The Misuse of “Data” (the Word)

The misuse of the word “data” in education has been bothering me for a long time. People call all sorts of things “data” that aren’t data, with the intent, I suppose, of sounding scientific. At schools around the country, teachers working on “inquiry teams” examine “student data”–that is, their essays and other work. Why not just call them essays? My complaint goes beyond the trivial. When you call things “data” that aren’t data, you distort both the things themselves and the methodology used to examine them. So let’s keep “data” where it belongs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the mass noun “data” as “Related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis, or calculation.”

So, for instance, student test scores, ages, family income, ethnic background, and home languages could be considered data. The first three are numerical to begin with; the latter two can be sorted and counted.

Survey results are “data” but must be treated with caution, as seemingly like elements might not be similar at all. Seventy-two percent of students might indicate that they are “happy” with their school, but “happy” could mean many different things.

Certain things are not data but are routinely called data. These include lessons, conferences, student work, lesson plans, lesson observations, reflection pieces, and more. These must be rescued from the “data” denomination and called by their real names.

Why? Because when you are reading student essays, you may well be looking for general tendencies, but you are also treating each one on its own. You could calculate how many essays had clear thesis statements, but that wouldn’t give you a clue about what the thesis statements actually were. Even among clear ones, some have more substance and promise than others. You could count how many paragraphs began with topic sentences, but a paragraph need not always begin with a topic sentence. Much depends on what the student is trying to do. An essay has an interplay of ideas, details, and organizing principles; it cannot be broken into bits that then add up to the whole.

Why do some educators and many policymakers want to call everything data? I presume it’s because it makes the work sound more scientific. There are two problems with this. First, slapping scientific terms on things doesn’t make them scientific; it’s an insult to science and mathematics. Second, education is not and should not be entirely scientific. It draws amply on the humanities and builds and sustains culture.

Humanities are not fuzzy, flimsy, or fluffy. They have their own logic and standards; they are just as exacting as the sciences but in different ways. Discerning the remarkable in Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” (thanks to Michele Kerr for reminding me of the poem) takes a good ear, an understanding of sonnets, and even some knowledge of plants and philosophy. But it takes more than that. You have to be well attuned to poetry’s shifts and structures. You may grasp something of the poem at a naive level, but as you read on and on, and come back to it over time, you grasp more. Yes, there is some systematic methodology in poetic analysis, but systematic methodology alone won’t get you far. You need to build yourself a realm and dwell in it.

That’s part of what education does: it builds realms. It is exacting, exhilarating work, and only some of it is data.

The Mayor’s Dream Dialogue

The New York State Legislature has passed a law prohibiting the publication of teachers’ test score ratings but allowing parents to view them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t happy about this. He has decreed, therefore, that principals and assistant principals shall call all the parents to inform them of their right to see the scores.

Now, I am sure he has heard from many a reputable source about the problems with value-added ratings and the importance of regarding them skeptically. Yet he remains convinced that these ratings hold Truth.

But what makes him think principals agree with him? What makes him sure that they’ll say what he wants them to say on the phone? What does he hope they’ll say?

Perhaps he is hoping for a million conversations like this:

Principal: Hello, may I please speak with Leonora Thonge?

Ms. Thonge: Speaking.

Principal: Good morning, Ms. Thonge. This is Principal Eigenvalue of your son’s failing school P.S. 2345. I am calling to tell you that you may come to the school to view your teachers’ value-added ratings–that is, the ratings based on test score data.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, please tell me now! I have been desperate for the truth!

Principal: I would like to… but the ARIS database is down, and I am not allowed to give you the information over the phone. The union has my hands tied, you see. That’s one of many reasons why you should consider a charter school for Bernard.

Ms Thonge: I understand. I will be there shortly.

(Half an hour later, in the principal’s office.)

Ms. Thonge (weeping): His English and math teachers are both below average? And I thought they were so intelligent, so caring…

Principal (handing Ms. Thonge a box of tissues): There, now. It’s common for parents and students to think well of a teacher. That’s why we need the data to set the record straight.

Ms. Thonge: Are you sure these ratings are correct? I have heard that they are often wildly inaccurate.

Principal (in a confidential whisper): Don’t believe it. These are based on hard data and state-of-the-art formulas, and that’s as true as true can be.

Ms. Thonge: But what am I to do now? Where am I to take my Bernard, my poor little boy?

Principal: Well, as you may know, we’re a turnaround school. This means we will be firing half of the teachers soon. The ones we keep will be the ones with above-average ratings. I’m the Interim Turnaround Principal and won’t be here much longer myself. So you are welcome to wait it out. However, it’s a gorgeous day, and I suggest you go shopping!

Ms. Thonge: What do you take me for? Do you think I want to buy anything after hearing this shattering news?

Principal: No, no, I meant school-shopping! You can ask for their value-added scores and choose the school that promises the most growth for Bernard. I will recommend a few for you.

Ms. Thonge: Do they have a Shakespeare program, like this school does? Bernard loved the Shakespeare so much. He sometimes had the whole family act out scenes.

Principal: Shakespeare isn’t on the test. That’s part of what dragged  our school down: tearching things that weren’t on the test. The schools I’m recommending are completely test-aligned–or will be, once they start. They’re all brand-new. This will be good for your son. There won’t be any history to hold him back.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, thank you, thank you for putting my son first!

Principal: Thank the data. Without the data, none of this would be possible. We would all be trapped in our human ways.  In fact, I’m about to go to Data Mass, which starts at noon. You are most welcome to join me.

Ms. Thonge: Thank you! I will join you in adoring the data, from which all blessings derive, and then I will check out some schools. Oh, what a day of joy! Before we head over, do you mind if I ask you something off script?

Principal: Off script? I’m a figment of the mayor’s dream! I don’t know how to go off script.

Ms. Thonge: Let me put it this way. What do you really think about all this?

The principal flushes into life, and they end up talking for another hour. The mayor, still dreaming, waves his arms and shouts, “Cut! Cut!” but to no avail.

The End

No to Multiple-Choice Music Tests, But….

I’ve been following some of the recent news about the development of standardized music tests. Dana Goldstein’s Slate article met with responses from Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, and Nancy Flanagan; many teachers and others offered comments. From what I’ve seen, most commenters oppose standardized tests in the arts because it emphasizes conformity over creativity, serves the wrong purposes, and restricts arts curricula. They do not oppose arts assessment in general; to the contrary, they argue for various kinds of thoughtful assessment.

I agree that multiple-choice tests are no way to assess arts performance or understanding. They could possibly serve to assess a small portion of the learning, but not the whole. That said, I believe some kind of common, standardized assessment has a place and could do a great deal of good. I will focus on music here.

My licenses are in ELA and ESL, but I have brought music into my teaching from the start. In my first four years of teaching, I directed my English Language Learners and other students in three musicals and a play that involved music: The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For many of these children, it was their first time singing in harmony or performing on stage. Some did not know at first how to judge whether they were in tune, so I included some ear training, which led to moments where things “clicked.” I also taught them how to breathe when singing, how to project their voices, and how to shape phrases. Some of them had great intuition for this and went far beyond my teaching. We practiced those songs again and again, and by the time the students could sing them, they were proud, amazed, and joyous. (Michael Winerip wrote a moving article for the New York Times about my students’ rehearsals and performance of The Wizard of Oz.)

The “assessment” here was built into the rehearsals and, of course, the performance. The audience could see how much the students had put into these productions and how much they had learned. Some of it was specific, concrete learning (such as scales, arpeggios, rhythms, and lyrics), some of it less tangible. Some of it came from the students and their own understanding; some, from the hours and hours of practice, and some, from the encounter with specific pieces, songs, and plays. The students were not only learning how to sing and perform, but also gaining exposure to musical theater, American and British culture, and (in the last case) Shakespeare. Some of this could be tested fairly easily; some of it, not easily at all.

I hoped to give my students certain kinds of music instruction I had missed. That sounds a bit odd, because I was unusually fortunate. I began taking cello lessons, at school, at age 8 and continued with formal study for another ten years. I spent two summers in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood, played in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, played duets with a friend, studied with a member of the Boston Symphony (a wonderful teacher), sang in choruses, and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra as a freshman at Yale. As an adult, I have played in various ensembles and bands, recorded with some of my favorite songwriters, and written songs. But it is painful to realize that I still have many technical flaws—due in part to my continued scrambling with fundamentals.

There was a strange discrepancy in my training. Along the way, teachers told me that I was musically gifted; some waxed euphoric about my abilities. Yet, for the first four or five years, each new teacher told me that I had learned just about everything wrong and had to start from scratch. Though I practiced and practiced, I did not overcome this scourge. Several times, when auditioning for a particular teacher or for admission to a music school, I was rejected flat out because of my poor technique. The main problem was that I had no technical core. Teachers had taught me different ways of holding the bow and fingering, but until high school, no one taught me the underlying principles of relaxation, breathing, and fluid motion. Also, I tackled difficult pieces early on before I was ready for them. Most of my teachers let me do this, as they didn’t want to stifle my enthusiasm.

It would have been great if I had learned some fundamentals at the outset, in my first few years of study. It would have been even better if cello teachers generally agreed on what those fundamentals were and insisted that their students master them. I don’t fault my first teacher; she gave me the gift of an introduction to the cello, and I have no way of judging now how well she taught me. I do fault a system that treats children as non-serious amateurs until they prove otherwise, and that lacks consistency in early instruction.

I have seen other approaches to music instruction. In high school, I spent a year in Moscow and attended music school in addition to regular school. My teacher in the U.S. had suggested that I study with the great Natalia Gutman. Thrilled and honored by this suggestion, I called her shortly after our arrival and spoke to her in halting Russian. She told me graciously that she wasn’t taking on students and recommended that I audition for admission to the pre-conservatory school.

The cellist who listened to my audition said my technique was seriously deficient. He referred me to a good district music school, where I was placed in the fifth grade (in regular school, I was in the Soviet ninth grade, the equivalent of our tenth or eleventh).

The school followed the Soviet music curriculum. I spent almost the entire year on the Goltermann Concerto in B minor (not one of my favorite pieces). I played many technical exercises, practiced about four hours a day, had private lessons twice a week, and took ear training and music history classes as well. My teacher wouldn’t accept a note even slightly out of tune. “Chishche! Chishche!” (roughly, “Cleaner! Cleaner!”) she would cry out. I adored her and appreciated her demands. She appreciated my creative work as well; when I brought in a composition one day, she took time out of the lesson to have the accompanist play it. At the end of the year, I performed before a jury, as all students did; I was awarded the highest possible grade.

I do not glorify the Soviet system of music instruction. (The curriculum was too rigid; I should not have spent a whole year on Goltermann.) One thing I do applaud: there was a common understanding of what good technique entailed and in what sequence it should be taught. This did not impede musicality or joy; my classmates at the music school delighted in what they were doing, partly because they were learning to do it well. The performance before the jury was scary but also exciting. (If I remember correctly, the jury recognized expressiveness as well as technique.) My musical experience there was by no means limited to music school; I attended many concerts on my own, including performances by Gutman herself. Her performance of the Shostakovich sonata stands out among my memories.

What does this have to do with assessment in the arts? A certain kind of standardization at the beginning levels, conducted in the right spirit, for the right reasons, and with room for exceptions, would help young students enormously. Now, music instruction in schools takes many forms and directions. A school may lack resources for instrumental instruction, so it may focus on singing (granted, the voice is an instrument), theory, music appreciation, and music history. Or it may offer band and orchestra electives to those who already play. That’s a separate issue in itself; since music instruction can mean so many different things, there’s no single test, multiple-choice or otherwise, that can measure it. But let’s say a school does offer violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and other lessons. Shouldn’t it have a clear understanding of what the basics are, an understanding that it shares with other schools? Shouldn’t it have a way of testing the students along the way, to make sure they’re learning properly? Wouldn’t this open up possibilities for students, instead of closing them off?

My Galvanic Afternoon

I have just gone on a run around Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I’m sweating and thirsty as I walk home. I think of getting some water at a store but figure I’ll wait. Then a voice gurgles, “Diana! Wouldn’t you like some juice? We have your favorite juice, pomegranate juice.” I look around to see who’s talking but spot no one. 

Last week, the doctor gave me a galvanic skin response bracelet for my running. Since then, various buildings have been calling out to me. At first I thought it was someone addressing another Diana, or perhaps myself going mad, but then I realized it happened only when I was wearing the bracelet.

I refuse the offer with a shake of the head and walk on. The next few stores don’t say a word. But just when I’m about a block away from home, another store whispers, “Diana! You’re almost home now. Wouldn’t you like to get some juice and cat food? We’ll give you a discount.”  

“No,” I say, “no! And stop bothering me.”

When I get home, though, the phone rings. It’s a customer service representative from the bracelet company. “I’m calling you to offer you emotional support with your bracelet experience,” he tells me. “We offer free robot therapy to customers who are having difficulty according to the data. This phone call is scripted and monitored for quality assurance.”

“I want out of this plan,” I tell him. “The doctor said this would be used to measure my temperature and heart rate while I’m running. I don’t want robots or talking stores.”

“Your bracelet has multiple purposes,” he says with drilled pleasantness.

“Why didn’t anyone inform me of this?”

“It’s explained on one of the consent forms you signed.”

“Who has access to my data?”

“Anyone, unless you request one of the restriction plans.”

“What can I do to turn it off entirely?”

“You are entitled to bring it back to your doctor and opt out of the benefits. However, you might want to consider Data Plan 1, which gives you the highest level of control over the data. It’s only 59 dollars a month and comes with free cable, mobile phone, robot therapy, and a vacation package.”

“I don’t watch TV.”

“I suggest you try it. There’s a whole channel devoted to News for You. That’s a state-of-the-art program compiled from all the existing news shows and commercials and customized to your interests.”

“Sorry, not interested,” I say. “I think I’ll just have to throw the bracelet out.”

“Throwing it out is a federal offense,” he replies, “due to the sensitivity of the data. If you really want to opt out of the plan, you’ll need to return it to your doctor. However, we can offer you Data Plan 1A, which has internet service instead of TV. That’s only ten dollars more per month.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather return it to my doctor.”

As soon as I hang up, the phone rings again. It’s my doctor. “I see on my screen that you aren’t happy with the bracelet,” he says. “Could I persuade you to keep using it for another month?” He explains that he has agreed to meet a data quota. “I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but one day we’ll all be wearing these things.”

I tell him that whatever the future holds, I’d rather not wear this when I don’t have to. “I’ll stop by on my way to class,” I say. I head over to the office immediately.

“We’re so sorry it didn’t work for you,” the receptionist says when I hand her the bracelet.

“I’m not,” I reply. “But thank you anyway.”

I make my way to baroque architecture class. I start when I see the professor handing out bracelets at the door. “Even here?” I ask, but she only smiles at me.

Once we’ve donned our devices and taken our seats, she displays Longhena’s Church of the Scalzi, a ghastly edifice. She looks at her monitor. “I see high energy levels from most of you,” she says, “so we’ll be focusing on this church for a while. This is how we’re teaching now. Instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum based on outmoded ideas, we’re looking at what really excites you.”

I slip out of the room, leaving the bracelet behind, dash down the stairs, and make a run through campus to the street. Then I hear a voice coming from an old brick wall: “Diana! Consider turning back. You have rejected the future and failed the course!”

“The future!” I retort. “We’re talking bad Baroque!”

“It’s the future, because it’s you,” says the wall. “The data show it’s you.”

But I make my way past the wall, and no more walls address me.

I tell one of these walls how grateful I am for its noble lack of words. “Keep it up,” I say. “Stay mum, no matter what the pressure.”

I doubt the wall was listening, but it was worth a try.

Tetrahedra and Truth

Let’s say you have a tetrahedron (a polyhedron consisting of four conjoined triangles). You project each of its points onto a flat surface, along lines perpendicular to the surface. Depending on the tilt of the tetrahedron in relation to the surface, you will end up with either a triangle or a quadrilateral.

Now, both the triangle and the quadrilateral tell truth about the tetrahedron, but neither one tells the complete truth. However, if you rotated the tetrahedron and captured enough projections along the way, then you could determine the tetrahedron’s shape from the projections alone (if you already knew that it was a convex polyhedron). In other words, by considering the changes of the projections in time, you could see beyond the projections’ two-dimensional aspect to the tetrahedron’s three-dimensional shape. (You can try rotating a tetrahedron here.)

To even begin this project, you have to suspect that there’s something beyond the flat shapes that you see. You think: “Yesterday it had four sides. Today it has three. Something’s up with that.” Without such suspicion, you’re a prisoner in Plato’s cave, believing in the shadows on the wall because you’ve seen nothing else.

Now, suppose the tetrahedron were not stable in shape. Suppose it were crumbling or melting. Then you could not determine its shape from the projections. You could only approximate it—that is, by observing projections very close to each other in time and trying to spot abnormal changes. A sort of calculus would come into play. The more regular the tetrahedron’s disintegration, the more accurate your calculations would be. The projections would only pick up certain kinds of changes; they wouldn’t show concavities, for instance, if the edges were still intact.

Things get even more complicated if time itself is unstable: if it slows down, speeds up, loops around, breaks apart, or comes to an end (in relation to some other measure). We won’t get into that.

Imagine, now, that the phenomena in our lives are (at their very simplest) tetrahedral. Our instant impressions are limited, as they don’t capture the full shape of the phenomena. It takes time, knowledge, and insight to perceive their shapes.

We should not, then, place much value on the instant update or newest thing (the quick projection of part of the tetrahedron onto paper), except insofar as it adds to our knowledge and understanding. The latest projection is in itself no treasure; we must look to the old ones as well and—since we can’t spend all our time observing projections of tetrahedra—to other people’s interpretations of these shapes.

This is why we study history, literature, science, history of science, mathematics, philosophy, and music. It’s also why our current drive to collect instantaneous data on everyone (where we are, who our friends are, what our emotional reactions are to every possible product or classroom gesture) will do more harm than good. The purposes of such data-gathering are limited, even crude; the point is not to build wisdom or understanding, but to boost sales, test scores, and other quick results.

For example, developers and marketers have been considering the use of biometric bracelets not only in classrooms but in everyday life. Your bracelet will tell some subset of the world where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re responding to that activity. Marketers and customers, then, can respond to you accordingly. But what happens, then, to friendship, which depends on voluntary disclosure and voluntary reserve?

Suppose I meet with a friend for dinner; what I do not say is as important as what I do, and both are my choice, to the extent that we choose such things. I learn about my friend through the things she chooses to tell me and the things that make her pause or stay quiet. Biometric bracelet data would ruin this. (“I see you were at the doctor’s office earlier today. Is everything OK? … Oh, is that so? I know you had a brain scan there. Why a brain scan, of all things?”) 

We can gather all sorts of data about people, but such data are little more than flat projections. Take that in stride, and those flat projections, maybe, can tell you something. Treat them like the real stuff, and you send your brains rolling down the hill.

The Biometric Bracelet and the End of Daydreaming

Children won’t be able to get away with daydreaming much longer. If their mind wanders “off task,” a sensor will catch them.

News broke recently that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.4 million in grants to researchers who will experiment with “biometric” bracelets in middle schools around the country. (These bracelets send a small electrical current across the skin and then measure the electrical changes as the wearer responds to stimuli.)  The researchers intend to use them to measure student “engagement” and to determine which parts of a lesson (or reading or other activity) show higher engagement levels than others. Supposedly, through analyzing engagement levels in this manner, the researchers can deliver recommendations for raising engagement overall. The Reuters article explains:

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Such use of sensors in educational experiments is by no means new. Researchers at MIT, Arizona State University, and UMass Amherst have been developing “affect-aware tutors”—cartoon characters that respond to the students’ moods. Various sensors (including a mental state camera, posture analysis seat sensor, pressure mouse sensor, and skin conductance bracelet) detect the user’s state of mind; the cartoon character then responds. If a student shows frustration with a math problem, for instance, a cartoon might pop up with an expression of concern and say, “Gee, that was difficult. Would you like to try something easier?” (I discuss this in the eighth chapter of my book.)

Now, something is deeply wrong with all of this—in fact, there’s so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to get it all into a short space. But I’ll give it a try. Many more responses can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog (for instance, here and here).

First of all, these bracelet sensors are invasive. Students (and people in general) have a right to their own thoughts and thought patterns. Yes, a teacher may demand attention in the classroom, but what goes on inside a student’s head remains his or her own business. Yes, sometimes doctors use sensors to test us, but they do this with our consent, for medical reasons. Privacy is a complex subject; what belongs to each of us alone, and what belongs to society? The answer cannot be determined through science; it is an ethical and philosophical matter. We must use our best judgment and conscience when drawing the line.

Second, engagement in itself is not necessarily a good in the classroom; higher levels do not necessarily mean more learning. Engagement comes in many forms and has complex rhythms. There is fleeting engagement—entertainment—that fades as soon as object moves away. There are behaviors that do not look like engagement but actually are (a student may look off to the side in order to think about something the teacher just said). A student working at home on a difficult problem will have ups and downs of engagement—puzzling over the problem, trying this approach, ending up in a rut, shaking the head, getting up and walking around, sitting down again and trying another approach, and finally figuring it out. All in all, engagement is secondary to what’s actually going on (which we must interpret with full mind).

Boosting engagement could even degrade instruction. Rosalind Picard (mentioned in the quote above) imagines teachers using the bracelets to determine the most “engaging” points of a reading. They can then zero in on these points in class discussion. Have the researchers spoken with teachers and professors of literature? Do they know how literature works? The most engaging points are not necessarily the most important ones. Sometimes subtle details prove essential to the story. Sometimes the ending confuses the reader at first and then suddenly makes sense. When selecting points of a story (or essay or other work) for discussion, one should think about the story itself, not the engagement levels. A “lively” discussion driven by “engagement data” could be supremely shallow.

Finally (for now), these efforts to neasure and boost engagment may rip up the last remnants of daydreaming. Some might say, “so what?” but there’s a lot at stake here. Many of us need to daydream in order to solve problems, try out possibilities, imagine scenarios, puzzle over words, or even just be by ourselves now and then. Much pedagogy discussion assumes that students should always be “on task,” that they should be hard at work toward a specified goal. When I was in school, this wasn’t so; for one thing, there weren’t so many tasks. You came into class to listen to the teacher and take part in discussion. Your mind could drift now and then. Sometimes the teacher would say, “What’s on your mind?” and you could say, “oh, nothing” or else divulge your thoughts.

One of my favorite daydreaming scenes occurs at the end of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

The children ran out to the road and climbed into the bus. Fern took no notice of the others in the bus. She just sat and stared out of the window, thinking what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig. By the time the bus reached school, Fern had named her pet, selecting the most beautiful name she could think of.“Its name is Wilbur,” she whispered to herself.

She was still thinking about the pig when the teacher said, “Fern, what is the capital of Pennsylvania?”

“Wilbur,” replied Fern dreamily. The pupils giggled. Fern blushed.

The researchers and their funders may have forgotten the gentle wisdom of this story. We need to defend such wisdom against all things that push it away. Researcher or salesperson, if you come to my classroom with a biometric bracelet, I will invite you to read Charlotte’s Web with me. Or Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life,” which is about “idle busyness”—that is, empty engagement. Or Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”). As we read, neither of us will wear a bracelet or make graphs of our engagement levels. That shrill, simplistic science will stay out of the room.

Thinking Apart in Education

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon asks the heroine, “Are you not ashamed to think apart from them?” (su d’ouk epaidei, tonde choris ei phroneis;).

In education, thinking apart from the others is likewise risky. Yet we need independent thought, if we are to have good thought at all.

The educational “right” and “left” both extol teamwork and collaboration, though for different reasons and in different terms. Proponents of value-added assessment, increased standardized testing, elimination of teachers’ seniority protections, and so forth stress the importance of teams in fostering student success. Dissidents and critics should not stand in the way of student progress, they say.

Opponents of such measures also emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Usually (though not always) they speak of nurturing of the whole child. They oppose the idea of pitting student against student and teacher against teacher; instead, they remind us, schools should pursue education in a cooperative spirit.

Yes, schools are cooperative entities, but in order for cooperation to have meaning, the individuals must be at liberty to bring their best ideas forward (at school and beyond). They must also have room to differ with the group, both privately and openly.

Truth is often unorthodox. For instance, there’s a lot of discussion of “value-added assessment” in education—that is, the calculation of the “value” that a teacher supposedly adds to the students. Many have objected, correctly, that such things cannot be calculated with precision. Others treat value-added modeling as the holy grail—a way of revealing, as though it were not already known, which teachers are moving their students along and which ones are not.

But there are alternate views. There are teachers, for instance, who do want to be evaluated in part on their students’ performance and progress, but want this to be interpreted intelligently. If I have been teaching intensive Russian for a year and most of my students can’t conjugate the verb chitat’ (“to read”), then something is very wrong, and I want to know this. On the other hand, if the teacher of second-year Russian sees her students progress by leaps and bounds whereas my first-year students progress more slowly, this isn’t necessarily because she’s more “effective.” It may be that this teacher’s students have a handle on the language and can learn new material with greater ease. (They might hit a bump in their third year, when they start reading literature.) If we steer away from crass calculations of teacher “effectiveness” and look at what’s actually going on, then we could gain some insights.

That’s just one example of a viewpoint that can get lost in the noise. It’s important for such views to exist and be heard, because they can offer something to both “sides” of the usual discussion.

So, people should just put forth their unorthodox views, right?

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, even the most independent-minded people have affiliations, loyalties, and restrictions. They may be outspoken on one issue and guarded on another. Few are in a position to speak their full minds. They may refrain from criticizing their friends and colleagues openly, or they may have confidentiality to maintain. Or else they’re swayed by other people’s reactions; if they’re applauded for saying something, they might think it is therefore correct. We all have weaknesses that can limit what we say.

Also, there’s the risk that you won’t have an audience, especially if you’re speaking entirely on your own, without the support of an organization or publication. By contrast, people who represent organizations have a built-in audience but significant restrictions on their liberty. When speaking for the organization, they must represent its positions. When speaking for themselves, they must still stay close to the organization’s positions—or else why are they affiliated with it? All depends, of course, on the nature of the organization, their role in it, and what they want to say.

So, suppose you are in a position to “think apart” from the others and speak your mind, at least somewhat. Suppose you have a vehicle for doing so—a blog, at the very least. What now?

Well, be prepared for some disappointment, because people may misunderstand your argument. They may try to place it in one of the familiar categories or camps. Or they may ignore it altogether. On the other hand, many people will show appreciation. Some will express relief (“Finally someone has said what I’ve had on my mind for years!”); some their interest (“Let’s discuss this further”). Things get dreary in education discussion fairly quickly; it’s refreshing when someone comes along and puts things in a different way.

Speaking on your own, you can refine and change your views. You can recognize and correct your mistakes. Mistakes can be embarrassing in the moment but should bring no shame (unless, of course, they have caused harm). John Stuart Mill wrote, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” Truth lies not only in the answers, but in the bearer’s integrity.

It can be lonely to think on your own. At times there’s cheering from all sides, at times jeering; at times people seem more interested in the jingle of the ice cream truck than in what you have to say. That isn’t always bad; it makes room for retreat and mulling, even for an ice cream cone. Thank goodness the world isn’t hanging on our words.

Is Personalized Learning a Good in Itself?

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new criteria for Race to the Top. Whereas in the past only states could apply for federal RTT money, now the competition is open to “local educational agencies” (LEAs). Each applicant must demonstrate a commitment to “personalized learning”:

RTT-D will reward those LEAs that have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move beyond one-size–fits-all models of schooling, which have struggled to produce excellence and equity for all children, to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready. 

I have a visceral reaction to jargon such as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools.” Beyond that, I question the value of personalized learning, especially as described here. Accorded top priority, it will likely open the gates to fads and gimmicks: mandatory “individualized learning goals,” aggressively marketed learning software, and more. Personalized learning should be a means, not an end, and should be defined carefully. (I discuss “mass personalization” and its pitfalls in the eighth chapter of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.) 

How could personalized learning not be good? some might ask. How could anything be better than a flexible curriculum tailored to the needs of each child? 

Common subject matter, at its best, takes students beyond their current understanding and preferences. When I taught Book I of Plato’s Republic this year, I saw how it woke certain students up intellectually—students who, if given a tailored curriculum, might not have encountered the Republic at all. Who was to know that they were ready for it or would appreciate it? A good common curriculum offers students things that they would not necessarily choose on their own. Students should have opportunities to choose some of their readings, and courses, but common curriculum can open up a surprisingly individual experience. 

What do U.S. Department of Education officials have in mind when they speak of “personalized learning”? Somehow I doubt that the Republic figures in their plans at all. They are more concerned with skills. In their ideal environment, teachers will meet frequently in “data teams,” analyze student work, and determine how to help each student progress. (We do this already, but they’d say we should do even more.) Since it is impossible for a teacher singlehandedly to address the needs of 100 or more students, schools will likely purchase products, such as software that captures and analyzes student discussion, producing graphs of students’ speaking patterns, or clickers with which students may answer multiple-choice questions. The use of such devices will count as personalized learning, simply because each student will have a progress chart. 

Good software can help immensely with certain kinds of instruction. Online language laboratories, quizzes, and even lessons can supplement what students are learning in the classroom. The key word here is “supplement.” Students should use any and all tools that truly help (and not replace) their learning—so that they can come into the classroom fully prepared for the instruction and discussion. In other words, students, generally speaking, should take care of their own personalization, and teachers should take care of the common part. Yes, there is overlap, but it should not stretch too far. 

Of course, teachers personalize the learning to a large degree. They review student work and adjust the lessons accordingly; offer choices on certain assignments; and provide additional help to those who need it. Such personalization, though, is subordinate to the larger goal of teaching something important, lasting, and beautiful. Subordinate it should remain. 

Now, the grants are only for LEAs where at least forty percent of the participating students quality for free or reduced lunches. One might argue that disadvantaged students need a more highly individualized approach than others do. However, such an assumption has dangers. Schools with a moderate or high poverty rate (especially grant applicants) would likely focus on skills, whereas schools with more affluent students would be at liberty to teach substance. In addition, the high-poverty schools would endure clamor over personalization; it would come up in their meetings and memos and appear in large font on their websites. They would have to show evidence of personalization at all times, whether or not it made sense. We would see curricular bifurcation, as before.

What are we trying to do, ultimately? Have students create shiny portfolios? Data-driven “look how I’ve grown” slideshows? Or do we want to bring students into a larger conversation about something? Granted, this is a false opposition. The best education attends to the individual, but not at the expense of common learning. Latin might be an elective at a school, but everyone taking Latin will learn the same grammar and and read the same literature, for the most part. Otherwise it could not be taught in much depth. A composition course might indeed be tailored to the needs of those present, but other courses would require students to learn specific material. Any good course makes room for both the individual and the common, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

The most unsettling aspect of this call for “personalized learning” is its neglect of the subtly personal: the private encounter with subject matter. A student may be individually transformed by Augustine’s Confessions, but this doesn’t count; the individuality that matters here is the kind that looks like the others, the kind with buzzwords and graphs. In the name of personalized learning, the U.S. DOE rewards conformity of a sort. It favors schools that show off students’ growth charts and portfolios, like teenagers in a schoolyard sporting their brand-new clothes.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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