Gates Goes Wild

Gates researchers using science to enhance student learning

Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn.  Well, Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanion, Leonie Haimson, and their tinfoil hat crew have stumbled upon some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever heard in ed reform.  It appears the Gates Foundation has spent more than $1 million to develop Galvanic Skin Response bracelets to gauge student response to instruction as part of their Measuring Effective Teachers project.  The Galvanic Skin Response measures the electrical conductance of the skin, which varies largely due to the moisture from people’s sweat.

Stephanie Simon, a Reuters reporter, summarizes the Gates effort:

The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.

The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers’ emotional response to advertising.

Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out.

Um, OK.  We’ve already written about how unreliable the Gates Foundation is in describing their own research, here and here.  And we’ve already written about how the entire project of using science to discover the best way to teach is a fool’s enterprise.

And now the Gates Foundation is extending that foolish enterprise to include measuring Galvanic Skin Response as a proxy for student engagement.  This simply will not work.  The extent to which students sweat is not a proxy for engagement or for learning.  It is probably a better proxy for whether they are seated near the heater or next to a really pretty girl (or handsome boy).

Galvanic Skin Response has already been widely used as part of the “scientific” effort to detect lying.  And as any person who actually cares about science knows — lie detectors do not work.  Sweating is no more a sign of lying than it is of student engagement.

I’m worried that the Gates Foundation is turning into a Big Bucket of Crazy.  Anyone who works for Gates should be worried about this.  Anyone who is funded by Gates should be worried about this.  If people don’t stand up and tell Gates that they are off the rails, the reputation of everyone associated with Gates will be tainted.

7 Responses to Gates Goes Wild

  1. Joy Pullmann says:

    Your rhetoric is at its best on these odd stories. “A big bucket of crazy.” “Tinfoil hat crew.” Haha!

  2. This does not surprise me in the least. Linda Darling-Hammond herself announced in fall 2010 that Common Core was largely about finally getting James Comer’s emphasis on social and emotional learning in place for all students. The content in the CCSS is merely the vehicle for the SEL emphasis.

    If the child’s not engaged affectively, the Gates financed curriculum is not working. The desired behavioural changes will not occur. is a story I wrote about a week ago alerting people to the SEL emphasis.

    I spent part of today working on the how of this as well downloading less than a few weeks old materials from Colorado.

    The precise language used should make the Fordham advocates ill. The idea is that the school and classroom cannot be inconsistent with the performance skills that are the measure of whether content is being addressed.

    Nobody has to KNOW much of anything. How sad for this great nation.

  3. George Mitchell says:

    The Reuters report says: “Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out.” Where to begin in responding to such a preposterous concept? Teachers will be surprised to learn that without a Q Sensor they can’t tell “which kids are tuned in….”

    Jay says: “If people don’t stand up and tell Gates that they are off the rails, the reputation of everyone associated with Gates will be tainted.” In the education “reform” world, as in the real world, examples of anyone standing up to those with financial firepower are very rare.

    • People who don’t declare that the emperor has no clothes will all be revealed as sycophants when his nakedness is revealed. And it will be revealed because you can’t do stuff this dumb without its failure becoming manifest eventually.

      • I don’t know, Jay. Math programs such as Everyday Math, Connected Math, Investigations, Math Trailblazers, IMP, Core Plus, and other NSF-funded atrocities have been around for years and its failures are blamed on a) schools and teachers for not implementing it with fidelity, and b) students who are declared by the schools to be “not good at math”. Successes with these programs may be due to outside tutors, parents, or learning centers, which don’t get to share in the accolades given to the schools and school districts which insist on keeping these programs in place.

      • allen says:

        Until that day though there’s still the promise of more then a few, fat pay days. And a few tens of millions of dollars will not only buy selective blindness but also selective amnesia.

        Gates has dealt himself into the education reform debate due to the size of his bankroll not the insightfulness or boldness of his policy ideas. But Gates is nothing if not a pragmatist and rather then seeing this silly idea as evidence that Gates has jumped the shark I see it as evidence he’s no longer all that interested in what his pet edu-experts are telling him.

        So far, what Gates has done has been, more or less, orthodox edu-crap – small classes, small schools, high tech geegaws, etc. But it’s all been uniformly a failure and as a pragmatist Gates can’t have much remaining faith in those edu-crap purveyors. He has, it should be remembered, put money into Khan Academy which is most definitely not Scientology Lite and suggests less that he’s not going off the deep end.

        So he’s dabbling in silly stuff. I doubt that phase will last long.

        After that? All sorts of possibilities.

        A well-coordinated and supported lobbying push at the state level, in multiple states, to pass vouchers, tax credits, parental trigger, expand charters, expand previously passed programs of a similar nature, support friendly legislators.

        Charter U. along the lines of McDonald’s University in that it’s dedicated to teaching and honing all the various skills necessary to run a successful charter or private school.

        A seed fund to help get schools started.

        Then there’s my personal favorite which is a private scholarship fund aimed at driving some vulnerable, municpal school district to financial ruin. My personal favorite’s Detroit since the school board is a bunch of dopes but it’s under the control of an emergency manager so you can’t depend on the school board to make things easier for an effort to drive the district to bankruptcy. New Orleans is another possibility as is Washington D.C. althought the new and improved voucher program’s liable to render a private effort superfluous.

        Lotta fun possiblities.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    This makes me want to take back what I posted earlier today on First Thoughts about how philanthropists should be working to create social space for alternative viewpoints.

    That isn’t what I meant! If mood rings in the classroom is worth $1.4 million to Gates, all that’s left to say is come back, Nanny State; all is forgiven.

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