Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

The Modern Learner: Dancing to Learn

iStock_000020371243Small_largeI link below to the blog and youtube channel of a student who has taken a passion project/20Time project to levels far beyond my expectations.  If you’re an educator of any sort, you should take a look at her work.  While she is certainly an exceptional student,  she could easily be languishing in classrooms that sap her energy and deny her access to her curiosity.

Instead, Irina has created opportunities and taken hold of those presented to her to pursue her curiosity and interests.  This is the modern learner, the innovator, the self-determined learner.

This is the future of education, and it is now.

As educators, we know that we need to question ourselves constantly.  And while it may be exhausting, we need to find ways to be in a constant, iterative cycle.  Change is everywhere, and it is represented strongly in our students, especially those like Irina.   We can either lead with them or get out of their way.  But if we think conducting our classes the same way we always have will help students like Irina learn what they need in a world that has always outpaced our glacially paced system, we’re mistaken and worse, an anachronism.

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Commotion — Blog

Youtube Channel

The Chaotic Arrow: Musing on the Importance of Perception in School Change.

Thursday’s blog post from George Couros got me thinking, as normal.    Take a look at it, especially at the line drawings for what constitutes “Success.”

 These doodles are true enough (you’ll also find the squiggle as the Design Squiggle ) to the pathways we perceive as leading to success and the meanderings that actually do.  In that, the straight arrow stands as a warning to the pretensions of linearity that typify most of our endeavors at schooling and its reform…STILL!  (I mean, come on.  We talked about this back in the 80s, 60s, 20s….)

Anyway, George has written another great post for teachers and teacher leaders.  If we are thinking of change, at whatever level, be it one teacher in the classroom, or one building, or a district as a whole, let’s admit to ourselves that our narrative will not trace the unwavering flight of an arrow.  That’s as illusory and destructive as the notion that time itself is an arrow.

MissLandsatFeatured-300x336Instead of an arrow, the change in which we engage will more resemble the narrative of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the great, muddy, messy river at the heart of the novel.  Change meanders,  ox-bows, turns back, crosses itself, confuses, drifts, gathers.  It is at once powerfully beautiful, and powerfully frightening.    And so the question for innovators in schools is really how do we make all of the learners (students, teachers, admin, support staff, etc.) floating down our own great river of change, education, understand and honor that the trip will rarely…should ever…be as straight and efficient as a line?

Answers to that question are complicated by the fact that any talk of change breeds fear, and that fear stems from the perception that something (comfort, safety, status) will be lost when we change.  This is especially true of districts like my own which label themselves with that perennial deflation, “We’re good enough.”    The real answer to how we get all learners on board the riverboat to effective change is that we need to help them shift their perspective.  If we can do that, then “fear” is replaced with “conviction,” “risk” with “opportunity,” and “failure” with “learning.”

shiftBut shifting perspectives is difficult.  It takes a willingness to see one’s self differently and an understanding that we are the only real engines of change.  It also takes a willingness to accept one’s power and its attendant responsibilities.

If we are to start shifting perspectives, we can hardly start in a better place than two simple questions.  “Why are things the way they are?”  and “How can we make them better.”  The first question opens us to an understanding that the built world is born of intention, that all the objects, experiences, apps, and systems we have made are responses to solving problems, and some of them do so better, with more focus on an understanding of the users than others.  The second question reminds us that we are the creators, the agents of change.  It empowers those who have forgotten their power and enlightens those who never realized they had it.



Learning vs. Doing School

The next post in my 200 Word, 3 blog challenge from IMMOOC:

What are your connections to the “School vs Learning image (see above)? What would you add or modify?

Let’s talk about “connections.”   “Connections” was the name of the middle school humanities course I developed and evolved over a course of 20 years (1996–2014).  And so when I first read The Innovator’s Mindset, I realized how deeply I’d grown, over the years, into seeing Connections not as a place in school, but as a place of learning.  The class came out of a district-wide charette and was charged with exploring the connections between the arts and humanities.

We spent several weeks in “I-Search” projects (the 1980s equivalent of a 20 Time Project) delving into learner’s passions and interests.  My goal was to have them asking more
Right Question Institute questIons than me (thank you, ), to explore deeply, and to look at the world and ask two key questions:  Why are things the way they are?  and How can we make them better?


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We drew mindmaps, engaged in weekly seminars, wrote poems, learned about photography, and were producers, not merely consumers of culture.  Essentially, the children in Connections had agency over their education.  They were learners, not students.

Thus, if I were to add anything to this image, I’d add that “school is what we do to students…because” and “learning is driven by human beings with the freedom to exert their own agency towards productive cognitive ends.”  (Yeah, that last is a bit “academic,” but it’s what I’ve got.)

(Images from How Stuff Works, and Inhabitat.com)

A Vision of Education’s Future: Time is not an Arrow

I’m trying to keep up with the amazing George Couros and the MOOC for his book, The Innovator’s Mindset.  I attempted his 1st MOOC, back in the fall of 2016 (see here), failed, and so I’m picking up here on the new #IMMOOC: prompt #3:  Three blog posts of 200 or less words.

Prompt #1:  Discuss your “vision” for education

I think I answered this question on my the comprehensives for my Masters in 1994.  Seems we’re all still searching for the Radical, Inquiry-driven innovations of Postman and Weingartner’s  60s. Luckily, I think we’ve finally caught them, and Dewey at the same time.

My vision is not forward thinking, not dripping with tech (though enabled by it), not seeking the latest “Best Practice” that is only ever a repackaging of former method.  (I do not discount Cognitive Science or its growing impact on education.  That’s a post for another day.)  My vision is a classroom of empowered learners, questioning, collaborating, constructing,  exploring, and dreaming a future we cannot know.  Dewey had us here, As did P&W above.

Back to the future?  Perhaps, for time is not an arrow.

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