Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Just a quick note on pedagogy. My teaching classes have given me occasion to think of this lately, and I had a quite a transformation in thought last week.

When I was in school, the practice was to give kids a test, and success was rewarded with an A, and failure was punished with an F that followed the kid, then, to the cumulative grade at the end of the class and thus, onto permanent records, affecting what college he could get into, etc. This seemed perfectly natural as a student, and this is certainly the model conservatives want to keep pushing in education.

But this week some things finally clicked and I had a huge change of philosophy. Whereas before I might have seen this as wishy-washy progressivist nonsense, I am now very much behind the idea of having students re-take tests until they get it right. Grading on an "exceeds standards," "meets standards," and "not yet" scale, where all "not yets" must be brought up to "meets standards" by the end. Because, the truth is, if a student fails, then usually the teacher hasn't done his job. The teacher is being paid to teach the students and get them to learn. Not merely to put the information out there and then sort them, judge them, based on how well those students responded based on his teaching methods.

For adults, of course, we can blame their own effort; if you simply don't try, only you can be blamed, no one can force you to learn from even the best of teachers if you close your ears and hum. But among children, one of the teacher's big jobs is to motivate, to engage, to get them to try...not merely to deliver the content. Teachers of children are not professors, in that sense, they are also social workers, coaches, and parent-proxies.

The goal is not even primarily about delivering the content, the task the teacher is assigned is to get them to actually learn it, as much as humanly possible, through whatever means necessary, through a variety of strategies both cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral. I don't want to compare children to animals too much, but if I paid a dog-trainer to train my dog and he didn't succeed and then blamed it on the dog...I'd want my money back!

It especially makes no sense to simply accept failure and then move on to the next unit. This is troubling because some subjects are cumulative. So if student only learned, say, 30% of the content from the first unit...just accepting that 30% understanding and moving onto the next unit really offers no hope of ever "catching up" successfully in subjects like math where, if you don't have an understanding previous concepts, you can't understand later ones.

A teacher's job is to teach, not to sort students based on alleged merit. Assessments should be evaluations of learning, not judgments. If a student only gets 30% right on a test, then that 70% still needs to be learned somehow! Otherwise school becomes not about the learning at all, but merely about sorting students by alleged "innate ability." A student doing poorly on a test should not be seen as a judgment of their character, but merely indicative that they need to relearn the material they didn't get (there are a variety of methods for doing this without slowing down the rest of the class).

Using tests simply as a ranking of merit and then moving on to the next topic as if school is some sort of contest or obstacle course...shows some very strange attitudes when it comes to just what the purpose of education for children is. I think it's to get them to learn, and if they don't, it's the teachers responsibility to go back and make up for that as much as humanly possible until they do learn it.

Simply throwing stuff at them like paint on toy soldiers and then letting them continue down the conveyor belt regardless of how much actually stuck, how much coverage they actually got, is ridiculous. Our job as teachers is to make sure each toy soldier is painted, not to just let inferior products go by uncorrected.


Anonymous said...

Isn't this President Bush and his "No Child Left Behind" policy?

A Sinner said...

Maybe in a vague way. But, like, that's for very basic reading and math. I'm saying expectations can be even higher for any class.

sortacatholic said...

I prefer the postgraduate grading system. Master's and the few doctoral courses are graded A/B/F (that is Pass, Marginal Pass, Fail). Almost everyone gets a pass; I got my one and only B because I had a dispute with a professor. I made it up by writing my minor comp with distinction on the same topic.

The comprehensive exams are graded pass/fail. In my department, almost everyone passes. If you do not perform well the first year of the PhD, you are dismissed. Hence, only prepared students write the comprehensives. Informally, there's a "sufficient" pass and a "laudable" pass. Your advisor's opinion of your exam matters more than the transcript formality.

I cannot see why advanced placement/honors high school students could not be graded pass/fail. In an optimal world, the "pass" or "fail" would be the baseline for a holistic evaluation of a student's work. In practice, high schools must retain letter grades for ranking, etc. The horrid SAT (which I did very poorly on, btw) has languished for so long simply because it provides a dubious metric. The same applies for the A -- F system common in secondary and postsecondary work.

A Sinner said...

If a test shows that a student doesn't learn something, just moving on without ever catching them up on what they've made it clear they don't know...doesn't make sense.

I'm not sure "pass/fail" works either unless "failure" is considered to be anything less than meeting standards. A child squeezing by, "passing," with only 61% of the material mastered isn't a quality product either.

One thing that could work (in terms of college admissions) is base it on how many and which courses are actually COMPLETED rather than grades in classes merely "finished." kid might complete (ie, get all the knowledge they need) a math course in one year. Another student may only demonstrate 70% proficiency or whatever at the end of the year. Rather than just accepting that as a "C-" and moving on, this course shouldn't even be considered complete until the student learns everything.

And by "everything, I mean at least meeting standards; I assume the teachers would teach and test "beyond" the standards somewhat too, and so some students could "exceed standards"...meeting standards wouldn't have to literally be 100% of the content offered.

But, the point is, that student should somehow be brought to COMPLETE the content before moving on to the next stuff, rather than just "finishing" the course with imperfect coverage. Anything less than meeting standards should be considered an "incomplete" (with, however, no judgment and the opportunity to complete).

Stephen said...

Three quick observations:

1. I agree that trying to "measure" students will not work well. Some things can be measured, but others can't, especially personality differences. For instance, some people take to the institutional atmosphere of schools, but others don't. It doesn't mean that those who don't like institutions are dumb; it simply means that they don't like institutions.

2. However, while trying to bring every student up to certain standards is a laudable goal for a teacher, the system would have to be radically changed because this goal would require very intensive tutoring for some students.

3. Which brings me to my third point: We can't all be above-average. More accommodations could be made for slower learners, late-learners, etc., but at some point we do have to acknowledge that not everybody will learn certain things.

A Sinner said...

I'm not sure I agree with your third point. As one of my teaching books said: we all somehow learn language in the first three years life. This task is almost incomparably cognitively more difficult than any learning after that, and we do it as babies! The brain is an extremely powerful computer, and the Church–Turing thesis basically demonstrates that any computer can be made to carry out any calculation. So, except for severely brain-damaged people, I think we have to believe that any child can learn.

I also think it's been shown that our expectations as teachers affect this. Studies have been done where teachers are told that high-achieving students are low-achieving and vice versa...and, lo and behold, the high achieving students start to lower in that class according to teacher expectations, and lower achieving students start to high achieve.

Stephen said...

What exactly in my third point do you not agree with? I thought that a few weeks ago you were agreeing with the thesis that there are "demographic differences in mean intelligence." Are you retracing that now?

I guess all I can do is repeat my third point: For everybody, there is some limit to what they can learn. Your example of language does not disprove my point. Certainly, most people can learn a language in their first three years, but it also seems clear to me (not to you?) that some people are more gifted at language than others--while those same people who excel in language may not be that good in math. Everybody learns a first language, but how many people manage to learn multiple languages? It may not be as hard as people think to learn more than one if you start early enough (as they do in other countries), but even in those countries some will be better with languages than other. Moreover, for whatever reason, learning a language gets harder and harder with increased age, so I doubt it is a problem that could be solved by better teaching.

I also don't disagree that expectations play a key role, and I agree that a huge part of teaching young children is finding a way to get them interested in the subject. But, all that means is that a teacher must not merely deliver content but also "unlock the potential" in each student. But, each student still has different potentials for different subjects.

I also don't disagree that testing is not necessarily a good way to figure out what people's talents are, but that still doesn't mean that every child will learn everything we want them to learn.

Stephen said...

By the way, your comparison of students to toy soldiers on a conveyor belt in a factory is strange.

A Sinner said...

No, Stephen, you misunderstand my "The Bell Curve" post. I say several times in there that I DON'T buy that premise, and that it has been generally disproven now by scientists, at least when it comes to race. The point of that post was merely that even IF it WERE wouldn't matter in practice. As for individuals and families, I think it's clear that some students will always (due to genetic endowment or whatever) be quicker than others speed-wise...but that doesn't mean that everyone can't learn everything if given enough time.

Stephen said...

Sorry, when I referred to the old post I was simply talking about heredity, and not race.

But, more importantly: Can you learn everything, given enough time? I certainly can't. Maybe you're just more special than I am.

A Sinner said...

Then you're not giving yourself enough credit. Yes, given enough time ("enough" is the key) I'm sure I could.

Stephen said...

No, you're giving yourself too much credit.

What about memory? Even if you're right that you could learn anything, there's no way you could remember it all. And if you can't remember it for more than a day, you can't really say you learned it.

A Sinner said...

Oh, please, people memorize tens of thousands of digits of pi and days-long epics. Not to mention the salient events of every day of their lives. Memory is essentially unlimited.

sortacatholic said...

A Sinner: I'm not sure "pass/fail" works either unless "failure" is considered to be anything less than meeting standards. A child squeezing by, "passing," with only 61% of the material mastered isn't a quality product either.

I think you've missed my point. Pass/fail holistic evaluation would only be used with students that display high academic potential. A "fail" in this case would not be attributed to a number or letter grade, but either a manifest disregard for work or extreme disinterest. Almost everyone would get a "pass". The pass would not mean that a student's work is stellar. Rather, it is a baseline that permits the teacher leeway to provide substantive assessment of a student's progress. Would this evaluation style work for all students? No. Yet a high school geared towards high-achieving students, a pass/fail system would remove the focus on (and obsession with) letter grades towards beneficial judgements. A student that is truly struggling to master material would not belong in the system just described.

One thing that could work (in terms of college admissions) is base it on how many and which courses are actually COMPLETED rather than grades in classes merely "finished."

At my high school, 75% was "fail" (there was no D: A = 90%+; B (satisfactory) = 89 -- 85%; C (satisfactory-deficient) = 85 -- 75%. Half the students had A's: a student below 90% in a course or cumulative average was considered weak in that subject. 85% was the baseline for the few honors courses we had. My school was obsessed with ranking. Yet, should it move away from this concern, it would be a prime candidate for the model proposed above. The brothers and priests regularly expelled students that could not meet these standards: there was no room for mediocrity and little opportunity for remediation. A school of bright students should not have to focus on grades when most students do very well. If few students are struggling to make any progress, reserve grading for more finely-tuned distinctions.

One should note that I had a "low 90's" average at this school: even students with sufficient grades (high 80's) got scholarships to good schools. Would it really matter if no one got a letter grade? We'd all would've done well without them, I'm sure.