Thursday, January 10, 2013

Beware the invasion of the databots!

I have a recurring nightmare where every phone call that I make is answered by a male or female Operatorbot with a nauseatingly pleasant voice, like those heard on approximately 98% of all business/agency/company phones. In all walks of life, aloofly efficient databots have become the fonts of all information deemed important by
someone not necessarily in-touch with what we the people need. That’s because they want we the people to be just as emotionally unavailable as they are.

Ah, what a dystopian…oops, I mean…what a utopian paradise a databot-driven society would create. Just think how much more could be accomplished without the interference of subjective or creative thoughts fueled by the messy interference of personal problems, passions, obsessions, tempers and egos. Just think how cost efficient databots would be compared to real-live mortals who understand peoplespeak and who demand livable salaries, benefits and personal understanding.

For example, during an annual exam last June, a test I took revealed a situation that might (and did) result in surgery. The time to allay my fears revealed in my anxious emails and phone calls to my doctor probably cost her many hours she could have spent with another patient…or two, or three. And I was just one of her triple-digit list of patients. Instead of compassionate Dr. B, Doctorbot could have responded with terse, “Just the facts, ma’am,” type of comments and moved on to the next nervous case load number. What a boon to Insurance/Medicare revenue that would be. After all, more time=more patients.

Speaking of Medicare, try calling the Social Security Office for any benefit reason. Friday, I spent 22 minutes trying to get past Agentbot and all of her, “Pick a reason for your call,” listings to speak to a real live human being. No matter what I said when none of her choices fit my reason for calling, I was fed a monotonous migraine-causing, “I do not understand your response; choose an option or say, Agent” reply. I’d say, “Agent,” but get a reiteration of her same blasted list! All I wanted was to
have an application form for Medicare Part B sent to me. The real-live, really pleasant lady who I had just spoken with in the Human Resources department of my past employer wanted me to fill it out and send it to her so she could initiate the change with my medical care provider. Simple? For the HR lady and me, yes; for Agentbot and me? Not so much. Exasperation set in and I finally hung up.

Footnote: in Monday's snail mail, I receive a nice fat packet with everything that I required from the FCPS HR Department. Thank you, accommodating HR lady, for understanding my simple need, and for keeping me from having to speak to Agentbot ever again.

Trying to get clarification to issues not found in the Businessbots’ vocabularies, be they answering the phones in retail, service, transportation or any of the wide variety of commercial industries we might encounter on a day-to-day basis can initiate teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, head-pounding primal screaming results. Try to get past Ticketagentbot on any airline carrier to request a seat change. Good luck! I hope you make your plane.

Although the situations mentioned in the last four paragraphs can be totally irritating, what truly frightens me is the Let’s Dehumanize Education bandwagon, rolling into a school district near each of us. Educationbots, stuffed but not satiated (too many statistics and metrics on the data buffet to still devour) with data, chew up and spit out every Standards of Learning test score by ethnicity, English proficiency, economic status, and student disabilities. School staffs then meet in large groups (faculty meetings), medium groups (departments) and small groups (grade levels) to dissect this information and to analyze it and to discuss how to apply it to their teaching repertoire. Past tests are also made available for teachers in the different academic subjects to analyze for content specifics that need to be strengthened in future lessons.

These results provide vital knowledge. Teachers, like their administrators, want, and need, to know what works and what doesn’t. They consider all of this data as well as the related conversations with their departmental colleagues when they tweak their lesson plans. But, and this is huge because this difference is what makes the data-driven bandwagon a frighteningly out-of-control vehicle, teachers also contemplate what else might be hampering Jane’s or Johnny’s success. Data alone, which is derived from controlled situations, does not and cannot consider qualitative details.

Is Jane or Johnny, or any classmate of theirs, coping with an illness (theirs, a parent's or a sibling's), a pay-the-rent crucial after-school job, a romantic or platonic break-up, or any academic, social or personal feelings of inadequacy? Are dealings with drugs, alcohol, gangs or other risky choices negatively affecting his or her desire to learn- to succeed in school? What about apathy and feelings of entitlement ("I'm here, so pass me."). In other words, educators must also consider qualitative matters that affect student learning (and test-taking), subjective measures that cannot be supported as can quantitative (objective) data.

About a month ago, I ran into an old colleague at Target. Her questions about how I was enjoying my retirement (“It’s everything that I hoped for and more.”) led to my asking her about her school year. She enthused about her students and subject matter, but lamented the infusion of data-driven forms to be completed after each and every in-class student assessment, work that was sapping her colleagues’ and her passion and energy for teaching. “You know me, Connie,” she said, “I absolutely adore my students, yes, even the challenges, and I love teaching, but all of the time consuming data this, data that forms are making me dread going to work. And that makes me so very sad.”

Her words disheartened me because she is not alone- not by a longshot. Way too many fine educators across the country are leaving the profession. Not because of salaries or non-contract time spent on professional duties; all teachers are well-aware of these issues before they choose the profession.

School districts are losing quality educators because they care more about lesson plans built on test-related data, and molding teachers to be the proper robotic
purveyors of that information, than they do about creating an environment where students’ actions and reactions are understood and taken into consideration in lesson planning and teaching, and where learning and knowledge is key…not a few statistics or numbers that fit into a metric somewhere. As Frederick M. Hess said in his article, The New Stupid, (Educational Leadership December 2008/January 2009, 12-17) “We must take care that the ready availability of data on reading and math scores for grades 3 through 8 or on high school graduation rates--all of which provide useful information- do not become streetlights that distract more than they

What student dreams about a classroom led by an Educatorbot like Ditto in the movie, Teachers, who had students pick up activity sheets out of a wire basket every day, negating even his personal touch on the papers, and then turn them in at the end of class without a word spoken between them? What teacher wants a room full of Studentbots who can spew out factual data, verbally and in writing, but who can’t think analytically, critically or creatively on their own?

Not me. Don’t misunderstand my objectives; I pushed my students so they would be able to correctly answer questions about the who, what, where, when, why and how of any literature or literary terms that we studied. Oh, how I would have missed, though, those lively conversations debating whether Gregor had really morphed into a dung beetle or not (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) or those arguments defending/opposing John Proctor’s choice at the end of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and the examples of metaphor students found in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Discussions where both the students and I learned a new concept, a clever idea or an thought-provoking opinion... or two or three.

In classrooms, on the phone and in life, give me people and the messy interference of their personal problems, passions, obsessions, tempers and egos, but give me, “Just the facts, ma’am,” too. When Socrates, a teacher, was on trial for heresy he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He believed that in order to lead a fulfilled life of their choice that people needed to analyze and synthesize the facts about who they were, physically and mentally, with their emotional, unique, critical selves.

Socrates' path will cause stress, anxiety, laughter and tears, but these are all a part of life. Databots merely exist. Humans live. I choose the latter.


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