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When Algorithms Fail

I’m listening to Pandora right now.  Not really Pandora, but “Resurrection Fern,” a naturalist musing on death by Iron and Wine brought to me by Pandora and their sleuth of advertisers.  It took Pandora two hours to figure out that I would like the song.  Not bad, really, for a customized music station.  Apparently there is a magical algorithm that has mapped out musical tastes like a human genome project. It can figure out that if I like Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine, I’ll probably like Death Cab for Cutie and Hayden. (It’s not perfect.  For a long time, Pandora kept thinking I would like Cold Play.)

My friend Quinn also knows my musical tastes.  It took him longer than two hours and sometimes he still gets it wrong (I’ll never enjoy Thrice, for example) But the musical recommendations occurred through hours of having coffee and sharing pints and crying with him when he was experiencing a divorce and him crying with me after my wife and I had a miscarriage (which feels like such a cold word for the death of a child you had already begun to know, if only in silence).

Pandora can’t cry.

Pandora can’t drink pints or sip espressos or find the sheer joy of a flee market record find.

So, it’s Fall Break and I’m tapping away at the keyboard and dreaming up new lessons.  I have a stash of teacher’s binders and resource catalogs and CD-ROMs (I didn’t realize people still used those) and website links at my disposal.  Which is exactly how they’ll remain – in a state of disposal.

It might be a slower, less efficient process, but I’ll continue to create my own units.  If customization is my goal, I’ll stay away from the algorithms, ignore the data for awhile and think about the flesh-and-blood reality of my classroom.  I’ll consider the stories of my twenty-eight students and I’ll work with them in dialog as I recommend new learning experiences.

I’ll read their blogs and I’ll sit with them outside on the days when tragedy strikes and I’ll rejoice with them as they grow in wisdom.  I’ll cry and I’ll laugh and I’ll smile and I’ll dance and the end result will be something an algorithm cannot produce.

People can manufacture a crisis and manufacture a solution and manufacture legislation and I’m glad there are people in leadership thinking up the big ideas.  But I’d like to offer a counterpoint on education reform.  Often the beauty of education reform is found in the relationship, in the sticky, messy human reality that occurs in that mysterious paradox of teaching to learn and learning to teach.

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About John T. Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “When Algorithms Fail

  1. Thanks! This is just want I needed right now!

    david

    Posted by dloitz | October 18, 2010, 5:33 pm
  2. John, I hear your desire for authenticity and humanity and individual care and relationships in education. I strongly empathize with your account of your relationship with Quinn.

    I’d encourage us to hold on to the human algorithms that we run all the time – the ones we use to find out how to help – the ones we keep open to alteration – the algorithms of care that kick in when things don’t go right. I need those. I don’t want to engage with risk and failure afresh every time I face them.

    Education shouldn’t be mechanistic; hopefully its systematic algorithms will catch up to the beautiful and hard-won algorithms we run between us like life-lines.

    All the best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 18, 2010, 9:20 pm
    • I like this concept of human systems. I forget sometimes that there are formulas and procedures and whatnot that we use on a daily basis. There are structures set up to make life livable. I suppose the real question has to do with who runs the structures, who holds the power and how human is the process.

      Posted by johntspencer | October 20, 2010, 8:12 am
  3. Hi,

    My name is Kiara and I am reading your post as an assignment for Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. I really like what you have to say. I am going to school to be a Secondary Education math teacher, and I want a relationship with my students. I want to be able to teach them in a way that they can understand and not just the way someone wants me to. As a teacher, I think we should teach our students more than just the curriculum. I believe that we should teach them life lessons as well. I want my children to be able to talk to me if they are having problems, knowing that I care about them and are going to try to help. Being a teacher is a big responsibility, but a joy at the same time.

    Posted by Kiara | October 19, 2010, 8:21 pm
    • Thanks for your feedback. It’s always cool when a future teacher reads a post like this. I will warn you that teaching more than just the curriculum might get you into trouble sometimes, but as long as you have the viewpoint that you are teaching students and not teaching curriculum, you’ll be fine (and not that curriculum is all bad, either).

      Posted by johntspencer | October 20, 2010, 8:14 am

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