Reuters reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring money into the development of biometric devices that will be worn as bracelets by students to monitor their “attentiveness” and “engagement.” The biometric bracelets will send a small current across the skin and measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the nervous system responds to stimuli. The stated purpose of the device is to determine at any given moment whether students are excited or bored by a teacher’s instruction. This device will be supplemented with moment-to-moment videotaping of students reactions. Anyone who doesn’t see this project as deeply troubling is clearly not “paying attention.” This device is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know just where to start.
My first reaction is to think of George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” where every movement of the citizens in this dystopia was monitored by a television screen. To quote from the novel: “He took his scribbling pad on his knee and pushed back his chair, so as to get as far away from the telescreen as possible. To keep your face expressionless was not difficult, and even your breathing could be controlled, with an effort; but you could not control the beating of your heart, and the telescreen was quite delicate enough to pick it up.” (Signet Edition p. 67). Well, this Big Brother bracelet will be delicate enough to pick up on a student’s changing emotional states. So a student’s own emotional life will not be his own, but will become the property of the government (remember, this is being done in public schools), and this inner private life will remain forever in the government’s databases (I’m not being dramatic here – education these days is increasingly about data management and not about human beings).
How does a student deal with this invasion of privacy? I can imagine students trying to preserve their integrity in a number of ways: by refusing to wear the bracelet, by “losing” the bracelet on the way to school, by wearing the bracelet on their ankles (much more fashionable), by attempting to “fool” the device by either withholding an emotional response or by creating pseudo-emotional responses to classroom events. Of course, the technology will not be able to realize its stated purpose: to determine whether students are engaged in a school lesson. Students may be turned off by the lesson and lost in their imagination (monster truck rallies, naked girl or boy friends, last weekend’s awesome party etc.), and it is these inner fantasies that will be picked up by the know-it-all bracelets as “engagement.”
Another problem with these Big Brother bracelets is that they imply that the teacher is a dunderhead and can’t figure out for herself whether the students are engaged or not in a lesson. I mean, you have eyes and ears, and hopefully a smidgen of empathy. Can’t you tell whether your students are with you or against you (or lost in space)? If you can’t do that, then you don’t need a bracelet to help you out, you probably need to get out of the profession. This bracelet thing has been used before in the field of attention deficit disorder. In that case, the devices administered a small electric shock to keep the students ‘on task.” Perhaps these biometric bracelets will be eventually be engineered to do the same kind of thing and thus supply a kind of pedagogical cattle prod to redirect a student’s wandering attention.
There are indications that these bracelets might be used to evaluate teachers’ competence. In other words, school administrators will gather data from these bracelets and if the emotional response from your classroom is high, we’ll keep you on, if not, we’ll let you go (they are already using test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance in most states) Teachers might want to respond to this challenge by daily showings of the car accident movie with all those charred bodies that they made us sit through in high school driving ed class, or perhaps they can get away with showing some soft core porn (perhaps as a lesson on anatomy). Instead of teaching, teachers will be looking for “tricks” to elicit emotional responses from their kids. Students as trained seals.
Apparently this technology has been used before by advertisers to test ads on potential consumers. This intervention, thus, would represent another incursion of our bloodless corporations into the realm of our children’s vulnerable minds. My big question here is: “why are educators not crying out in protest or at least howling with laughter at this ridiculous idea?” Ten or twenty years ago, this project wouldn’t even have made it beyond a press release before being drummed out of the public opinion bugle corps. Nowadays, however, education has become a very scary scene, with preschoolers doing worksheets for homework, and middle schoolers filling out college applications. So anything that will prod students, or coerce them, or push them to achieve, achieve, achieve, will be welcomed by most with open arms.
Notice that educators are using this word “enagement” a lot these days. It’s what we used to call “motivation.” I believe the word is popular now because the classroom has become for the most part a sterile place of cramming for standardized tests. So, naturally, students are going to be turned off. But if they’re turned off, then their test scores will suffer. Hence, we need to get them “engaged” to boost those test scores at all costs. Nowhere is there a sense that the purpose of teaching and education is to nurture a love of learning. You only use words like “engagement” when you’ve lost sight of what “love of learning” really means. And you only think of things like biometric bracelets in the classroom, when you’ve forgotten the essential purpose of education: to light sparks of joy and excitement in our children’s incredible minds.