Standardizing Human Ability

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Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s try to imagine a society (there were lots of them before modernity) where there is no interest in measuring educational success.  Let’s imagine a society where the only goal of teaching (it’s a high bar) is to help every child master what they need in order to lead the most fulfilling life they are capable of leading—productive, creative, responsible, contributing to their own well-being and that of their society.  No grades.  No tests.  Just an educational system based on helping each child to find her or his potential for leading the best (Socrates would call it “happiest”) life possible.  In such a world, do learning disabilities exist?

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

I haven’t written for this DML Central blog much lately partly because I’ve been trying to really take in and meditate upon the remarkable things I’ve learned this year as I’ve traveled around the U.S. and abroad for Now You See It:  How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.  Because my argument in that book is so broad, my invited talks and workshops were to a variety of audiences:  schools, corporations, technology businesses, universities, science centers, nonprofits, and organizations responsible for accreditation or assessment.  It was an incredible year.  And most fascinating was how often very diverse audiences would ask the same questions, with the same kind of urgency.  Two of the most frequent questions were about learning disabilities and about standardized testing.  By the sixty-sixth (that is not a typo!) Q and A period, I found myself pretty convinced that there isn’t just an associational or direct link between those two things but a definitional one.

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

People like to say that education hasn’t changed much in several hundred years.  Actually, that is not true.  It changed drastically, radically—as did all of Western society—during the great era of Taylorist standardization of labor and of the laborer, roughly 1870-1920.  Compulsory, public, taxpayer-supported education in the United States found it needed ways to measure children’s educational productivity with the same uniform standardization as was being applied to workers on the Fordist assembly linesFrederick Winslow Taylor invented “scientific labor management” where he strove to regularize human output, so that the well-fed, rested worker at 8 am worked at the same rate as he did at 6 pm after a full day of manual labor.  For every job, there was the “one best way” (his famous catchphrase), determined by the supervisor, and then everyone was judged by how close they came to that one best way (“soldiers,” he called them) or how far they fell from the mark (“malingerers”).

It’s hard to imagine a more dehumanizing or a more joyless way to work.

And in the first burst of Fordist assembly line labor, educators took the apparatus of scientific labor management and turned it into scientific learning management.  Virtually all of the protocols now in place for measuring academic success are based on Taylorist principles.  Not on ages’ old traditions of learning, but on a system of reducing human qualities to measurable, standardized productivity designed for the assembly line.

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

* * *

In researching the history of assessment for the “How We Measure” chapter of Now You See It, I was shocked to read extensively in the work of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, and the inventor of the basic building blocks of modern statistics: standard deviation, correlation, and regression toward the mean as well as the use of surveys and questionnaires for data collection.  The first shocker was realizing how much this foundational system for much of what we consider to be 20th century science is based on a series of interlocking (if not circular) premises that are freighted with cultural assumptions in their very structure, a topic that the late Stephen Jay Gould and others have addressed masterfully (but without having much practical effect).  The second shocker was more profound:  the motivation for much of Galton’s statistical design was to be able to provide scientific, measurable, standardized proof for his conviction that intelligence was inherited, it was biological, and some races had more of it than other races.  He was sure that the British class system itself existed because upper-class Anglo Saxons had the most intelligence of just about anyone on the planet.  As a human good, he urged the British government to pay aristocrats to reproduce and to sterilize the working classes.  In short, the inventor of modern statistics was also a eugenicist.

Here’s a list (in no particular order) of some of the changes in U.S. education, from kindergarten to professional school, either invented or finalized in the Taylorist era (the same era that produced the assembly line, statistics, standard deviation, spreadsheets, blueprints, punch clocks):  mandatory public secondary schooling, research universities, majors, minors, divisions, certification, graduate school, collegiate law school, nursing school, graduate school of education, collegiate business school, degree requirements, grades, required courses, electives, distribution requirements, IQ tests, multiple choice tests, item response college entrance exams (SAT), school rankings, class rankings. And learning disabilities.

There are some great things in that list. My point in this open-ended meditation, though, is that these are invented things.  Like all inventions, they are historically situated, created for a specific time and place, to solve problems of an era and address the possibilities afforded by the society, institutions, wealth, ambitions, and technologies of that time and place.  Like statistics and the assembly line, the system of education we have inherited is not “timeless.”  It is an industrial age invention.  So is the practice of ranking students from best to worst (“one best way”), using standardized forms of testing (extending Galton’s questionnaire form to the one-best-answer or item-response test).

We invented these standardized, regulatory, categorizing, statistical, practices for determining educational success or failure for the Fordist era of the assembly line. We can invent better ones for our own era.

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

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