'This Is Not a Test' Shifts Education Perspectives: Is Technology Just Standardizing Education More?
How does education commentary that is not rooted in science influence the scientific study of education? You might think the answer ought to be "it doesn't," or "it shouldn't." It does, and it should.
Let's start with how scientists do their jobs. As shown in this simplified figure, we take observation from the world—both informal, and the results of research—and try to unify these observations into a theory. Prime virtues of theories are simplicity and coherence.
By analogy, in the figure below, we have relatively reliable observations of the world, show at left. Then at right, we have a theory accounting for those observations. It makes things tidy, coherent, even though a couple of the lines aren't actually incorporated into the figure at right, and even though we readily admit that we don't have direct observation supporting some of the lines we conjecture are present.
Scientists like to believe that we don’t make assumptions when we’re creating theories, that we are fully guided by the data. That’s impossible, of course. We can’t avoid making some assumptions, for example assumptions about the nature of knowledge. There are other beliefs that we are less likely to examine, but they nevertheless influence how we put together data. Beliefs about whether government action usually improves social problems or makes them worse, for example. Or beliefs about the roots of poverty and the potential for its amelioration.
Education writers influence scientific education researchers by exposing those assumptions, and prodding us to consider why we hold them, and the consequences of replacing them.
Enter José Vilson.
Vilson is a middle school math teacher and coach who teaches kids who have grown up in poverty or near it. He writes a blog, the popularity of which I attribute to his willingness to consider and critique all points of view. Vilson grumbles with the rest of us, but he’s mainly focused on solutions. In that light, he’s ready to listen to almost anyone, and there is not a constituency that is safe from his probing.
Now he’s published a book, This Is Not a Test. What you expect from a book written by a teacher with Vilson’s experience is a first-person account of what it means to teach mathematics to seventh-graders growing up in difficult circumstances. You expect personal moments like Vilson’s description of the consequences—sometimes negative, usually positive—of when his teacher-mask slips. You expect that Vilson will put detail and texture to your general empathy for “those kids,” that he will turn them into individuals who you wish you knew. You expect that, but you may not be ready for the punch in the stomach of Vilson’s letter to a former student who was shot in the back of the head during a dispute over graffiti.
This Is Not a Test delivers on your expectation that you’ll gain insight into the lives of children growing up in poverty. But that’s not what sets it apart from similar books.
The truth is that most of us will nod our heads while we read such a book, but our theories won’t change. Writers like Vilson not only put details to abstractions, they put together observations to offer a coherent alternative to the way you had seen problems before.
In This Is Not a Test, Vilson suggests that technology may be doing more to standardize education than to personalize it. He elaborates at length on how some kids may not succeed at school not just because of obstacles they encounter, but because schooling for them is a bad fit. And Vilson faces squarely the difficult questions that follow from this conclusion.
It's these shifts in perspective that made the book valuable to me. I recommend it to you.