Care to Roll the Dice?

It takes time for changes to become apparent. Especially in a huge complex thing such as the modern education industriplex.  I see this all the time in regard to the transition from secondary to higher education.  The college entrance game is a constantly changing dance.  Colleges change their criteria and that means high school college counselors then change accordingly, and then slowly, maybe as much as a generation later, students and their nervous parents change as well.  Much of this generational shift is because many parents work off their own college experience to guide their children.  That is not wise. There is nothing about my experience in the early 80’s that is of use to my current college age children.  We must approach this issue like any other, with careful scrutiny and real knowledge, not fear and propaganda.  Let me illustrate.

Right now many parents believe the single most important thing for a college bound junior or senior in high school is their ACT and SAT scores, right?  Of course right.  No, actually, it is quickly becoming quite wrong.  Read this article from the inside and see what I mean.  But the majority opinion will prevail and guide most entrance activity even after the colleges have left this form of criteria behind.  Why?  Because most parents and college counselors are working off past information, not current.  While the principal of a large private high school I invited college admissions directors from two large schools near our high school to come speak.  One was from a prestigious State school that everyone wanted to get into.  The other was from a very sought after private college nearby.  Both said the same thing:  what is true this year will change next year.  And one of the schools, now seven years ago, no longer required ACT/SAT scores for admission.

What amazed me most about those evenings were the large number of parents who afterward over cookies and coffee said something like, “Well, I listened, but I don’t believe them.  We are still going to put our eggs in those baskets.”  One of those parents dropped almost $40K that year to ensure that their child (in addition to the tuition for a private high school diploma) was given coaching and tutoring on all aspects of getting into an Ivy League school.  Their fear over their child’s success being tied to what college they got into made them deaf to the very folks trying to tell them that the rules were in constant flux.  They just couldn’t hear it.

All this to say two things: a) as long as we continue with this unsustainable thing we currently call higher education, admissions will be a roll of the dice, not a guaranteed anything, and b) fear will continue to be the main controlling factor for parent’s choices in guiding their child toward higher education.  We need the college bubble to be popped, loudly.

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What Does a Grade Mean?

After establishing what a grade or assessment is, we move on to the issue of what it indicates or means.

If a grade indicates the teacher’s assessment of learning, then we have to distinguish between the “kinds” of learning occurring.  The first distinction I would make is between Arts and Sciences.  In short, we teach students either to do or to know.  A full discussion of this can be found here, but you can’t teach, or assess, these two things the same.  An art (the ability to do something) is not taught or tested in the same way as a science (something we learn intellectually or that which we know).

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As I see it, the following are at the very least the ways in which these things must be assessed differently.  In the arts we seek to judge how well the art is able to be done.  This further breaks down into those who have obtained enough of the ability that they can be said to be able to do “x.”  These assessments of basic ability, when done correctly, indicate that Johnny can dribble a basketball and Susie cannot, etc. But most times, the instruction is more than just distinguishing between those who can or cannot, but how well one can do the thing being taught compared either to other artists or to some standard for that art.  Here the task of assessment is to demonstrate a growing ability with the art.  “You started at this level and have progressed further to this current level.”  This is demonstrated well by such things as various karate belt colors.  You progress from white, to yellow, to gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and eventually finally to black (which then even has degrees within its highest distinction).  The color around your waist is an instantaneous indicator to all who care with what level of proficiency you have progressed through your karate training.  And that leads to the final act of assessment in the arts.  Though no art is ever perfected in a human, there are masters of the art, and at some point one must be judged such, usually demonstrating their readiness to leave formal training in that art and become a teacher of the art themselves.

The sciences are taught and assessed quite a bit differently.  I must reiterate from other discussions on this that Arts and Sciences work together.  Confusing the two is problematic to be sure, but sealing them off hermetically from each is equally harmful.  At least three things are assessed in a student’s growing knowledge of a subject: the level of knowledge, the student’s competency of that knowledge, and his ability to integrate his knowledge of the subject with the rest of his life.  The first is often what most people default to in educational assessment:  “How much do you know about the subject.”  But most teachers want students to know the material in such a way as to be able to connect the content together into something like understanding.  Given that these things (the knowledge) are so, how does fact A connect to and affect facts B, C, and D?  And this simply leads right into the third aspect of this mode of assessment:  how does subject A integrate or fit into the other subjects or “sciences” of life.  See my discussion here of the four sciences and how they are used to better educate the whole student.

So a grade or assessment shows a great number of things, depending on what is being assessed.  The last question for this blog is just as fundamental:  Who wants to know?  As an assessment is a judgment being made, it seems the main purpose of the grade is to communicate the judgment among all involved parties.  I think the teacher, student, and depending on the age, the parent behind the student, want to know the judgment contained in an assessment.  The teacher can use assessment to better his teaching, determine the progress of his students, and be clear with student and parent where he thinks the learning process currently resides.  A student is able to adjust his learning experience based on this feedback from his teacher.  And the parent, who is often funding and responsible ultimately for the learning going on, but not in the classroom, is able to know how things are progressing.

Some of the following questions flow out of these thoughts:

  1. How individual or collective can assessment be? Can the same assessment judge all students, or should there be individual tests for all?  The whole standardized testing thing comes into the discussion here.
  2. How objective or subjective is a grade? What can affect the objectivity/subjectivity of assessment? [I wander over into this sticky mud hole in my next blog].
  3. Should teachers seek premade test banks or make all their own assessments?
  4. If the arts and sciences are assessed differently but their grades appear side by side on a “report card” what is to be done to avoid the common confusion of these things?

The Four Sciences Should Be Recovered

The Middle Ages taught all knowledge as connected.  They believed all things we could know (the Sciences) could be housed in four large houses.

All knowledge of the Natural world (mostly what we call “science” today, things like biology, chemistry, physics, etc) were placed in the lowest house: the Natural Sciences.

Above that and coming from it was the ethical sciences.  How should man behave in a world such as the one he lives in?

And if you are asking those questions, then you move up a rung to Philosophy, where you learn about the nature and truths that reveal mankind.  But nothing can cause itself, so you move upward finally to the ultimate or “queen” science: theology.

Theology brings all science together into one meaningful whole.  The immovable mover has created all things.  God explains it all.

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Movement up and down this hierarchy of knowledge used to be common and assumed.  But the Enlightenment has darkened these distinctions till only the Natural Sciences are considered a thing able to be known. Education must recover this hierarchy if it is ever to recover its purpose and dignity.

 

What is a Grade?

I get asked about grading and assessment often enough to know that our modern minds do not know how to deal with the issue well.  From some type of cosmic game show to a quantitative evaluation of a person’s worth, misunderstanding in this area is rampant.  Teachers seem to labor over obtaining a chimerical objectivity in their grading, while students seem more intent on how to “get an A” than how to become truly educated.  And reform in education is almost totally fixed on outcomes, on the grades achieved either in standardized tests or some other number generating endeavor.

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In the following series of blogs I will consider a number of related questions regarding how learning is assessed and how that assessment is communicated between two minds.  I don’t promise to be thorough, but hopefully to reinvigorate a discussion about these things as I am convinced many of the current issues in education are issues of assessment and grading.

So first, what is assessment?  Every act of learning follows a sequence of events.  The mind must first come to perceive it’s need to know something.  Once this is done, learning begins.  The mind seeks and hopefully through good teachers is able to find an expression of the idea being sought.  If all goes well, models are given of what is being learned.  These are compared and the new learning begins to be embodied in the learner.  Assessment comes at the end of this sequence when the learner, and often the teacher, determine if learning has been thorough and effective.

Not all assessment is the same.  The distinction most helpful is the one between quantitative and qualitative assessment.  When assessment is for oneself, this is intuitive and almost always results in both types of assessment.  But for the teacher who has several or many students, and is often assessing a number of them together, this distinction is necessary.  Quantitative assessment determines how much has been learned.  If a child is asked to memorize the bones of the body, he is then assessed by how many he was able to recall on the assessment, whether that is verbal, written, or otherwise.  Modern education loves this because it feels more objective.  It is not, but we will leave that for later.  Qualitative assessment seeks to determine how well learning has occurred.  If the previous student has been asked to teach a lesson on the bones of the body, qualitatively the assessor will indicate how clear, how complete, or how compelling the presentation was.  This requires a master of the lesson to comment on or coach the student in their progress toward becoming a better student of the subject at hand.  Again, much of what passes for assessment in most classrooms is a mixture of these two types.

Before going deeper, it may also help to state in rather short fashion what assessment is not.  Stating the antithesis can often make the thesis clearer.  Therefore, assessment should not be construed to be…

  • an objective measurement. This is one of the strongest fictions in education and will be dealt with in full later, but for now I will say that no assessment is totally objective.  All assessment is a master assessing a student through various means.
  • a singular method or instrument. Learning cannot be assessed by one means only.  It requires multiple forms of assessment.
  • a judgment upon the student. Assessments only show where a student is.  They can be compared to show progress or trends, but they can only demonstrate a moment in learning.  They cannot define a student, only communicate where they currently are.
  • (because of the previous statement) an indicator of ability, only a demonstration of where the student was during that assessment. One of the horrible things that happens with too much emphasis on assessment and grading is the stratification of learners into tight boxes of ability: these are the “A” students and these are the “struggling ones” etc.  More on this when we get to grading.

Before ending this first meditation, let me state that we must put cart and horse in order here.  Assessment is the overall term for assessing student learning.  Grades, which often are placed in the forefront, are simply an attempt to communicate between the parties involved (teacher, student, and parent) what has been seen in assessment.  If assessments are subjective, grades are even more so.  I think this places us before a lot of questions yet to be answered.  More on this soon.

It Goes Both Ways

I sat in my office chair and reflected on what had just happened.  It is not like this does not happen often (because it does) but sometimes you are hit right between the eyes with it.  My students had just enlightened me.

Often in my seminar course, where I am seated and sharing equally in the lessons the Great Conversation teaches us all, I learn new things from Plato, Augustine, or Camus.  In my literature courses as well, the students find things I have never seen.  But this time it was a Freshman!

My course for the Freshmen introduces them into the Intellectual Life and teaches them the basic skills to thrive in high school and college.  We play around with such basic skills as reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It is a class where I feel “safe” with the subject material.  And yet, on this day, the clouds parted and light poured in.

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” I think you are selling something none of us want to buy.”

The student was unblinking and bold as he stated what it seemed to him the majority of his classmates were thinking.  We had been discussing reading and why it is so central to the Intellectual Life, and perhaps, all of life.  I had poured out my passion for reading, and books, and ideas, and learning, and…and…then this bald statement.  The wind kind of came out of the sails.

“What do you mean by that?”  I was convinced that if he rethought his statement, he would see the error.  But instead, he and his classmates began answering the question in spades.

“Of what real value is reading in today’s world?”

“Who needs to read anything when you can Google it?”

“What job requires reading?”

That is when the light struck me in the eyes.  Our modern world makes little of reading.  When I was young (and dinosaurs threatened my extinction), there was tremendous guilt for the young person who did not read.  He or she would hide or disguise their lack of reading.  Now the tables seem to be turned.  Reading for any prolonged period of time is mostly seen as either recreational or utilitarian.  “Of course I will read if it will bring me some monetary benefit.”  But don’t hurt yourself reading more than you have to; keep this to a minimum.  Read smart.  Those on the cutting edge will let SparkNotes do the heavy reading for them and they get the gist in bulleted points.  Most of what we as adults model to young people is how to read as little as possible, not how to read more and better.  Far too many of us (and I hope you note I am including myself here) read a title or half a sentence and then click on to the next thing.

So did this moment destroy my passion for teaching students to read?  No.  But it sure helped me see more clearly that such instruction is more and more a counter-cultural activity, not something to be assumed.  I had answers to the questions they raised, but the fact that they are now being raised when they really were not even questions in my youth helped me learn a lesson I hope I never forget: learning is as much about what we love as what we know.  We are what we love.

21st Century Problem

Studying humans is a hard thing to do.  We are not a discrete lump of information, and we don’t pattern very well.  Most of the mis-guided assumptions of past ideologies about how science can tame the wildness of anthropological study are just that: wrong guesses.  But that being said, we still try to discover what truths we can find in the morass of data that is ever growing in various Excel sheets of the world.  My peremptory point is this: science is limited in what it can tell us about education.

But…many are looking at whether the leap to electronic media is helping or hindering the pursuit of educational excellence.  Read this overview from the Business Insider and then consider my few “off the cuff” considerations of the issue of whether screens or pages are better.

Meditations on the Surface of the Issue:

  1. The media are different – ink on paper is not the same as light on screens.
  2. A potential impact on these author’s study could be that by studying college students, they are still studying students who learned to read on paper and moved to a screen after acquiring their reading skills. Not sure if their findings hold years from now when screen reading is all that has been done.  That does not dismiss everything, it just makes me wonder how much is incidental and how much is necessary.
  3. There is probably a connection between reading speed and reading comprehension, so the fact that online is faster would lead me to the conclusion that it was less comprehending. The key here is not necessarily to change media, but to slow down.
  4. How much of this discussion is a matter of taste, or a discussion of the familiar vs the new rather than a real substantive discussion of benefits compared?
  5. The “digital revolution” is over, we just have to figure out how to live with it. I am not seriously considering trying to promote a counter-revolution, but all such paradigm shifts include unintended consequences that usually impact front line folks way more than those who implemented the shift, such as teachers in the classroom figuring out how to “use” an ipad to promote learning.

 

Is Change Good for Education?

Ken Robinson starts his compelling talk on Paradigms in Education (see a whiteboard video of that talk here) by stating rightly that education around the world seems locked in a cycle of constant reform.  Educators are hard to please.  They have quantified the human soul (or so they think) so now let’s get the “numbers” headed up.  This, coupled with the misguided assumptions of Progressive thought, means that yesterday’s answers are never useful for today’s issues.  But I beg to differ.

First, it has been very convenient for modern education to constantly be in a state of flux.  Let’s take something that is known to be fairly standard:  standardized testing.  Most insiders know that if there is one thing Standardized tests are not, it is stable.  I know the “standard” is referring to the fact that it is the same test for everyone.  But should it not also be roughly the same test today that it was ten years ago?  Otherwise any discussion of how students have performed over time is irrelevant.  If the test is changing regularly, it is not the same measurement as it was formerly.  And my perception, unauthoritative though it may be, is that the tests have not even changed for the better, but rather that the same score today indicates less proficiency than ten years ago.  So if a school’s test scores are holding steady, they are getting less proficient.  If they are getting better, they are holding even with the change curve.  Prove me wrong and I will admit it; but part of the issue here is how hidden all this is form the surface of the pond.  These things are happening deep in the ever changing currents of modern educational waters.

Second, not all change is equal.  I will try to state this clearly, and it will thus seem too bold.  If humankind is fundamentally different today than in the past (no matter here the rate of change; the simple fact of fundamental change is the point), then all that has to do with education must be in constant flux.  But if there are aspects of humankind that do not change, then we can have principles that hold true to all education, even when changes occur.  So there is a fundamental assumption that needs declaring before any real discussion can be had.  Two people who come down on opposing sides in this question can still have good debate, but in the end they will still be across the “pond” from each other.  I hold to the notion that man has a nature, and that nature (though not what it was when initially formed) is still what it was a long time ago.  This means I can find principles throughout man’s conversation about education that still apply to what I am doing today.

If by change we mean that each generation shifts its focus, or its predilections, or its tastes, etc., then it is necessary for a teacher to exercise the principle that states the teacher must meet the student where he is and then lead him to where he needs to be.  That is a principle that seems to hold no matter the context.  Educators must connect with the student.  Such principles then need only be applied to the desired ends the educator has in mind and means (which may change with changing contexts) will fall in line.  I am not saying the ends justify the means, but I am saying there is no way to discuss whether means should change without discussing the ends.

So that brings me to my final question or contemplation about change.  What “things” can change in education without changing the definition of education?  If the ends are different today than, say, fifty years ago, then we can discuss whether all ends now are better than then, or if some were better then, or thus forth.  This discussion of ends then becomes the key to the question.  So it seems that a robust discussion of what the ends of education should be, and then what path would get us to those ends is really the determinate of what changes are good or bad.

And that is my plea here.  When I interact with the professional educator world today, much is made of means.  The ends of education, I am told, are so self-evident as to be a silly discussion.  And yet I find most of the hot button issues of today’s educational debate to be ones that would be moot if more time were spent on why we educate rather than how.

So let me write down, for the umpteenth time, what is the motto of this blog and my teaching career:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the soul of a human by liberating effects found in the constant contemplation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  Period.