Reading & Reacting: The Two Cultures of Educational Reform

By Stanley Fish @ The New York Times

In a beautifully written commentary Stanley Fish uses a recent publication by former two time Harvard University President Derek Bok to frame the two cultures referenced in the title. Quoting from Bok Fish introduces the pair.

The first “is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.”

On one level, the piece reads almost as a review of Bok’s Higher Education in America. However, Fish quickly uses his positive feelings about the text to build a wider argument that seriously questions the validity of this kind of either or thinking. Then he pays particular attention to technology’s bias role in increasingly “pushing the needle” toward measuring student progress at the expense of that which is not easy to measure.

Although Fish is writing about gathering edreform in a higher education context, much, if not all, of what he mentions here is applicable to the K-12 level.

In other words, we’re probably measuring the wrong things and the right things are not amenable to measurement. If this is true and it is also true that the culture of measurement is in the ascendancy, we might expect that things that resist measurement — quality, poetry, insight — would be dismissed and set aside, on the reasoning that if it can’t be measured, what good is it? A new technology typically turns its limitations into a mechanism of evaluation and consigns phenomena outside its capacities to the margins, not merely to its margins but to the margins of what is generally significant and worth worrying about.

Edreform measurement has been in the ascendency for a while longer at the K-12 level. In many places, that which cannot be measured has already been pushed to the point of entire dismissal.

Most interesting of all is the second half of the piece, where Fish absolutely skewers the “blind faith” those of the data-driven culture have in the potential and growth technology to improve learning. Through anecdote and evidence, he highlights the dubiousness of techno-solutionist claims and the void of difficult to measure “intangibles” may figure.

While many will no doubt dismiss Fish’s argument as old-fashioned and curmudgeonly, there is great wisdom in it, including its intentional questioning, thorough analysis of prevailing arguments, exposing potentially hypocritical aspects of techno-solitionist thinking, and exploring what can and cannot be measured as a frame of what we value in education.

It is thought provoking, well-written, and definitely worth the read.

Image: iPad

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