three learning assessment alternatives #dmlbadges

At the close of my last post, I promised this next would be less critical and more constructive. So that's what I'm working toward. As I view it, thie badges/assessment thing tries to address four separate issues that really need to be disconnected. In fact, one could argue that their interconnection has produced the serious problems education faces today.

  1. How do we inspire students and/or support their intrinsic motivations to learn?
  2. How do we measure/value our students' achievements?
  3. How do we measure/value the success of pedagogies, programs, institutions?
  4. How do we capitalize on the values of #2 and #3 in the job market?

I'm going to work backwards through these quickly to get to these alternatives. #4 is the root cause of our so-called "higher education bubble." The belief that education can and should be equated with some marketplace value in human capital has led to over-speculation about that value. Of course there are no controls over that speculation, no one to say that such equations are irrational. More than anything we need to disconnect education from a marketplace concept of human capital. Education does not make you a more valuable human being; that notion is noxious.

#3 is what I usually think about when I use the word assessment. I direct a first-year composition program, so I give a fair amount of thought to figuring out how we are doing programmatically. I certainly agree that high-stakes testing has proved to be a bad move. In theoretical terms, a test might be a reasonable predictor of a program's success. However, observation changes the behavior of the observed, so in practice, as we all know, this results in "teaching to the test," which is deadly. I think program assessment needs to be disconnected from individual assessment. Put simply, a successful program is not one where all the students do "A" work, and a program where many students do "C" work is not necessarily unsuccessful. My notion of program assessment is to examine the networks and systems that operate with the goal of understanding the role that various objects, people, policies, technologies, etc. play.

In terms of evaluating student achievement, I think about the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. The biggest pitfall in student evaluations is that they risk inhibiting intrinsic motivation. When a student makes choices about her education that prioritize grades over learning or trying something new or lead her to hide/ignore her passions in the pursuit of expediency, then I would say it's fairly obvious that we are failing, that we have a poorly designed system of student evaluation. When education reformers say that our system is broken, they typically point to the fact that our education system is based on an industrial model. I'm sure I've said that a 1000 times. The central feature of the model is treating every student as a widget. Every student has to learn the same things at the same pace and be evaluated by the same terms. We've built a stern ethics around this. I'm sure students in my classes would complain if I were to suggest that they would each be evaluated on different terms. I doubt that my university would be too happy with that grading arrangement.

What if Johnny and Susie could both succeed in my class, even though they did very different things to demonstrate that they had achieved the objectives of the course? So when the students ask, "What do I need to do to get an A in this class?" That's the wrong question. The question to pose to the students is "What do you want to do to demonstrate that you've met the course objectives with excellence?" Obviously it's not that easy. In fact, it's very tricky, which is why we regularly short-circuit student motivation to the point where students show up at the beginning of each semester with no expectation that a course will inspire them to learn or even with the notion that such things are possible.

This brings me to the first question I posed, which is the one that really interests me. How do we design learning to inspire students' intrinsic motivation? A quick anecdote. My daughter loves math and science. She's just started an after-school gifted math program at UB, which she takes in lieu of her regular school math. She loves it. Why? Because they spend half the class discussing different ways to approach and solve/prove math questions. Students are given the opportunity to be creative, find alternatives, work together, etc. There's not just one answer or one method. The second half is more traditional lecture format, but it moves at a pace that challenges her, rewarding her for paying attention. My memory of high school math was learning a concept in the first 15-20 minutes of Monday's class and then shutting off my mind because I knew we'd just be going over it again and again for the next five days. I sure learned to hate math and science in high school. 

From that, I offer three alternatives. These aren't "my" ideas, obviously. These are things that are out there.

  1. My first thought is the work of people like Gardner Campbell, Jim Groom, and the rest of the "edupunk" movement. This whole idea of a personal learning environment where one seeks to synthesize the many learning experiences one has, institutional or otherwise. Likely the notion of badges is supposed to jump in here, but I think it goes the wrong way in seeking to commodify experience. The value I'm seeking is holistic and singular, not fungible. 
  2. My second alternative comes from my experience as a youth soccer coach. In soccer, you can spend some time on technical drills but basically you have to put kids in game-like situations where they are asked to figure out problems in creative ways. Then, occasionally, you can intervene with an observation that is designed to help players become reflective about their own play. In other words, student activities need to mirror the practices we actually wish them to perform and should be designed to encourage autonomy and reflection.
  3. Finally, to turn back to my own teaching, expand the classroom beyond its artifical, historical bounds. I can't tell you how this is done is every discipline, but in teaching writing it means writing for a larger public and addressing some kairotic moment. Learning needs to be meaningful for students in some real way. 

Honestly I don't care about badges one way or the other. It's about what you do and why you do it. What I believe we must resist is mistaking real motivation and meaningful learning for increasing our value as a human commodity in the marketplace. I'm fairly sure that education doesn't make us "better" humans. I don't even think learning can make us "more" human (whatever that might be), though it could expand our experience in interesting ways. The one thing we have to prevent is schooling making us feel less human. 

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