The quantified self movement may sound the death knell for deep thinking
Creating the time and space for rich learning experiences
I am having a strange time with my running app. Runkeeper has occupied me on every run, long and short, since 2012. It has proven itself to be a reliable tool for mapping my routes, logging my miles and analysing my form over time. But lately, Runkeeper has been overstepping its bounds with unnerving notifications of past runs that apparently took place on the same day of the week, at the exact same time.
Runkeeper thinks it knows me on the basis of capturing data about my previous runs. What it doesn’t realise is that my training regimen is deliberately unstructured, guided mostly by how my body is feeling. It is not nostalgia of past glories that propels me towards my running shoes. The same is true of my runs; I may start out with a fixed plan in mind, but I am always open to adapting my run based on environmental conditions and bodily feedback.
Just last week, I was set to run my ‘standard’ 5 mile route through Oxford, which usually sees me scooting past the entrance to the university park. I have not run through the parks for years but on this day, during this run, I changed course. Ideal weather conditions, combined with an unexplained resolve, inspired me to extend the run to include a lap around the park. Five miles stretched to well over six as I more than scooted my way through the green.
Runkeeper would later confirm that the park represented my quickest leg of the run, but it would never know what occasioned the detour. Nor would it capture the sense of disorientation that followed me through the remainder of the run. I can normally map out my mile markers to within an inch, but the detour had shifted everything along. There is something liberating about not conforming to a fixed linear path, enjoying the run for itself without the constant need for measurement, and to take an unplanned risk with the most uplifting consequences. Detours can transform a mundane run into an aerobic adventure.
Runkeeper is reminiscent of our standard approach to education.
Traditional curriculum models have much in common with the quantified self movement that apps like Runkeeper thrive on: they value only what they can measure.
A curriculum plots out a fixed trajectory from a base state of knowledge to an expanded state. The journey is premeditated, broken into a sequence of scripted lessons intended to guide students along each step. The journey has to be premeditated, and the lessons have to be scripted, because, according to the narrative of formal schooling, everything has to be measured. It is what students and teachers are held accountable to.
The stringent requirement for measurement limits learning in two ways: first, tasks are tightly structured and centred on closed problems with definite solutions. These tasks tease out only a sliver of students’ thinking skills. Second, detours are rarely permitted on the learning journey. Students have scarce opportunity to explore new terrain — say, more open-ended problems — because this form of learning is not so easily measured.
Just as Runkeeper is limited in tracking only my route and running speed, education has not yet developed the assessment tools to capture deeper cognitive skills.
Since that which is not measurable is not valued, these richer learning tasks are resigned to the periphery of the curriculum. Coursework, which is predicated on its lack of structure, fades out of curriculum schemes just as easily as it fades in. Coursework tasks are typically introduced, poorly measured, abused by students, parents and teachers facing the pressures of high-stakes accountability, and then thrown out until the next cycle. Today’s blunt measuring tools can not cope with the open nature of coursework, so coursework is eliminated altogether.
But here’s a thought — why not include exploratory learning even in the absence of strict measurement? Need everything be subject to a mark scheme? Should the benefits of exploratory learning be shunned simply because their inherent richness makes them difficult to codify?
Detours are worth striving for in the curriculum because that is where our deepest thinking arises. In fact, the preliminary steps we take along our learning journey are often just a means to taking these excursions. The standard objection to exploratory learning is that it leaves students lost in the wilderness. Yet deeper thinking can still be a carefully guided activity that keeps us within sensible bounds, just as my running detour was confined to the park.
That many scientific discoveries were stumbled upon by accident is no accident at all. We all need time and space to get ever so slightly lost, to dream our way into creative thought, and to develop our richest insights. This is true of all learners, expert or novice.
Exploratory learning risks being thwarted by the measurement paradigm that has education in its grip. Technology may only amplify the issue, proliferating the use of learning analytics that are taken as gospel when projecting students’ learning paths. Predictive analytics tends to leave little room for unexpected leaps in performance, consigning students to self-fulfilling prophecies based on their historical progress. Runkeeper can not fathom what I have in mind for my next run, not least because it has yet to be settled in my mind. Likewise, even the most sophisticated assessment tools of today can not anticipate when and where a student’s next great insight may arrive.
The brave choice for educators is to stand firm with what we value, and to accept that not every aspect of learning can be measured. It is okay to step off the path once in a while; it may even be necessary to enable our richest learning experiences.
I am a research mathematician turned educator working at the nexus of mathematics, education and innovation.
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If you liked this article you might want to check out my following pieces:
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