Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Joy, Data and Jumbo Shrimp

Sir Michael Barber is the Big Cheese of Pearson (Motto: All Your School Are Belong To Us), and he recently decided to celebrate Oxymoron Day by delivering a speech entitled "Joy and Data."

While that speech spurred some twitter snark, nobody who wasn't actually in the room ever got to hear it. Barber is like that; he doesn't seem to feel any impulse to get people to like him, agree with him, or praise him. It's hard and foolish to judge from out here in Ordinary Shmoe Land, but don't think that will stop me-- Barber seems like a man who is so powerful, and so sure he's right, that he's not going to waste time trying to justify his ways to anybody who doesn't actually matter.

And Barber's ways are big. Big. His premise, as unloaded in a few different papers, is that if we could collect all the data, we would know everything, and we could predict everything and control everything. We just need all the data.

We do not, however, have all the data about his speech. So we have to depend on what slipped through the tweeterverse.

Barber is aware that not everybody sees the beauty in this relentless cataloging of everything. Quotes the tweeterverse:

There's a tendency to see data and evidence...in conflict with joy and spontaneity.

Well, yes. When Knewton, a Pearson data-grabbing group, describes how collecting data would let them tell you what breakfast you should eat on test day, that seems like a spontaneity-killer.

Valerie Strauss has collected some tweets from Jenny Luca highlighting some of the key points. None of them are encouraging.

The future of education will be more joyful with the embrace of data. Also, don't get things wrong-- the data does not undermine creativity and inspiration, nor does it tell us what to do, nor does it replace professional judgment. And I don't even know how to link to all the places where Pearson has contradicted all of this. I would be further ahead to find links to Jeb Bush condemning charter schools and Common Core. But you can try here and here and here and here.

If we lump all of Pearson's visionary writing together, the picture that emerges is a Brave New World in which every single student's action is tagged, collected, and run through a computer program that spits out an exact picture of the student's intellectual, emotional and social development as well as specific instructions on exactly what the teacher (and, in this Brave New World, we're using that term pretty loosely) should do next with/for/to the student to achieve the results desired by our data overlords.

And here's the scariest thing about Barber. One idea keeps popping up, as in this closing thought from Pearson's 2014 paper on the digital ocean--

Be that as it may, the aspiration to meet these challenges is right.

What I see every time I read Barber is a man who is not following a business plan or a power grabbing plan or even just a money-making scam-- this is guy who seems to feel he is following a moral imperative to Make the World a Better Place. That's what's scary-- you cannot reason with a religious fanatic who is intent on remaking the world according to his own vision.

Yeah, the worst thing about a Barber speech centered on Joy and Data is not that he might be making some cynical marketing ploy or a cheap PR bid, but that for him, those two things really do go together.  


  1. I followed your Knewton link and read the Kolowich article you recommend at the end of it and found it very interesting. And I want to read Gleick"s Chaos.

    "All Your School Are Belong To Us" - Love the reference. "Somebody set up us the bomb" : )

  2. I Googled Barber's bio and found that the Wikipedia entry styles him an "educationist:" "an expert in the theories or administration of education."

    Not the actual *practice* of education, mind you, but just theories and administration.

    Ew. Just.....ew.

    1. Yeah, it says he taught "in schools in Britain and Zimbabwe" but not where or how long and the whole article sounded like a PR release.

  3. Barber, like Gates, is what Erich Hofer called a "true believer". These people are delusional or close to it, as evidenced by such cooked-up-tripe titles as "educationist" (is that like "nudist"?). And being give such wealth and power as a result of one's truly believing doesn't help for a reality check either.

    But I would also argue that this can be traced back to the original Progressives and John Dewey's vision of public education as preparing children to fit social needs, rather than following the classical model of intellectual and moral development. Once we started down the road of "scientific education" we became trapped by Fredrick Taylor's phoney "scientific management", and we've suffered jackasses like Barber ever since.

    1. I see you've fallen for the propaganda regarding Progressive Education. Why not try actually reading Dewey for yourself rather than believing the right-wing lies? You'll find, in fact, that Dewey is saying exactly the opposite of what you think. Dewey is rolling in his grave over education "reform".

  4. Wow! "Dewey's vision of public education as preparing kids to fit social needs" is not even close to what what Dewey says. But, yeah sooth your narrow mind to blame this on Dewey the only person who has ever had a view of education that makes sense...

  5. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    - C. S. Lewis

  6. We don't really need to include the "Sir" honorific. It confers unwarranted gravitas upon the person.