Should everything be useful?

Experiment: Explain something that not everyone believes.

A little personal story to start. When I was in high school, it was required that I meet with my guidance counselor. I only remember two interactions with him; the time he recommended that I take “regular” geometry instead of “honors” geometry and when he asked me what kind of job I expected to have if I majored in music. His concern was that music was not useful or valued, but he was relieved that I was considering music education; teaching has some usefulness I guess! My sister had the same guidance counselor but all very positive interactions. Of course, she was leaning towards engineering — obviously useful! But maybe I should have challenged him. What if I had wanted to study music performance? Or specifically body percussion? Or how body percussion is implicit in ancient African music? Or even underwater wooden nickel spitting as body percussion in ancient music? None of those are particularly useful, but does everything have to be?!

Neuroscientist, biologist, psychologist, or neuroethologist all sound like very useful jobs, but those are the kinds of people who come out with this sort of work:


Everything about this article makes me laugh and if you want to read more about it, check out Scientific American’s summary of the article. Is it useful? Not at face value. We don’t have such a desperate need for art critics to the point that we need to train animals to do it! But maybe studying something that seems useless actually leads us to find out more amazing things (spoiler alert, this is absolutely the case for the pigeon study).

The reason I care about this is the current focus on “what works” in education. “What works” is another one of those buzzphrases that can’t be contested. Who would ever argue that we should focus on practices that “don’t work” in schools? The discomfort for me comes in focusing too heavily on what can be proven to work especially at the expense of what can’t be proven but is still valuable. I have taken this stance before that maybe the most important practices at schools are ones that are unmeasurable and perhaps nearly unobservable. For some proof that “what works” is taking over, I’ll look at the last two countries I’ve lived in.

Here is What Works UAE. It is a series of workshops for teachers sponsored by the UAE Ministry of Education held with the hopes of improving education across the country. The most ironic part of this website is the phrase “What if, instead of competition, Dubai’s school sector focused on collaboration?” Dubai is built on the premise that school competition will raise the standard of education, but apparently that doesn’t automatically create a perfect system! Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority has a few very basic guiding principles; transparency, accountability, and incetivization. With a pragmatic approach to education, the emphasis is on innovative practices (perhaps with little reflection about purpose), valorizing schools that improve results (maybe with not enough criticism of how we measure those results), and pushing for international competitiveness (probably without realizing how that affects the elements of school that are not measurable). When stated so simply as doing “what works”, the only possible outcome is improvement, right? Only time will tell.

Here is the UK’s Education Endowment Fund Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Finally! A simple, one-stop-shop for exactly what should be done in schools. This is a very friendly infographic about different school programs, how much they cost to implement, how good the evidence is to support them, and what the impact is on learning. There are so many interesting elements to this data. Not only is it oversimplified and also based completely on what is visible, but it is presented in such a way as if these are the only possible influences on education. I can tell you some things that don’t work; poverty, malnutrition, and poor home environment. I would love to see to what extent those are detrimental to students! And how much they cost! Then we would really know what was needed to improve education. But in the world of “what works” we take a purely pragmatic approach.

The danger of pragmatism is that “In an unjust system, pragmatism is unjust action.” Focusing on what works may do an injustice to elements of school that aren’t so easily provable or visible. Teaching students only what is useful may leave out the most important parts of school. Working toward measures of accountability and for incentives may undermine the heart and soul of education. As Watanabe (2009) found, the pigeons could be trained to judge painting in accordance with human judgements of the paintings even though no one was told the criteria for judgement. I wonder if the pigeons can tell which schools are good and bad.

Watanabe, S. (2010). Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children. Animal Cognition, 13(75). doi:10.1007/s10071-009-0246-8

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