taught. After writing about Geoffery Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in Whatever It Takes, he felt dissatisfied with his understanding of why only some children go on from such programs to succeed. Tough sought out researchers, economists, neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors, and the occasional teacher or administrator to find his answer. The fundamental thesis of How Children Succeed is that kids will be more successful in school and more secure in life if we focus on developing their ‘non-cognitive skills,’ like the ability to persevere or maintain healthy emotional hygiene. Semiotically, Tough parses as a pragmatic journalist uncovering heroic possibilities for education reform.

As snapshots of the ‘conversation around education reform,’ this juxtaposition highlights two transitions: (1) in focus, a move from "learning" to "success," and (2) in disposition, a move from "craftsmanship" to "scientism." Taken together, these transitions mean How Children Succeed emerges as complicit in our society’s social and economic stratification.

From craft to scientism

Holt tells stories. Tough cites studies. Holt talks about the skills and dispositions of individual teachers and students, about tactics and anecdotes and the nitty gritty of a day-to-day schoolteacher. Tough talks about the hippocampus and cognitive behavioral therapy and "the research" which tells us about the correlates of lifetime material security.

How Children Succeed begins by calling out "the cognitive hypothesis"i.e. the notion that it is IQ and the activities associated with high-IQ which matter most. Having set up "the consensus" Tough proceeds, TED style, to promise he will "[overturn] conventional wisdom with something new and mysterious." And with continued TED-flair, Tough tells us about Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist so disconnected from reality that he was floored to learn that a GED is not functionally equivalent to a high school diploma. In the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-ten. Tough goes on to suggest that perhaps culture—or no, something intrinsic to learners, an ineffable go-get-‘em-and-stick-with-it-ness—has something to do with it.

This setup is recapitulated at every scale in How Children Succeed:

  1. Set up a straw man argument about what people "believe" about education
  2. Introduce an expert authority (a Nobel laureate or recent MacArthur grantee) who can slam the brakes on our conventional wisdom
  3. Locate hope in the manufactured whiplash between this contrarian result and our intuitions & institutions.
  4. Close by swaddling the contrarian pressure in a traditional authority: science. "It’s not warm and fuzzy, it’s cold, hard science."

Policy rhetoric must be simple—no, that’s not right—it must be concise. This constraint of concision is what creates the sense of increasingly superficial acceleration in venues like TED. But this requirement for concision is not simply a matter of medium. Reform efforts of all stripes—and education reform in particular—often fall prey to the implicit demand they scale. Either they must work for everyone, or roll out in the next five years, or work regardless of the population involved, or…

Because reform efforts target big problems, because policymaking is the primary logic with which big problems are confronted, and because the knobs and levers that policymaking offers are coarse, the rhetoric surrounding policy cannot admit nuance, because nuance acknowledges and accommodates difference, militating against the scale at which your idea can apply.

Specifically: any non-fiction New York Times bestseller making claims about our children needs to offer a silver bullet in one way or another. The claims need to be clear and striking, the implicit bias toward scale discourages nuance and subtlety. As both purveyor and consumer of big ideas, you want to know that the time you’re spending reading about How Children Succeed will mean that at the next dinner party, you’ll have something topical and just a bit contrarian to say and that Science has your back. We don’t have a scientific method for creating good movies or good books or even matching people in online dating, but there’s no need to worry because we do have a method with which we can create good schools and good students. And because it is Science, it is True, and can be implemented at scale.

So backwards is Tough’s focus that he finds it impossible to process deep and impressive learning experiences in anything but the faux scientific language of neurobiology and psychology, drizzling jargon over his anecdotes to bring them into the tent of grit et al,

Spiegel [an extraordinarily successful chess instructor in the Bronx, profiled in the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle] often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher should interact with her students […] You may recall that KIPP’s dean, Tom Brunzell, said he considered his approach to be a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. When his students were flailing, lost in moments of stress and emotional turmoil, he would encourage them to do the kind of big-picture thinking—the metacognition, as many psychologists call it—that takes place in the prefrontal cortex: slowing down, examining their impulses, and considering more productive solutions to their problems […] Spiegel had simply developed a more formalized way to do this.

Tough needs jargon and science to justify the age old common sense, "Get someone to slow down and think about what they are doing." And this common sense is construed as "cognitive behavioral therapy" retrospectively—sure, Spiegel is an expert who’s actually done the work sans cognitive behavioral therapy, but Paul Tough has got a theory about her chess teams’ reflective process and he is on it! To be clear, I’ve nothing against reflection or science or even cognitive behavioral therapy. What I want to highlight is the need to bring every successful, cultural phenomenon under the tent of "Science" (really, scientism) in order to bolster the relevance of those apparently scientific modes and ideas to the design and management of education. So rather than ask how school can become more like Spiegel’s award-winning chess team, Tough observes that there are some resonances between cognitive behavioral therapy and the successful chess team and between cognitive behavioral therapy and the grit-peddlers.

Tough makes the straight-faced claim, "This is the problem with trying to motivate people. No one really knows how to do it well." Despite not only a bevy of anecdotal counterexamples (ranging from ones he provides like Spiegel, to the broad range in popular culture—e.g. the Marine Corps), but an entire world of sociological and organizational research. What I think Tough means when he says, "No one knows how to motivate people" is that, "No recognized, scientific authority has given us a method by which we can reliably synthesize motivated students in a school which can accept arbitrary human inputs."

And the unarticulated expectation that all educational innovations scale means that those reforms are pushed to be teacher- and student-proofed, moving the focus from design principles to procedures, from people to protocols, from craft to scientism. Seymour Papert said it best:

By scientism, I mean the attitude that sees all questions as scientific ones, as resolvable by scientific studies. This point of view evaluates educational methods by measuring their effect on test scores. Scientism makes the study of education appear easy: We will do little experiments to see whether this or that approach is better, experiments that isolate just one factor and keep everything else the same. Many people are enamored of these tiny experiments because they are statistically rigorous and seem to provide the kind of hard data one finds in physics. But that approach isn’t feasible if you are thinking about radical change in education. These kinds of studies do help to answer certain kinds of questions. If you are thinking about a small change — Is it better to paint the walls of the classroom green or white? — you can do a little experiment. You can leave everything else the same and just change the color of the wall and see what happens. Even if you are asking whether it is better to reward success or punish failure, you can do a little experiment. But we cannot decide by such measurements whether we want an open society or a totalitarian one. You cannot do a scientific experiment to decide whether you would like empowered citizens or instructed, disciplined automata. This is not a matter of science; it is something much deeper than that.

Which brings us back to a/the basic question, "What’s the point of school?"

From learning to success

Holt focuses on learning as instrumental to self-actualization. Tough focuses on school as instrumental to social and financial security. This distinction is emblematic. Learning is an activity of an individual. School is an institution of mandatory treatment. Holt cares about learning because he sees it as a basic part of any reasonable definition of the good life. Tough cares about school because he sees it as a far-reaching set of levers with which to redress fundamental social and political inequities, mitigating the effects of poverty, violence, malnourishment, the Drug War, and so on.

At the very outset of How Children Succeed, Tough sets up "the cognitive hypothesis"—again, the notion that it is IQ and the activities associated with high-IQ which matter—and knocks it down. But there is a total absence of discussion of how actual learning and teaching happen throughout his book. In its stead, there is a focus on the personality traits and disposition of character which best serve the poor and dispossessed and what types of institutions can inculcate them.

This represents a tremendous narrowing of scope and ambition when it comes to the historical mandate of a public—much less liberal—education. But school is no stranger to that narrowing. In 1841, Homer Bartlett wrote in response to a query from Horace Mann ("father of the U.S. public school system"),

I have never considered mere knowledge, valuable as it is in itself to the laborer, as the only advantage derived from a good Common School education. I have uniformly found the better educated as a class possessing a higher and better state of morals, more orderly and respectful in their deportment, and more ready to comply with the wholesome and necessary regulations of an establishment. And in times of agitation, on account of some changes in regulations or wages, I have always looked to the most intelligent, best educated and the most moral for support, and have seldom been disappointed…But the ignorant and uneducated I have generally found the most turbulent and troublesome, acting under the impulse of excited passion and jealousy.

The former appear to have an interest in sustaining good order, while the latter seem roe reckless of consequences. And, to my mind, all this is perfectly natural. The better educated have more and stronger attachments binding them to the place where they are. They are generally neater, as I have before said, in their persons, dress, and houses; surrounded with more comforts, with fewer of "the ills which flesh is heir to." In short, I have found the educated, as a class, more cheerful and contented,— devoting a portion of their leisure time to reading and intellectual pursuits, more with their families, and less in scenes of dissipation.

The good effect of all this is seen in the more orderly and comfortable appearance of the whole household, but nowhere more strikingly than in the children. A mother who has had a good common-school education will rarely suffer her children to grow up in ignorance.

As I have said, this class of persons is more quiet, more orderly, and, I may add, more regular in their attendance upon public worship, and more punctual in the performance of all their duties.

Even at the birth of public education, school was to be primarily concerned with the formation of social and emotional habits. Incredibly, Tough not only freely acknowledges this, but goes on to cite one of the classics establishing that historical consensus: Bowles & Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America. When I saw that, I thought, "Oh thank goodness! Now we’ll get a mature handling of at least the counterpoint: that maybe our schools shouldn’t be preoccupied with creating a gritty underclass."

Tough then spends all of one page summarizing the argument, acknowledges that this social engineering function of school is, "a resounding demonstration of the importance of character to school success," and then proceeds to elide any acknowledgement of political or moral dimensions to the situation. There’s no sign Tough understands Bowles & Gintis to represent a profound obstacle to his framing and thesis or to the roll-out of ‘character education’ and its ilk. Without exaggeration, the entire issue is laid to rest with, "And when it comes to self-control, Marxist economists are not the only people who are skeptical of its value." From there, Tough proceeds to talk about academics who worry that "self control" can descend into "compulsive restraint."

The near-miss is breathtaking. Consider just one facet of the sociological line of inquiry Bowles & Gintis have come to represent: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to emphasize "good manners, neatness, honesty, and obedience." The wealthier your children, students, or employees, the more likely you [as parent, teacher, manager] are to emphasize creativity, curiosity, and responsibility. The classist undertones of "character development" seem germane to Tough’s work—after all, he is advocating that we de-emphasize academics in favor of grit for exactly those who have struggled with traditional education environments. But somehow, he does not imagine this relevant.

And that dearth of moral and intellectual imagination goes to the heart of Tough’s vision of school as a managed institution, which by virtue of its size and scope can be used to mitigate the social and economic ills of an inequitable society by making it slightly more profitable or less painful to start life as poor, black, or brown. This cuts directly against the grain of the inspiring notion that public education should not serve the public, but create a public. And here, it is Postman that said it best,

The question is not, "Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?" The question is, "What kind of public does it create?" A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.

Engineering an underclass

Over the past five years since the 2008 crash, the ‘recovery’ has been a recovery for corporations first and the wealthy second. Worse, over the past twenty years, there has been steady growth in very low skill (i.e. low pay) and very high skill (i.e. high pay) jobs (cf. Autor et al). Not only has the middle class household been cut out of productivity gains, but structurally, the very possibility of a middle class job has become rarer. And these trends are accelerating. And How Children Succeed is complicit in the small and emblematic in the large.

Now may be a good time for me to step back and observe that I agree deeply with the one line summary of How Children Succeed most might toss off, "Success in life depends more on your personality and your ability to persevere than whether you aced conic sections." Most curricula are aggressively irrelevant and disconnected from anything of interest or use to students. The curricula are useful to the extent they are prerequisites for other curricula whose associated institutions (i.e., college) are highly [socially] capitalized and act as the gatekeeper to many of life’s finer stations. The capacity to be curious, to persevere, to bring impeccable emotional hygiene to high stress situations—all of these "non-cognitive abilities" and more are in fact more important than the academics we often tell students school is "about." But we cannot talk about cultivating the ability to be curious or persevere without talking about what someone is curious about and why they might persevere. And it is there that I think Tough should slow down to consider what social, economic, and cultural conditions push How Children Succeed to the top of the bestseller list.

In 1824, James Hardie wrote of a new punishment designed for prisoners,

It is constant and sufficiently severe; but it is its monotonous steadiness and not its severity, which constitutes its terror, and frequently, breaks down the obstinate spirit.

Hardie was talking about the treadmill. Down the street from where I work, people pay for that same privilege at Boston Sports Club. The difference is not in the machine, but in the context. It may be worth differentiating the ‘grit’ necessary to overcome Kafkaesque demands on your attention and the ‘grit’ necessary to overcome natural adversity or obstacles attendant to goals of your own selection.

Consider the juxtaposition of the following, four scenes:

Only one of these is non-fiction. But for each one, take a moment to answer three questions:
  1. Why are the character(s) working so hard?
  2. Can you envision a grit class which would develop that motivation?
  3. Is it a worthwhile research agenda to develop alternative curricula and models exploring the plausibility of translating the characteristics of these environments to more traditionally academic (and remunerative) skills?

Most who sink in the time and energy to research and articulate opinions about education reform—much less design and implement interventions and alternatives—have the best of intentions. Understandably, this means that claims about the potentially oppressive consequences of various policies, rhetoric, and trends get stuck in the craw pretty easily. We respect teachers and care about our schools and are easily shamed by the achievement gaps that mock the very American brand of egalitarianism whose pursuit is so central to our love of public schools.

Despite this, whether it’s the Great Society or New Math or charter schools as originally championed by the American Federation of Teachers, there’s a long list of reforms which in one way or another, many feel have not only fallen short but been corrupted. Pundits injecting fresh rhetoric into the conversation can and should be attentive to how robust their intended message is to the ebb and flow of pressures and incentives in education.

With that in mind, let’s turn to four more artifacts. For each, imagine what the world would look and feel like with each of these taken to their extreme:

Now, consider what a book like How Children Succeed does when introduced to this mix. Worry, for a moment, about the various ways that the purest, most generous frame of "non cognitive skills training" might be perverted in this context. Is it possible that we’ll end up with rows upon rows of struggling students, preparing for a standardized state test on their Android tablets, overseen by a classroom manager with job security and training two steps above temp labor’s, hired in by Amplify, tracked by inBloom, and lining the coffers of a company like News Corp? After every couple hours of Khan Academy and test prep (sorry, those are the same now), they take a break during which the classroom manager and a character coach work together to run programs focusing on emotional control and perseverance whose implicit message is now nothing more than a psychological treadmill.

And in this dystopia—which doesn’t feel too far off for districts struggling to simultaneously chase buzzwords and save money—consider what the parallel experience at Exeter or even in just the 85th household income percentile suburb will look and feel like. Do you honestly think folks in those contexts are going to see "character development classes" standing in for academic and creative explorations as a positive development? Not to mention their children probably won’t be labeled as ‘needing’ them. Given that, isn’t is possible—likely, even—that the excitement of Tough et al unintentionally accelerates a progression toward an apartheid educational system where everyone goes to "school" but for some, that "school" looks more and more like a re-education camp?

Fundamentally, none of this is Paul Tough’s fault—these issues go to the very foundation of the frame of school as a mechanism for righting inequality. Which sounds great. And may even work. But because we think of school as something that happens to an individual, this frame makes it very easy for "School will fix X" to turn into "Those who suffer from X need treatment Y to overcome it." Which can too easily turn into a thinly veiled form of blaming the victim. How Children Succeed unwittingly plays accompaniment to this tune, proposing policies and a frame for education which—if taken seriously—will accelerate the already central role school plays in cultivating an underclass in America. And that impulse is understandable—school is everywhere and has access to enormous, formative time and experiences [not to mention resources].

But increasingly, we overload our omnipresent social institutions with the responsibility to synthesize an emotionally, intellectually healthy world within the institution. Whether it’s wraparound services in school or social medicine in our hospitals, many of our best intentioned programs attempt to bring more and more of life under the State’s purview. And there’s a big difference between being or becoming a citizen and being or becoming a ward.

In 1990, Steve Jobs said,

I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool-builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list; it was not too proud of a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And a man on a bicycle—or a human on a bicycle—blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is, it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. And it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

In 2013, Sal Khan said

You had a first wave in the late nineties, early two-thousand’s, it was kind of obvious, the internet’s about disseminating information, hey education! […] Well the PC, I mean Steve Jobs famously, originally, thought that the personal computer was going to be a treadmill for the brain.

And so in the twenty-three years since the creation of the World Wide Web, "a bicycle for the mind" became "a treadmill for the brain."

One helps you get where you want under your own power. Another’s used to simulate the natural world and is typically about self-discipline, self-regulation, and self-improvement. One is empowering; one is slimming. One you use with friends because it’s fun; the other you use with friends because it isn’t. One does things to you; one does things for you.

A mind is something human. A brain is an organ, something biological. We care about brains because they are the seat of our minds. You fall in love with someone’s mind. You gamify someone’s brain. Minds meet. Brains collide. You do things with one. You do things to another.

In 1824, when James Hardie wrote about the mechanism underlying the treadmill’s efficacy as a punishment, he commented not just on its monotony, but its simplicity and economy and versatility, too:

  1. 1st. No skill or time is requisite to learn the working of it.
  2. 2d. The prisoners cannot neglect their task, nor do it remissly, as all must work equally, in proportion to their weight.
  3. 3d. It can be used for every kind of manufactory, to which water, steam, wind or animal power is usually applied, and especially to the grinding of grain, for which every prison is at a great expense.
  4. 4th. As the mechanism of a Tread-Mill is not of a complicated nature, the regular employment, which it affords, is not likely to be often suspended, for want of repairs in the machinery, and should the supply of grain, at anytime, fail, it is not necessary, that the labour of the prisoners should be suspended j nor can they be aware of the circumstance; the supply of labour may, therefore be considered as unfailing.
  5. 5th. It is constant and sufficiently severe; but it is its monotonous steadiness and not its severity, which constitutes its terror, and frequently, breaks down the obstinate spirit.

These juxtapositions are unfair; they’re gotchas. They’re also relevant. Our tools and services increasingly do things to us, not for us. And they certainly aren’t about helping us to do things with them. There are few places this is clearer than our children—or more precisely, our students.

Learners Legible

Educators talk a lot about ‘personalization.’ Is the animating purpose of “personalization” in to render students legible? If it is, could Sal Khan take the Hippocratic oath?
The fallacy is to believe that under a dic­ta­torial government you can be free inside.”
— George Orwell, ‘As I Please’

inBloom’s mission is to “inform & involve each student & teacher with data & tools designed to personalize learning.” Focus on that word, “personalize.” At the moment, this is an exciting word for many people in education. In this crowd, there is a common distinction between ‘transmission’ and ‘construction’ as metaphors for teaching (construed as transmitting information) & learning (construed as constructing a mental model).

Framing teaching in terms of ‘transmission’ makes it a problem of communication and information. You become naturally concerned with clarity and structure and prerequisites. Issues like classroom management or student engagement become constraints that buttress or obstruct the primary focus: communicating to students.

Although this in fact is what typically happens in many classrooms, the party line of graduate schools of education and the broader world of educational theory is that transmission’s no good. So, you’ll often see teachers’ email signatures cite Yeats’ “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” or Hutchins’ “The objective of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” before going back to a classroom where they stand at the front.

Framing learning in terms of “construction” makes it a problem of giving students puzzles, projects, and experiences that develop their mental models. You become naturally concerned with engagement and epistemology and ideas’ expressive power. Issues like curriculum or assessment become constraints that buttress or obstruct the primary focus: surfacing & iterating learners’ models.

If this happens in classrooms, you’ll see it under the banner of ‘project-based learning’ or ‘learning by doing’ or ‘hands-on.’ But as with any words, these can and have been corrupted and diluted, often to denote their precise opposite, for myriad reasons—most driven by the gap between our nominal values and our functional priorities for education.

While progressive educators have reached nominal consensus that ‘construction’ trumps ‘transmission,’ that is not the point I’m trying to make. I just want to highlight the distinction these two, broad, rhetorical camps offer; I think it has a lot to teach us about personalization.

But before considering personalization in education, it is instructive to look around and consider ‘personalization’ in other domains. We should be suspicious any time we notice that classic trick of marketing something whose inverse is unimaginable—after all, who wouldn’t want personalized education? If you cannot invert the reform and find something someone reasonable might disagree with, you have a platitude on your hands. And platitudes that front for reforms corrupt their language and often end up running defense for other, more obscure dynamics.

Watch TV shows & movies anytime, anywhere.”

Netflix doesn’t talk much about personalization—they’ve had an incredibly consistent focus on becoming the “best way to rent a movie” since they began in 1999. Now, their value proposition is, “For one low monthly price, Netflix members can watch as much as they want, anytime, anywhere, on nearly any Internet-connected screen. Members can play, pause and resume watching, all without commercials or commitments.” You have to dig around a bit to find mention of their ratings system, “It’s only Members can rate the movies and TV shows they’ve watched through their TV or on the Netflix website. Netflix takes these ratings and pairs them with billions of other ratings by other Netflix members to accurately predict movies and TV shows members will enjoy.” This despite the fact that they famously hosted a million-dollar competition to improve the accuracy of their predictions.

So, what problem is personalization solving for Netflix? Well Netflix wants people to watch more movies. Finding movies that people want to watch is a natural solution to this. Sometimes, people don’t know what they want to watch or what they’d like. So a matching algorithm helps them find something customers want.

Happy Birthday!”

Imagine it’s your girlfriend’s birthday. You want to get her a gift. Do you get her a personalized gift? “Well, sure.” But you probably don’t use that language unless you’re monogramming or tailoring it. (Set those examples to the side; we’ll be seeing more like them.) We assume gifts are personalized unless they’re giveaway swag. How do you personalize your gift? Well, hopefully you know them well enough to simulate whether they’d like a given trinket. Sometimes we need help brainstorming trinkets, but rarely—at least with those girlfriends we know well—do we need help deciding whether they’ll like it. To brainstorm, you might browse their Pinterest or keep a list of things they want or head to their social wishlist.

So, what problem is this process of personalization solving for you? It’s helping you find something they want.

I’m looking for someone who can read my profile and write an intelligent message and isn’t a serial killer”

Imagine you’re single. And 26. Most of your friends from college have moved on. You’ve just finished your graduate program and are quickly discovering you never actually learned how to make friends. Much less find a date. Luckily, there’s an app for that. So you fill out your OKCupid profile, answer their hundred-question personality test, and start browsing. When you use OKCupid’s special blend or Quiver features, you’re getting personalized dating advice and matchmaking.

But unlike our examples so far, it’s subtler than “helping you find what you want.” Sure, you can search for “single, straight, very attractive blond, measurements 36-24-36, looking for casual sex in my area” but that’s not what OKCupid is for. In OKCupid, personalization is a mix of matching and satisfying you. OKCupid aspires to find people you want whom you have some better-than-average chance of getting whom also want you.

Does this make me look fat?”

Imagine you’re shopping for a shirt. You walk into the department store and an associate comes up to help you. At their best, you might say they’re working to ‘personalize’ your shirt—helping you find one appropriate for a given occasion or one that’ll complement your wardrobe or accommodate your tummy. But there’s a big difference between the personalization something like Blank Label provides (tailored fit) and something like spreadshirt (customized prints). Blank Label is matching you—i.e. personalization is helping you find something appropriate for your body. spreadshirt is matching your desires—i.e. personalization is customization. In both cases you ‘want’ the shirt (and indeed, even Blank Label offers customization through choice of pattern and fabric), but in one case you’re asking someone to treat you and in the other to serve you. Keep this distinction in mind, we’ll come back to it.

I’m ready to up my weight.”

Imagine you walk into the gym with your weightlifting partner. You lie down on the bench, and they begin loading up your regular load—180lbs. But last time, your partner saw that you were having a pretty easy time of it. As he puts on the last 10lb weight he pauses to ask, “You want to bump up your weight? You seemed ready for it last time.” Now if the bench press had automatically suggested this to you based on measuring your impedance and completion rate, you wouldn’t be surprised to see the inevitable Valley startup’s page lead with, Helping you personalize your weight training experience. So what is your friend doing? It’s a little more complicated than our other examples. They’re helping you find a weight that’s appropriate for you (in this way they are personalizing things as Blank Label does), but there are a bunch of other functions they serve: e.g. egging you on. Unfortunately, these affective components of your experience don’t really have a rhetorical home in discussions of personalization. But [un]luckily for you, “gamification” has got that covered.

Anyway, let’s return to education. What type of problem is personalization solving in education? I can’t speak for advocates of personalization or even its target audiences, but I see one, overarching theme tying together personalization efforts. If we look at what school does rather than what graduate schools of education say, we might model ‘education’ as a process of exposing students to the right information at the right time and in the right order, ‘personalization’ becomes the process of defining ‘right’ and making the implementation of more correct answers scalable. Which almost sounds like our earlier analogies’ mix of matching and satisfaction. Except there’s a tension when we look more closely at the structure of whose desires and constraints are being satisfied. And that tension points to the driving force behind personalization: its promise to render learners legible.

Rendering learners legible

James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is one of my very favorite books. In it, Scott walks through half a dozen “schemes to improve the human condition” that have failed. Whether introducing permanent last names to lubricate tax collection or subdividing land into plots to support industrial agriculture or centralizing planning in high modernist cities like Brasilia to increase efficiency, Scott tells a compelling story about the pressure to render resources—human and natural—“legible.” Scott paints “legibility” as a primary force in the practice of statecraft specifically and modernism more broadly because of its role as precursor to control and value extraction. In doing so, Scott beautifully articulates a terrifying warning against the combination of institutional hubris and authoritarian structures. Planners of all stripes not only assume they understand the systems they tweak (whether natural or political) but that abstract, interchangeable elements comprise these systems (whether trees or citizens). The resulting design errors and ripples of unintended consequences become either the systems’ undoing, or are seen as cause for even broader mandates to tweak and engineer systems, piling intervention atop intervention.

These failures are tragedies in the purest sense. Not only do they originate in hubris, but are also motivated by optimistic and altruistic views of progress and humankind. Scott traces these tragic dimensions back to a common set of characteristics, many of which are germane to our investigation. Consider the following juxtapositions (here, I quote Scott directly):

  • Another student, another user— “The lack of context and particularity is not an oversight; it is the necessary first premise of any large-scale planning exercise. To the degree that the subjects can be treated as standardized units, the power of resolution in the planning exercise is enhanced.”
  • What’s missing is access to the right information at the right time—it’s all about information transmission— “The clarity of the high-modernist optic is due to its resolute singularity. Its simplifying fiction is that, for any activity or process that comes under its scrutiny, there is only one thing going on. In the scientific forest there is only commercial wood being grown; in the planned city there is only the efficient movement of goods and people; in the housing estate there is only the effective delivery of shelter, heat, sewage, and water; in the planned hospital there is only the swift provision of professional medical services.”
  • Average’ teachers & students need our help— “What is perhaps most striking about high-modernist schemes, despite their quite genuine egalitarian and often socialist impulses, is how little confidence they repose in the skills, intelligence, and experience of ordinary people.”
  • If students are not doing what they should, we can make them— “If such schemes have typically taken their most destructive human and natural toll in the states of the former socialist bloc and in revolutionary Third World settings, that is surely because there authoritarian state power, unimpeded by representative institutions, could nullify resistance and push ahead.”
  • Personalization will disrupt a broken industry— “[Reforms’] power, it is worth remembering, was least contested at those moments when other forms of coordination had failed or seemed utterly inadequate to the great tasks at hand: in times of war, revolution, economic collapse, or newly won independence.”
  • Technology will unlock students’ potential and provide great education to all— “That these tragedies could be so intimately associated with optimistic views of progress and rational order is in itself a reason for a searching diagnosis.”

Some domains—like movie recommendations—are amenable to simplifying assumptions. The unarticulated reasons underlying this are many, but consider: the screen you need doesn’t change depending on the movie you show; all movies are files; most movies occupy similar roles in your day-to-day (i.e. they are a two hour endeavor in the evening); Netflix doesn’t need to care about why you want a movie to give it to you effectively; the list goes on.

But many of these advantages can be summed up simply: movies and movie-watchers are legible. And while there’s a fascinating discussion to be had connecting the modernist efforts Scott explores with the internal structure & logic of school, that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to highlight that each of these overlaps—abstraction, techno-utopianism, information centricity, and so on—is deeply driven by or complicit in a need to render students legible in an effort to create a system at scale. And that need to create a system at scale is driven by our desire—rightly or wrongly—to impose a will on students to fix “a social problem.”

Personalization accelerates and lubricates this process of rendering students legible. To see this unvarnished, we must examine the language of those advocating personalization. And in that language, if you listen for power dynamics you will find a very different landscape than what you heard in our earlier work exploring analogies to personalization. As you read these excerpts from inBloom and Khan Academy, ask yourself what the analogous statements from the weight trainer or birthday buyer or Netflix executive would look like.

With access to the right information, educators can gauge student performance, develop insights, and act quickly to help students achieve their goals”

Read that again. Whose are ‘their’ goals?

Coaches, parents, and teachers have unprecedented visibility into what their students are learning and doing on the Khan Academy.”

Read that again. Given the option, how many students would naturally give well-meaning “Coaches, parents, and teachers” that visibility, if the choice were students’?

Every time you work on a problem or watch a video, the Khan Academy remembers what you’ve learned and where you’re spending your time. We keep all of this data private but expose powerful statistics to each user and their coaches. You get at-a-glance information about everything you’ve been learning and whether or not you’ve been hitting your goals.”

Read that again. For every minute a “coach” spends looking at that data, how many minutes do you think the average learner will spend—of their own volition—doing the same?

You’re joining millions of Khan Academy students from all over the world who learn at their own pace every single day.”

Read that again. Is the average student more or less excited to join the millions of Khan Academy students than the average ”coach” is excited to join the thousands of Khan Academy coaches?

Returning to our earlier examples of personalization—the weight trainer and birthday buyer and Netflix customer—what does it mean that there is no such tension in those examples? I think that’s quite significant. If you aren’t convinced, two more examples of personalization—if you’ll bear with me—will make that clear.

more open & connected”

Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. 85% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising. Which means Facebook’s users are not its customers. And you can hear that tension in everything Facebook says and does. Even in Zuckerberg’s letter to investors, it takes a few paragraphs to get to the money shot: > “As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives. > One result of making it easier to find better products is that businesses will be rewarded for building better products - ones that are personalized and designed around people. We have found that products that are “social by design” tend to be more engaging than their traditional counterparts, and we look forward to seeing more of the world’s products move in this direction.”

Notice how sloppily Facebook slips between customers and users, between ‘being advertised to’ and ‘keeping up with my friends,’ between ‘providing product recommendations’ and ‘making the world more open and connected.’

manage your attention better”

But Facebook is not alone. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” 96% of their revenue comes from advertising. But you could be forgiven if you were to browse their about page and miss that. Which notably, begins with the rhetoric of personalization, “Larry Page, our co-founder and CEO, once described the ‘perfect search engine’ as something that ‘understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.’

The first hint that Google’s users are not its customers is buried a couple paragraphs down, “[Making it as easy as possible for you to find the information you need and get the things you need to do done] means showing you when your friends like an ad or a search result, so that you know it might be valuable.” In 2010, Bradley Horowitz, VP of Product Marketing at the time, described Google Buzz as ‘a Google approach to sharing’ and a tool that will ‘help you manage your attention better.’ The most generous possible interpretation is in fact, “Advertisers will hire us to help you manage your attention better.” Notice again the easy slippage between customers and users, between attention and ads, between helping and selling.

Now, let’s return to inBloom: “With access to the right information, educators can gauge student performance, develop insights, and act quickly to help students achieve their goals.” Read that again. That glib slippage between the interests of students and teachers is central to the rhetorical trick pulled by ‘personalization.’ It manifests as the conflation of teaching and learning, of learning and assessment, of process and product. The reason this slippage happens is simple: without it, Facebook, Google, and Khan Academy would need to admit that they are extracting value from their users by rendering them legible to other parties (i.e. advertisers, educators). This is the fundamental difference between Reed Hastings and Sal Khan. Netflix makes money when they deliver value to you. inBloom makes money when they deliver value to state departments of education, whose goal is not uncomplicated—at their best they want to help students, but the truer statement (and weaker claim) is that they want to treat them. inBloom helps them control and manage the treatment process.

To control a process you must first observe it. And you must be able to intervene in it, capitalizing on your observations to nudge the system in your desired direction. Ultimately, this is the promise of legibility—by watching what students do and how they do it at a fine enough grain, we will be able to carefully move them along our curriculum (Latin for “race course”), our ontology.

When you hear “personalization” (“I will help you find and do what you want”) turn into “self-paced” (“I will help you find and do what I want you to do, in my order, but don’t worry—at your own pace.”), what are we to think? Ford said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” That homogenization increased the efficiency and scalability of his revolutionary manufacturing techniques. This is worth keeping in mind when we listen to Sal Khan:

If I said, ‘personalized education’ hundred years ago, well there’s private tutors, it’s gonna be very very expensive…And there were attempts, the book talks a lot about them, over the past hundred years, actually trying to do personalized education. […] And they actually had very good results. I mean, these were peer-reviewed studies, very very good results, but it was just logistically hard to do. If you wanted to do self-paced education without computers you’d have to have these worksheets going around, the teachers would have to do all of this logistics and information management. What’s exciting now, the technology, it’s not there—and I’m very clear on this in the book—the virtual education, the software isn’t there to replace physical schools. It’s there to empower schools, so they can finally do personalized education, in a scalable way.”

Maybe my dystopic visions of banks of students swiping at shoddy Android tablets running skinned versions of crappy, free courses authored by i3-driven content farms ‘collaborating’ with Google via their Course Builder, overseen not by teachers but by “classroom managers” whom the kids (who are inevitably mostly poor, black, and brown—their white, upper middle class counterparts get ‘personalized’ education in the form of, well, people. i.e. teachers at the local progressive school) call “wardens” behind their back is just my phobias writ large on the arc of technological progress.

And though I worry…

…I really do hope I’m wrong. I hope this is all much simpler than I’m making it out to be. But if “personalized education” neither resembles traditional school nor learning in the real world, whose interests drive that divergence? What answers to that question would scare us? Excite us? The question, “Can personalized education work?” is much less important to me than, “Whom will be hurt how by the ways that personalized education will fail?” It is essential that reforms not simply ‘work’ but be robust to all sorts of ways of not working. And frankly, I’m not sure that an honest Sal Khan would be comfortable taking the Hippocratic Oath, to commit to first do no harm, with which I will close, in excerpt:

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. […] I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts. […] I will leave this operation [in which I am not expert] to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art. […] In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients […] If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.

Some Observations
on Habits

For some school is a place and others it is a process. For all, it is an institution. And institutions need rituals. To most, these rituals seem the mechanics enabling school’s nominal goal: knowledge transfer. But habits can define us, and perhaps the cumulative effects of our time’s texture are more important than how we use that time in the first place.

Every morning, I brush my teeth. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” I brush in multiples of seven. I shift the toothbrush over one tooth. “One, two, three, four, five, six seven.” And I repeat. I do the same for the insides and tops of my teeth. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” Then I spit and brush my tongue. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” I take a gulp of water, swish seven times, and spit it out. Every morning.

This is a habit. I formed it intentionally. While I’m brushing my teeth—despite the fact I keep count—my mind wanders…to my dreams, the day ahead, the day behind. This habit serves to free my attention; it lets me focus on other things while I brush my teeth.

Every evening (except for Saturday), I draft a wilt. “wilt” stands for “what i learned today.” It’s an email with five bullet points. Three of those bullet points are observations about what I thought or learned that day. Two of them are wirts, i.e. “what i read today.” I send this email out to the same people, every day.

This is a habit. I formed it intentionally. While I’m wilting, however, I am thinking about nothing else; I am processing my day and doing occasionally hard thinking to communicate a new idea. This habit serves to focus my attention; it lets me ignore other things while I write.

I brush my teeth because the health of my teeth matters to me. I don’t want bad breath. I want to avoid dental bills. I want to avoid being having ugly teeth.

I wilt because of certain ideas I have about my intellectual development. I want to actively reflect on my experience. I want to keep in touch with the small group with whom I wilt. I want to set up a structure encouraging me to read something meaty every day.

Embedded in each of these habits is a set of values. By engaging in these habits, I privilege certain values. I am pushed to embrace those things which pay respect to those values—or even better, make these habits easier. “Cleanliness” or “intellectual rigor” or “easily documented” or “interesting to my friends” or “attractive to others”—each of these, with different weights and emphases, inform and are informed by my habits.

The arrow of causation can go both ways—not only does each habit carry with it a utility, each habit can inculcate the value of that utility in us. Anyone who has gone to Mass or boot camp can attest to this.

Moreover, adopting a habit normalizes certain expectations about how you handle “that type of thing.” Personal hygiene is seen as a collection of small habits like brushing my teeth. Successful first dates, not so much. We think it’s reasonable that ‘staying healthy’ require an hour a day of food and exercise considerations—even if most of us fall short of that. But, most wouldn’t think an hour a day of mental health care would be healthy unless it were reframed as something like meditation or family time.

I’d like to suggest that we can bring this lens of “freeing” and “focusing” habits and the expectations they normalize to our experiences as students. Consider the average school day. And in particular, consider its schedule. Few think about patriotism during the Pledge of Allegiance. Few think about obedience when a teacher calls out, “Give me five!” Some think about algebra during algebra class.

What about the schedule? What messages are embedded in the tempo of a buzzer every forty-seven minutes? Well, many—e.g. there’s a long history of critique digging into the economic and sociological forces defining the institutional logic of a ‘period.’ But actually, I’d like to set aside the various questions about what good learning looks like and what’s “necessary” to teach effectively in “today’s world.” I’d instead like to focus on a single, concrete side effect: the message we implicitly communicate about the nature of intellectual work. For at least eight years—just under nine thousand hours in school—the overwhelming majority of examples and experiences students have ‘learning something’ suggest that ‘learning’ happens in consistent, well-managed chunks of small, steady applications of effort to do something that someone else has laid out for you. This is the precise opposite of the deep work and focus that we know accompanies real learning.

Again, at the moment I am not concerned with pedagogy—i.e. with what ‘effective teaching’ looks like. Instead, I’d like to suggest a simple exercise: think through—minute by minute—a school day. (If you have a child of your own, even better—think through their day.) And don’t think about what the schedule says people do—i.e. don’t think, “Algebra class”—think about what you’d see if you could set up a videocamera and lay over the student’s thought-track for their day.

Now when I run into a challenging question, my muscle memory tells me to ⌘-tab to something easier. Sometimes it’s twitter, sometimes it’s my email, and most of the time I intercept the impulse. That’s what you’d see on my thought track (with a boring video of me staring at my computer, occasionally straightening my posture, and bobbing my head to a beat). These tiny vagaries give my time a texture. So be sure to think about that texture of each minute you imagine—is it spent deep in thought? Listening? Making something? Talking to someone? Thinking about a crush? Worrying about grades? Worrying about food?

Imagine integrating that habit over time, day-in and day-out, for one thousand days (about how long we spend in 6-12th grade). And importantly, imagine that you never see any other examples of learning. “Sure, ice skaters and actors and cellists quit school to pursue their craft,” you think, “But a) they’re nuts, b) that’s like 0.1% of folks, and c) my parents would never go for that.”

Now, consider the following juxtapositions. And for each of these, ask yourself, “If I were to turn each of these into a habit, what would that feel like? What habits would I develop or need? Following directions? Being playful? Skimming? Working together? Thinking deeply? Do I spend thirty minutes on a page or thirty seconds?”

William Shakespeare’s King Lear
Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes on King Lear

Or this one:

Or this one:

Khan Academy on similar triangles

Or this one:

O’Reilly’s MAKE Magazine

And finally, if you aren’t tired of the exercise yet, let’s turn it around. Choose a texture of time and activity you would be proud to see yourself (or your child) adopt as their own. Are they sitting in an overstuffed chair smoking a pipe considering Aristotle? Are they waking up at 4A every day to train for a marathon? Are they making sure to get home by 6P every day so they can spend some quality time with their child? Look at their day to day experiences now and consider how (or whether) there’s any connection at all.

The rhetoric of school centers on of ‘preparation.’ Students are immersed in prerequisites for future courses, many of which are unknown. Their participation in classes are themselves an act of preparation for more classes in college or for the workforce. Because cooking dinner is different than eating dinner, it is simple to conclude that preparing for a rich intellectual life should look and feel different than living a rich, intellectual life. But cooking and living are not the same. And just as spending too much time planning your kids’ activities can change your relationship to them, we should not forget that these habits of preparation do not spin along in a vacuum—they change us. And that means we should have some very persuasive stories lined up which we can honestly deploy every forty-seven minutes, after each buzzer.

Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your character.
And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.

— Lao Tse, author of the Tào Té Chīng

[Discussing a factor analysis of student performance in Edwards et al] Our theory would predict that at the high school level submission to authority would be the best predictor of grades among personality traits. […] This prediction was confirmed. […] The temperament and IQ variables made no independent contribution.

— Herbert Bowles & Samuel Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America

Thanks to Shaunalynn Duffy for reading drafts of this post. The good parts are her fault; the bad parts mine.


On Needing a Place for Small Things

drafted by alec on 23 February 2013
Most schools look and feel the same, and not because of long evolution under the pressures of ‘student-centered design.’ If biodiversity helps Nature find clever solutions, can it help those of us interested in the future of learning?

Tools as Cargo Cult Pedagogy

drafted by alec on 29 January 2013
An overweening preoccupation with tools is the mark of an amateur. The notion of a “best tool” inevitably producing “good work” is a distraction at best. And in some, amateurish corners of programming culture, it’s a real obstacle to good learning.

On Intellectual Craftsmanship”

drafted by alec on 31 December 2012
With apologies to C. Wright Mills and Seymour Papert, as well as thanks to Aaron Swartz, we’ve retrofitted Mills’ classic with some of Papert’s vocabulary to sketch out what we hope this blog will be, at its best.