Prediction is not destiny, and joy is in the trip, not the destination

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.

I was part of a conversation this week with someone important. Someone who believes in the power of Big Data. Someone who believes in this more than I do. I believe in the power of data and the power of predictive analytics, but power is a two-edged sword that cuts as it is allowed. Power of this type is also dumb, it needs to be guided by intellect for good purpose. And an over-arching intent to first, and always, do no harm.

I was not the only one present in the meeting with this important person. I raised the question, “…while we are talking about training teachers on how to use these tools, will the training include knowing when to ignore the predictions?” I don’t now how my colleagues behind me reacted. I don’t really care.

I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.
So you ride yourselves over the fields and
you make all your animal deals and
your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.

I really want to live in a world where everyone has an equivalent opportunity to be successful. Not the same opportunity, but equivalent opportunity. Opportunity that recognizes disadvantages, provides an additional boost where needed, and allows for happy accidents.

And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away
in the tidal destruction the moral melee.
The elastic retreat rings the close of play
as the last wave uncovers the newfangled way.

If predictive analytics had been around years ago when I was young, I have no idea what they would have predicted for me. I’m not sure I really want to know as I was not good student. I was not academic. In fact, my original high school plan at Loudoun Valley was vo-tech – I was going to be a printer/press operator. With four-years of vocational agriculture along the way. (I actually only did two years in vo-ag.) The change to a college track midway in high school when I moved to Joplin was a good thing. It was also a good thing a few years later when I became an art major after my sabbatical in the Army.

I’d rather have taken the route I did than another, even if it might have been more efficient or led to greater success.

But your new shoes are worn at the heels
and your suntan does rapidly peel
and your wise men don’t know how it feels
to be thick as a brick.

I would be a lot more comfortable if the advocates of Big Data/Predictive Analytics (BDPA) would limit their talking points and their dreams to just modestly improving student outcomes. Outcomes like increased learning and reduced behavioral problems. They don’t need to promise to eliminate problems, just improve them a bit. I tend to trust teachers enough that I don’t think they need to be told what to do nearly as much as they need to be given the resources and freedom to follow their own intellect and knowledge of their students.

Certainly we can improve on the last bit. But how much do we really need to do? BDPA taken too far, which is not all that far, simply removes the professional and replaces her with a content-delivering automaton. Gee, let’s just go to Disney World!

Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth.
Draw the lace and black curtains and shut out the whole truth.
Spin me down the long ages: let them sing the song.
See there! A son is born and we pronounce him fit to fight.
There are black-heads on his shoulders, and he pees himself in the night.
We’ll make a man of him, put him to trade
teach him to play Monopoly and how to sing in the rain.

Yeah, I know that Pink Floyd would probably be a better understood piece of background music than Jethro Tull, but the day of this conversation I heard “Thick as Brick” at some point and it all came together. The only thing I thought might be better was Harry Chapin’s “Story of a Life” but I was sure it would be misunderstood.

The Poet and the Painter casting shadows on the water
as the sun plays on the infantry returning from the sea.
The do-er and the thinker: no allowance for the other
as the failing light illuminates the mercenary’s creed.
The home fire burning: the kettle almost boiling
but the master of the house is far away.
The horses stamping, their warm breath clouding
in the sharp and frosty morning of the day.
And the poet lifts his pen while the soldier sheaths his sword.
And the youngest of the family is moving with authority.
Building castles by the sea, he dares the tardy tide to wash them all aside.

I spent 10 years as a scout leader. During a span of those years I was involved in totem pole carving and overseeing scouts as they added their own bit of carving. Despite the maxim that a sharp knife (or chisel, or gouge) is safest, invariably a boy would cut himself before I could intervene. Including my son, who managed to cut through thick leather gloves before cutting his leg.

Even the sharpest tools can turn on the user. Especially if the user is neither strong enough or skilled enough to control the tool. Data are like that. They also can turn on the user because they don’t always represent what we think we see.

And sometimes predictions are wrong. The use of algorithms does not eliminate the human element, it merely puts it further away – writing the algorithms.

The cattle quietly grazing at the grass down by the river
where the swelling mountain water moves onward to the sea:
the builder of the castles renews the age-old purpose
and contemplates the milking girl whose offer is his need.
The young men of the household have all gone into service
and are not to be expected for a year.
The innocent young master – thoughts moving ever faster –
has formed the plan to change the man he seems.
And the poet sheaths his pen while the soldier lifts his sword.
And the oldest of the family is moving with authority.
Coming from across the sea, he challenges the son who puts him to the run.

In our search for efficiency and effectiveness in education, do we always need to kill the cat? Maybe he can find his own way out of the box before the timer goes off. I’m uncertain either way.

I’ve got two grandsons in public school. I want them to do well, but not at the risk that everything everyday is mapped out to the smallest degree. Let’s leave room for a little wrongness, a few more mistakes. I learned more from my mistakes than had I not made them. Including failing seventh grade math was I recalled the other day when talking to grandelf #1 about his classes (seventh grade). My mother was not happy as I recall – especially since it had far more to do with laziness and being obstinate than anything else.

Come on ye childhood heroes!
Won’t you rise up from the pages of your comic-books
your super crooks
and show us all the way.
Well! Make your will and testament.
Won’t you? Join your local government.
We’ll have Superman for president
let Robin save the day.

I think I understand both sides of the BDPA debate, at least to some degree. As usual, I think the better answers are somewhere in the middle…probably more towards the traditional model of teaching. Let’s just accept the fact that education is expensive (since that it is at the heart of a lot of these innovations) and understand the most efforts to make education cheaper do little more than cheapen it.

You put your bet on number one and it comes up every time.
The other kids have all backed down and they put you first in line.
And so you finally ask yourself just how big you are
and take your place in a wiser world of bigger motor cars.
And you wonder who to call on.
So! Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?
And where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you though?
They’re all resting down in Cornwall
writing up their memoirs for a paper-back edition
of the Boy Scout Manual.

Remember, the joy is in the trip, not the destination. So also is the learning.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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