Saturday, April 25, 2015

Do We Count in #rhizo15?

I will eventually return to finish my series of posts on ethics in MOOCs, or swarm ethics, or rhizo-ethics, but Dave Cormier has issued a second challenge for #rhizo15, and I want to respond.

His challenge:
Get out there and count! What can we measure that isn’t learning? Think about all the other facets of the human experience… can we do better? What about all the fancy tools we’ve seen… can they help? Should we throw it out all together? Can we help people measure themselves? Is there a better way of looking at it? Be theoretical. Be practical… but GRADE ME!
Measuring has always been problematic for me, in part I suppose because of my discipline: writing. I do not approve of counting writing as a way of assessing students' abilities to write. A 76 on an essay has always struck me as meaningless and wrong-headed, and my readings in complexity theory cause me even more concerns.

For instance, I'm currently reading Timothy Morton's challenging book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). Morton, by the way, is an English professor at Rice University who seems to share some of my own interests. At any rate and without getting into the meaning of hyperobjects themselves, which I'm not yet ready to discuss, Morton makes some interesting observations about the problems of observation and measurement in relativistic and quantum sciences. These ideas resonate with me.

First, he notes that measurement is always incomplete. Any measurement reveals and blinds at the same time. As we focus on some aspect of an object—say, an electron or a fourth grade boy—we lose sight of some other aspect of the boy or electron. This is not some mental trick; rather, it is the nature of reality as far as we can currently describe reality: Morton says, "This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. … The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level" (Kindle Locations 756-758). Think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle here. Morton elucidates:
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. … Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. (Kindle Locations 748-753)
There are no complete observations, whether by human or instrument. Thus, there are no complete measurements. At best, measurements are adequate, but this always introduces the question: adequate for what? In education, especially, we can never have complete confidence in our measurements of our fourth-grade boy, and we must always revisit our reasons for taking the measurement in the first place. Any measurement of our fourth-grader will, at the same time, reveal and hide salient aspects of the student. We ignore those hidden aspects at peril to both ourselves and the student.

Then Morton notes that measurements always entangle the observer with the observed. This entanglement is very problematic. Morton says, "[Nils] Bohr argued that quantum phenomena don’t simply concatenate themselves with their measuring devices. They’re identical to them: the equipment and the phenomena form an indivisible whole" (Kindle Locations 760-762). This should sober all of us, if not frighten the piddle out of us. Let's say this more practically: In some important sense, I become what I measure—both the things I measure and the tools with which I measure—and my tools and the things I measure become me. We all become entangled in a larger identity (this starts suggesting, I think, what Morton means by hyperobjects, but I'm not pursuing that here). If I measure our fourth-grade boy with a standardized test, then I become that test and that boy. I do not mean that I become ONLY that test and that boy, but that test and boy become entangled in my identity—indeed, for the boy, that test may be all that I am to him. There is no meta-language or privileged position outside the entanglement of me, test, and boy from which I can safely conduct my measurement. If I measure, then I am included in the measurement. In education, we should choose our measurements most thoughtfully, for we become our measurements. Moreover, our students become our measurements. That is an awful burden.

This entanglement suggests to me that any measurement changes the observer, the instruments, and the observed, and this change feeds imprecision back into the incompleteness of observations and measurements. The act of observing our fourth-grade boy changes that boy. He would have been different if not measured. Of course, the boy—along with everything else—is constantly observed and measured by other objects, and that constant observation and measurement and its resulting entanglement is in part what makes the boy what he is. In some sense, then, we cannot avoid making observations and taking measurements of others or being observed and measured in turn, but we seem to have some freedom in choosing the kinds of observations and measurements that we make. We should choose wisely. I wish I knew what was wise.

Of course, I am not suggesting here that education is in any way special. We all constantly measure our worlds, if only informally and loosely: that's more, this is less; you are prettier than he; you are big, you little; this is near, that is far away; you have more money than I. Counting numerically is more precise and handy than counting in natural language, but Morton is reminding us that measurement, counting, is not the benign activity that we imagine it to be. It implicates and entangles. What counts in life is what we count and how we count it. Counting has two entangled meanings here: enumeration and evaluation. We count what counts, and what we count comes to count.

Awareness of this entanglement is not new, I think. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (KJV Bible, Matthew 7:1,2). This passage is usually read as a moral lesson to avoid hypocrisy and censure, but I think we can give it a more profound reading: what and how you count determines how you yourself count. Perhaps the spiritually advanced among us, the deep meditators of the various religious and philosophical traditions, can measure without judging and without becoming their measurements, but I cannot. If I want to know who I am, then I can get a reliable read by noting what and how I measure my world, especially others, and how I assess the value of those measurements. That stuff counts.

I don't think comma faults count much, so I don't count them, but I know people who do. A comma fault—what a sad thing to become. It's really hard to have a pleasing conversation with someone who's always correcting your grammar, so I usually don't. What do you measure?

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