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. Their 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. )

Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning

gustaveflaubert1

I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.