Learning in the age of Dataism

Last week, I outlined in this post how modern schools and the modern western education system are built on the principles of humanism, showing how many of the modern assumptions in education are based on humanist claims. For example the roots of what is termed progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations liberalism, a creed of humanism. On the other hand ideas within the modern traditional approach to education are rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal and as such have rights to an equal education; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition. In this post I want to explore how the ideas of Noah Harari, written in Homo deus, may relate to the modern education system.

Harari contends that society at large may soon be leaving the age of humanism and entering an age of dataism. Dataism is defined as an emerging ideology in which information flow is seen as the supreme value. It is used to describe the mindset created by the emerging significance of big data.

Harari goes on to argue that Dataism, like any other religion, has practical commandments. A Dataist should want to “maximise dataflow by connecting to more and more media”[8], and believes that freedom of information is “the greatest good of all”. Harari also argues that Aaron Swartz, who took his life in 2013 after being prosecuted for releasing hundreds of thousands of scientific papers from the JSTOR archive online for free, could be called the “first martyr” of Dataism

Big data is only just beginning to make inroads in education and yet already we are seeing its potential. One of the areas that I have begun to witness this is in university guidance. All ready platforms are springing up that aim to utilize big data to help students make sense of the options available to them. Companies like BridgeU use algorithms to help locate universities and courses based on student preferences. Information flow here is already quickly becoming the supreme value and will allow individuals to make slicker, more efficient, choices, perhaps with a lot of time saved to boot. On one hand, this appears to be at odds with the individual focus of human university counseling. Indeed some colleagues have told me that they prefer the platforms, like Unifrog, that have less of a data driven, algorithmic, inhuman agenda. But I actually think that these systems have the potential to improve the lot of many individuals by freeing up time and making research on an overwhelming range of options more focussed. Sometimes less is more.

Elsewhere, big data is behind standardised testing programmes like those administered by CEM and the success of many new pedagogical applications that aim to help to apply scientific findings of learning to course material like the textbooks developed by Kognity.

On the face of it, information flow as a supreme value could seem to be at odds with the current paradigm of education: humanism. Isn’t it the love of more data that can drive poor interventions in schools, like when schools require more frequent testing and measurement of progress, so that students and teachers alike are pressured into making decisions to maximise progress? Often these interventions come at the demise of learning, causing poor behaviours like teaching to the test and cramming. Or how about when teacher spend hours agonising over data collection and data entry instead of planning the next teaching sequence?

Schools love data. Whether it is data on student progress or on student performance, teachers and senior managers love it. However, in some ways many schools have gone through the dataism paradigm already, and come out the other side. The debate, in the UK at least, is shifting away from purely data driven measures of progress to measuring quality of education, by including curriculum measures, something far more qualitative than quantitive. While schools love data they are also fundamentally humanistic in nature. Whatever the motivations of educators have been historically, education is an affair of the human experience. It is a someone who is being educated. It is a someone who is having their mind and thinking patterns altered in someway.

In a sense, though, knowing is data flow. While information and knowledge are not the same thing, knowing relies on using information. It is how the mind works with information that results in knowing. And so, if society were to progress into an age where data would reign as the supreme good, education would still be able to maintain its focus on the individual experience.

Harari analyses human history through the idea of dataflow, the new emerging modern value. He  writes that “the crippling thing about religion is that it reduces data flow“. By this he means that modern religions, are not innovators in religious experience. They are conservative and restricted by holding onto old and outdated traditions and values. I know this first hand. Growing up in my evangelical family I was not allowed to read books by David Hume because he was a “humanist”. This conservatism restricts knowledge transfer to and development within the individual, thus from a dataist point of view: religion restricts dataflow.

Schools, then, could well be institutions that, through learning of knowledge, promote dataflow. Education could develop a dual purpose, the traditional humanist purpose of educating the individual for their benefit or societies, and the modern purpose of ensuring that dataflow is maximised and made efficient through the education of individuals as producers and consumers of data.

If this is right, perhaps this is more cause to be concerned with the fad of 21st century skills. In this previous post I partially outlined why there is no such thing as generic skill acquisition. Real 21st century skills will require lateral thinking, stress management and an ability to see the big picture as well as know the details and have expertise. All of this requires knowing. The more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Yes, humans may never be able to outcompete computers for what they can know but that doesn’t mean we should give up learning. Actually we need to give more careful thought to what our students do know.

One of the areas where dataism and big data may well come to play a larger role in the education system and also benefit the liberal philosophy of many schools is through personalised learning. The ability of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence to tailor learning experiences to individual needs to is already being seen in a plethora of learning applications and websites that are adaptive in formative assessment and tailoring of content. I imagine that we will see a lot more of these tools becoming available in mainstream schools as we progress through this century.

Post 100: Learning in the age of Humanism

In the UK, prior to the Renaissance, learning in schools mainly consisted of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. Pupils were taught these to prepare them to progress on to the study of theology, law and medicine and education primarily served the church and state.

Following this, the ideas of humanism, the religion that replaces god with the experience of mankind, began to take their root in the philosophy of education, leading to the idea that education is a right for all and that is should be administered by the state to ensure that that right is gained by all. In the 19th century the three great humanist projects of Communism, Facism and Liberalism were born and in some way each has contributed to the modern humanist education agenda. In this century we are at the zenith of the age of humanism, with even modern religions adopting a humanistic outlook, according to the work of Noah Harari.

Modern schools and the modern western education system were built on the principles of humanism and many of the ideas in education make humanist assumptions about the individual. For example the roots of progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations of the philosophy of liberalism. On the other hand ideas within the traditional approach to education appear to be rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition.

Schools today are very much humanist institutions. But many educators today are confused on this front. Hence some fight against factory schooling, using the factory as a metaphor for an education system that is dehumanised. It was humanist ideas that led to an education system that prepared indivduals for an industrial society. It was humanist ideas that demanded that everyone had the right to an education. It was humanism that led to the organisation of state run schools. Factory-like in that they were exposing lots of different people to ideas that generations before had not had the luck or rights to access. Factory-like, in that this is an efficient model of mass production. Mass production of more (compared to their parents) knowledgable citizens. The irony here shouldn’t be lost on you. It’s ironic that it was ideas tied to liberalism that made the industrial revolution possible (Governments and Businesses needed to care about the individual in a way that they just didn’t need to before) now serve as a metaphor as to why schools are perceived by some as being dehumanising.

Really, the confusion here is due to a misunderstanding of history and ideas. Educators who use the factory as a metaphor don’t understand their history and the world view is informed more by liberal humanism the communist or fascist humanism.

Educators also get their modern politics confused. It surprises some that teachers who self-identify as being “trad” are labour voters. See this blog. They mistakenly think that anyone who advocates for traditional teaching must be a conservative. In his book Why Knowledge Matters E.D. Hirsch, draws a distinction between, community and knowledge centered education versus individual and skills centered education, arguing that the former acts to reduce inequality, while the latter cherishes the individual experience of the learner. Both are fundamentally humanist in their paradigm.

If the aim of traditional education is to reduce inequality by ensuring that ALL students receive the same knowledge centered education then it is easy to see why this is left leaning idea. Traditionally the left leans towards communist humanism, valuing equality over freedom, while the right leans towards liberal humanism valuing  individual freedom over equality. That is, of course, an oversimplification but it roughly works.

If you spend anytime on edutwitter or reading about educational history you won’t have missed this tension at the heart of the philosophy of education. This debate is often personal and vitriolic. Writers come down hard on each other, often forgetting that their opponent want the same thing as them: the best outcomes for the individual. In this sense both of these opponents are humanist and believe in the humanist agenda. But a bit like the schisms in the Christian church that saw Catholics and Protestants burn each other at the stake over their differing interpretations of the same creed, modern day “philosophers” of education are happy to figuratively hang, draw and quarter their opponents for having slightly different views. Understanding this should be the basis of finding points of convergence in a debate.

The modern drive for personalised education is a manifestation of the principles of humanist liberalism and, in its present form, appears to conflict with the ideas of a community-centered education system whose aim is to reduce inequality. To my mind it is educational equivalent of “organic” farming, it market’s itself very well but is hard to scale up and is incredibly inefficient in its resource consumption.

In my next post I want to explore how personalised education may fare as we move deeper into the 21st century. Everyone assumes that this is the way we are going as an education system, but is it. In his books Harari writes about Dataism, and how this new philosophy may end up replacing humanism. I am interested in thinking about what this may mean for the modern education system.