When we ask for help in learning

The sign at a local elementary school

Respectfully, if I may suggest, regardless of where they came from, they are here now and they need our help.
(“Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Star Trek: The Next Generation. 19 Feb. 1990)

I’ve always been the kind of person who forgets it’s an option to raise your hand and ask a question. I nearly slipped down a grade in a history class despite unimpeachable exams because I hardly opened my mouth during lectures; it just seemed kind of silly to me that there was a participation requirement in a history class. History has, after all, already happened. I was usually a student who just wanted to listen.

Nevertheless, fortune favors the bold…which we say, mostly, about the loud. Which are really the people who are allowed to be loud. After all, education systems are both the explicit systems that we see and the shadow systems underneath, that tricky multidimensional thing that operates with long chains of consequence.

There are many rules for being a student, and many ways that rules operate, and then many possible consequences of breaking those rules, depending on who you are. Research in sociology and other fields continually illuminates how much secret advantage exists in who can negotiate and for what in school. We know that even very young children worry about reactions to disclosure, that discouraging classrooms warp students’ motivations and active engagement, and that beliefs about whether someone like you belongs in a place like this can dramatically impact whether you participate in the learning around you. And research into the ways that Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and other underserved students are punished for being vocal or asking for help is so vast it’s difficult to even know where to start. Here’s one place. Here’s another.

Maybe this is a big beginning for a small post, 30,000 feet up when the only answers I have are small conversations, quiet, iterative. But I am a social scientist at heart and I see learning less as individuated actors making independent motions and more as an ecosystem, all of us coming together and impacting each other in many directions. I think about environments before I think about anything.

And I thought it was useful to start with how I have come to see the action of a student asking for help: courageous, difficult, and precious.

Last spring my youngest brother’s college sent them home; in a globally non-unique fashion, his learning experience became disjointed and chaotic. Students navigate and contrast different performance and achievement expectations, but also differing access to information. First the classes were cancelled, then labs reinstated, then the lectures for the labs were cancelled, then the labs were cancelled. Housing was revoked and reissued, cities and universities tossing liabilities back and forth like student lives were so many volleyballs. But my brother lives in Canada, and so he is lucky: cases were low, rent was lowered, spirits were high.

But of course it was scary, and the cracks in the experience emerged swiftly and mercilessly, the domino effects of change that would roll out for any learner undergoing it. Switching from the classroom to video calls in his stuffy small bedroom was depressing, and noisy environments make it hard for him to focus. Absent a unified learning plan, individual faculty made their own and communicated them via haphazard emails and unclear wording. He got instructions to download surveillance software before instructions about whether grading would change to account for the projects they could no longer do. Teachers and people care, but School as an institution seems not to care where students live, or whether they have a room to do their work in — until it occurs to someone in some office of their own that students could use their cramped bedrooms to cheat. Then School demands access, and information, and control. All the things that students are losing, the world’s worst game of no-return volleyball.

I think about that a lot, this year. That as learners, sometimes it feels that we only have bodies that exist when institutions want to control them. That the responsibility to build an environment only goes one way.

Because I didn’t go to school for years and years and then clawed my way back into it, I feel like a bit of an expert in being a ghost. I exist only from a certain point of view, in certain systems. When I took a prestigious internship, my first job in tech, I waited patiently in a lobby full of free snacks while HR sought a solution to a combinatorial datapoint their software system would not accept: you couldn’t list a PhD institution, if you didn’t list a high school.

Many learners lead such transient digital lives. There might even be more of us than there are of you. I’ve mentored a lot of students who have spent significant amounts of time out of school, and are trying to get back in. As an education researcher, I often hear people talk about drop-out in education like a single line on a chart, that bad cliff that goes down. But drop-out is really fascinating. It splinters, when you talk to people, into a thousand small thresholds, the trap-doors they walked into. People drop out because a teacher yelled at them, or a law changed around them, or they no longer believed they could do it, or they hated math, or, sometimes, because all of the schools closed.

I mentor a lot during normal years — but of course for many of us normal was always a finite quantity, unevenly distributed. It is hard in 2020 to remember being a grad student at a small conference arguing that it was important to study the longitudinal engagement of students in online environments and whether they believed they could succeed, a decade ago. It is hard to remember how I didn’t find funding to explore access, back then. It is harder, in 2020, to wonder if I could have helped prepare us better.

My brother is a better texter than talker, which I take a certain delight in because I taught him to read. It’s nice when we get to see teaching pay off. When his school closed, I couldn’t get him on the phone but I got him on WhatsApp. Some people have doctors in the family to check in on their colds. He has a doctor-of-data to ask, have they turned you into a ghost?

Surveillance software for proctoring can be invasive, and threatening. Across countries and universities, such software demanded access to eye movements, room scans, and head tilts. It made punitive demands: don’t move, don’t drink water, don’t have roommates, don’t be not-white. Don’t ask for help, especially.

The proctoring software gave my brother a panic attack. That didn’t matter, he could handle its crushing impact on his own performance, he said (you learn to be a ghost pretty quickly), but it wasn’t just him. It was all of them, students in cramped bedrooms trying to get by, pretending to be learners, hoping for the small kindness of not being humiliated.

The world is so weird right now, my brother wrote. It’s been intense, living in history. There are students in this class who are going through an incredibly difficult time, and I need to stand up for them.

He wanted to ask the automated proctoring to stop. This software was still under the control of an individual instructor who probably didn’t mean all this harm. So I helped him write a letter, an argument, a research-backed thesis about data privacy. As a tech worker, I knew how to push back on biased software. As a learning scientist, I knew how to channel evidence for just what kind of environment this was creating. As a sister, I was proud, and mad, and in much the same place that I’ve been in since I clawed my way back into the education system, fifteen years ago. Convinced that the only way we make a human environment, is to treat those inside of it like humans.

There is something particularly fine-grained about the damage you take when someone makes you feel ashamed of yourself after you ask for help. All kinds of threats can hide underneath instruction. In a world of tech-mediated learning, even small cues about who is allowed to ask for help can become weapons. I got an entire PhD in the disclosure of achievement: and it has taken me this long to decide that it was ok to talk more about not being in school — and what was worse than not being in school. Making it back to school, and feeling unwelcome.

It is hard, in 2020, to have been a student out of school and then to watch so many people talk about what it means to have these students out of school. It doesn’t mean one thing, of course — it is always the splintering, the thresholds, the trap doors. Yet the education conversation has centered on performance, because we have developed little else in the way of a vocabulary around what a learning environment is. But what would it mean to ask less about performance, and more about sustainability and care? There is a paradox in education measurement, and it looks like this: sometimes when learners start to believe in themselves more, they start to look worse — because they experiment, and we don’t usually operationalize this as anything but problematic. They ask questions, and behave in unexpected ways, and yet we design systems around finding and crushing the unexpected.

This approach isn’t going to work when education is disrupted. I know it; I’ve lived it. When we drop out of school, it isn’t just about what breaks but what gets repaired. It isn’t just about treating us like ghosts, alien, our experiences invisible because they’re unexpected. Evaluating learning loss is part of how we deal with this, but it’s such a smaller part than bringing learners back in the first place. It’s about preparing our systems to hear and hold and value those differences, and rising to the challenge of making our education ecosystem the welcoming one we’ve always promised.

This ecosystem is more of a dream than a reality for me. Some learners get to have bodies and classrooms and desks, but so many are muted across video screens, alienated from their own reality down to their eye movements, on guard against hostile software and vicious evaluators. There is no learning without safety.

But there is also hope. Because spending most of your life outside of school also gives you this: the knowledge that learning lives everywhere. I have at least an infinite optimism that someone will always raise their hand, and start asking questions, and because of it, things will get better. In this one class, my brother was one student who got one piece of software removed. Today, a lot of things are broken. They were broken before, but the brokenness has caught up with us, scaled with the force of our institutions, scaled across our shared experience of crisis. And yet in the middle of this, learners persist.

we have to stick together through this kind of stuff, my brother texted. The borders closed between us during a pandemic that canceled his graduation and my wedding, and neither of us can see our family or friends or coworkers. Nevertheless, we are always part of each other’s ecosystem. We are cues, too, reaching out past screens and texts and fear. I told him, there are lots of people out here on your side. It is ok to fight back when you think things aren’t fair. Tell me how I can help.

Thanks for listening, he said, you helped already.

Psych/HCI, Learning and Data Scientist, Data Lover. Former Google, Design Lab@UCSD. Likes human beings, success in unlikely places, and short stories.

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