As you may know, I started my own blog because I found that I needed more room to respond to emerging issues in education. Much as I enjoy our weekly exchanges, and much as I enjoy tweeting, I felt that I needed something between a long letter to you and a 140-character tweet. So I have been waking every day at 5 a.m. to read the latest education news and to comment on it.
The most intriguing topic of the past week was discovering that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been subsidizing research into something called "galvanic skin response monitors." This research is intended to develop a bracelet that may be worn regularly by students and teachers to gauge their physiological reactions to what is happening in the classroom. The first grant that I heard about went to researchers at Clemson University for $498,055 to "determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers." The Gates website said that the Clemson grant was related to MET (Measures of Effective Teaching), its teacher evaluation project, so it was reasonable to assume that the physiological responses might provide an additional metric for evaluating teachers. Were students engaged? Were they excited? Were they anxious? Were they angry? All such responses would be recorded as positive engagement.
After I posted my first blog about the Clemson grant, I learned that Gates had also given a grant of $621,265 to the National Center on Time and Learning for additional research "to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement."
Then a reporter from Reuters called the Gates Foundation for a response, and the story got more interesting. The spokesman for the foundation said the website was wrong, that the monitors would be used to gauge student engagement, but not for teacher evaluation—and the website description was changed. The reporter, Stephanie Simon, also learned that the foundation had spent $1.4 million on the research, meaning that there was a third research team working on what was called "engagement pedometers." I have no idea why a bracelet would be called a pedometer, since a pedometer is supposed to measure steps taken on foot.
A debate ensued on my blog site. Many teachers chimed in with ideas about how they would raise their ratings on the bracelet. One suggested she would pick students at random and scream at them; everyone in the class would have a faster heartbeat, not knowing who would be humiliated next. Another suggested that he would bring in gorgeous teen models to cause the boys to react positively. There were suggestions of soft porn and proposals to animate the class by discussing whose music was best or what happened at the latest sports event. One science teacher saw the bracelet as a wonderful hands-on project, in which students would take them apart and figure out how to re-program them.
A few people wrote to say that they welcomed a new way to measure student engagement, but most teachers thought the whole idea was repugnant and an insult to them.
My own reaction was that this research is reminiscent of Brave New World. It suggests the development of a device to snoop into our being. It crosses a line that allows others—whether government officials, researchers, or teachers—to peer into how we feel. Whether it is intended to evaluate teachers, as was originally implied on the Gates website, or to measure student engagement, as the foundation now says, it is sinister. It goes where measurement does not belong. The fact that something can be done does not mean that it should be done. We could, for example, search for drugs and prevent anyone from bringing them into school by regularly examining students' body cavities, but we don't do it. We don't do it because it is wrong. We should not do what is wrong even in the pursuit of the ultimate measure of student engagement or teacher effectiveness.