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Monday, January 27, 2014

The Age of ‘Infopolitics’

We are in the midst of a flood of alarming revelations about information sweeps conducted by government agencies and private corporations concerning the activities and habits of ordinary Americans. After the initial alarm that accompanies every leak and news report, many of us retreat to the status quo, quieting ourselves with the thought that these new surveillance strategies are not all that sinister, especially if, as we like to say, we have nothing to hide.
We do not like to think of ourselves as bits and bytes. But if we don’t, we leave it to others to do it for us.
One reason for our complacency is that we lack the intellectual framework to grasp the new kinds of political injustices characteristic of today’s information society. Everyone understands what is wrong with a government’s depriving its citizens of freedom of assembly or liberty of conscience. Everyone (or most everyone) understands the injustice of government-sanctioned racial profiling or policies that produce economic inequality along color lines. But though nearly all of us have a vague sense that something is wrong with the new regimes of data surveillance, it is difficult for us to specify exactly what is happening and why it raises serious concern, let alone what we might do about it.

Our confusion is a sign that we need a new way of thinking about our informational milieu. What we need is a concept of infopolitics that would help us understand the increasingly dense ties between politics and information. Infopolitics encompasses not only traditional state surveillance and data surveillance, but also “data analytics” (the techniques that enable marketers at companies like Target to detect, for instance, if you are pregnant), digital rights movements (promoted by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation), online-only crypto-currencies (like Bitcoin or Litecoin), algorithmic finance (like automated micro-trading) and digital property disputes (from peer-to-peer file sharing to property claims in the virtual world of Second Life). These are only the tip of an enormous iceberg that is drifting we know not where.
Surveying this iceberg is crucial because atop it sits a new kind of person: the informational person. Politically and culturally, we are increasingly defined through an array of information architectures: highly designed environments of data, like our social media profiles, into which we often have to squeeze ourselves. The same is true of identity documents like your passport and individualizing dossiers like your college transcripts. Such architectures capture, code, sort, fasten and analyze a dizzying number of details about us. Our minds are represented by psychological evaluations, education records, credit scores. Our bodies are characterized via medical dossiers, fitness and nutrition tracking regimens, airport security apparatuses. We have become what the privacy theorist Daniel Solove calls “digital persons.” As such we are subject to infopolitics (or what the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou calls “datapower,” the political theorist Davide Panagia “datapolitik” and the pioneering thinker Donna Haraway “informatics of domination”).
Today’s informational person is the culmination of developments stretching back to the late 19th century. It was in those decades that a number of early technologies of informational identity were first assembled. Fingerprinting was implemented in colonial India, then imported to Britain, then exported worldwide. Anthropometry — the measurement of persons to produce identifying records — was developed in France in order to identify recidivists. The registration of births, which has since become profoundly important for initiating identification claims, became standardized in many countries, with Massachusetts pioneering the way in the United States before a census initiative in 1900 led to national standardization. In the same era, bureaucrats visiting rural districts complained that they could not identify individuals whose names changed from context to context, which led to initiatives to universalize standard names. Once fingerprints, biometrics, birth certificates and standardized names were operational, it became possible to implement an international passport system, a social security number and all other manner of paperwork that tells us who someone is. When all that paper ultimately went digital, the reams of data about us became radically more assessable and subject to manipulation, which has made us even more informational.
We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely aboutus. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are.
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.
We understandably do not want to see ourselves as bits and bytes. But unless we begin conceptualizing ourselves in this way, we leave it to others to do it for us. Many government agencies and giant corporations are all too eager to continue the work of producing detailed data profiles of all of us. These profiles may be produced for varying purposes (targeting terrorists is not the same work as targeting consumers), but they all involve informational pictures of who we are — as well as who we can become. These agencies and corporations will continue producing new visions of you and me, and they will do so without our input if we remain stubbornly attached to antiquated conceptions of selfhood that keep us from admitting how informational we already are.
We need a concept of infopolitics precisely because we have become infopersons. What should we do about our Internet and phone patterns’ being fastidiously harvested and stored away in remote databanks where they await inspection by future algorithms developed at the National Security Agency, Facebook, credit reporting firms like Experian and other new institutions of information and control that will come into existence in future decades? What bits of the informational you will fall under scrutiny? The political you? The sexual you? What next-generation McCarthyisms await your informational self? And will those excesses of oversight be found in some Senate subcommittee against which we democratic citizens might hope to rise up in revolt — or will they lurk among algorithmic automatons that silently seal our fates in digital filing systems?
As soon as we learn to see ourselves and our politics as informational, we can begin to see the importance of surveillance reforms of the sort proposed by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat  of Oregon, as well as the wisdom implicit in the transgressions of “hacktivists” whose ethics call for anonymity and untraceability. Despite their decidedly different political sensibilities, what links together the likes of Senator Wyden and the international hacker network known as Anonymous is that they respect the severity of what is at stake in our information. They understand that information is a site for the call of justice today, alongside more quintessential battlefields like liberty of thought and equality of opportunity. Willingness to see ourselves as informational persons subject to informational powers could help us bring into view what will be required to protect the many individual rights and social ties now inhering in all those bits and bytes.

Colin Koopman

Colin Koopman is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, where he is also a resident scholar at the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics. He is the author of “Genealogy as Critique” and “Pragmatism as Transition,” and is at work on a book about infopolitics.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ethics Matter: In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical

Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychologist, created the notorious Stanford
Prison Experiment.

LOTS of New Year’s resolutions are being made — and no doubt ignored — at this time of year. But there’s one that’s probably not even on many lists and should be: Act more ethically.

Most people, if pressed, would acknowledge that they could use an ethical tuneup. Maybe last year they fudged some numbers at work. Dented a car and failed to leave a note. Remained silent when a friend made a racist joke.

The problem, research shows, is that how we think we’re going to act when faced with a moral decision and how we really do act are often vastly different.

Here’s just one of many examples from an experiment at Northeastern University: Subjects were told they should flip a coin to see who should do certain tasks. One task is long and laborious; the other is short and fun.

The participant flips the coin in private (though secretly watched by video cameras), said David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern who conducted the experiment. Only 10 percent of them did it honestly. The others didn’t flip at all, or kept flipping until the coin came up the way they wanted.

Trying to become more ethical — or teaching people how to — would seem doomed then. But that’s not true. It’s just that how we teach ethics has to catch up with what we know about how the human mind works.

One area clearly in need of attention is business ethics, especially given the transgressions in the financial world in recent years. Some of the nation’s top researchers think so too. Next week, a group of them — most based at American universities — will officially introduce a new website, The site is the first to pull together extensive research and resources on the subject of business ethics with the aim of making the vast trove available to schools, government regulators and businesses — especially their compliance officers.

“It used to be business ethics grew out of philosophy, with a focus on the right thing to do,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. “In the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of research in behavioral economics” and the underlying reasons people act the way they do.

Some of the research was informed by the scandals at Enron and WorldCom unfolding at the time, as well as the global financial crises.

Those events, in part, “inspired a small group of researchers to develop a more psychologically realistic approach to business ethics,” said Professor Haidt, who spearheaded the website.

This approach — which applies to ethics in general, not just business ethics — incorporates what we now know about how people really act when faced with a moral dilemma and what tools can be used to nudge them toward doing the right thing.

First we need to be more aware of the ways we fool ourselves. We have to learn how to avoid subconsciously turning our backs when faced with a moral dilemma. And then we must be taught how to challenge people appropriately in those situations.

“When people predict how they’re going to act in a given situation, the ‘should’ self dominates — we should be fair, we should be generous, we should assert our values,” said Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame who is involved in the EthicalSystems website. “But when the time for action comes, the ‘want’ self dominates” — I don’t want to look like a fool, I don’t want to be punished.

“Our survival instinct is to want to be liked and to be included,” said Brooke Deterline, chief executive of Courageous Leadership, a consulting firm that offers workshops and programs on dealing with ethical situations. “We don’t willfully do bad things, but when we’re under threat our initial instinct is to downplay or ignore problematic situations.”

Most people know the feeling: Something happens that we know is wrong and we mean to speak up or make it right. But we can’t quite figure out how to do it, and the moment passes. And then we justify that it was O.K. that we acted the way we did.

So how do we change this?

Using social and cognitive behavioral psychology as well as neuroscience, Ms. Deterline said, the first step is to become aware of our natural inclinations.

“Think back: When are you vulnerable to not speaking up and not saying what needs to be said?” she said. Is it when authority is present? When it might alienate you from friends? When it might cause subordinates to think less of you?

“We all have automatic thoughts when we feel anxious: ‘I’m going to get fired, I’m going to look like an idiot,’ ” she said. The point is not to listen to those thoughts, but to be aware of them and override them. And to do that, we need to practice.

Like pilots who use flight simulators, people need to work on situations that cause them anxiety before they occur. In her programs, Ms. Deterline has role-playing employees initiate potentially challenging conversations.

“When most of us feel uncomfortable, we shut up,” she said. “But we need to use discomfort to know that that is my signal to be courageous and a cue for action rather than inaction.”

The focus on why people do and don’t act ethically is not, of course, limited to the business world. After all, it takes good citizens to make good employees.

Philip G. Zimbardo, a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, is a pioneer in the study of social power — for good and for evil — and started a program in 2007 called the Heroic Imagination Project. His interest in ethics dates far back; in 1971 he created the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, where college student “guards” demeaned and humiliated student “prisoners.” The experiment had to be stopped early because it became so abusive.

After studying moral degradation for decades, Professor Zimbardo started wondering about the 10 to 20 percent of people in every situation who resisted. Who were these people he called heroes, and could anyone be taught to be one?

Through the Heroic Imagination Project — for which Ms. Deterline once worked — middle- and high-school and community college students learn about group dynamics, like the bystander effect, in which the more people who are on a scene, the less likely it is for anyone to help.

Using video clips and real-life situations, teachers explain how students can resist such behavior, and help them explore why they have acted — or failed to act — in specific situations.

While students are taught not to be “dumb heroes” and rush into danger, Professor Zimbardo said, “we teach them that knowledge obligates you to do something — to act heroically.”

His nonprofit program has made many of its resources available free and is in the final stages of receiving funding to train a group of teachers in Flint, Mich., starting in the spring. Graduate students at the University of Michigan will assist in the program and, it is hoped, develop longitudinal findings on its effectiveness, he said.

Kristen Renwick Monroe, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, has long studied why some people act righteously and others fail to.

She has found in her research that “the rescuers say, ‘What else could I do?’ ” she said. “The bystander says, ‘I was just one person? What could I do?’ ”

“We have to think, ‘Who am I and how do my actions create who I am?’ ” Professor Monroe added. She recalled interviewing a Dutch woman who stood by and watched while Jews were thrown into a truck and taken away during World War II. But the woman later saved more than a dozen others.

Professor Monroe remembers what the woman told her: “We all have memories when we should have done something, and it gets in the way for the rest of your life.”

Why We Should Teach Ethics in Our Public Schools

This is a guest post by my friend Tor Constantino. He is a former journalist, has an MBA, and works in public relations where he has directly reported to several CEOs in his career. He lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife and three children. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.
During my career, I’ve had the privilege of reporting directly to seven different CEOs at various Fortune 500 companies. One of the best was a gentleman by the name ofJoseph Clayton.
In addition to being an accomplished businessman and visionary leader, Joe was – and continues to be – a devoted husband, father of five children and a Christian.
I had a chance to catch up with Joe, who retired a few years ago as a multi-multi-millionaire, and he shared with me that he was recently invited to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater.
He was specifically asked to talk about ethics in business and the fact that the students he was addressing during his speech were the first graduates from the college that could earn a degree in “business ethics.”
Joe told me that his contrarian talk mourned the fact that a graduate business school felt compelled to offer a degree in business ethics.
“It’s a sad commentary for this country, its educational system and deteriorating family structure when college students have to be taught what’s right and wrong,” he said. “Those were lessons I learned as a young child in Sunday school. If you have to learn those fundamental rules in your 20s or 30s – that’s almost too late.”
I agree.

Leadership Learning Lamentations

By definition, a leader is followed by others – but what are those core principles and values that are guiding the leader?
One only has to Google the phrases “political corruption 2013” to find 437,000,000 entries or “corrupt business 2013” to find 58,400,000 entries. While not indicative of a trend, it’s difficult to dismiss those numbers as inconsequential.
The truth is that many leaders have glaring ethical gaps that are not being addressed.
Joe’s lamentations regarding the lack of ethical grounding within our current and future leaders alludes to the following scripture:
He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. (2 Samuel 23:3b)
Absent a healthy fear (i.e. respect and accountability) of God the best that secular man can aspire to are actually the basest elements of our nature.

Alternative Solutions

Atheistic philosophers such as MachiavelliThomas HobbesJean-Jacques Rousseau,John Stuart Mills and Friedrich Nietzsche each purported ethical constructs that excluded God in favor of leadership systems driven by ideas such as “the ends justify the means;” an existence driven by “natural man’s” appetites; the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure at all costs; and the “will to power.”
Stripped down to their core principles, these philosophical models of leadership lack vision, aspiration and sustainability. When those “ideals” have been implemented in business or government they have devoled into the axiom that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The reason for that is because such secular systems of leadership lack accountability to a higher authority or “fear of God.”

When Fear Makes Sense

The book of Proverbs equates the “fear of God” with hating evil as well as the pursuit of wisdom – which is often described as the application of knowledge on behalf of others.
It makes sense – common sense as well as dollars and cents – that business and government leaders should hate evil, pursue wisdom and apply their knowledge helping others.
I’m not suggesting our capitalist system and representative republic are replaced with a theocracy. But I do agree with Joe, that we could do a better job building the moral character and intrinsic values within our children and future leaders.
Instead of teaching ethics only in Sunday schools and graduate business schools, perhaps all levels (e.g. elementary, middle school, high school…etc.) of learning might benefit from a bit of ethical training. Our future may depend on it.
Question: Should ethics be a mandatory part of public school curricula? Share your thoughts with a comment below.
About Bill Blankschaen
Bill Blankschaen is a writer, speaker, veteran non-profit leader and ministry consultant. As the Founder and President of FaithWalkers, he equips Christians to think, live, and lead with abundant faith. Bill writes and speaks to issues of faith and culture, leadership and calling, family, education, and practical Christian living with an authentic, engaging style that resonates with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
He is the Founder and Lead Content Creator for Creative Content Solutions and a catalyst for accelerating Kingdom efforts of all kinds. His writing has been featured with Michael Hyatt, Ron Edmondson, Skip Prichard, Jeff Goins, Faith Village, and many others. He is a regular contributor to the Catalyst Leaders blog.
Bill is a blessed husband and the father of six children. He is the Junior Scholar of Cultural Theology and Director of Development for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He has partnered as an Associate Trainer with Equip Leadership, Inc. (founded by John C. Maxwell) working with ministry leaders in Guam and around the Pacific Rim to better equip ministry leaders there to lead with passion and greater influence.
    This was an “outta the park” post, Tor. You really hit a homerun with this one. Aside from the intrinsic Christian value of ethical leadership, it really does make sense practically for leaders to pursue wisdom, which you so eloquently said. It is to their advantage commercially! It is sad that our culture is so compartmentalized that we have come to the point where we see ethics as a separate entity from wisdom and we teach it as such, i.e, in Sunday School or special classes, instead of integrating it to everyday life as the Bible models.
    • TorConstantino
      Thanks for the thoughtful and kind remarks Maria. I agree that compartmentalization has been taken to the extreme where people defend egregious decisions in their personal lives, stating that such “bad calls” have no bearing on their professional lives. That type of thinking fosters a type of ethical bi-polarism where there is no “true North” that drives conduct but rather a floating ethos that shifts based on the situation.
  • tony kiar
    Some actions break trust. When a line is crossed a person’s life changes forever. One of the most tragic examples of this is when teachers take advantage of kids. In Ontario, we pride ourselves in the Character Education that the Ministry of Education has developed to help our children grow into trustworthy, healthy adults. Events in the news continue to show that we shouldn’t neglect or make any assumptions about the character of their teachers.
    • TorConstantino
      Great comment Tony. When I used to be a news reporter – the stories that got the most coverage and public backlash tended to be those dealing with violations of trust (e.g. corrupt cops, sexual abuse by clergy or teachers, parental child abuse….etc). No doubt that trust is a critical component of strong ethical footing.
  • Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.
    So, given this basis, why is it that so many “ethical” business leaders, who so lament the lack of ethics, consider it “ethical” to down-pay their workers, and earn some 250 to 500 X the average wage of the employees of their firm?
    Is it, as I suspect, that ethics to these folks, means that they are treated the way they want- but they can treat their employees with impunity? But, want those same employees to treat the customers of the firm as if they are valued employees?
    Methinks these folks protest too much (and talk too much) and don’t provide bonafide actions to justify these beliefs.
    We can start with one of the biggest blowhards, S. Truett Cathy, were the average wage at Chick-Fil-A is under $ 20K (for full time staff- it’s a little less when you include part-timers and up the hours to 40)- and his salary… And, his other “ethics”.
    I could go on, but there is no need to personally embarrass all these folks. Just remind them that the biggest part of what they claim is what they eschew- do first, talk later. (As opposed to do as I say and not as I do…)
    • TorConstantino
      Roy, great points – I think capitalism definitely allows for economic abuses to occur; however, those abuses absolutely occur in command-control and socialistic economies as well. I fully support the need for livable wages, equitable treatment for employees and career development.
      Personally, I can think of even bigger blowhards than Cathy such as Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan and Kodak CEO Antonio Perez.
      However, there are many more and the point of this piece is that business is littered with questionable ethics at all levels.
  • Araghast
    If one is going to achieve anything in developing ethics; whether it be in the business world, a school, or simply in your own life, requires one key element, which is necessary (and I think sufficient on its own):
    Accountability, as the poster correctly highlights.
    Combine selfishness with an ability to escape culpability and consequence, and the result is inevitable. This I think is an uncontroversial point of agreement to start with. As such I would consider it to be a perfect locus for any kind of curriculum on ethics.
    I am not however very keen on the idea that this accountability should only be towards god; Simply because, well… it doesn’t seem to work. One need only look to the sex scandals in the RCC, the promotion of a bill in Uganda that if it was left un-ammended would have have made same sex relations a punishable crime with the death penalty, not to mention people like Peter Popoff who swindled and deceived thousands of people through pretending to be a faith healer.
    Aside from the efficacy “fear of god” being debatable the comes the matter of which god to be held accountable to; or what culture the ethics are going to come from (if we’re going to be simply imparting the ethics derived from a religion or culture).
    I would also support as part of the curriculum teaching about comparative ethics, looking at how the cultures of now and the past helped shape the ethics held today. Ultimately I feel that if one can impart on kids that they can and will be held accountable for their actions, by their fellow peers, and then encourage them to hold others to account; that alone will make a major improvement.
    • TorConstantino
      You raise fair points Araghast and intelligent people can have differing viewpoints on complex topics such as ethics.
      While I agree with you that accountability is an important part of an ethical perspective, the atheistic philosophical tradition – as alluded to by the writers I listed – suggests that absent an accountability to God the only true accountability one has is to themselves.
      The concepts of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Hobbes’ natural man state that man cannot be ethical on his own.
      Regardless, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
      • Araghast
        One point in response to your reply would be that if there is no god, then mankind could only look to themselves for accountability to begin with.
        While god may or may not be an entity we will be held accountable to, we can guarantee that man can and will be held accountable… by other men.
        Of the examples about the efficacy of fearing god; Peter Popoff was made accountable by the work of James Randi and associates who illustrated his deception. It is the pressure of bad press and nations prepared to cut of financial aid to Uganda that is holding the Ugandan government accountable for its legislation. It is the attention given to the scandals and the work of grass root movements and activists that are pursuing justice for the victims of the RCC. One of (if not THE) purpose of any judicial system is to hold people accountable for their actions towards their community and society.
        Another point I would make is that for any action to be ethical (whether good or bad) would require that it affects another sentient being (We as humans do also give considerations to other species as well). The thought experiment I always use to illustrate for this is to imagine that one were truly alone: no other sentient beings that you could interact with or effect, no god to affect or interact with either; and then try to name any act that you could perform that could be considered moral.
        If you accept that you can and are to be held accountable to other human beings (which most of us do accept as part of being in any society) then you have the foundation for building an ethical society. Bottom up ethics (Ethical codes and practices developed by local communities which then shape a collective one) I think are preferable to Top down ethics (ethical codes which are formulated by an often insular authority and then passed down and imposed on the masses with or without their consent).
        • TorConstantino
          One of the most useful standards of ethical behavior I was derived from a graduate level psychology course I took. The ethical test is a simple one.
          Before engaging in any ethical “grey” area it’s important to ask oneself, “Would I want to live in a world where everyone did what I’m about to do?”
          I’ve found that to be extremely useful. Again – thanks for all the feedback Araghast!
  • Indiafirst intwentyfourteen
    I am a social activist. I am working to improve the society. Without ethics I found that there is absolutely no other way to stop political and business corruption. I completely agree with Bill that Ethics should be taught in Schools and at all levels.

Teaching Ethics in Schools


To the Editor:

In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical,” by Alina Tugend (Shortcuts column, Jan. 11), confirmed what our school has advocated since 1878 — ethics matter.

By integrating ethics into our curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade, we prepare our students to analyze and understand moral dilemmas they will encounter in the world inside and outside our walls. Our mission thrives as our students pursue academic, social and emotional growth in tandem with moral development.

Ms. Tugend is correct in asserting that “how we teach ethics has to catch up with what we know about how the human mind works.” There are many ways to teach a child the habits of mind. There are no shortages of pedagogical approaches to reading, writing and math. But as to habits of the heart — well, that’s a different story.

One can only hope that the newfound interest in ethics and behavioral economics will lead to a national conversation as to what should be the essential common core — ethics in action from pre-K onward. That’s also where no child should be left behind — that is a race worth running and winning.

Head of School
Ethical Culture Fieldston School
New York, Jan. 14, 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

David Rubenstein: Students Need the Humanities and Problem-Solving Skills Such As Critical Thinking

David Rubenstein

Carlyle Co-Founder’s Formula for Success: Study the Humanities

DAVOS, Switzerland – David M. Rubenstein, (pictured above) the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, believes American students have lost a valuable skill that can help them succeed in business and life: critical thinking.
Speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum, Mr. Rubenstein, the co-chairman of the private equity firm, said American policy makers and educators have put too much of a focus on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the expense of the study of literature, philosophy and other areas in the humanities.
Mr. Rubenstein’s comments offered a sharp contrast to a recurring theme in Davos this year: that more technical-based training could help solve a crisis in youth unemployment since the financial crisis.
Humanities teach problem-solving skills that enable students to stand out among their peers and to achieve success in the business world, Mr. Rubenstein said. Career-specific skills can be learned later, he said, noting that many of Wall Street’s top executives studied the humanities.
“You shouldn’t enter college worried about what you will do when you exit,” said Mr. Rubenstein, who majored in political science.
Students increasingly face pressure to enter fields that are perceived as higher paying — many times because of the skyrocketing costs of higher education, said Mr. Rubenstein, chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
But the reasoning skills that come with a well-rounded humanities education actually result in higher-paying jobs over time, Mr. Rubenstein said.
He’s even come up for an abbreviation to counter S.T.E.M., the often-cited acronym used by advocates of more career-focused disciplines.
“H=MC. Humanities equals more cash,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

Bob Lenz: Authentic Assessment Heightens Accountability

Bob Lenz, CEO and Co-Founder, Envision Schools, San Francisco

How Authentic Assessment Heightens Accountability in Our Schools
Edutopia,DECEMBER 5, 2012
How do we foster intrinsic motivation, for both teachers and students, to work towards high performance? Can we create a system of accountability that will drive this performance? At Envision Education, we answer with a resounding,yes. However, our accountability is not driven by a system of rewards and punishments; it is driven by an authentic system of accountability driven by making the work of students, teachers, and the school public.
Envision uses several strategies systematically to open the learning to the broader community which drive more rigorous outcomes at every level of our school system.
Over the last few weeks I have observed some of these strategies at work at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology High School (EA) in Oakland, CA. Here is a little background data on EA:

·         More than 70 percent of the students qualify as low income and will be the first in their family to graduate from college
·         100 percent of the students in the class of 2012 graduated with all courses required for California public university system entrance, compared with 40 percent of students statewide
·         95 percent of students in the class of 2012 were accepted to a four year or two year college, compared to 48 percent of students statewide
·         For EA's first two graduating classes (2010 and 2011), the college persistence rate from the first to second year of college is 72 percent (compared to the national average of 55 percent)

How do we use authentic accountability to drive this high performance at Envision Academy?
Public Exhibition of Work
At least twice a year, Envision students and teachers present their learning to the broader community. At Envision Academy, I had a chance to listen to ninth and tenth grade students debrief their fall exhibition. The ninth graders presented their learning through digital media telling their own story as learners and as people. They presented in semi-formal attire at an evening performance at school. They shared their poems and artwork -- not just to their teachers but also to their parents, siblings, grandparents, and other guests. During the class reflections, a teacher shared a story of one parent's tears of joy as she watched her son present his project.
The tenth graders were celebrating with "Academy Awards" for their performance of short, theatrical public service announcements on social and medical issues from their biology classes. The principal shared with me that two of the winners for best male actor were students who came to EA struggling with skill gaps and low motivation. Clearly, they had become motivated by the project and the public performance.
How does this type of public performance drive authentic teacher accountability? If the students are not prepared or they produce low quality work, it is not hidden in this type of system. Not only do your teaching colleagues and school leader witness the quality and rigor of the student work product, the entire school community including the students' parents see the work. There is no place to hide. As a teacher, you become committed to the success of all your students because you do not want to see them publicly fail or falter.
Instructional Rounds
A couple weeks later, I spent a day as part of our Envision Professional Learning Community conducting "Instructional Rounds." Based on the work of Dick Elmore from Harvard and the medical school concept of rounds, Envision teachers, school leaders, network leaders, board members, and community members from other schools and organizations gather at each school in the Envision network twice a year to help each school investigate a "problem of practice." The school opens all of its classroom doors for observation from the group assembled in the morning. In the afternoon, the group works with the school to move from observations to action -- concrete next steps. Envision Academy asked the question, "How are teachers moving students towards more independent learning?"
Using the evidence gathered by their "critical friends," Envision Academy gained insights into where they were using strategies that led to greater student independence and places where there is room for growth. The school leadership team used this data to create an immediate plan of action to begin improving their collective practice. Imagine the level of commitment towards high performance it requires as a school principal and as teachers to open up every classroom in your school for observation when no outside authority is driving you to do so (e.g. accreditation visits). Like the students in the exhibition, the public nature of this practice drives the leader and teachers towards improvement intrinsically and not with an external reward or punishment based solely on a standardized test score.
In my next post, I will describe how Envision Learning Partners uses a process called Design Studios to open up our schools as a place for colleagues from other schools, districts, and networks to learn and plan the redesign of learning at their own schools.
Let's start a conversation through the comments: How does your school hold you and students accountable? How does your district or charter management organization hold your school accountable? Is it working? How do you know?
Comments (7)
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Posted on 2/4/2013 5:30am
We have the International Baccalaureate Program in our school and therefore, teachers and students are extremely accountable. For instance,50% the course I teach is graded externally. I grade the rest of the course, however, it is moderated externally. Having this system holds us all accountable and most certainly raises the level of student learning.
Posted on 12/10/2012 7:16pm
I love the idea having the students present their own work in front of an audience. I believe that would keep them accountable for their work and make them want to do their very best. It is also a good way to show their peers what they have learned and to learn from each other.
I taught 4th grade last year, and in an effort to mix it up, I broke up my classroom into groups of 4. I then made them accountable for reading a section of their Social Studies book on the different regions of the US. They then made a billboard trying to persuade new settlers to come to their region giving examples from the text. They then presented their billboard to the rest of the class. I really felt that giving them ownership of a section of material made them more accountable for their learning and the teaching of their peers.
It is awesome to give students a voice!
Posted on 12/10/2012 6:47pm
I am really impressed with the stats from Envision Academy. I too teach students with low income and many of them will be the frist to graduate from high school or college in their families. It is exciting to see how well the students do in college. I have not used a public performance in my classroom, but I can see how it would motivate both the students and the teachers to be prepared and successful. I have not heard of instructional rounds before. I feel that they could be beneficial to schools because the school woudl gain feedback from others outside of the system. Does the school invite certain people to come and visit, or is it more of an open invitation to be a part of this process?
High School Math Teacher from Minneapolis, MN
Posted on 12/10/2012 6:43pm
I've taught in two different schools with two different views on the matter. One school was very open to having the public come in and see what your classroom is like. It took a while for the students (and myself) to get used to strangers walking in during class. After a while, it was almost expected and the students were no longer distracted. As a teacher, that was the hardest part to get used to. How will this affect my ability to maintain my students' attention? The more it happened, the easier it got. As for the second school, there really isn't any school or district accountability. It's almost like a "no news is good news" philosophy. I think they would be open to allowing the public in for visits, but it isn't encouraged as much as the first school.
I love the idea of the public exhibitions! What a great way to hold everyone accountable.
Junior and Senior Language arts Teacher, North Dakota
Posted on 12/10/2012 6:28pm
I enjoyed your ideas on how to make assessment authentic. Public exhibitions and instructional rounds are two interesting ideas. I have utilized public exhibitions in my classroom before, going to far as having community members come in to interview and view the students' work; however, I have not heard of instructional rounds before. I like the idea of opening the classroom to the public as it would give non-teachers a real glimpse of what teaching entails. It would also motivate teachers to be at their best.
I would be interested to know how this process begins.
High School English Teacher
Posted on 12/9/2012 8:09am
I really like your concept of the performance assessment here where students summarize and present their learning for a more public audience, not just of their peers, but of parents, siblings, grandparents, other parents, and administration. I think knowing that they will be showing off their learning to others in a non-traditional classroom setting really does encourage them to go the extra mile to make sure their learning is "good" and authentic. Students (and their teachers) don't want to appear unprepared in front of others, especially since this type of assessment is public and would be very clear in displaying their amount of effort.
Just out of curiosity, how well attended are the open-house nights for these presentations? I think they are a great idea, but wonder if it is difficult in our busy lives to get parents to come in.
Kindergarten Teacher from Otsego, Minnesota
Posted on 12/7/2012 1:16pm
Wow! I have to say that it would take a LOT to get teachers in my school to open their classrooms to the public or even to other teachers at times to come and observe them and their students. So many teachers seem to be 'scared' when the principal has to come observe them formally every 3 years and formally 3x/year for the first three years until tenure. I have been observed several times and admit I would get nervous when the principal would come in, but mostly it was in the anticipation of her coming. If she just showed up, I should be doing the same thing whether she is there or not. I think this attitude is what is needed throughout the schools. I also think it is helpful if teachers are open to suggestions instead of feeling like they know everything and shouldn't have anyone else telling them how to teach or what to change. We need to change, that is part of education! The formal observations are how teachers are held accountable.
As far as how our school holds students accountable, it seems to be through standardized testing. I do not think it is working since so many parents and students do not care about the tests and some students don't even read the questions before answering. I think a lot of the attitude comes from home. If the parents care about their students score or grades, then the student is more likely to care. If the parents don't care, neither does the parent. How do we get parents attitudes to change along with students? How do we get teachers to want to learn more and be excited about changing things or trying new things in their classrooms to teach the students instead of sticking to the things they've been doing for 30 years whether they work or not?