The greatest mystery in ed-tech

I work at an education technology company. For a few years I got to go with my team to education conferences - NCTM, CMC and ISTE. We would set up our little booth in the exhibitor hall, and peddle our goods to the throng of math teachers ambulating from one professional development session to the next.
The math conference is its own particular world. There’s the cool crowd. There are tropes. There are math teacher celebrities who talk to packed auditoriums and draw lines of selfie-seeking fans. There are David and Goliath struggles. There is counter-culture. There are traditions, epic parties, and rowdy trivia nights.
An epic night of math trivia.
A key moment of my conference-going experience was walking through the exhibit hall and hunting for the General Onologic Soft (GOS) booth. Would they be there again?
I first encountered GOS at my first NCTM conference in 2016. Their exhibit took up a big section of the exhibit hall, and was covered by a thick, soft carpet (which costs a premium, but attracts teachers who are on their feet all day). Three sharp-suited sales reps stood in front of an immaculate booth display. Glossy hard-cover textbooks evenly divided the space on several large shelves.
One of the sales reps approached me and handed me a brochure. The paper was hefty, and it was clear that they spent extra to get a high-resolution print. We talked briefly, and he gently brushed me off after spotting that I had an exhibitor badge. What a pro.
I did manage to linger and, while he was distracted, sneak off with one of the sales books that they reserved for school representatives who actually influenced purchasing decisions.
Some of my most prized possessions.
Everything about their presence communicated quality, easily on the same tier of spending as a Pearson or a McGraw Hill. I’ve never heard of them before, so I got curious and started looking them up. Apparently they’re a South Korean textbook publisher? Their website looks pretty legit - high quality art and web design. There were even explainer videos, with custom animation and professional narration.
So why am I obsessed with this company?
Well, here’s a bit from their website:
What is math?
Math is a subject dedicated to finding the hidden patterns of nature. Once you discover this pattern, you will be able to create something that brings happiness. It is important to find the hidden patterns in nature because humans are also a part of nature.
Who we are?
The ruling class has preselected the knowledge to teach to the subjugated class to maintain the order they desire. This is the education the suppliers prefer, as they fall within the boundaries of ethics or norms. The ruling class wished for subordinates that fit their tastes, and the subordinates that met the requirements were created. Supplier-centered education paradigm does not consider children’s innate talents or their happiness. It prioritizes the benefit of the community in determining what the children should learn. This results in a society where its members are trapped within the vertical paradigm of centralization and bureaucratization, where little care is given to individuals’ innate talents or the “seeds of creativity.”
And from one of my sales pamphlets,
Thoughts on Education by Teachers in Advanced Countries like the US
The basic position of American teachers about education is as follows. “All children are born to be very curious, giving them a strong desire to learn something. Hence, teachers must teach the children well.”
Teachers of every country think similarly about education. Teachers find it difficult to move away from the idea that good education is equivalent to good teaching.
For the teachers, the subject of education is not the children; it is the teachers themselves.
Here’s a product demo video from their youtube channel (no longer linked from their website, and I guess pre-rebrand to GOS).
And another explainer video for “What is Math?”
I’ve revisited their booth at several subsequent conferences, and took a look through their textbooks. They’re also filled with text about shifting the globe to consumer-centered education paradigms, discovering the secret of nature, and whatever that disease / happiness thing was.
I tried to talk to the sales reps and press them, but they don’t actually know much about the content, as content creation is handled by a different department. I never worked up the nerve to challenge them directly.
Me and my coworkers did some online sleuthing. We found an office in San Jose and an address in South Korea. There was a social media presence, occasional job listings, and profiles for people who work there.
Educator. Consumer Centered Education. Interactive Communication. There should be as many book and assessment as there are children
It is baffling! After each conference, we entertain ourselves by coming up with theories about what is actually going on here.
  • A front for some sort of money laundering scheme.
  • A child of a wealthy family is pretending to run an education company to ward off their non-english-speaking parents.
  • An elaborate performance art piece about the absurdity of math education.
But there’s more. Here’s the definition of onology
noun. A foolish way of talking.
They know exactly what they’re doing! It’s right there in the name!

A daydream I keep having…

I go to a math conference, and see the GOS booth. I feel emboldened, gather my courage, and march up to them — "Hey, you know your books are filled with nonsense, right? This is all fake. Like, ‘onologic’ literally means foolish talk!"
The sales rep freezes, an impenetrable expression on their face. I freeze too, and we stare at each other, tense and motionless. The skin on my arms is electric with adrenaline, there’s a heavy and hot feeling under my eyes; I realize that both are clammy with sweat. My heart is thumping in my ears as I feel the creeping of fear or shame or both, trying to intercept any sign of their reaction.
I become aware that their lips started to tremble. Their eyes glisten and they erupt — "FINALLY!". They collapse, convulse, and through ugly sobs explain:
This was all an intricate bet. They’ve been parading as a fake company for years to see if anyone ever confronted the blatant absurdity of their wares. They were trapped like a frog in a fairy tale, until I delivered the princess’s kiss and released them from their wicked curse.
Camera operators and sound engineers with giant microphones emerge from behind the bookshelves, nooks in the walls, and trap doors under the soft carpet. They cry and embrace, then turn to me with joy and gratitude in their eyes. Moments later, I am soaring above their heads as they throw me in the air and cheer.
Gee-Oh-eSs! Foo-lish-talk!