The Goal of Edtech: Transparent, Tangible and Trustworthy

This post Lies at the intersection of 3 recent events:

  1. My intuition (and experience) on the need to make tech easy for teachers to adapt into practice
  2. A recent post by Jose Ferreira on Big Data and the Mathematics of Effectiveness and
  3. Comments of charter school educators I heard at the recent NYEdTech Meet up on 4-15

First, I believe that design should be an important factor in the coming ed tech revolution in educational practice.  Tech must be designed in 1 of 2 ways.  Either design it in a way that it can easily be adapted to existing practice (one comment at nyedtech was; “I don’t have 2 professional development days to learn a new computer program”.) or we should see a redesign of practice that is both relatively easy to implement and worth the effort.  I believe that real progress will require some type of redesign, but it has to fit the larger picture of what is needed in education as it evolves into a data intensive practice and it must make teacher’s work more productive.  Anything that increases the workload will not cut it.  My own take is in some version of the flipped classroom that involves adapted learning.  Lower level knowledge tasks are handled by technology and are linked to higher level skills that are more teacher intensive.

Data intensive technology is certainly the future of education, but as InBloom has highlighted, people are very sensitive about students data.  InBlooms CEO Iwan Streichenberger and Jose Ferreira both characterize this sensitivity as a misunderstanding, however this mischaracterizes and trivializes valid concerns.  For data to have meaning, it must be embedded in practice.  What critics of InBloom were mostly worried about were potential problem in practice.  The Reuters Article K-12 student database jazzes tech startups, spooks parents, Quotes Frank Catalano:

“The hype in the tech press is that education is an engineering problem that can be fixed by technology,” said Frank Catalano of Intrinsic Strategy, a consulting firm focused on education and technology. “To my mind, that’s a very naive and destructive view.”

Frank also recommends:

We need to pull back and think small, not big.  . . .  By precisely packaging and identifying what data is gathered, how it will be analyzed (or “mined”), and what result is anticipated, you remove the vague what-ifs. Everyone is then judging discrete products that can be understood, poked, prodded and dissected.  . . .  Transparent. Tangible. Aiming for trust. It’s not a perfect plan. But it sure as hell has got to be better than what’s happening now.

Finally there was a comment by Dr. Eric Tucker of the Brooklyn Lab School on the schools role in identity formulation.  This wasn’t highlighted in the wrap-up, but I think it deserves recognition that the impact of data should be conceived as a educational outcome, not the solution of an engineering problem.  Students are not widgets.  Nore are they data points.  We must not loose sight that we are building educated people and the core of that process is found in identity formulation.

Clarifying Concepts in Education and Pedagogy

This post is a preface to my post on Gergory Loewen’s hermeneutic pedagogy.

Much of the empirically based research in education seems fadish.  We must consider that the problem might originate in what Wittgenstein referred to as a conceptual confusion, based on a miss-understanding of how concepts relate to methodology.

‘The existence of the experimental method makes us think that we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.’   In the same way, using the techniques of  mathematical proof cannot solve the fundamental problems of mathematics.  In both cases we must turn back to a deep and sustained examination of the conceptual basis of each discipline. (Wittgenstein and Psychology)

In education today, what is it that we want students to learn, who do we want them to become and what pedagogy do we employ to those ends?  This question is at the conceptual core of education.  To this I have a 3 fold answer.

  1. We want to pass on to the next generation what it means to be a functional person in todays society.  To know the beauty possible in music, the complexity and competing claims in the development of democracy, the depth of self-understanding in Shakespeare, or the ability to evaluate scientific claims.  The beginning of these aims, the first steps, is to be found in the knowledge of facts, theories and disciplinary concepts and languages.  Skills in reading, in numeracy, and in using various discourses.  Histories, common narratives, and cultural traditions.  This is the goal of cultural transmission.  It is not the end, but understanding the culture into which we are immersed is the beginning of any educational journey.
  2. Second, we must do more than “parrot” this knowledge.  We must read not just for comprehension, but to interpret language in multiple way and to understand how it can be directed to different people.  We must have more that the ability to calculate, we must understand how numbers fit a purpose, whether it is making a budget, devising a mathematical proof or evaluating a statistical claim.  We must know more than historical narratives, we must know how they relate to ourselves and to others.  This is extending basic learning and making it function as practical knowledge.
  3. Finally, we must use this knowledge to carve out our own path.  To become the self-reflexive practitioners that are the creative innovators, collaborators, communicators and strategiers; able to solve the problems of  both today and tomorrow.

Once we are conceptually clear on the ontology our students, who we want them to be and to become, then it will be time to address the pedagogy.  How will we make it happen.  This is my corresponding pedagogy.

  1. Direct Instruction monitored for recall of basic facts and knowledge as well as the schema that allow us to efficiently categorize this knowledge base and retrieve it when needed.  (Including both the schematic conceptualizing and the technological scaffolding to enable us to access and find information when it is needed; i.e. Artificial Intelligence)
  2. Performance abilities and project methods that give us the opportunity to engage in practical activity using our knowledge and to be able to participate and be literate in disciplinary discourses.
  3. Opened Ended Projects involving complex problem identification and problem-solving.  The opportunity to demonstrate character and persistence.


Why Performance-based Education is Needed

We (have arrived) at a most surprising conclusion: . . . the things supposedly contained “in” (our inner lives) are not to be found “inside” us as individuals at all, but “in” the continuously unfolding relations occurring between ourselves and others (or an otherness), in our surroundings.  (We cannot) hide the contents of our inner lives wholly inside ourselves, for, Like it or not, we “display” them in the unfolding movement of our living out our lives, responsively, amongst others.  . . . we cannot but be immersed in it. (Quoting Wittgenstein) “Only in the Stream of thought and life do words [and our other activities] have meaning”. John Shotter, 1998, Social Construction as Social Poetics

Compare the activities of 2 students.

  • One studies a book, hears a lecture, and memorizes facts and theories of lead-base paint as an environmental hazard, before taking a test of recall.  This is educating the latent mind of a student.  But realistically, how long will this information be available?  How well prepared is that student to be a productive part of society?
  • A second student also studies this book, but is not concerned with recall, confident that the content exists in digital resources that act as a scaffold to their understanding and can be located whenever needed.  This students then participates in a peer discussion locating potential lead problems in their community and strategizing how this problem might be solved including additional research for resources through governmental and environmental organizations.  The students defends their activities and strategies orally and they include a record of the resources they used in devising and supporting their strategies.  They also documents their actions in a digitalized portfolio.  How well prepared is this student to participate in society, to understand this topic in depth and over time, and to be responsible to their peers and their teacher for their engagement and their actions?

This is the educational relevance of Wittgenstein’s preference for finding meaning through practice.  We have an idealized view of cognition, that our knowledge can be contextualized without contextualing cognitive skills.  Knowing something is a cognitive skill.  Being able to apply that knowledge within practice is also a cognitive skill, abet at a much higher functional level of cognition.  This higher functional level represents the difference between project-based learning with performance assessment and lower level pedagogy with recall-based standardized assessment.  Certainly the second student has emerged from this activity as a more capable, confident and engaged person.  This doe not mean that facts and theories are not important.  These types of things make up a significant portion of the discourse that students must have in order to engage each other, as well as the experts in this topic.  But until they have engage responsively with others in authentic situations, this higher level of cognition will not be fully developed and even the lower level knowledge will not be significantly understood.

Locating Performance in Pedagogy

Philosophy has a radical way of approaching and dealing with knowledge – for instance, it tries to overcome doctrines which do not question themselves and to compensate for the progressive drift of using and expanding knowledge only technically. Philosophy tries to understand the world . . ..  From: Lucian Ionel

As Lucian Ionel notes, this is an important part the philosophical method of Gregory Loewen’s Hermeneutic Pedagogy.  It’s yet another way of looking at the educational process and noticing what normally flys under the radar.  Loewen’s method seems to be categorizing pedagogy into three classes: Hexis, Praxis and Phronesis.  These 3, along with Episteme and Techne, form the intellectual foundation of Greek philosophical thought.  Episteme is concerned with aspects of knowledge and Techne is about craft or skills in production, both important, but Hexis, Praxis and Phronesis seem to make up the the core ideas of Loewen’s educational processes. I’m studying his approach and think that it might fit the direction of my recent thoughts about performance assessment.  This post is preliminary, about how my previous thought might map onto Loewen’s basic framework.

The specific analysis that Loewen pursues is decidedly Marxist and I do not share this approach.  For instance in Helix (introduced below) Loewen focuses on the reproduction of capitalist repression.  It’s true that current problems with inequality are an supported by the reproduction of a political economy, (see the Piketty discussion everywhere on the web these days), but I want to focus on the need for reproduction if we are to have any kind of culture.  We can discuss what should not be reproduced, but to stop reproduction would mean stopping culture itself.  Praxis also has a Marxist interpretation in Loewen and it has been a term with a substantial history in Critical Theory, but again, extension can be more than just a method for resistance.  Extension (as praxis) and phronesis (as wisdom) can be seen as the way in which culture remains a living and growing entity, able to adapt to current and future challenges.  Thus, I like Loewen’s analytic framework, I just disagree with it narrow NeoMarxist interpretation.  Indeed, it is possible that by extending this framework to approach all aspects of a complex and multifaceted culture based reality, it may be able to reflect back and re-approach it’s original intent from a more productive direction; though it is not my intention to pursue this.


I will key Helix as repetition and re-production.  It focuses on the passing of cultural knowledge.  In current educational practice, think of Helix as represent the standardized curriculums associated with No Child Left Behind and the Common Core.  These curriculum represent the basic knowledge that is expected by all citizens (re-production) and is (at least partially) achieved through memorization and direct instruction; pedagogy that is high in repetition.  Many current educational practices can be represented by Helix.


Praxis, generally understood as practice,  here is keyed as extension.   Think of representing applied knowledge that expands and changes according to the contexts and needs of practice; the learning necessary for practical performance.  This is often considered learning transfer, but in the wake of social cultural learning theory I think of this as extending by adding new learning.  This is not emphasized in current educational practice.  You can see it in activities such as creative writing, service learning or project-based learning, but it is often conceived as an after thought, not as a core educational component.

There are 2 things that should be  included in praxis education to make it more of a core goal of educational practice.  First, at this level you still want to provide lots of structure to these activities and to link them to existing curriculum.  Educational scaffolding can be used as the glue that links the curriculum to the activity structure.  Secondly, bring measurement into these performance activities. Measurement is a core component to education practice.  The inability to satisfactorily measure performance-based practice hurts its standing.  This means development not only in educational practice, but also development in educational measurement.  Note – This does not mean standardized assessment as currently practiced.  See this post on Ontologically Responsible Assessment for more info.


Phronesis is often translated as practical wisdom and it is the second part of my take on performance-based learning.  This is what I consider to involved higher levels of cognitive learning as well as what is often considered character education.  This certainly includes the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, but broken down into more socially relevant skills that are more practice oriented and more socially oriented.  Bloom’s categories are overly individualistic and do not include socially interactive and practice relevant abilities that are becoming increasingly important for today’s workforce.  This is even more true of Bloom’s Affective and Psychomotor Domains which are more closely based on outdated behavioral theory.

Some of the qualities and cognitions to include are: problem identification and solving, creative thinking, situated strategic thinking, self-motivation, persistence, resilience, metacognition and self-directed learning, collaboration, effective situated communication and the ability to form strategic relationships.  For me this is similar to the Praxis level, but it is more open ended and with less structure and less dependence on specific curriculum.  At the praxis level, scaffolding was more knowledge based and emanated from standard curriculum.  At the Phronesis level, we’re moving toward a more skill and abilities foci.  Scaffolding at this level are more socially oriented and come from teachers or peers.

This Phronesis level asks a student to explore self-knowledge; not to just use knowledge in a technical sense, but also in a consciously creative and moral fashion.  This is Lucian Ionel quoting Loewen:

What is gained through this process is what we call self-knowledge: “Phronesis sees through the practicality of repetition and extension by seeing them as rationalizations for the world as it has been. In its subtle but forceful presence, the wisdom of reflective practice asks us to stand outside of the dominion of discourse, the caveat of custom, and move ourselves into the brightest human light of self-understanding anew.”

Where helix and praxis can be scripted (at least to a certain sense in praxis) phronesis is open-ended and reflexive.  It leads to process questions such as: Why is it this way; how have we arrived at this point?  What does or does not make sense here?  Can things be different?  How would you scale a new approach?

These skills and abilities are some of the most important personal qualities in personal success, but fall mostly outside of current educational practice.  They are not only the most difficult to measure, but measures tend to serve different purposes in the educational process.  The overall process is more relational and less mechanistic than at either the Helix or Praxis levels.  These measures must be concieved in more of a joint dialogical nature and less of an automated and behavioral fashion.  This does not mean that we give up on scientific objectivity or become less empirical in measurement.  But it does mean that we do not allow narrow definitions of empirical objectivity to constrict the construct we want to measure.  Narrow (and more traditional) measures represent the “doctrines which do not question themselves” and are the ones who fail “to compensate for the progressive drift of using and expanding knowledge only technically” which Ionel mentioned in the leading quote.