Friday, July 29, 2016

Speaking of educational efficiency

Having majored in education is an endless series of surprises. Not only do you get to learn thing about education, you also get to learn about how to treat people who have not learnt about education and who are not wont to learn about education.

Since you have an education about education, people come to you with questions about education. It's a reasonable thing to do, tautologically speaking - if education works, then the effects of education should be present in those with education. Conversely, if education didn't work, then seeking out those educated about education would be the very definition of folly.

You do not think these things before majoring in education. Because that's what they teach education majors.

This might seem like a roundabout introduction to a text on the efficiency on education, but it isn't. It is at the heart of the question what it means for education to be "efficient", and just at what education is supposed to be efficient.

It is very common in everyday discourse (political and otherwise) to depict educational practices as in some way deficient or inefficient, and to propose alternate practices which just happen to alleviate or eliminate these flaws that were presented moments ago. Everyone wants efficiency, and if someone with a confident demeanor says that something is more efficient than what we've already got, than it's probably true.

Otherwise they wouldn't be so confident, right?

Thing is, being efficient is not a standalone quality. There is always an implicit "at something" at work whenever the word is used, and being able to discern what this "something" is, is a key part of being able to tell generic confidence from actual, trusty knowledge.

Economists, who for some reason are extremely keen on applying generic confidence in political debates about education in particular, are prone to use statistics to show that education has become more and/or less efficient. The typical example is to compile the numbers on grades and how they've fluctuated over time. A move in any direction is interpreted as signs of (in)efficiency, and boldly proclaimed as such.

There are several peculiar unexamined assumptions at work here. One is that higher average grades guarantee some quality of excellence within an individual, and that educational systems that produce higher average grades also produce more of this excellence. Higher grades thus equal higher efficiency, which is the desired result.

The obvious counterpoint to this is of course to just give everyone the highest grades possible, thus guaranteeing maximum efficiency. Which is false on the face of it (although a case can be made that the absence of grades might have positive effects on learning environments), but it highlights the next unexamined assumption.

The second assumption is that this quality of excellence is a uniform quality that expresses itself equally in every student. It might seem counterintuitive, but it follows from the assumption that grades in and of themselves measure the same thing across individuals. It's subtle, but it obscures differences between individuals and - more crucially - curricula.

A third assumption is that the current curricula are adequate with regards to producing the desired outcome. The fact that the desired outcome is left undefined during the argumentation does not leave the assumption empty - it simply leaves it in the default mode, which is the current policies in play. Unless you specifically frame a different desired outcome, you're more or less forced to agree with the standard documents and their valuations of different skill sets and competencies.

Status quo has the advantage of actually being implemented, and does not need further explication to keep being implemented. Quite the opposite.

As you can see, you very quickly get into these deep nested layers of assumptions that follow from previous assumptions, ad infinitum. Sorting out what is assumed where and how these assumptions interact with others on the various levels takes both dedication and hard work, and an explication of any given boast that x is more efficient than y is bound to take up exponentially more verbiage than anyone really ought to read. Generic confidence is a powerful tool, able to convey a whole world of effort into a brief "it's all very simple, really".

But not to worry. We can deal with it. We are taught these things as education majors.

It's super effective.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An oppositional read of Ghostbusters

The new Ghostbusters movie is out and about, and there are no lack of reactions to it. From what I've gathered, those who saw it without any particular expectations (other than the busting of ghosts) kinda liked it but had some minor complaints here and there. Others, however, claim that the movie ruined their childhood, and that they now face years of heavy duty therapy to recover from the loss of their past selves.

While the phrase "ruined my childhood" is hyperbolic to the extreme in this context - it's hard to imagine how such a thing could occur because of a ghost busting movie - it does however open up for some interesting possibilities. If we take it as possible for a movie to ruin a childhood, it should logically follow that an equal and opposite effect is possible. If childhoods are somehow open to retroactive alterations, then it ought to be possible to produce movies that in some way enhance these very same childhoods.

An opposite Ghostbusters, as it were.

This line of reasoning opens up a whole range of therapeutic treatments of many actually existing shitty childhoods. Indeed, avid entrepreneurs might want to get to work right away on retroactively prophylactic cinema products, before the market is flooded with happy memories and fondly remembered daydreams of the future we now ended up in.

I can't wait to see it happen.