Is the Scientific and Engineering Approach to Education Doing More Harm Than Good?

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

[Note: Earlier today (4 Sep. 2010), Steve Eskow posted the comment below in the ongoing discussion on William H. Zaggle‘s Educational Engineers: The Missing Link in Innovation. -js]

If one looks carefully at the last 60 years of educational history, isn’t it possible to conclude that the ideology of education as a science and engineering as the development of the tools to implement the findings of educational science and measure its results have indeed found their way into mainstream practice and that Charters and Anderson (see Zaggle’s article) were successful as prophets and preachers?

Schools and colleges have instructional “designers.” They insist on teaching faculty to begin such “design” by listing their “measurable objectives” (“objectives” have to be “measurable”).

“Assessment” is now a commonplace of educational jargon. And “assessment ” often – usually – means such “objective” techniques as multiple choice questions.

Is it possible to argue that the attempt to create a science and engineering approach to education have done little good and much harm?

[Note: In an email exchange a few hours later re his comment above, Steve said, “Jim, your note prompted me to look for and, surprise, find my copy of a 1962 book by Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency. See if you can find a copy somewhere. Chapter 2  is titled “Reform-Conscious America Discovers the Efficiency Expert,” and it is all about the importation of Taylor’s “Scientific Management” into the American classroom. Steve.  -js]

7 Responses

  1. Steve, I would have to say yes. In the mid-1920s, Elton Mayo’s holistic, human relations approach seems to have been more productive than the systematic process of scientific management with its reliance on designing and implementing the “one best method.”

    The underlying weakness of the scientific approach is its inability to account for individual variations. There is no standard teacher, just as there is no standard student or learning environment. Thus, the approach that’s able to factor in the most variables has the greatest chance for success.

    And with so much variability in a typical learning environment, a less systematic and messier, or fuzzier, approach that accounts for all the participants — as well as the environment itself — has a better chance of producing desired outcomes.

    This would mean giving more freedom and decision-making power to teams or work groups to determine objectives, process, work conditions, quality control, etc.

    In fact, the scientific and the human relations approach still define much of the pedagogy in classrooms today. Instruction is either based on a preconceived “best practice” method or on a group and environment determined approach.

    In one, students follow a programed sequence that’s been tried and tested to be effective. In the other, students work together, with guidance from their teacher, to determine how best to attain the learning objectives.

    In human relations oriented approaches, the probability for pull incentives for learning is much stronger. Students are making most of the decisions, and this gives them ownership of the learning process and a vested interest in the outcomes.

    Auto manufacturers are realizing the effectiveness of this team approach to productivity, and so are many educators. -js

  2. Design and assessment. Then we tie measurable progress (tests) to teacher’s salaries. Where is there any incentive for teaching to a student’s curiosity or individual interests or even their “need to know”? In my blog last week, I ranted about just this issue. And, of course, quoted John Dewey along with others on the aim of education: “I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

    There is a lot of room for good course design, but to my mind it has nothing to do with testing for minute and specific outcomes. I ask questions about my course design like–will this take students deeper into the complexities of the subject? Not, you can be sure, something that can be tested with short answer responses, but the instructor will definitely know whether it has been achieved or not.

    Blog: What’s it all about, this education thing?(

  3. Judith, I’ve been teaching for about 40 years in both high school and college, and the one fact I’ve learned about standardized testing and institutional evaluations is that they’re always, always, from the top down.

    It’s bureaucracy’s approach to “leadership.” Create a bureaucracy and appoint administrators, and their first move is to identify “measurable objectives.” The purpose of these objectives is to develop a test, survey, evaluation — call it what you will. And this instrument then becomes the measure of every teacher, every student, every program, every school.

    Perform poorly on the test, and bad consequences follow. Perform well, and good follows.

    This entire process has nothing to do with improving instruction or learning. The primary purpose is to justify the bureaucracy’s raison d’etre. The administrator can appear to be doing a terrific job if the scores are above the norm. If the scores are poor, s/he can identify the culprits and apply “proper” intervention strategies. All very scientific.

    But this entire approach begs the question: Can productive learning and teaching be measured by a finite set of measurable variables? And can this set be applied to all cases — to all classes, students, teachers, schools — without exception?

    I’m thinking of outcomes that don’t show up on these tests. For example, a student might take a sudden interest in one of the many learning activities in a biology class, e.g., alien fish species in streams. He examines the stream that runs through his neighborhood and nets a range of fish. He asks neighbors to help identify those that are native and those that are alien. When they can’t help, he asks his parents for help.

    They point him toward the community, city, or state office for such matters. He asks an agent to stop by his home where he’s set up an aquarium. The agent points out the ones that are alien and asks the student to show him where he caught the fish.

    Based on the student’s report, the government sets out on a systematic approach to eradicating the aliens. Since the agency is shorthanded, they approach the student and ask for his assistance in a series of experiments. The experiments require periodic scheduled observations of alien populations in different parts of the stream to test the effectiveness of certain treatments.

    The student asks some of his friends in the neighborhood for help. They think it’s fun and join in. Their efforts gain the attention of a small neighborhood tabloid. A reporter interviews the agent and the students, and writes a story that gains state-wide recognition.

    The students, meanwhile, have set up a blog to share their observation with one another. They publish photos, videos, reports, and conduct discussions. Students from other schools in the state and around the world take an interest and begin to participate in the discussions. Eventually, they conduct similar experiments in their streams to control the encroachment of alien species.

    The student is “only” average according to his test scores, and up until this alien species activity, he had little or no interest in school. In his book, it was boring. His performance in tests that “alien species” year showed little or no improvement.

    But he is no longer the same student. He has become an expert in the ecosystem of his neighborhood stream, and many of the young people in the neighborhood have, too. In fact, the agent routinely asks the student for assistance in related cases and has given the student an open invitation to visit his lab at any time. The student does and quickly becomes involved in different projects.

    This story is fiction, but it shows us how project learning could inspire students to want to learn. The problem is that this type of learning is difficult to measure with a standardized test.

    This student, bored with school and his mediocre evaluations, might feel that higher ed isn’t for him and decide to drop out and become a truck driver. There’s nothing wrong with being a truck driver if that’s what he really wants to do, but given the right kinds of encouragement, he might have become a scientist who is involved in controlling the invasion of alien species in the waterways of the world. -js

  4. Hopefully such testing techniques are not being thought of as scientific. Although blood letting was accepted medical practice in it’s day as well. Scientifically analysis easily shows almost any test capable of predicting if the student actually took the test and not much more. I have watched high school students arriving to school early on their own and begging to stay late working on growing and refining their own bio fuel and other green energy projects. I have seen them assess themselves, research their own learning needs and realize their passions and their purpose in providing contributions to society. There were no tests beyond the question “so what have you learned and what will you learn next”.


  5. I am afraid I am having something of a disconnect between what I am reading in this discussion and what I was involved with as a staff developer and curriculum designer over the past decade or two. If people in this thread are discussing their experiences, then mine have been very different.

    The idea that a test has to be multiple choice–or the like–to be an objective measure has me puzzled. Perhaps it is because I was involved in so much assessment of essays and the like, including advanced placement literature essays. Perhaps it is because it was my job to teach authentic learning and authentic assessment. Perhaps it was my work with the iNACOL response to America’s Lab Report, which called for a very different approach to science instruction, one based on inquiry and investigation. Perhaps I just don’t understand the question.

    The problem with assessing project based learning, etc. is not the ability to implement it. We know how to do it. The problem is cost. Maryland had to scrap much of its assessment plans because it could not afford the kind of evaluation that it required, not because it was considered an ineffective way to teach or assess learning. You can run thousands of MC tests through a machine for a mere pittance. Assessing project based learning is more complicated and costly.

    There is a similar problem with the design of online education. You can (and I have) design online education classes that are highly interactive, student-led, and constructivist in nature. The problem is that they become extremely expensive to teach because of the time demands it puts upon the teacher. You can only assign a handful of students to a teacher in c lass like this and make it affordable. At the other end of the spectrum are the programs (like Plato) that are totally MC and require only an aide who can read the student’s results.

    To be educationally effective and cost effective at the same time, online education ends up looking for a middle ground. You end up doing MC questions for for the rote parts of the course so that you free up the teacher time to the greatest degree possible to allow them to lead the project based aspects of the course.

    The challenge for educational engineering is to help free up more and more teacher time with more and more meaningful assessment of student ability. For example, I reviewed essay grading software a couple of years ago and was frankly stunned by how well some of them did on my tests. I expected to hate the stuff, but I realized it could be very beneficial if used correctly.

    • John,

      I think you hit on a key point. Teaching is both art and science, loaded with a ton of “administrivia” when scaled to the degree necessary. No doubt effective teachers are informed teachers and a lot of valuable teaching time is spent trying to get informed about students.

      I believe technology has only yet touched the surface of what it could do to deliver knowledge with differentiated methods, manage process, analyze performance, coordinate teacher feedback, and offer other innovative solutions not yet even thought of for increasing the effectiveness of our existing teachers. Doing this will allow them to concentrate on doing the one artistic thing technology can’t really do very well… teach.

      Aircraft innovation has allowed a single pilot to master some of the most sophisticated processes a human can know. Imagine what one great teacher could do if that same level of innovation was being applied to the scale problems of our newest classroom inventions like project based learning and assessment. Of course we don’t have anywhere near the budget that went into the Manhattan Project, NASA, or Military projects. However, I think it is discussions like ETCJ provides that will finally get people to start “Thinking” about solutions to the right problems.

      Wouldn’t it be cool if we could launch a small device from earth, have it land on Mars and then drive it around and while it sent back pictures? Oh yea… we already did. Well, then wouldn’t it be cool if one teacher could use their artistic genius to simultaneously communicate with and manage the different thoughts and directions of the minds of 100 different students without a classroom, textbook or traditional style test? All from one place? Just a dashboard and a joystick?

      Impossible? Too Expensive? I don’t think so, we just need more people who’s only job is to specifically try to innovate/engineer a way to make it happen.


  6. […] responded to someone else’s post at an Education online journal that I write for—Educational Technology and Change—using some of the references in my own blog, including the quote from John Dewey about how […]

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