Monday, February 6, 2012

Sacred Cows, Mechanical Bulls, and Matadors

When we stop seeing a technology as a technology, when we simply accept it as part of the way things are, when we stop questioning its real virtues and side effects it becomes invisible to us. And, when a technology becomes invisible to us, sacred cows are born. When we elevate an idea to a level where we can't question its logic we limit our choices and blind ourselves to alternatives.

In the first blog post in this series I discussed how school is a technology that has been rendered invisible to many. Perhaps it is a "forest from the trees" effect but for many, school's status as a technology seems to be rendered invisible most to those who are closest to it. Now this is not always true, like Neo in The Matrix there are plenty of school teachers, school administrators, parents, and students who have seen anomalies in the system, exposing sacred cows for what they are, causing them to once again question their value. And, as disruptive technologies take over, more and more of the tasks once done by schools, more and more of those close to the "trees" begin to question things once held sacred. However, most of those still engrossed in the school system remain unconscious of its nature.

There is a risk in identifying a sacred cow for what it is, especially when most of those around you hold it in high regard. To question the value of something long held in high regard by your peers puts you in isolation. Though you may find liberation in the truth, that truth might be difficult to convey to those blinded by their faith in the system and acting on that truth will at best brand one as unorthodox and at worst as blasphemous. Just ask Galileo, Socrates, Martin Luther, or Bradley Manning. In The Republic, Plato puts it best,
[Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
There are always many who benefit from the survival of sacred cows. The death of a sacred cow can upset traditional beliefs and make people move from a place of undeserved security. The death of a sacred cow can also upset many financially or politically who exploit the relationship believers have with the sacred cow. Killing a sacred cow can be dangerous and presents one with an ethical dilemma. The ethical dilemma comes in if you discover that the sacred cow is actually causing harm to others you may save others but only at great personal expense. On the killing of actual sacred cows in India, Wikipedia states:
In some regions, especially India, the slaughter of cattle may be prohibited and their meat may be taboo.


The law in India

Slaughter of cattle is allowed with restrictions (like a 'fit-for-slaughter' certificate which may be issued depending on factors like age and gender of cattle, continued economic viability etc.) in fourteen states, it is completely banned in six states, while there is no restriction in four states.[20] Cows are routinely shipped to states with lower or no requirement for slaughter, even though it is illegal in some states to even transport cows for slaughter across provincial borders.[21] Many illegal slaughterhouses operate in large cities such as Chennai and Mumbai. While there are approximately 3,600 slaughterhouses operating legally in India, there are estimated to be over 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses.[22] Efforts to close them down have so far been largely unsuccessful.

While we are using the symbolism of Hinduism I think it an interesting side note to bring in the Hindu god of education, Ganesh (the remover of obstacles). In his left hand he almost is always depicted holding a hatchet. It is said that this hatchet he uses to cut through confusion to reveal the truth. So, while in Hindu faith the actual cow may be sacred, the iconography used to strike down the methaphoric sacred cow is one of slaughter.

So, what are the sacred cows in education, who protects them, and are they benign or harmful? There are probably more than we know but here are a few I can think of immediately:

  1. Standardized Tests - This one should be obvious but to many people I talk to in schools, and especially in the public, it is not. The idea that what a person knows about a topic can be measured effectively with a standardized test is a sacred cow that has many beneficiaries. Those beneficiaries include test-makers, textbook and curriculum companies, politicians, and the privileged who have an unfair advantage when taking these tests. This sacred cow reached epic proportions when George Bush, Karl Rove, and Sandy Kress orchestrated the Texas Miracle which turned out to be a big lie. This lie laid the foundation for NCLB and RTTT, our nation's policy governing how education is done in our public schools. These policies have done a great job of defunding and closing down public schools in poor neighborhoods and outsourcing their care to for-profit organizations. Standardized tests have also done a lot to arbitrarily predetermine a student's future success. Does it do more harm than good? You can decide for yourself.
  2. Data-Driven Decision Making - This one goes along with standardized tests. It is built upon the same foundation as standardized tests. That is that it is important to base our decisions on aggregated abstractions of reality rather than what is right in front of our faces. Sure your eyes can lie but data is incredibly susceptible to manipulation. The biggest problem with data-driven decision making is it lacks the moral component. Beneficiaries include all those who are also beneficiaries of standardized tests plus school administrators and education consultants. Does this sacred cow do more harm than good? I personally think it exploits children. But, either way it is a sacred cow in that it is simply not true that all decisions need to or even should be data-driven.
  3. Multiple Choice Exams - Again, another sacred cow that goes hand in hand with standardized tests. This sacred cow is built upon the notion that one test the knowledge of a student on a topic by presenting them with a list of options to choose from. This is the same notion that guides the public to believe that smart people are people who are good at quiz shows. The fact of the matter is that the multiple choice exam is an extremely limited tool for measuring what a person knows and is prone to all kinds of problems. They are not an accurate measure of testing what someone knows. Beneficiaries of these forms of assessment include SAT and ACT test-prep companies, test-prep programs, and student response system manufacturers. Do they do more harm than good? Much of how students qualify for acceptance in to colleges and universities hinge on how well they perform on these things. You decide.
  4. Curriculum Standards - Again, another one that goes hand-in-hand with standardized tests. This one is actually two sacred cows. One states that the way to improve schools is to just have higher standards. The other is to state that the way to improve education is for all curriculum standards to be the same. Again, two Swiss cheese arguments. We have been forging forward with the "teach harder" mantra since A Nation at Risk and in these three decades it has not produced better results. Plus, standardizing curriculum by nature creates inequalities. Also, curriculum standards are inherently content-based and most are about information. The value of information is increasingly going down as we outsource the holding of it more and more to the Internet and let tools like Google sort it out and recall it for us. This disruptive innovation means that our focus needs to shift from knowledge-based standards to teaching kids how to find and process information. But, without content standards the standardized test can't very well exist. So its beneficiaries include all those who benefit from the use of standardized tests. Do they do more harm than good?
  5. Grades - This is a big one. This is a sacred cow that has lived for a long time and is of a hardy breed. What makes this one a sacred cow is that the belief is that grades are necessary for motivation to learn. That, somehow without grades motivating students to perform that they would not learn on their own. Or, the other argument is, that students cannot get into college without a student record comprised of arbitrary marks created by teachers. The fact is that students will learn without grades, and probably learn more, and that students attending schools that do not issue grades have just as good a chance of getting into college as those with arbitrary marks. Do grades do more harm than good? Before you decide read this article by Alfie Kohn. Who benefits from grades? This one is unclear except that they have been around education so long that doing away with this sacred cow makes people uncomfortable. Teachers expect them, administrators expect them, parents expect them. But, when was the last time in your adult life did someone ask to see your grades?
  6. Bell Schedules - Often we hear a school begin to wrestle with this sacred cow by toying with whether they should do block scheduling, go with a seven period day, or go with an eight period day. This sacred cow depends entirely on another sacred cow, subject area, for its livelihood. How we schedule our time has little to do with learning today and is a holdover from when it was thought that the purpose of school was to prepare students for work on factory lines where they would need to be accustomed to a strictly regimented day governed by shift changes as measured by the clock. A greatly disproportionate number of our students will not enter into a work force where this kind of regiment is necessary or even productive. What we are left with is a device that does a great job of teaching indifference. In the words of John Taylor Gatto, "when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class nor in any class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan." Who benefits from this sacred cow? I don't know, but suggesting we get rid of it always causes people in schools to get uncomfortable. Does it do more harm than good? You decide.
  7. Subject Areas- This sacred cow produces milk many other cows feed upon. Bell schedules, curriculum standards, and standardized tests all feed off of it. This is a sacred cow because the idea that there is a clear delineation between one domain of knowledge and another, that you can divorce mathematics from social studies, science from literature, art from language is just false. In fact, most innovations do not come from homogenous study of one domain, they come from the blending and mixing of ideas from multiple domains. In this way, separating subject areas can be detrimental especially when you consider what the National Research Council found about learning and transfer. So who benefits from this sacred cow? Besides all who benefit from the sacred cows it feeds, teachers, professors, and nearly every subject-area content experts in the field of education depend on this cow for survival (or so most think). However, there are plenty of project-based schools and interdisciplinary programs that prove this wrong. So does this sacred cow do more harm than good? You decide.
  8. Credentialing - This sacred cow states that you can tell how qualified a person is to perform a certain task by looking at their credentials (namely the diplomas, degrees, and certificates they hold) and that this is an efficient way of sorting our population. Truth is I have seen doctors who were utter idiots and I have met high school dropouts who were absolutely brilliant. Just take a look at the list of people we consider to be highly successful in this world and the credentialing sacred cow goes out to pasture. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college and neither Richard Branson nor Warren Buffet hold a high school diploma just to name a few. A person's credentials don't tell us whether they demonstrated a high degree of proficiency in an area of expertise or just skated by and got lucky on multiple choice tests (probably with test-prep coaching). Credentials are a poor indicator of someone's qualifications. Who benefits from this social instrument? Schools, colleges, and universities are the great beneficiaries of this sacred cow. Without credentials, how many people would choose to get educated in this way? How many would choose another method?
  9. Objectives - I often hear that a teacher NEEDS to have clear objectives when they teach a lesson. I hear this over and over again all the time. However, this is a sacred cow because it rests on an unfounded notion that it is the teacher's objectives that are important in a learning environment. The teacher's objectives are not important in the learning equation, the students' objectives are. Learning objectives can only be set by learners, teaching objectives only have to do with learning in a peripheral fashion and for them to be effective the teacher must convince the learner to have the same learning objective as the teacher's teaching objective. This usually requires coercion and is dishonest. Objectives feed off the standardized testing and curriculum standards sacred cows and serve no other purpose than to impose these standards on students. They have nothing to do with learning. Students will naturally set their own learning objectives and in an optimal learning environment a teacher would not set objectives for a student but a help a student achieve their own learning objectives. Indirectly the data-driven decision making cow feeds off the objectives cow since it relies partially on to derive its data sources. This cow is hard to kill and in most learning environments will incur the wrath of the system.
  10. Labels - This sacred cow is the child of data-driven decision making and standardized testing. We use abstract data to create student records that go into portfolios that are supposed to tell us about who a student is. No set of abstractions can tell us who a child actually is yet this data is used to sort kids into categories. High-performing, special needs, EBD, ADHD, LD, Low-performing, oppositionally defiant, learning disabled, retarded, average, etc. all are labels driven by data and we use that data to make data-driven decisions on behalf of the students we sort and label. The result of a label most often is that of handing one a sentence. Once we label someone we have prematurely determined their future. Plus, most of these labels are for conditions artificially created by the learning environment. Change the environment and you change the need for a label. This became obvious to me when I started working for an online school. Parents of children previously labeled this or that told me that their son or daughter's "disability" went away when they changed the way they educated their child. So, do labels do more harm than good? You decide.
  11. Teacher Questions - In my undergraduate teacher preparation courses we spent a lot of time learning about how to craft high-quality questions. The problem is that, like learning objectives, the teacher's questions are not nearly as important as the students'. Questions help the the person asking questions to learn something. When I ask students a question I am learning more about them than they are about the matter of discussion. Teacher questions may be fine for formative assessment but they have nothing to do with learning. Student questions are far more important. The key to fostering optimal learning in a classroom environment is to get the students to ask more questions than the teacher. If I tell you something you will probably forget it, if I ask you questions about it you will wonder what it is that I am trying to teach you, but you ask me to tell you something it is because you have a need for that information. If I answer your question you are not likely to forget it. Who benefits from this sacred cow? This is unclear but just like bell schedules, grades, and teacher objectives this cow has become an engrained part of what we call school. Doing away with it is sure to cause some upheaval.

Some of these sacred cows have already been slaughtered. Others will be harder to kill. Either way the process is likely to be dangerous for the matadors who attempt to take these beasts down. In the case of school, all of these things are in one way or another a form of technology that has been so woven into the fabric of what we do that we stop seeing them for what they are and just accept them as part of the environment. These sacred cows are really more like mechanical bulls but neither metaphor quite fits.

On matadors, in Wikipedia it states:

The danger of bullfighting adds to the matador's mystique; matadores are often injured by bulls and 52 have been killed in the arena since 1700. One of the most famous bullfighters in history, Manolete, died this way in 1947. This hazard is said to be central to the nature and appeal of bullfighting.

Perhaps this is why change happens so slowly in education and why so many of us do things we know are wrong. Perhaps this is one reason why so many of our best teachers leave the profession battered and bruised. If this happens to me I hope to go out with the style and flare of a matador and I hope my work in the ring makes these mechanical bulls easier for the next person to take down. But, in the U.S. we don't fight bulls, we ride them.

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