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.

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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.

At What Cost?

In the midst of reading yet another article on how a return good education would be fairly easy (simply return to what we used to do), which is fodder for another meditation, I ran across this chart:

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And rather than seeing what the author wanted me to see (which I see, but am not meditating on here), I saw further proof for my thesis that modern public education is not about learning, but about job growth.  It is profitable for educators to avoid improvement.  If there is always a crisis in education, there is always more money with which to try and solve it.  If the simple solutions were to be implemented, and work, then all the current spending on education would be silly.

Even as we decry how poorly we pay our teachers, we watch as the educational industry skyrockets in cost.  If we are paying teachers poorly, where is all that money going?  The text book industry is doing well, especially now that it can charge the same or more for electronic books while saving all the costs of printed texts.  The testing industry is booming.  The satellite industries that produce practice tests, test prep, consulting, and the like are doing well.  And there are more offices in the admin wing than ever, but teachers are still underpaid.  Hmmmm.  There seems to be a large rabbit hole somewhere…

Show Me Your Work

The concept of collecting a student’s work over a given year or school career has a long and successful history, but with the coming of the digital classroom, seems to be enjoying a revival of popularity.  Now more than ever it is easy to form a student portfolio of work.  But why?  Does building a portfolio for each student really have any demonstrable purpose for all the work involved?

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Defining the term:

According to a great white paper on eportfolios (electronically collected portfolios), Dr. Helen Barrett divides the practice into two categories: the Positivist and the Constructivist approaches (Barrett).  The first type are created for learning, while the second are as learning.  The Positivist approach is usually for some lengthy project (a research paper, for example) where the student gathers evidence of their work for a summative grade at the end of the project.  In the case of a research paper, the portfolio would include their notes, outline, and successive drafts.  The Constructivist approach is often a series of works that show formative assessment, with each entry showing progress toward overarching goals, like a series of ever increasing essays to show writing improvement.  The two can certainly be used in tandem, but generally these two categories cover the major reasons for having student portfolios.

I think good practice would be to have a single Positivist type eportfolio that shows work from all classes throughout a four year high school career.  Certainly Constructivist portfolios for major projects could be rolled into the Positivist one, but one portfolio to rule them all should the ultimate goal.

Arguments for their use:

What are the arguments making this kind of long term effort worthwhile?  Isn’t this just a form of “cya” in education where teachers kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “Here is the best they could do”?  No, there are several compelling arguments for positive portfolio pursuit.

Let’s start with the obvious.  The move in education toward digital work is almost complete.  What is needed these days is a way of storing all the work in such a way that it is organized, useful, and accessible.  Portfolios are a simple way to get this need addressed.  It is the parking garage for all a student’s digital work, maybe with some “public” and some kept private.

A second great reason for portfolio use is the “resume” argument.  Showcasing a student’s work in high school is becoming an ever increasing need for college entrance.  Requiring a student to form such a portfolio throughout high school greatly reduces the stress of forming one late in their high school career.

But the most compelling reason for me is a pedagogical one.  I have often stated that education is not about any one day or lesson, but the whole string of sausages.  It is a cumulative enterprise, in other less picturesque words.  A portfolio promotes lifelong learning in a student through causing them to contemplate their work.  In doing so, they determine a number of things including but limited to: what is their best work (and why), the incremental development of their learning skills, finding connections between assignments and projects stretched out over several years, and, of course, an appreciation for how far they have come over the course of the collection.

I could further argue the case with the assessment value of such a portfolio as it pertains to parents and teachers assessment of the student’s progress.  But the above student contemplation is more important perhaps than even this clear advantage.

Possible pitfalls:

But portfolio use is not a panecea.  There are any number of possible portfolio pitfalls.  First is the question of who decides its content?  I would argue for the student leading the decision with a set of criteria provided by the school.  As stated above in discussing the need for “storage” I think all digital work should be kept, but some should be shared publically (becoming the actual portfolio) and rest kept “in house” and out of access to all except those involved in the assignment.  This becomes a skill that is helpful to the student throughout life: learning to critique their work and select that which is their best effort for public display.

But this begs another question: that of privacy.  Shouldn’t a student’s work remain private: just between himself and his teacher?  I will grant the question but ask in return for the possible reasons for this to be so.  Is there something negative in the work that should be kept private?  Most of the time this argument is coming from a place of embarrassment or the like.  I would argue that both student and teacher enter into the class work with more vigor when the final result might be on display for all to see.  Policy to protect the privacy of students can easily be put in place, but again I think the question of why is important to consider rather than just assuming it.

Perhaps the issue whether to display the content with or without grading and instructive marking addresses the previous privacy issue.  In many cases the student just doesn’t want everyone to see how much “red ink” is on the paper, or what the final grade was.  I think it is quite appropriate for such to be left off, and with digital work this is very easy.  The grade book keeps the grade record; the portfolio shows the work.

Another possible pitfall is the manner of presentation.  If the portfolio is online (and some schools choose to use offline digital means: thumb drives, CDR’s, etc.), then the question of access must be addressed as the portfolio process is put in place.  Certainly all the portfolios should pull from the same sources, look roughly the same, and be consistent.  But making such fully public, or a shared private domain, are issues that need to be addressed as the means of making the portfolios are investigated and determined.  In the Resources section below there are loads of places both free and by subscription that can help address this issue.

But one pitfall stands above all others:  when a portfolio system is implemented but then not used and therefore becomes a huge waste of time.  If a school is going to do this well, teacher and student must buy in and be prepared to use the system across the curriculum and consistently.  Keeping things going all along the career of a high school student is way more beneficial and time conscious than when one tries late in the career to go back and build one.  I recommend beginning such a project with a given Freshman class and building it forward with that class each year, not trying to back log anything from the past.

Suggested Use/Process:

Anyone who knows me knows I use Evernote extensively.  I would therefore adhere to those who believe this product to be the easiest way to curate the portfolio.  A simple “portfolio” notebook within Evernote, shared with all concerned, would be rather simple.

If the school chooses to have some summative presentation for the portfolio, either at the end of each year, or end of Senior year, then the student would need to “clean up” the notes into something a little more flowing, but that would still be easy within Evernote, given its “Presentation” tool in Premium.  Of course a no cost solution would be to export the portfolio to some other presentation tool when that time comes.

There are online portfolio options, the best of which cost money, but this seems the simplest to me, and keeping it simple seems the best way for it actually get used.  (See resources below for more options).

The most practical thing to keep in mind is simplicity of use.  The more steps and the more work, the less likely for everyone to keep using it, teachers and students alike.

Great resources:

 

Reading About Our Wastelands with Russell Kirk

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Not so much a “book report” here as it is quotations that struck me as I worked through Kirk’s chapter, “Cultivating Educational Wastelands” from his work, The Politics of Prudence

All the normal obvious things have to be said:  Kirk was writing as I was coming into education.  Things have not gotten better.  But Kirk was speaking of those things prudent, not just holding up unreal ideals.  To have something like his vision in front of us as we try to pursue what is best in education is helpful.  I offer these quotes in hopes that you will read his entire essay; it is quite worth it.

“The United States is now the great power in the world.  Nevertheless, who can praise an educational system that turns out young people marvelously ignorant — except for a very small minority — of history, geography, and foreign languages, and so unfitted to have anything to do with concerns larger that those of their own neighborhood.  Worse still, what future have a people whose schooling has enabled them, at best, to ascertain the price of everything — but the value of nothing?” p. 240

“The primary end of the higher learning, in all lands and all times, has been what John Henry Newman called the training of the intellect to form a philosophical habit of mind.” (p. 241)

“The genuine higher education is not meant, really, to ‘create jobs’ or to train technicians.  Incidentally, the higher education does tend to have such results, too; but only as by-products.  We stand in danger of forgetting, during our pursuit of the incidentals, the fundamental aims of learning.

“Why were colleges and universities established, and what remains their most valuable function?  To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views and to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of ordered knowledge, in several great fields; to pursue that knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way toward wisdom and virtue.” (p. 243)

“The education of yesteryear was founded upon certain postulates.  One of these was that much truth is ascertainable; another, that religious truth is the source of all good; a third, that we may profit by the wisdom of our ancestors; a fourth, that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise; a fifth, that wisdom is sought for its own sake; a sixth, that for the sake of the commonwealth, schooling should quicken the moral imagination.

“These postulates have not ceased to be true; it is only that they have been forgotten in our century’s obsession with power and money, and our century’s illusion that ideology is a ready and satisfactory substitute for thought.” (p. 251)

“Renewal failing, by the conclusion of the twentieth century America may have achieved complete equality in education: everybody compulsorily schooled, and everybody equally ignorant.” (p. 252)

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In continuing to write on this blog, it is my hope and prayer that we together are pursuing something more than ‘power and money,’ but rather wisdom and virtue, the Great Good.