$1.1 million to test ‘galvanic’ bracelets

The Gates Foundation is spending $1.1 million to test “galvanic skin response” bracelets that measure students’ engagement in lessons, writes Valerie Strauss on Answer Sheet. Clemson and the National Center on Time and Learning will research the idea’s feasibility.

Strauss sees it as a “nutty” waste of money that could be spent on books, teachers and librarians.

Is it foolish? Let’s say research shows that students learn more in the X state than when their bracelets record Z’s. Teachers could analyze the high-X and high-Z portions of their lessons to figure out how to reach students more effectively. Of course, the idea could be a dud. Maybe too many students X up or Z out for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. But we don’t know that yet.

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  1. Obi-Wandreas says:

    It seems to me that the whole idea of this foundation is that they’ve got a metric boatload of cash to research new ways of doing things. Many new ideas sound crazy until you find out they work.

    Personally, I highly doubt there’s anything to it; if they want to spend some of their money ( a pittance compared to what they’re spending elsewhere ) on a crazy dream, however, more power to them.

  2. It’s a foolish waste of money if there’s no certainty that the information will be used properly and there isn’t.

    It’s always been possible to gauge the educational value of damned near everything associated with the public education system. There’s just never been any reason to do so. Is there now?

    If “yes” then maybe these gadgets aren’t a waste of money. If “no” then might as well stack them in whatever public education warehouse stores the mountains of PCs which were purchased and never used.

  3. But what are they measuring with the skin responses? Is it blood flow? What if a child is just super alert and excited because they have plans after school? Or if they are really engaged in the notes they are passing to a friend? How would the bracelets differentiate between biological responses due to instruction and biological responses due to other factors?

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    … And it turns out that the teacher with the highest average level of engagement is the sexpot with the skimpy dress.

    Organized Chaos is exactly right: this isn’t measuring engagement. The only way to directly measure “engagement” is with a first-person observer sitting there looking at each individual student and making a judgment call about whether the student is ‘engaged’. This bracelet scheme is, like so many other things, measuring a proxy. The only question is whether it’s a good proxy.

    It seems like a pretty ridiculously bad proxy.

    Here’s a better idea, with a much better proxy:

    Let’s imagine that the reason that we care about engagement is that engagement has some sort of causal connection with learning. That doesn’t sound ridiculous, does it? Well, if we wanted to measure engagement, a few days after the lesson, we could ask the students what they learned. The ones who remember are likely to have been the most engaged with the lesson.

    Of course, we’ll have really cut engagement out of the picture, since it’s just a proxy for that for which we’re really looking in the first place.

    We could even come up with a name for this sort of academic learning metric. Hmmm. We’d have to have a good word, something that will catch the ears of reform gurus and fad-prone administrators.

    Maybe we could call it a vest! No… we need something more catchy and positive. A best! No… too cloying. A chest! Too biologic. A west! Well, that’s actually a little ethnocentric. A rest! Bah, that’s likely to encourage the opposite of what we want if we’re looking for in the first place. A zest? That’s at least zippy. Nest? Pest? Lest? Quest? Crest? Breast?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Michael, the word you are looking for is “test” 🙂

      Alas. Alas, alas, alas … scoring well on a test is also a proxy for learning. The question we refuse to ask ourselves in this business is how good a proxy it is. Instead, we act as if the following were true: a student who knows X on test day will know X on test day plus one and on test day plus two and on test day plus zero. A student who knows 90% of the material on a test will also know 90% the day after and the day after and the day after. She has learned 90% of the material.

      Yet deep down, we know this is not true. We know that giving a midterm without “reviewing” beforehand will result in terrible test scores. Even large amounts of review will not keep grades from dipping below what students got during the term. Similarly for finals.

      Deep down, I think we all suspect that during the school year, we are testing the student’s ability to predict what will be on the test and to memorize that until after the test. When the course is a few months in the rear view mirror, some students will actually understand some of what we were trying to get across–and most will remember something of the information we imparted. But, at least for high school kids, it will be darn little.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Oops. That should be “Instead, we act as if the following were true: a student who knows X on test day will know X on test day plus one and on test day plus two and on test day plus 1,000.”

  5. 1. The guy running this stuff, John Gabrieli, is an MIT genius and interesting all-around fellow. We’re working with him on some simple work around middle school engagement here in Boston.

    2. Obi’s right.

    3. Michael L (fan of your guest blogging here), I wonder if I can invert the question. We’ve doubled per student spending in real dollars over 25 years. We’re at what, 700 billion?

    Zero outcome change.

    Isn’t almost crazy NOT to spend .00016% of that on a few new ideas that are 98% likely to fail? Isn’t that how we get breakthroughs occasionally in other fields?

    Sat next to a lady at a dinner party last night. Works for Biogen, mid-size drug firm. Her corporate team just bought a young company, developing a promising drug. Spent a kajillion.

    Asked her: “What are chances of this drug every making it to market?” She said: “Oh, maybe 4%.”

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Wow. I’m thinking the bracelet thing is from The Onion. Tell me I’m right, please.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Actually, you’re almost right. The kids remember a certain percentage even on Day +10,000.
    First they have to learn it. Then, if there is no reason to use it, or remember it from time to time, they may lose it. But otherwise, they have it. And they wouldn’t if they hadn’t learned it the first time. Which is the teacher’s job.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    For most people, “there is no reason to use it, or remember it from time to time” applies to most what they learned in school. So for most people, most of what they learned in school is forgotten. Period. Full stop.

    Those of us who read and comment on this blog are outliers.