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Speculative Diction

Is the Gates Foundation “galvanizing” education research?


Today’s post is about education in the United States — not higher education, but the ongoing (yes, 100+ years!) wrangle over public primary and secondary education reform.

This month, a new Gates Foundation-funded research project was highlighted by Diane Ravitch in her blog. The research involves the use of “Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)” bracelets on students to measure, physiologically, their engagement in learning activities. While I was already aware that the Gates Foundation has been in pursuit of ways to improve the U.S. public education system — often through the use of technology — this latest item is so odd that I thought, at first glance, that it might be something from The Onion (at first the only article I could find was in the UK Daily Mail). But then I found an article on the Washington Post website (and Ravitch’s blog posts), and realized the study was serious.

In past posts I’ve already written about teaching the “ineffable”, but the extremity of this experiment highlights one of mass education’s perpetual dilemmas: how (and why) do we quantify the process of education when we don’t even know, really, how to “measure” the result? The Gates-funded experiment reflects more than just a flawed approach to assessing pedagogy. It demonstrates the potential conflation of pedagogy and management, in a context where the rhetoric of “accountability” and “efficiency” promises solutions to structural funding problems in education (at every level).

Though this research is meant to be “cutting-edge”, a number of ironic historical antecedents sprang to my mind. Firstly of course, the idea of “Galvanic” bracelets sounds like something from the age of 18th century electrical experimentation. Perhaps next we’ll see the suggestion that we try passing electric currents through teachers to make them less boring for the students (or they could wear these).

The GSR idea is also reminiscent of the late 19th- and early 20th-century concern with measurement of (physical) phenomena for maximum efficiency and productivity, and “scientific management”, which was closely related to production-line techniques of Fordism. Lastly, the bizarre attempt to map the physiological responses of children to specific mental states, based on technologically-mediated measurement, seems to revert to the same behaviourist models that have regularly been favoured in large-scale education initiatives (including standardized educational testing) since the early 20th century. Rather than seeking new ideas to solve old problems, it seems the Gates Foundation is funding further variations on several popular and long-running themes.

Shortly after the article appeared in the Washington Post, The Gates Foundation changed the wording of the research description, insisting that the experiment is “not related to teacher evaluation” — even though the Clemson University project seemed to have been connected with something called the “Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team.” And even in the altered version, the words “measure [student] engagement physiologically” are still key. The question of why we would want or need to do this is not sufficiently answered.

In related news, the aforementioned Diane Ravitch — who was Assistant Secretary of Education for George H. W. Bush and for Bill Clinton, and is now a vocal critic of standardized testing — was booted from The Brookings Institution after criticising Bush-era “education reform” in a new book. (She also criticized the bracelet idea through other posts in her blog, including here and here). Ravitch notes that the break with Brookings happened shortly after she criticised Mitt Romney’s education plan in two different blog posts.

If Ravitch’s critiques are being dismissed, why would wacky-looking research from the Gates Foundation be given legitimacy? One reason is that Bill Gates and other wealthy entrepreneurs have a now-popular argument on their side. Like almost everyone else, they think education isn’t “working”, and because this society views wealth as a signifier of success and thus lends a broader credibility to the wealthy, such individuals possess both the means and the influence to put personal beliefs (and critiques) into practice — even if they’re not really experts on education.

Massive education schemes implemented on a grand scale have never been driven solely by “scientific” (educational) research — not in the U.S. and probably not anywhere else, either — and certainly there is reams of research on pedagogy that’s been produced over the years, much of it ignored. We should be asking why some knowledge receives so much serious attention while other research is ignored, and we should be looking to the past to help find an understanding of this. The search for replicable, standardizable link between the external/physical/”objective” and the internal/mental/”subjective” should not be the only or even the primary approach to evaluating pedagogy, yet because this meshes well with existing systems and stands to benefit large “players”, the agenda is pursued.

In some ways the role played by huge “venture philanthropy” organizations such as the Gates Foundation simply represents another form of plutocracy, one that Canadians should watch carefully given the federal government’s current penchant for cutting basic research and statistics, and also the attacks on credibility of academic researchers. We’ll only “know” what’s available to us, and it may only be coming from those who can afford to produce it, and who often command a premium for their troubles.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. VanessaVaile / June 15, 2012 at 11:15

    Good collecting and connecting of related threads. Much to take in, digest, connect and extrapolate from (e.g. Gates and other “venture philanthropy” projects “for our own good”).