Thursday, October 13, 2016

Embracing Education Productivity?

Rick Hess recently posted a piece that makes a couple of discussion-worthy points while neatly sliding right past a couple of other ones.

In "Why You Should Learn to Love Educational Productivity," Hess argues for an embrace of "productivity," but I'm not sure that word means exactly what he thinks it means.

We get to the "productivity" issue by sliding past a different one. Hess opens by noting that there have been many attacks on charter schooling lately, and he expresses not-so-much surprise:

At one level, this isn't shocking. Education has long been rife with suspicion of ideas that seem too "businesslike." The very term "productivity" can set teeth on edge. 

But here Hess makes two large leaps. First, we leap from charter opposition to ideas that seem too businesslike. But charter opposition is based on far more than any opposition to a businesslike approach to school. For instance, my objections to modern charters include the destruction of democratic and transparent process as well as the charter refusal to serve all students instead of just a chosen few. Second, Hess leaps from "businesslike" to "productivity." But many folks object to a businesslike approach to school because it usually values dollars over students.

So the whole opening of this piece is rather a cheat. However, I'm just going to pretend that Hess wrote, "I'd like to talk about productivity in education now," and move forward.

Hess argues that we should not resist "productivity" because it's just an attempt to make best use of resources. "... productivity itself simply means being able to do more good for more kids." I'll just note here that he didn't use "efficient," most likely because efficiency is directly opposed to excellence. But now Hess's point gets interesting.

Skepticism about "productivity" is sometimes coupled with doubts about the value of new technologies. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, producing a Mozart quartet two centuries ago required four musicians, four stringed instruments, and, say, 35 minutes. Producing the same Mozart quartet today, he said, requires the same resources.

Moynihan's analogy, while correct, is ultimately misleading when applied to schooling. In the arts, what has changed over two centuries is that radio, CDs, television, and digital media have profoundly increased the number of people able to hear and appreciate a given performance—at an ever-decreasing cost. 

But in Hess's example, the musicians do not produce any more Mozart than they ever did, nor do they need fewer resources to do so. They use the same resources, the same time, the same effort, and the same equipment; and they create the same amount of product as ever. Their productivity has not changed.

What has changed is the consumers' ability to consume. What we have increased is some thing we don't even have a word for-- consumertivity. We had made it easier for audiences to consume some version of the product. A somewhat debased, lower-quality version of the product but, as Hess correctly notes, a better version of the product than none at all, "a passable version of the experience to millions who would have otherwise never been able to experience the original."

Productivity and consumertivity are two different things that technophiles-- particularly those working the education biz-- frequently get confused.

Increased productivity by definition requires the production of more product. Hess's Mozart quartet does not increase productivity until they play several more pieces-- a feat they cannot accomplish without more resources,  more rehearsal, and more time for creating the actual performance. Only increased consumertivity allows increased customers without having to invest more time and resources in the making process.

Increased consumertivity is the cheap way to reach more customers. Increased productivity costs you more time and resources. In the business world, you make that investment in hopes that it will make itself back--plus profit. But that's not how it works when the "product" is a human service.

So when it comes to increased consumertivity in teaching, we're talking Khan Academy or some piece of software, where the makers only have to produce one product, but an infinite number of consumers can take it in. And we can do that without having the "teacher" or programmer expend any more time or resources. When Hess says this:

In schooling, technologies today offer the promise of extending the impact of the instruction, tutoring, and mentoring of a terrific teacher, so that she can coach, tutor, or instruct hundreds with the same energy she once expended reaching only five or twenty-five. 

I have to disagree. Instruction, tutoring and mentoring are "products" that are the unique result of a specific relationship. And that productivity can't be increased-- and neither can the consumertivity.

Consider a surgeon. We cannot increase the consumertivity of the surgeon's work, because that surgeon can only operate on one patient at a time. There's no way to scale things of technofy the surgery so that an infinite number of patients can have their spleens rotated by the surgeon's single operation. To increase the surgeon's productivity, you'll have to find ways to get more patients under that knife, and that is going to take more time and more resources. A surgeon cannot operate on hundreds of patients with the same resources used for five or twenty-five operations.

Ditto real teaching. You can only increase consumertivity when the arrow moves one way; the Mozart quartet flows toward the audience, but nothing flows the other way (yes, I know that's not strictly true, but let's skip that for the moment). Khan Academy lessons flow only one direction-- nothing flows back to the teacher. When the arrow flows in only one direction, you can make it branch into a thousand arrows.

But in surgery or actual teaching, the arrows flow both ways. The surgeon has to see and hear and watch and respond to the patient; surgery cannot, like a Khan Academy lesson, be performed blind. Likewise, the arrows of teaching flow both ways; you cannot run a class discussion when you cannot see or hear the class.

Every mentoring, coaching or tutoring relationship takes its own time and resources. As anyone who has ever cheated on their spouse can tell you, you cannot run multiple relationships with the same resources used for just one.

What reformsters really want to increase is consumertivity. Increasing consumertivity brings in more customers with little increase in time or resources spent on production. But consumertivity in teaching cannot be increased, unless you are willing to settle for a thin shadow of the real thing-- and why should you want to other than to make operating charter businesses cheaper and more profitable. Great for them; not so much for students.

It's possible that I'm missing part of Hess's point, because he wraps up with this quote from Cathy Davidson (Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn) :

In fact, I believe that if teachers can be replaced by computers, they should be. By that I mean if a teacher offers nothing that [a] child can't get from a computer screen, then your child might as well be learning online. On the other hand, no screen will ever replace a creative, engaged, interactive, relevant, and inspiring teacher, especially one who takes advantage of the precious face-to-face experience of people learning together.

I don't entirely disagree, but this, to me, argues against the rest of Hess's article. There are ways to increase teacher productivity by doing things like taking away tasks like hall monitoring and soul-sucking meetings. Heck, hire every teacher a personal secretary. But that doesn't get you the kind of scale Hess is talking about. Either you increase consumertivity by degrading the teaching "product," or you-- well, I can't think of any way to create the kind of superteachers who actually really personally teach hundreds of students at once.

Scaling up remains an ed reform dream, but increased productivity requires money, and increased consumertivity requires a process that can be made easily accessible to many consumers. Neither seems like a good fit for our current educational landscape. This may be one more reason that businesslike approach to schools is just a bad idea.


  1. Thanks for cutting through the bovine excrement so eloquently and concisely.

  2. This is exactly the flaw in CBE, (1 to 1) or a kid and a digital interface. It is substandard education. The spark between teacher and student that Plato referenced is just not there.