Pearson’s Vision for the World

Mercedes Schneider recently directed the blogosphere’s attention to a Pearson paper from February of 2014, “Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education.” If you’re wondering just what Pearson (and by extension, the various government bodies that they own) envisions for our collective future, this document sheds plenty of light.

There are 44 pages, and I’m not going to address them all at once for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the document is exceptionally depressing. Let’s just look at the front end today.

The intro page lists the actual authors (we’ll get to them another day), a paragraph “About Pearson” (“the world’s leading learning company”) and an introduction to the series. “Sir Michael Barber, on behalf of Pearson, is commissioning a series of independent, open, and practical publications containing new ideas and evidence about what works in education.”  Since both authors of this paper work for Pearson, I’m not sure what “independent” means in this context. There is also a Creative Commons license.

After acknowledgements and a table of contents, we arrive at the Foreword by Sir Michael Barber. If you don’t know about Barber, you should. A top honcho at Pearson, he has also worked as head of global education practice at McKinsey and was an advisor to PM Tony Blair. Three Moms Against Common Core ranked him #7 of the Ten Scariest People in Education Reform.

Here’s Barber’s opening paragraph:

The “digital ocean” that this paper introduces is coming. Just as “big data” is transforming other industries such as insurance, finance, retail, and professional sport, in time, it will transform education. And when it does, it will resolve long-standing dilemmas for educators and enable that long-term aspiration for evidence-informed policy at every level, from classroom to the whole system, to be realized.

Got that? Big data is coming, and it will save us all.The “dilemmas,” Barber explains, are the limits of formal testing in gathering data.

Barber reminisces about his time in the UK DOE and the groundbreaking national data system he pioneered there. But that was then. He now offers more data-riffic promises of aweomeness:

Once much of teaching and learning becomes digital, data will be available not just from once-a-year tests, but also from the wide-ranging daily activities of individual students. Teachers will be able to see what students can and cannot do, what they have learned and what they have not,which sequences of teaching have worked well and which haven’t – and they will be able to do so in real time.

Seriously? Barber’s promise is that we will be able to observe our students in real time working  at a variety of tasks and see what they can and can’t do. Really?? Am I living in some magical land because THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I DO RIGHT NOW!!

Maybe I’m extra fortunate. Maybe somewhere there are teachers who work from some bunker in the back of the room where they can neither see nor hear the students in their classrooms. Or maybe they are asking the students questions but the students record their answers in special lockboxes that can’t be opened for 126 hours. Or maybe the only way these poor benighted teachers can collect data is by giving one or two mammoth tests per year that provide results without specifics and not until a year later oh no wait, that’s what Pearson’s various acolytes are trying to get us to do NOW!

Barber assures us that personalized learning at scale will be possible, and again I want to point out that we already have a system that can totally do that (though of course the present system does not provide corporations such as Pearson nearly enough money). I will not pretend that the traditional US public ed system always provides the personalized learning it should, but when reformy types suggest that’s a reason to scrap the whole system, I wonder if they also buy a new car every time the old car runs out of gas (plus, in that metaphor, government is repeatedly pouring sand into the gas tank).

But no. There will have to be revolution:

…schools will need to have digital materials of high quality, teachers will have to change how they teach and how they themselves learn… 

 This shtick I recognize, because it is as old as education technology. Every software salesman who ever set foot in a school used this one– “This will be really great tool if you just change everything about how you work.” No. No, no, no. You do not tell a carpenter, “Hey, newspaper is a great building material as long as you change your expectations about how strong and protective a house is supposed to be.”

You pick a tool because it can help you do the job. You do not change the job so that it will fit the tool. This backward thinking is the heart of what’s wrong with the CCSS. The Core are not about defining what are the most critical qualities of an excellent education. The Core are about codifying the qualities of education that will most work with our measuring tools.

Barber praises the authors of the paper for their “aspirational vision” of success in schools would look like.

They see teaching,learning and assessment as different aspects of one integrated process, complementing each other at all times, in real time; 

To which I reply, “Wow! Amazing! Do they also envision water that is wet? Wheels that are round? That is some real visionary shit there!” Of course, they also see this:

sophisticated student profiles allowing teachers and students to make informed and precise decisions about next steps

So bring on that Big Brother stuff. Oh, and they see this, too

more complex educational outcomes, such as inter- and intra-personal skills, becoming assessable, teachable, and learnable

So in the Brave New Pearson World, we will not only turn you into our idea of an educated person, but our idea of a good and sociable person. We will let you know which interpersonal skills you must learn, and we will tell you whether you are an acceptable human being or not. Well, actually, not tell YOU so much– the people who really want to know are your future employers and landlords and bank officers and health insurers.

Barber acknowledges hat there’s much to do to make this “a reality across education systems.” Science, data, validity, knowledge processes, plus structural and cultural changes at systemic and pedagogical levels. Barber admits that this will be difficult, but there’s this:

Be that as it may, the aspiration to meet these challenges is right

Make no mistake– Pearson’s aspiration is to remake the world and the people who live in it into the form they believe is Right. It’s at this point that Pearson and its acolytes appear to cross the line from simply trying to sell a profitable program of educational malpractice to resemble an immoral crusade to circumvent the governments, institutions, and freedoms of the human beings who live on this planet.

By Peter A. Greene

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