Excerpt from The Robot Factory: Pseudoscience in Education and Its Threat to American Democracy

by Joseph Ganem

From the Preface

School Classroom

I have spent my entire life in school. During this time—over half a century— schools have been in a constant state of reform. We just can’t seem to get Education as a service right. And yet education, as an experience, is undeniably uplifting; we are all students at one time or another, and most of us also teach at one time or another, even if teaching is not our profession.

I began teaching soon after I started first grade. My mother tells a story of how I played “school” with my younger siblings and, unbeknownst to her, taught my three-year-old brother how to read and write his name. When my brother arrived at preschool, his teacher expressed anger at my mother for teaching him how to write his name before he started preschool, a skill she had planned on teaching. My mother, apologizing, explained that she had no idea how he learned to write his name. Later, my brother fessed up that he and I “played school” and “Joe was the teacher.”

That began my career as an educator, and I have been fascinated with the processes of learning and teaching ever since. Although “to learn” and “to teach” are separate verbs with different meanings, the two processes are intimately intertwined. A teacher will learn a great deal through the act of teaching, and a learner will eventually need to teach him or herself the material. Learning is always a collaborative process. The teacher cannot simply transfer knowledge and understanding to a student.

"I find it bizarre that many of the same people who disparage science are also vocal advocates for urging more students to enter STEM fields."

Joseph Ganem The Robot Factory

Through my lifelong development as a teacher and learner, I have reflected on many of the pressing issues in education. I am also a scientist, and I recognize how education reformers and innovators often couch their proposals with the language and trappings of science. In recent years, I have become deeply troubled by the agenda of the education reform movement and its misuse of science, a misuse so widespread and prevalent that I think it warrants being called pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a set of false beliefs and assumptions camouflaged with meaningless jargon, data, and statistics to give an appearance of scientific validity. Unfortunately, pseudoscience can therefore blend in with a great deal of legitimate science on education.

As pseudoscience, education reform — with its mandated standards, high-stakes tests, accountability metrics, and focus on “college and career readiness” — lacks scientific validity, and is in fact, not about science or education. Instead, education is now a program to train skilled, compliant workers who will accept what they are told and do what they are asked. It is a program to create robots.

It is ironic that we are training children to submit to authority, while at the same time we are telling them that the path to future success lies in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM to use the ubiquitous acronym). Unquestioned acceptance of authority is the opposite of science. This irony extends into the public sphere: science as a method of acquiring knowledge, a body of knowledge, and an occupation is under attack by many politicians and corporate leaders. Many of the same people who run our government and business institutions and who depend on science for their power, influence, and wealth routinely denounce science and scientists for uncovering truths that threaten and inconvenience their self-interests. Yet these same political and corporate leaders want to invoke science whenever it suits their interests, particularly in regard to “data-driven” education reform.

The assertion that education is in a state of “crisis” that threatens our country’s political and economic future has been fashionable for many decades now, and this crisis narrative is routinely supported by data derived from student tests. I argue in this book that there is indeed a crisis in education, but the crisis is not what we think it is and it has nothing to do with test scores or other data-driven accountability metrics used to judge student achievements and the effectiveness of teachers and schools. In fact, the education crisis we are facing extends far beyond classrooms and schools, and the “solutions” will exacerbate the crisis, not fix it. I argue that the “solutions” being forced on schools are an intentional attack on our democracy by a political and corporate class that does not actually want an educated and informed citizenry.

The real educational crisis we face is twofold: a denial by the reform movement and many others in positions of power of the essential attributes of an authentic education and the concurrent creation of a system designed to authentically educate only a few, select, chosen students. Authentic education, with attributes that include critical thinking, exposure to diverse ideas, peoples, and cultures, and the skills of asking relevant questions and collaboratively solving meaningful problems, is no longer a priority for most of our“educational” institutions. I argue that authentic education is essential for doing real science and for participating in and maintaining American democracy.

The consequences are pronounced and profound. We are witnessing an unprecedented breakdown of our political and economic systems. Our democracy has evolved into a plutocracy. Unchecked market forces have produced extreme levels of economic inequality. Education is being “reformed” in such a way that it is now an enabler of these breakdowns, rather than a bulwark to guard against them. All this is happening while STEM fields are being promoted in educational settings. However, closer examination reveals that it is STEM skills that reformers want students to acquire, not a STEM education. As I explain in this book, an education in the STEM fields, particularly in math and science, is fundamentally also a liberal arts education. And like the professional practice of science today, the liberal arts is also under attack.

I find it bizarre that many of the same people who disparage science are also vocal advocates for urging more students to enter STEM fields. This simultaneous debasement and advocacy of science results in a kind of cognitive dissonance. Reformers actively undermine their stated goals by modeling the exact opposite of the predilections and behaviors inherent in the scientific method that they claim to value. Such cognitive dissonance results in an epidemic of what I call “willful ignorance” in the education reform movement. Indeed, this epidemic—a return to the kind of magical, wishful thinking that the modern scientific method was supposed to banish—has infested many institutions in our society, especially in the political and corporate arenas that set education policies.

It is not my intent to impugn the motives of all those who are involved in education reform movements, many of whom I believe to be sincere and well- meaning in their desire to improve educational practices and outcomes. However, I am deeply suspicious of many reforms seemingly being driven by political and corporate interests. The willful ignorance I observe is often from politicians and corporations who routinely use the language of science to advance beliefs and self-serving agendas that upon closer scrutiny not only have no scientific basis, but are in fact detrimental to education. The public is presented with false choices; these false choices are amplified in a media echo chamber that repeats catch phrases and sound bites, but does a poor job of evaluating evidence and questioning assertions. Make a claim often and loud enough and it becomes conventional wisdom, even if that claim rests on thin evidence or logical fallacies.

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