There was a loud buzz in the education community this week over the announcement of a Gates Foundation grant that will investigate the use of biosensory devices to measure student engagement during classroom learning. As is becoming increasingly typical, some in the education establishment reacted hysterically.
The Gates grant of about $1.4 million will fund university researchers at locations around the country. According to the Baltimore Sun, here's how it works:
The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers' emotional response to advertising.
Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out.
The slant on this story in the education media, and the ensuing response from commentators, was nothing short of irrational.
Education historian Diane Ravitch, who has in recent years transformed herself into a full-time lobbyist on behalf of the educational status quo, typified the hysteria:
"They should devote more time to improving the substance of what is being taught ... and give up all this measurement mania," said Diane Ravitch...
Ravitch blogged about the biosensor bracelets a few days ago after a critic of the Gates Foundation flagged the grants on Twitter. Her posts generated a small storm of angry commentary online, with some teachers joking that they would have to start screaming at random intervals or showing the occasional soft porn film to keep arousal rates among their students sufficiently high.
In another article, Ravitch was quoted this way:
Depending on the GSR readouts could mean that an educator who maintains a classroom full of excited and anxious students would be rewarded for keeping kids engaged. That, Ravitch wrote, would give a distinct edge to “tyrannical teachers” who “inspire anxiety by keeping students in constant fear.”
“The idea that this powerful foundation is setting in motion a means of measuring physiological responses to teachers is deeply disturbing,” Ravitch wrote in a blog post. “The act of teaching is complex. It involves art, science, and craft. Learning is far more than can be measured by a GRS bracelet.”
Of course it is. But nowhere in the descriptions of the Gates research do I see the suggestion that a teacher's effectiveness will be evaluated based on a student's biometric feedback. In fact, in response to all this anti-science foolishness, the Gates Foundation issued a statement, which Ravitch actually quoted on her blog, and then summarily dismissed, insisting teacher evaluation was not the goal of this study:
These grants are not all related to the Measures of Effective Teaching research project, and will not in any way be used to evaluate teacher performance. Rather, these are tools to help students and teachers gain a better understanding how and when students are most engaged in the classroom, with the ultimate goal of learning how to help students learn better.
Maybe this is all a testament to how poorly schools have used student data in the past, or the slip-shod approach so many administrators take to using teacher observation data, or the badly-designed systems of teacher evaluation in so many states, that so many people reacted to a simply scientific study with such thoughtless fury. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised.
But in my experience, student engagement is one of the most critical and difficult-to-measure components of the learning process. I have watched experienced educators wrestle for hours trying to refine definitions of engagement for establishing better classroom walkthrough processes.
And while simply measuring arousal without a lot of additional contextual information obviously won't give you a very reliable assessment of what's actually going on in the classroom, this kind of simple biometric data still has the potential to tell us something. And given the widespread problem of poor student engagement, especially at the secondary level, I'm willing to give researchers the benefit of the doubt and see what they can find by doing some basic exploratory studies.
I'm sympathetic to teachers who are weary of school leaders who repeatedly misapply research findings to further complicate their already difficult jobs. But to reject the idea of even examining such things with empirical evidence is yet another poor reflection on our profession and speaks volumes to how blindly entrenched we've become to the status quo.
Update: Follow-up to this post, wherein I acknowledge some rhetorical over-reach.