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MSPnet Blog: “Precision”

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posted April 25, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

This week, the term “precision,” describing a new approach to social engineering, caught my attention. The first thing that caught my eye was this article, on “precision medicine.”  The Harvard Magazine article reports on genome-specific strategies for treating cancer, as well as immunotherapies, both informed by a accelerating mountain of information about cancer genetics, and methodologies for diagnosis of individuals’ oncogenetic profiles.  The article makes clear that there are real breakthroughs, and definite limitations to those successes, owing in large part (as I understand it) to the complexity of cancers’ genetics, especially the rapid mutations which render a patient’s last-year’s miracle intervention no longer effective.

Meanwhile, Ben Williamson at the fascinating blog Code Acts in Education posted a long, rich essay (his blog posts are typically long-form) on “personalized precision education and intimate data analytics.”   The rapidly expanding “personalization” movement is being linked more and more with the collection of personal data on learners, and used according to emerging theories about learning which are very often self-validated by the creators.  Williamson places “precision education” alongside its fore-runners and models, “precision medicine,” “precision agriculture,” and “precision electioneering.”

Williamson writes

precision education is based on enormous ambitions. It assumes that the sciences of genes, neurology, behaviour and psychology can be combined in order to provide insights into learning processes, and to define how learning inputs and materials can be organized in ways best suited to each individual student…Precision education represents a shift from the collection of assessment-type data about educational outcomes, to the generation of data about the intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.

The term “educational neuroscience” appears frequently, but the advocates and researchers in this field clearly assume that genetics is a central part of their model of learning.  So also is psychological profiling through which large amounts of data taken on individuals (for example, through their use of educational technology) is interpreted for the purposes of guidance (or, in other words, control). Theory expressed as software — producing not just general theory about people, but a theory about how you work, you as an individual.

The “blog on learning and development” (BOLD), a good place to look for emerging ideas and research trends in this area, says

Proponents of EN argue for using the most sophisticated technologies to find out more about the learning brain and ensure that everyone has the best possible chance to learn. This process is a challenge, and EN offers no quick fixes. In time, EN will provide tools for educators and learners through carefully designed, well-thought-out research. EN will also lead to recommendations for policymakers, who can advocate for the use of scientifically-tested modern teaching and learning methods in schools.

The earnest author lets us know that we are not to expect “quick fixes.”  But it’s not as though the current educational “system” has been able to resist seizing on possibilities and turning them into quick fixes and even imperatives— think of:

high stakes standardized tests, or data-driven systems increasingly employed  to do everything from grade students’ essays to evaluate teachers’ performance on the basis of student test scores to implement unresearched personalized/competency/”knowledge ecology” systems that promise to solve problems that are defined by the advocates of such systems as the most urgent ones to address — such as the teaching of 21st century skills and 21st century compentencies, and the emergence of new ways of learning that must be incorporated as soon as possible and as thoroughly as possible — and introducing efficiencies into the labor- and resource-intensive process of helping our children increasingly participate in society.

When I put myself in the shoes of a researcher in “educational neuroscience” or one of the cognate fields of inquiry, I can feel the fascination of the science.  When I put myself in the shoes of a teacher, student, parent, citizen, however, I feel the need to ask, just what equivalence is there between “precision medicine” and  “precision education.”  What are the issues of agency, authority, and control in each case, and how do they apply?  So far, if I have cancer (or a head-cold), I can exercise some choice about how this will be addressed.  I may well cede authority to a physician to carry out the choice, I will rely on her recommendations for which path to try, but I can choose A or B, or neither — on the basis of probabilities, or reasoning about consequences, or feelings, or whim.

On the other hand, when “precision education” systems, informed by educational neuroscience,  emerge which (to quote the BOLD essay) ” lead to recommendations for policymakers, who can advocate for the use of scientifically-tested modern teaching and learning methods in schools, ”  how will that look?

What agency will a teacher, parent, or student have?  What level of evidence will be expected, before the new “findings” are put into practice?  What kinds of critique will be accepted — from the point of view of power relationships, moral agency, the implicit values of the technology and their effects on culture and on individual lives (I recommend Ursula Franklin‘s work as a good place to start — check out her Massey lectures “The real world of technology” here, briefly summarized by an admirer here).

There are so many ways in which our government and the economic system experiment on us without our knowledge or consent, and so little recourse for someone who suffers “collateral damage”  — it’s best that we think and feel and argue about all this soon.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.