Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grades are rubbish.

Grades are a horrible thing.


Let's put it this way: A student works hard for a semester, or worse yet, a full year. They read, complete projects, participate, and otherwise do the best (or not) that they can.

For all this effort, we give them a single letter, recorded in their file.

A "B," for example.

Now, in computer terms, it takes 3 bits to keep that data. 3 bits, not bytes, not megabytes, not gigabytes, not terabytes. Bits.
It's literally as small a piece of data as we can keep. It tells the student nothing. It tells the teacher the next year nothing. In an age where data storage is so blindingly cheap, why are we content to keep such a small, ultimately meaningless amount of data on students?

If I get a student, and I look at their grade from last year, it tells me (as an educator) nothing about what I need to focus on with that student. Grammar? Writing? Reading Comp? Participation? Likewise, it tells me nothing about their strengths, either. I then have to spend (waste?) the first few months of the year "getting to know" my students. Now, on a personal level, getting to know the personalities of students will always take time and be important. But why do I have to waste that time getting to know their academic personalities? Why can't I already know what their writing looks like and what the next step should be for them?

The answer is easy- we can do all these things, right now.

Portfolios. Digital portfolios, to be more specific.

I should, I think, be able to look back through every assignment a student has ever handed in for their entire academic career. The information would be invaluable to an educator getting to know a student, and there's no reason not to. Let's recap:
1. Storage is cheap.
2. Work can be digitized quickly and cheaply.
3. Benefits to students are massive.
4. Benefits to educators are massive.

So why aren't we already doing this? Why do we cling to our 3-bit grade?


The Future (as I see it)

I've taught a class in Media Production for a number of years now, and before that, I played with video production for many years. I learned to edit video in the late 80's and early 90's, when linear video editing was all that existed. For those that don't know, here's how it worked:
1. Cue a tape to your first segment of video you intend to use.
2. Cue a second tape (in another VCR) to the beginning.
3. Dub video from tape #1 to tape #2.
4. Remove tape #1 from the VCR
5. Insert a new tape, and cue it to the segment you want to use next.
6. Repeat steps 3-5, forever.

If you made a mistake, you had to back up and re-do a bunch of work.
If you changed your mind about a sequence, you pretty much had to start over.
It was awful.
Slow. Inflexible.

And in a lot of ways, it was a lot like how we teach school.
We start a course at point A, and slowly progress to point B over a period of time. Everybody goes at the same speed, at the same time.

In the mid-late 90's, video changed forever. Once video was easy to shoot digitally, editing it morphed via computer. Instead of linear, it became what it is today: non-linear. Here's how it works now, just for contrast:
1. Load footage into a computer.
2. Cut footage into clips you like.
3. Click and drag those clips into an order you like.

That's it. If you change your mind about order, you just move things around again. It's natural feeling.
Fast. Clean.

And I think this is where education needs to go. We need to start crafting courses so that they are, for lack of better terminology, worlds. Students could explore in nearly any direction, satisfying curiosity and whim.

There was an article that (kind of) dealt with this on BoingBoing just the other day. They focused on the use of Massive Multiplayer Online Roll Playing Games (MMORPG). That might be the next step past what I'm talking about- I think that we need to seriously consider the future of education being time/location independent, and a MMORPG structure allows for that, but so do other things.

If we're making students ready for the world, to be responsible citizens, it seems strange that we teach them in a world where we all move lock-step. That's a parade, and from what I've seen of it, the world moves more like a race. I'm not saying the cut throat competitiveness of the world at large is the right thing for education, but neither is this everybody-at-the-same-time trap we've fallen into.

There's money to be made here, I think, for someone motivated enough to create a MMORG that's compelling and rich that's based specifically around education. And I'm not talking about k-12 here- it would need to be more focused- say, 8-12. But even here I don't like labeling this with grades, because I think the idea of years/grades is flawed too.
But another post for that.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

An open letter to Paul Toner.

This is in response to an email I received several weeks ago from MTA president Paul Toner. I'm posting it here because I have strong passionate feelings about the issues being talked about within. There's been no rational, logical, clear thought put into so many of the politically driven decisions regarding education as to be criminal. And I'm sick of endorsing it as an educator. This is my opening shot.

Full text follows:

Hi Paul-

It's taken me some time to get back to you and I apologize- between our school's transition to a 1:1 environment, my second daughter being born, and my teaching load, there's not been much in the way of extra time.
When I made the video that you're referencing, I had a decent (though not complete) understanding of the MTA's standing on the use of student MCAS scores in teacher evaluations. Thanks to your email (and the attachments you sent), I now feel I have a clear understanding of what you've gotten behind.

And it's still wrong.

Not a little wrong, not in need of tweaking or adjustments, but fundamentally wrong.
I'll try an analogy here:
The MCAS is a tool- a tool designed to measure student performance in relation to some minimum standard. It's a bit like a hammer: it does one thing, and does a decent (sort of) job of it.
Now, we've got these teacher evaluations we need to do- another, different job. Let's say that teacher evaluations are a bolt that needs loosening.
The proposal you've backing is the direct equivalent of using the hammer to try to turn the bolt- at best, you don't break the bolt, and at worst you break the bolt and everything around it.

We, as educators, are tasked with constantly providing differentiated instruction to our students. We mold the lesson we're teaching to fit the needs of each of our students a little differently. This is a good thing. But yet, when it comes to student evaluations, we don't do that. And now teachers, who are each highly educated and creative people, are going to be judged all by the same ill-fitted measure.
Let's put aside, just for a minute, the inherent flaw with using this tool for teacher evaluation.
What about the inequities among evaluations between teachers? How do we judge a English teacher that only teaches seniors? What about a teacher who teaches low-level sophomores in an at-risk environment? What about SPED teachers? What about freshmen teachers? There's simply no way to be fair about this, and endorsing a system that doesn't even make an effort at fairness seems... unfair. At best.
I know I'm an English teacher and that this may leave something to be desired with my math skills. And I know it's been a long time since I took AP Stats in High School, but it deeply worries me that there seems to be so little statistical thought being put into this. There's no mention of sample size, or standard deviation, or confidence interval. Why not? The data is meaningless without a way to evaluate what it means. You take great pride in your attachments to pointing out how you don't take age/race/gender/location etc. into consideration regarding comparing student scores. Um, really? ALL OF THOSE THINGS have a profound effect on the scores students achieve. The need to be considered.
To endorse this is not only an insult to teachers, it's an affront to the nature of education. We must lead by example, and this is clearly the wrong path. In fact, if it wasn't in the paper and in the news, I'd have assumed all of this was a cruel joke.

I guess the joke's on me.