Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Gates and Zuckerberg Never Learn

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are going to attempt-- once again-- to change the whole world of education.

Their newly-released Request For Information is looking for "all promising ideas for how to use existing and new knowledge and tools to achieve dramatic results against the challenges we describe." The list of challenges sadly does not include "the repeated failure of rich amateurs to impose their unproven ideas on the US public school system." Instead, the RIF looks at three particular areas. Let's look.


The problem? College and career success (because we're still flogging that expired equine) are "highly dependent" on "effective" writing skills, which include "evaluation of arguments and evidence, critical and creative thinking about solutions and sources, identifying support for a key idea or process, plus clear and evocative argument making."

Gates-Zuck are going to ignore all of those qualities by basing their argument on NAEP writing test results to argue a lack of proficiency. Mind you, I agree that we have a writing proficiency problem, however, I blame it mostly on the test-driven school movement of the past 18 years. That doesn't make their list of obstacles, which includes a lack of time for sufficient practice and feedback because teachers are overloaded, and while computer scoring of essays "holds promise" (it doesn't), it can't help yet (and it never will). They also blame a lack of "high-quality writing assignments," whatever that is supposed to mean.

Here are the areas they believe "require more exploration"

Evidence-based solutions for writing instruction, including mastery of the "spectrum of skills encompassing narrative, descriptive, expository and/or persuasive writing models," a "spectrum" that I'll argue endlessly is not an actual thing, but is a fake construct created as a crutch for folks who don't know how to teach or assess writing.

New proficiency metrics. Can we have "consistent measures of student progress and proficiency"? I'm saying "probably not."  "Can we use technology to support new, valid, efficient, and reliable writing performance measures that are helpful for writing coaching?" No, we can't.

Educator tools and support. Gates-Zuck correctly notes that "effective" writing instruction requires time and resources, so the hope here is, I don't know-- the invention of a time machine? Hiring administrative assistants for all teachers? Of course not-- they want to create "tools" aka more technology trying to accomplish what it's not very good at accomplishing.

Peer-to-peer collaboration and feedback. I'm a little st8umped here, because this is both old hat and widely done. My best guess is the real question is "can we develop some software to get involved in this process."

Non-academic correlates. Gates-Zuck wants to attach the whole range of soft-skill SEL to writing instruction. "Can we develop evidence-based interventions" that help everything across the board "while protecting student privacy." Can we create some software that will teach students to be more human?

And the whole business should include continuous improvement. Always looking for ways to get better. Kind of like every decent teacher on the planet. I swear-- so much of this rich amateur hour baloney could be helped by having these guys shadow an actual teacher all day every day for a full year. At the very least, it would save these endless versions of "I imagine we could move things more easily if we used round discs attached to an axel. I call it... The Wheeble!"

But after listing all the fine print, we cut to the chase:

The goal is ​not​ to replace the classroom teacher, but rather to provide teachers  with new integrated tools (including those involving peers working collaboratively) and supports (including well-designed professional development) to improve their ability to assess student performance and provide rapid and targeted feedback and remediation.

In other words, we're looking to build some software to teach writing (and How To Be Human).

Mathy Stuff 

More test results stand in for evidence that math understanding and mindsets are in trouble right here in River City. There's a lot of math-related jargon here, but if we skip down a couple of pages, we get to the heart of the matter. First on the list of areas requiring exploration:

Tools and resources that support teachers to personalize the learning experience for all type of student learning needs:​

Once again, this personalized [sic] learning platform should also incorporate cognitive and affective state, continuous improvement, and be not boring. The list also calls for "informing, not automating," which is basically a call for a bigger, better data dashboard. Possible products of this research could be intelligent tutoring systems, technology-enhanced content, and artificial intelligence.

Yes, Gates-Zuck are ready to go all-in on personalized [sic] learning.

Which brings us to the third area:

Are you creeped out yet? Well, here's the first paragraph of this section:

Student success in academics and in future careers is associated with their ability to wrestle with multiple ideas at once, think flexibly, and regulate their actions and thoughts. These skills describe the basic executive functions (EFs) of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Strong childhood EFs predict higher socio-economic status, better physical health, and fewer drug-related problems and criminal convictions in adulthood. 

EFs have been shown to be measurable, malleable, and robustly associated with success across the lifespan.

Gates-Zuck are going to fix all the poor and deprived students of the country by putting them in front of some executive function software, so that we can get their cognitive skills and self-control to work the way the authors of the software think they should. They are going to track EF abilities, and they are going to mold them to what they "should" be. And these will involve "technology-enhanced programs in and outside of school."

The program will also measure EF qualities of the educator and environment, and take a look at the early "precursors" of these skills as well as looking at "neural underpinnings." 

This is all extraordinarily creepy as all get-out. And the longer you look at it, the creepier it gets-- follow the links if you dare.

Reasons To Maybe Not Be Completely Creeped Out

This is personalized [sic] learning at its worst-- a kind of Big Brother on Steroids attempt to take over the minds, hearts, and lives of children for God-knows-what nefarious schemes. Only two things make me feel just the slightest bit better about this.

First of all, I'm not sure that Gates-Zuck are evil mad scientist types, cackling wickedly in their darkened laboratory. I'm more inclined to see them as feckless-but-rich-and-powerful computer nerds, who still believe that education is just an engineering problem that can be solved by properly designed sufficiently powered software. They're technocrats who think a bigger, better machine is the best way to fix human beings. 

Second of all-- well, wait a minute. The two guys who have bombarded education with enough money to make a small island and who do not have a single clear-cut success to point to-- these guys think they've got it figured out this time? They have never yet figured out how to better educate the full range of ordinary students (nor ever figured out what "better educate" means) now think they can unlock the formula for better educating students with larger challenges? 

This is like going to a circus and the announcer hollers that Evel Von Wheeble is going to jump his motorcycle over fifty buses, and you get very excited until you read the program and see that Von Wheeble previously attempted to jump over ten, twenty and twenty-five buses-- and he failed every time. 

I suppose that we can also take some comfort in knowing that at this point, Gates-Zuck is just trying to round up people who think they can help them get over just one bus, and maybe everyone will just say, "I don't care how much money you have, this is patently ridicu--" No, who am I kidding. People will line up around the block to work on this. When you have Gates-Zuck type of money, nobody ever tells you to take a hike because you've failed too many times.

On top of that, while the edu-amateurs have no real successes to point at, they have done prodigious damage in their attempts. Gates became convinced that national standards would be awesome, and now we're all stuck with the shambling ghost of Common Core and the tests welded to it. Instead of jumping over the buses, they may well just drive a tank through all fifty of them, leaving twisted burned rubble in their wake.

Never mind. I don't feel any better about this. Gates and Zuckerberg continue to learn nothing about education, but it's the rest of us who keep having to pay their tuition.


  1. quote "Student success in academics and in future careers is associated with their ability to wrestle with multiple ideas at once, think flexibly, and regulate their actions and thoughts. These skills describe the basic executive functions (EFs) of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Strong childhood EFs predict higher socio-economic status, better physical health, and fewer drug-related problems and criminal convictions in adulthood. ".

    Looks like the criminals will benefit as well.

  2. This is a genuine calamity. And these guys see themselves as noble. I guess they don't know the old adage about "good intentions". If they cannot see how completely off the mark they are, and how much damage they have already done, I really have to wonder about their "executive functions". Some part of their brains must be shut down to be so blind to the calamity their ideas and money and power and influence have caused. This is the poison of ego on a monumental scale.

  3. Student success is strongly linked to Executive Function. It is also strongly linked to old-fashioned brains too (for which IQ is a proxy measurement).

    Instead of trying to improve EF, why don't they just make their goal to improve IQs across the board? We'd all be in Lake Wobegon and It would be awesome!

    Improving EF is more ridiculous than improving IQ, which we at least have well defined. If we could do them reliably, we already would be.

    Improving EF is effectively growing up, and teachers have been improving it as much as they can. But you can only do so much with biology.

    1. 1) Don't forget, "correlation=/=causation." A link does not imply cause, so we can't assume that high IQ will bring about better executive function. It might, but that's not the same.

      2) Want great EF development? invest in play-based Early Childhood. Kids naturally learn and internalize EF skills and more through interaction with their environment, even more with the help of a skilled Early Childhood specialist - or Heaven forbid, parent - who can facilitate it. (And you'll probably get your corresponding boost in IQ to boot.)

  4. The blueprint for academic success is no secret. Ask any teacher.
    If BMG and CZ are serious about helping struggling students, someone should tell them that it is not a pedagogy problem. Apparently these edufakers have convinced themselves otherwise. Bill, Melinda, Mark, Priscilla repeat after me:
    It's the economy, stupid.

  5. Every "different" idea is really just the re-packaging of their previous ideas. Gates and Zuckerberg are the example of the old adage: "When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." These guys know one thing very well: technology. The technologies they profited from are full of metrics. Therefore, they constantly reposition their ideas to fit the worldview they know.

    If they looked at student feedback, they'd realize that the single biggest thing a plurality of students value is a strong connection / relationship with their teachers. Since this is a qualitative measure, it can't truly be quantified accurately. So let's not count that since it isn't measurable.

    I often wonder if these two wake up and numerically estimate their affection for their wives. "Melinda, today I love you 5. It dropped from a 7 because that restaurant you chose last night was subpar." To use an expression I hear lot these days, these guys should stay in their lane.

    1. They don't even know technology all that well. Ever used a Microsoft product? What they know is manipulation, cutthroat competition and back-stabbing.

  6. Reading this just after I read Mike Schmoker's piece in EdWeek: Why I'm Against Innovation in Education. Although his list of proven, time-tested teaching methods is somewhat limited, I can certainly get on board with the school that emphasizes "reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning" in every subject. So, Gates and Zuckerberg, here's the plan:
    1. Hire teachers to teach reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning.
    2. Let them do it.

  7. "EFs have been shown to be measurable. . ."

    OH, they have? Well, then. . . What is the agreed upon standard unit of measure of "executive function" that is being used? What nationally/internationally recognized standards organization has sanctioned said standard unit of measure of "executive function"? Where is the exemplar of that standard unit kept so that all can use it when designing measuring devices for that "executive functioning"?

    OH, and where can we find that "executive functioning" in order to be able to measure it?

    1. I believe that the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) has established the most accurate quantitative instrument, and of course unit, for measuring the executive function of children and adolescents. As you probably know, many units in physics have been named after the scientist with notable accomplishments in their field. Examples include: Newtons of force; Joules of energy; Watts of power; Ohms of resistance; degrees in Celsius; wave frequency in Hertz; capacitance in Faradays; electromotive force in Volts; et. al.

      Well the IBRO has bestowed a similar honor to Mark Zuckerberg for his tireless work in the field of higher order, executive brain function. Because the unit being used for the quantification of JEF (juvenile executive function) has been accepted by virtually every neuro-scientist in the Univerese, JEF is now being appropriately and accurately measured
      using the "Zuck-U".