Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Towards a Less-Dubious Quality Teaching Service

For some time now, I've had an ethics problem with the way education in Atlantis has been conducted. I spent many years thinking about this problem; it's been ten years now. The problem, simply stated, is this: "How do you know that the proposed (and often very expensive) in(ter)vention actually is of educational benefit to its target?"

To be clear about this, let's look at three Atlantean educational in(ter)ventions: ITMP (It Takes More Power, or Industrial Technologists Make Profit, or Ingenious Tablet-Marketing Process), TLLM (Total Literacy-Lowering Mechanism) and NE (Notional Entertainment). OK, I was joking there, these acronyms from the same era all mean something different from what I've said.

Without saying which is which, let me introduce the three in(ter)ventions to you. If you don't believe these things exist, I have a little text file filled with wonderful press releases and speeches which will prove to you that these were actually launched, implemented, and then... not quite evaluated.

In(ter)vention 1: If we spend less time teaching and cut the amount of basic information to be learnt by about 30%, then everyone will learn more and be smarter. You can have field trips instead, with the added time. In this age of the Internet, why bother teaching facts? In fact, let's begin by deleting 'silicon' from the curriculum. And let's get rid of Churchill and Roosevelt too, those no-good non-dictators.

In(ter)vention 2: Our young must know the Thunderer's Story. We will create a whole new subject which will showcase how things get screwed up elsewhere and derive the truth that we must therefore not do things like that here, even though everyone should know that we are different. "The Thunderer's Story is based on historical facts. We are not talking about an idealised legendary account or a founding myth, but of an accurate understanding of what happened in the past, and what this history means for us today. It is objective history, seen from an Atlantean standpoint."

In(ter)vention 3: We will put a lot of money into making machines available for students. This will make them better able to compete with the big country over there which has sunk lots of money into taking schooling attitude tests (not their real name) by computer. This will be the wave of the future, bwahahaha, and it will cost about A$12 bn overall (at first). A lot of the cost will be hardware (including wiring) and a lot less will be spent on educating the facilitators. This, despite the fact that the wired hardware will be obsolete by the time we deploy it, and so will the facilitators. Please do not let the students laugh at you.

Years later, these in(ter)ventions are said to be successful. It is hard to say that they are not. But if they were clinical trials of some medical procedure, I would call them abject failures. Let's have a look at the problems.

1) The first problem is that we don't know what would have happened if we had not done these things. We assumed they would be a good use of scarce resources and money. If implemented correctly, the theory showed that they would be. But public accountability as to whether these were indeed a good thing is sorely lacking. The assumption is that they were, or else we would not have done them. A counterargument is often given in this form: a) if we had not done these things, it would have been worse; and b) we didn't see you propose an alternative. My reply is simple: a) I am not saying they aren't good, I am only saying you need to show the public why they are better than b) the alternatives which should be coming from the people we are paying millions of Atlantean gold pieces to every year. I'm not one of them.

2) The second problem is that it was assumed that supplying resources (time and machines and propaganda a correct societal standpoint) would automatically lead to a better-educated society. The jury is out on that. I am not a fan of the intense knowledge-funneling procedures used in the past, which caused many casualties from exploded brains; I am on the other hand wondering if the entire education system was able to use those resources well, and what the REAL outcomes were, apart from the outcomes created by other processes at work in the larger world.

3) The third problem was that nobody knew the nature of the ailment to be treated. It was like applying medicine to ameliorate symptoms without actually studying the unique nature of the patient. In a sense, we had looked at the patient's history, redacted what we did not think relevant, and attempted a prognosis based on yet-to-be-invented drugs and limited diagnosis. Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gnome's analysis showed the flaws of the system; the new thinking was not directly aimed at rectifying the flaws, but at reducing the symptoms. It's a bit like saying a person is obese from lack of exercise, so we should feed that person less and hope that someone thinks of a useful exercise plan by watching the tai-chi experts in the next block who are actually watching us.

What I propose is that there should be more analysis. If a school is going to spend huge and disproportionate amounts of money creating (for example) a Thorough Training Pogrom Programme, then they should publish their literature review, their analysis, their proposed evaluation regime etc in advance, such that the public has access to these documents 15 month before the launch. The evaluation should then take place as planned, without alterations, and the results published 15 months after the launch.

If the school does not have a research programme to analyse their initiative and its outcomes, then you shouldn't give them any money. Think of it as the sort of procedure a drug company should be made to go through before their drug appears on the open market.

I've just read an excellent book by Ben Goldacre, Bad Science. It has its own website. In the book, Dr Goldacre exposes the various methodologies that institutions use to hype their products, including the use of deliberately flawed trials designed to make their in(ter)ventions look better than others (or just better).

One of these methods is to take a bunch of patients who are likely to do well and treat them with an experimental drug. Since they are likely to do well, the outcomes are normally positive and reported faithfully as such. This is used to provide leverage in advertising the drug as a fantastic new addition to the universal pharmacopoeia. I've seen this in Atlantis too, along with the other kind of mistrial, the one in which negative results are rejected as 'outliers'. Sigh; it's difficult to outlie some people.

If we all took harder looks at such things, and if the principal researchers were less biased about their products, we'd be on the way to having a teaching service of less dubious quality. At the moment, this is still problematic.

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