That Study Never Happened

She picked back up flippantly, as if she hadn’t known that I was a physics teacher, “…and then we did this thing, you know, with like a, turning balance thing, and I have to use some equation, and, oh, I’m screwed, something with period or time.”

I immediately flew into whiteboard mode, “Like this?!” I drew an equation for the period of oscillation for a tensed string.

“No, I don’t know, maybe, oh whatever.” She gave up the conversation quicker than I wanted and went back to talking about how her Iowa BIG project was going to be mentioned by the Governor in the Condition of the State address the next day and if they had provided the most impactful talking points.

As a professional, working in a field whose products don’t mature for years and whose methods are constantly in flux, I was floored by the contrast of the conversation.

I hope you are too, because they’re both counted as “school.”

You see, this student has been working on a team dedicated to real social change. I don’t mean let’s make a poster, or talk about change at a conference about talking about thinking about change; I mean they literally interact with the constituents they’ve pledged to assist. They study the historical and economic reasons underpinning the meaning of their mission. They spearhead initiatives that are directly supported by dozens of nonprofits and businesses.

They’re for real, and the Governor is thanking them for being brave in a sea of planned curricula and fabricated accolades.

I don’t blame the physics teacher; not even for a femtosecond. S/he is doing their job, and doing it diligently, with thoughts toward progressive uses of time, space, and assessment, I’m sure.

What I question is for how long we in education will continue on without control data. How long will a status quo, that was never studied, continue? Show me the study that proves an 8-period day of personality-disorder inducing frenzy is more effective than a fundamentally different approach to time, space, and assessment?

Don’t compare to a block schedule, don’t compare to 7-period days, or long lunches, those aren’t fundamentally different variable states. Those studies weren’t ever done, and it has to do with the trickle-down college modeling that has now permeated the social inertia of the American public school.

That said, you can’t ask a teenager what they like. That’s another data analysis error. I value student voice, but I also recognize that someone who has only been thinking abstractly for a time span on the order of months may not have the data set necessary to legitimately claim what will and won’t work for their education.

That said, they can, with reasonably veracity, report really valuable metrics.

Efficacy.

Joy.

Interest.

Curiosity.

The ever-present effervescent teenage blurted comment shows a lot about mental connections in a very Rorschach-ian way.

If you asked this student whether she likes attending physics class or her Iowa BIG project better, she’ll report that she loves her project. I could tout this as a glorious victory, but, given the previous argument, I don’t think that kind of data is actually meaningful or those claims are even possible.

Test scores then, right? Nope. In general, those are only a measure of the poorly understood genetic rate of the brain’s ability to abstract concepts. There are some fantastically written exams, but they’re few and far between in usual practice.

My thesis is that you have to define the metrics that you believe matter. I got this idea from a fantastic conference I attended in Ohio a few years ago, and it has never left me.

If we’ve let the fickleness of history and public policy describe the bizarre set of standards (looking at you, Math) and therefore the metrics that we’ll measure all students against, you’ll end up with a system designed for those metrics.

Instead, if you define your own measures, and actually study longitudinally their validity, we’ll end up in a place where perhaps we’ll value the emotional-intelligence development of a teenager above their ability to comply with outdated curricula. Maybe we’ll come to value the nuance of entrepreneurial thought opposed to attempting to cram a line of reasoning they stole wholesale from Reddit into five paragraphs 20 minutes before the paper is due.

I love working at Iowa BIG.