Lashed to the Rack, or the Ideology of Incremental Improvement

I was walking through a poster session at a conference on educational and learning games some years ago and came across two very nice presenters who had created a game for students who were planning to study abroad in countries where there was endemic malaria. The game was designed to teach the players the importance of taking anti-malarial medicine with strict adherence to the prescribed regimen. I asked, “Isn’t this a rather elaborate way to communicate a simple message? Why go to the trouble of making a game?” Well, they said, their institution had done a variety of things over the years to encourage students to follow the directions and had succeeded over time in reducing the number of students who failed to do so, but there was a small remaining contingent who were still not complying and of them, a few actually contracted malaria. These two presenters (I recall that one was a faculty member, the other an administrator) decided that a game might help them close the gap further.

The game itself seemed hugely unfun, in the manner of so many learning and “serious” games. It also seemed as if it took a good bit of effort to create. I wondered: why not just accept that there’s a few students who will not take their medicine and a few out of the few who will get malaria? When would their efforts to educate students be good enough such that they could simply keep doing what they’d been doing?

The answer in so many institutions is, “never”. Why not?

Perhaps in some small measure because the thought of even one student dying from malaria makes any effort to prevent that into a moral obligation.

Perhaps in some small measure because simply repeating a training or educational exercise each year actually reduces the pedagogical effectiveness of the teachers, that students can sense when something seems like an obligation or a repetition and that they take content less seriously when they sense that. Maybe always doing something slightly new or different is just a bit of professional craft that helps a teacher or trainer keep their edge.

But mostly I think this is what I would call the ideology of incremental improvement, a central dogma of the technocratic faith.

Incremental improvement is on one hand a way to ward off destabilizing or transformative arguments about the values and purposes of an institution: it coats the regularized processes of work with a layer of amber. The ideology denies that there could ever be a deep or fundamental branching point where an institution actually could make dramatic progress towards its stated goals by changing some fundamental aspect of its everyday workings. All progress in this view is small and constant, towards well-understood objectives using fixed or steady methods.

Incremental improvement is white-collar productivism. It’s driven by the proposition that a worker must always be more efficient and more productive, always making more of the same outputs through a constant intensification of the inputs. It’s also about carving out a stable niche in the institutional ecosystem for a supervisory class whose mission is to shepherd incremental improvement. As with most technocratic conventions, it is at least partially about defending the self-interest of the technocrats. Who can secure incremental improvement? Not the people whose practices are being improved. Only those who define the targets and specify the technical measures by which one moves steadily towards those targets can secure incremental improvement: it takes someone outside and above the labor that is being improved. Incremental improvement is a mutation of Taylorism, except that it stresses mind and affect rather than efficiencies of bodily movement.

Incremental improvement is one of several things that I think is fundamentally wrong with the current approach to assessment in both K-12 and higher education.

There is nothing wrong and everything right with a teacher or an institution performing a self-examination and asking whether the deliberate commitments and practices of instruction are improving the knowledge, performance, creativity or self-realization of students. It’s particularly important for selective private institutions to do this kind of assessment, because they might (and have) otherwise just assumed that they’re doing everything right when it’s possible that the only thing they need to do is recruit the very best students and have a lot of money in the bank. Assessment is the cure for smugness and unexamined privilege.

But you don’t go to your doctor for an annual check-up to get 1% better in every aspect of your health every year. You go to make sure you don’t have serious health problems building up and to make sure that your existing medication and therapeutic practices are working as intended. At least some of assessment is about the maintenance and fine-tuning of highly functional or successful practices.

And at least some of assessment should be about framing major choices about values or philosophy. Sometimes improvement isn’t about increments: sometimes it happens by leaps and bounds. And sometimes big changes aren’t improvements or degradations per se: they’re just change.

Most importantly, incremental improvement fundamentally doesn’t work for those values and practices that by nature are not incremental and measurable. Near the end of the classic The Phantom Toolbooth, the protagonist Milo confronts a series of “demons of ignorance”, one of whom is the Terrible Trivium.


The Trivium attempts to ensnare Milo by asking him to move a pile of sand grain by grain. Some of the things we value in our teaching are only perceptible and imaginable as unbroken wholes, and some are only important as pervasive but unseen spirits. Incremental improvement denies both of those kinds of values. They’re unmeasurable, unimprovable, undefinable. If you’re dealing with an incremental improver, he or she might not deny you the right to think you are working towards these kinds of goals, but he or she is going to ignore you when you do. And so bit by bit–incrementally, even–whole institutions eventually move all their resources towards picking up grains of sand one-by-one, toward eliminating the last student to not take his malaria medication, to producing 1% more empathy in a history major.

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6 Responses to Lashed to the Rack, or the Ideology of Incremental Improvement

  1. chris london says:

    Great post. I especially like the analogy to Taylorism. The fetish in non-profit circles, but especially from the foundations and financiers who have the cash, for “scaling up.” Along with “scaling up” comes “innovation” and “metrics.” This all presumes that positive socio-economic change is necessarily reproducible in the same way that widgets can be mass produced on an assembly line. This fetish ultimately leads to a drastic narrowing of what is considered worth doing (i.e., worth funding) because it doesn’t allow for complexity, that maybe change needs to happy on multiple fronts simultaneously for any of it to take hold and lead to people have more control over the character and direction of their lives.

  2. Fred Bush says:

    While your larger point is well taken, I’m not sure about your analysis of the cost/benefit of the specific situation here. Let’s say the game cost $50k to make. How much is the value of avoiding malaria? Let’s ballpark it at $10k for these wealthy western students. So you’d only need to prevent >5 wealthy kids from getting malaria to make it worthwhile, which seems… achievable?

    Of course, there would be better uses of the money, but the value of this game may be >0.

  3. J. Otto Pohl says:

    The prophylactics don’t prevent you from getting malaria. They just make sure you don’t die when you first get it. But, eventually if you live in equatorial Africa you get malaria. I have had malaria four times now. The first time I got it after being on the prophylactics for about a year. I went off of them shortly afterwards. I don’t think malaria is worse than flu and unlike flu there is a cure that is effective in only three days. The US hysteria portraying malaria as being worse than cancer and AIDs combined is ludicrous. Almost all deaths from malaria in Ghana are either very young children or people with compromised immune systems who do not live in close to proximity of a pharmacy. I have never met an indigenous African or long term Obruni here who has not had malaria. It is not that big of deal if you are not a small child and don’t have TB or some other worse disease already.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    You’re assuming that the long tail of the student who won’t take their medicine can be affected by a game or by anything else.

    Once you’re in that long tail you’re dealing with highly idiosyncratic, personal reasons why the medicine is not being taken. So it’ll be more than the game that’s needed if you want to close the gap–and I also think the gap is fundamentally impossible to close completely.

    But more importantly, chasing those last few students incrementally is keeping anybody from asking, “Is there some value at risk in chasing universal compliance to a sensible rule?” The big picture concerns about agency and freedom and diversity and even the importance of error and fallibility become inexpressible as long as incrementalism is the only possible response.

  5. Fred Bush says:

    I disagree that agency and freedom and diversity are the core values when it comes to public health issues. That’s where the Christian Scientists who won’t treat their kids and the vaccine deniers are coming from, and those are super pernicious belief systems which cause a lot of harm to others.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, but even there you’re not going to make progress against them if you treat them as incremental obstacles. There’s something big and complex lying in your way: 1% fewer vaccine deniers next year is not what’s going to get you into a real scrum with that kind of resistance.

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