The pushback against high-stakes testing, and some alternatives
My row with Ravitch: Lessons learned

Biometric hysteria: The anti-research mentality of the educational status quo

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.


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Mike Thayer

I have exactly one question for you, as a "teacher".

Would you allow your own children to be monitored in such a way?

If so, I can only assume that you're fine with the loss of privacy, the loss of autonomy, and having your kids having to be "always on" in school.

If not, why is this okay for other people's children but not your own?

Gary Houchens

For purposes of a research study like this, yes, I would agree to let my own children be monitored.

In fact, human subjects research protocols would require parental permission of EVERY child who participated.


Aside from the total insanity (one of the problems being that GSR is not a very accurate predictor of anything and can be fooled quite easily as some of the teachers' comments imply) that this type of study implies, how more anti-individual, anti-liberty, anti-freedom from intrusion can it get.

You stated "But in my experience, student engagement is one of the most critical and difficult-to-measure components of the learning process." You have, unwittingly, identified the crux of the problem. That what we do (I've taught HS Spanish for 18 years) in education is amenable to measurement.

One of the underlying fallacies with grades, standards and standardized testing is that one can “quantify” a “quality”. They are two separate logical categories that cannot logically be "mixed" like oil and water. In a logical fashion when the base of a particular practice is a falsehood then the results more likely than not are going to be false (every now and again one stumbles across a correct result/answer by chance).

As Russ Ackhoff has stated (paraphrased) “If what you are doing is wrong [based on falsehoods] and you attempt to get better at what you are doing, you are getting ‘wronger’ (his term). So it is better to do the right thing wrong than to do the wrong thing right that way when you get better at doing the right thing you are getting it ‘righter’.” A simply stated truth, eh?

Gary Houchens

Duane, I suspect our educational philosophies are far more alike than you might imagine. Thanks for the comments.



Your welcome! I guess one of the (many) things that bothers me is that there are many-the vast majority it seems-in education believe that teaching and learning can viewed from a "scientific" lens, that "legitimate" educational discourse has to be-how's that acronym in "data driven dialogue" go-scientific, measurable, analyzable, retailable, and trivial-oops wrong SMART goal, eh!

Teaching and learning, i.e., education is an art and not a science and to attempt to use scientific methods, e.g., using data to evaluate what goes on in a classroom is a chimera.



Dang wanted to add "e.g., data or something like a GSR device. . .

Mike Thayer

I appreciate your posting my original comment, as well as your response, and so I have another couple of questions:

I certainly understand that human research protocols require consent (presumably of the parents, for children in schools). However, would you agree that a possible (perhaps likely) ultimate end-goal of this research is
to provide a system by which all students will be monitored while in school for their relative levels of "engagement" during classes?

If so, why would this be a good idea (and yes, I understand that student engagement is "critical and difficult-to-measure" - but would that really be what you were measuring?) and if not, what's the point of the original research?

Lisa M

Big Brother is getting closer and closer!
You would let your child sit in a classroom, with a bracelet on to measure whether their teacher was engaging them? What parent would do this? What evidence would it give you that the teacher is or is not effective?
Maybe, next they will provide electric shock to the teacher every time the students are not engaged!(Oooops, I am being hysterical, aren't I?)


As an experienced teacher who admires her students, I don't need a bracelet to tell me when they are: bored, confused, excited, tired, interested, etc. I know them as individuals with strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and dreams. I find this insulting and another way to turn the art of teaching into an exact science that can be manned by Stepford test prep drones or teach for a while recruits. Gates continues to demean and insult the teaching profession, one he knows nothing about. Just because he is a billionaire, it is assumed he is a expert on all topics and all professions. Bill and Melinda and the rest of the faux reformers should give up three years of their lives and work on the front line teaching public school children......plan the lessons, monitor their progress, grade papers, chart the data, enrich for the talented and gifted while individualizing and differentiating for those who struggle, attend 504 meetings, PPT's, parent conferences, district workshops.  It is time for them to walk the walk and then let's plan to talk some more about the teaching profession.

Gary Houchens

Mike, Lisa, and Linda all raise good points. I'll make another post in coming days exploring this issue in great depth. I actually share all of your concerns about nefarious ways this technology could be used. I still think the research is worth pursuing however.

And if you browse around my blog, including posts from recent days, you'll see I'm no fan if standardized testing or measurement mania.

Thanks to all of you for engaging me on this issue. You've expanded my own thinking on this topic.

Gary Houchens

New blog post up, following up on this topic:

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