You Are Replaceable

You are completely replaceable, a cog in the machine, a brick in the wall. There is nothing that meaningfully differentiates you from anyone else. Functionally, you are hot-swappable for any other person. All “individual differences” are meaningless. There is nothing special or unique about you. You are a clone.

This is the message of “what works” style educational research. It tells us that, if you are a middle school student learning math, you are just like every other middle school student learning math. If you are a 2nd grader learning to read English, you are just like every other 2nd grader learning to read English as far as educational research knows or cares. Because well-designed and well-implemented randomized controlled trials discover methods that “work.” For everyone. Period. That’s the entire point of having a “trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education” – if we didn’t have methods that work universally, we wouldn’t be real scientists. Each individual student is just another tiny, indistinguishable, interchangeable part of the universe over which proven methods “work.” Personal relationships with students are oxymoronic because all students are the same, and besides, personal relationships don’t scale and are superficial to learning.

If this is really the way we’re encouraging educators to think about students, is it really a wonder that they hate school and apparently aren’t learning as much as their peers around the world?

15 thoughts on “You Are Replaceable”

  1. Technically speaking, a lot of the time “their peers around the world” are only performing better on standardized tests. The Japanese educational system, for instance, drills their students for years on rote memorization of English grammar and vocabulary, but most Japanese people are unable to speak even conversational English.

    Franchise language schools like Nova and Berlitz, on the other hand, are actually able to teach their students English … despite pathetically low budgets and salaries, ridiculously out-of-date course material, and “teachers” who’ve never taken a single class in “education.” How? By putting small groups of Japanese students together with native English speakers, and having them speak to each other in English.

    I imagine it also helps, of course, that their students actually choose to be there, and pay money for the privilege …

  2. Orson Scott Card gave us an interesting model of education in Ender’s Game–not that that was his intention. Peer reliance and coaching, via the battle game, personal mentoring by the teachers that extended beyond the classroom, and individualized and custom learning, via the computer game.

    It is funny though–that as early as 1985 that those insights would emerge (think the custom computer game for personalized education and pacing). But then again, when the education system you are dreaming up has to save the world from invading aliens, you tend to cut the crap, trim the fat, and think up a few things that work.

    If we had to educate our kids today to save the world in 20 years, I am pretty sure we would do it a little bit different. If you are educating to save the world–you don’t want another cog–every child has to be treated like they are the hero that will save human kind.

  3. … and that their learning can be measured in terms of their ability to talk to actual English-speaking people, and not in terms of a degree or certificate that may or may not have any relation at all to their abilities.

  4. Thanks to the scientific management approach, people don’t need to have ideas – ideas (myths, really) have people. As long as education problems are seen as management problems, this will be the result.

    People don’t need to be managed and dependent, they need to be empowered and independent.

    Are people created to act, or to be acted upon?

  5. I agree that the scientifically based “what works” research trend has gone too far, but I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely. Research never claims to say what works for all, only what works for most. We can say, “students learn best by experience” or “if you have a student teach another student, they learn it better.” We all make statements like this all the time, and of course these ideas don’t apply to EVERY learner in every situation. But they are true most of the time.

    My point is, I don’t have a problem with randomized control-group studies, and research clearinghouses because they tell us what works MOST of the time. But I DO have a problem when policymakers or others put too much faith in these studies. The best approach, I feel, is to know the scientific research, and then make the best judgment based on the students involved.

  6. Ditto what Rick said.

    If we couldn’t generalise across a body of people, nothing would work – ever. If everyone was completely different, life would be a complete shambles. The fact that we all have so much in common in terms of cognition is what makes us such a powerful species. What works in this situation with these people may very well work with those people in that situation, all things being generally equal. Of course we must adjust for the individual as required, but I guess what well-designed studies do is try to give a foundation from which to adjust.

    I think what’s most interesting about the What Works Clearinghouse is seeing that so many studies that are used to “scientifically prove” the effectiveness of a program, actually fail to meet a rigorous standard of research. Kind of devalues any claims to being “research-based”.

  7. Rick, perhaps the problem is that it’s “policymakers” and “research clearinghouses” who are making the decision for other people. And then society reinforces their choices, through the requirement of accreditation.

    The irony is that people tend to be hired based on how they make the hirer feel. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that what most people learn from their school years is how to fit in and do as they’re told.

    Of course, when they’re fired, it’s because they’re just cogs in the system. And one cog’s as good as another when it comes time to “shed excess weight.”

  8. I agree with Rick, above. The point is to understand what (this kind of) research actually means. For example, an “effect size” of, say, 0.5 means that the mean of the supposed normal distribution of the control group lies half a standard deviation from the tested group: a very small, but “significant” effect. It means that the results are “significant” if we assume that the two groups only vary in controlled variables. And so on and so on, there are many subtleties to grasp about the real meaning of the results, subtleties that invariably get swept under the rug in executive summaries and press releases.

    It’s the same discussion as the “evidence based medicine” debate. Off course randomized trials, double blind, etc. etc. is are indispensable tools, but of course they are not applicable in every situation.

  9. I am new to contribute to this blog, but this topic interested me. I am curious how many people contributing are trained elementary or middle school teachers. I have been a middle school math teacher (and now coordinator) for 21 years. Never in my training both formal and in-service have I been encouraged to think about students in the way described in the above blog. We are trained and evaluated to recognize differences, to celebrate differences and to differentiate instruction to fit those needs. We use various “researched based” models to accomplish this, but teachers will tell you that one size does not fit all. We are trained on various ethnic cultures of students, on learning styles (how to identify and how to teach to them), how to reach learners at different levels in the same classroom, etc…

    The above blog sounds like college classrooms instead of elementary and middle school ones to me.

  10. If students are being educated or treated like another brick of a house, or another part of the machine, without considering the individual’s needs, feelings, we may all be replaceable. That is the mechanistic view (metaphor) of learning. Education with the left brain only would leave the right brain untapped – a lack of imagination, creativity or… Read More emotions & application – even in Maths. History has proven that mechanistic view of education and management- based solely on scientific management or artificial intelligence is like cloning an animal/human without thinking of the consequence. What’s the improvement, innovation out of such “cloned animal/human”? Have we considered the life and feelings of the cloned human? The Frankenstein? The fifth elements well illustrate the importance of psychological implications, emotions that is important in human evolution. Each of us could add value to our generation and next, by being humanistic, not mechanistic. Are we still replaceable?

  11. Every condo tower around here is built by first excavating a hole in the ground, then pouring concrete into wooden forms. Nonetheless, the end results don’t look that similar.

  12. I’ve never heard anyone take the position that all students are the same in all respects, so to me this post sounds like a “straw man” argument, one that’s all too easy to knock down.

    However, when colleges put a few hundred students in the same lecture hall they are treating them as if they were all the same.

    But even if we could afford to give every student his/her own private tutor (which some AI buffs think might happen someday), would we really want students to learn in isolation from other students.

    But if we put students in group learning environments, do we want those groups to be homogeneous or heterogeneous. One could easily argue both ways.

    So, to return to the original question/issue, if we put students in heterogeneous groups, that implies that we’re teaching students with dis-similar learning styles/abilities in the same learning environment (i.e. we’re treating them in the same “way” even though we know they’re different).

    Alternatively, if we group students by learning styles/abilities then we open ourselves up to the charge that we aren’t providing a “diverse” learning environment.

    Finally, if one tries to strike a compromise by providing some one-on-one tutoring, some homogeneous group learning, and some heterogeneous group learning then critics can always complain that we haven’t got the mix “just right.”

    For those who like clear cut solutions, the problem is that education is a “divergent” problem situation, unlike a “convergent” problem such as putting eight queens on a chess board so that none of them can attack one another. There is a solution to the eight queens problem because the rules of chess are clear cut and the objective is well defined and agreed upon.

    In education, the rules are not clear cut and the objective is not well defined. So, issues in education policy cannot be solved like eight queen problems.

    Those who look for “eight queen” like solutions try to impose well defined rules and objectives. But, those who object to the outcome of such an analysis can always complain about the initial definition of the rules and objectives. So, we continue to spin our wheels.

  13. People sure do like to defend their scientific models.

    At a policy level, decisions are made based on this kind of blind testing. In order to have your research accepted to the policy discussion it MUST adhere to this kind of testing… this is the problem. David didn’t add this in his post, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he’s talking about.

    Mean deviations, whatever they may reflect, are considered to acquire truths based on how they remove the human factors from the equation. They are successfully constructed the more they remove context from the equation… the more they are ‘standardizable’. This implies that there is A correct or A SERIES OF correct ways of teaching and that they are observable. It also subsumes the discussion of what we are teaching in the first place. If we are teaching ‘content’ or ‘literacies’ or ‘models’ the results will differ.

    No one, I think, is trying to imply that this results in teachers wandering around like single-minded robots teaching each student as if they are the same as another. It means that the underlying research methodology that is acceptable for gov. funding and application to policy ascribes to this worldview so that it can be ‘verifiable’. It does not address wether this verifiability is desirable or even possible.

    It posits a world where there IS verifiability, whether that world reflects the real classroom or not.

  14. I feel that evidence-based approaches are best understood by the concept of validity, which is well developed for assessment but is applicable to these kinds of “evidence-based practices”. 1st, Validity is a judgement that never reaches 100%; no matter how good your evidence is there is always some level of doubt. Secondly, it is not about the practice per say, but is about how you are using the practice and how your use relates to the practice. To use Evidence otherwise is lazy use. So I agree with your basic premise, that there are problems in how evidence is used, but I would not want to see a scientific approach abandoned for gut feelings

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