A few days ago, I learned from Leonie Haimson who learned from Susan Ohanian about a grant from the Gates Foundation to Clemson University to conduct research into the uses of a “galvanic skin response” bracelet. This is a wireless sensor that tracks physiological reactions. What made this grant of special interest was that it was directly connected to the Gates Foundation’s premier teacher-evaluation program, Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). The Clemson team won a grant of $498,055 (wonder what that $55 is for?) to “determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.” The GSR bracelet, in short, could be used to measure physiological responses to instruction, and such responses might provide yet another metric to add to test scores, student surveys, and observations when evaluating teacher effectiveness.

The story got more interesting when someone on Twitter discovered another Gates grant, this one for $621,265 to the National Center on Time and Learning, ” “to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement.”

And then a reader noted that the GSR bracelet was unable to distinguish between “electrodermal activity that grows higher during states such as excitement, attention or anxiety and lower during states such as boredom or relaxation.” 

Thus a teacher might be highly effective if his students were in a statement of excitement or anxiety; and a teacher might be considered ineffective if her students were either bored or relaxed. The reader concluded, quite rightly, that the meter would be useless since a teacher might inspire anxiety by keeping students in constant fear and might look ineffective if students were silently reading a satisfying story. In the first instance, a tyrannical teacher might be rated effective on the GRS scale, while an excellent teacher might appear ineffective in the second instance.

The idea that this powerful foundation is setting in motion a means of measuring physiological responses to teachers is deeply disturbing. The act of teaching is complex. It involves art, science, and craft. Learning is far more than can be measured by a GRS bracelet. At any given moment, students may be engaged or disengaged. They may be thinking about what happened at home that morning or a spat with their best friend. They may be worried about their mother’s illness or looking forward to going to the movies. They may be hungry and feeling anxious or they may be hungry and excited about having lunch.

Some aspects of the human experience are more important than teacher evaluation. Like our human dignity, our right to privacy, our need to be treated with basic respect as individuals with the power to shape our own destiny, not just as creatures to be tested, measured, and shaped by the will of others.

Yes, there is a Brave New World quality to the prospect of using wireless sensors to measure physiological reactions to teachers. Yes, there is a line that separates educationally sound ideas from crackpot theories. Yes, there is reason to be concerned about the degree of wisdom–or lack thereof– that informs the decisions of the world’s richest and most powerful foundations. And yes, we must worry about what part of our humanity is inviolable, what part of our humanity cannot be invaded by snoopers, what part of our humanity is off-limits to those who wish to quantify our experience and use it for their own purposes, be it marketing or teacher evaluation.

The line has been crossed.