Assessment in School

Assessment in most U.S. schools means assignments, exams, grades, percentages, and rankings.   However, some teachers and professors offer the option of pass/fail, the holy grail of grading for many students.   This means that students can progress through the course and complete assignments with less stressing over extrinsic motivation and more focus on intrinsic motivation.

In T-550, the decision of Karen Brennan to run the course as Satisfactory/No Credit (the HGSE version of pass/fail) was a perfect example of “practicing what you preach”.  After all, the student-centered learning of  constructionism aligns quite well with student centered assessment.

However, student assessment is often a tricky business because it forces the student to balance between external and personal qualifications.   The student realizes the inherant biases of self assessment, and must find a way to create an assessment that is both fair for others and for his or her conscience.

When we wrote our ideas for assessment on sticky notes in class, all of my assessmets involved narratives of progress:

  • written reflection letter in the first person
  • diagram of goals and how reached
  • in person reflection with professor on set criteria points
  • slideshow in 3rd person addressing assessment criteria

However, after hearing from other examples, I realized that progress and meeting agreed upon course objectives are two separate catagories.  Thus, although a progress narrative sounds much more interesting, I will focus on the later.

The course objectives must come from the very beginning – imbedded in the syllabus.  Fortunately, as per usual, professor Brennan was crystal clear about the T-550 course objectives:

“There are three specific expectations that I consider especially important:
(1) being there, (2) the 1/N rule, and (3) academic honesty.” (Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, pg. 11)

In addition, the syllabus mentioned five main goals: “Maintining a design journal, Developing a self directed project, reading, making things, preparing for guest speakers”  (Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, p. 16-18)

Under the “Making things”, professor Brennan listed 6 products

“(Sep 7) Create a design journal
(Sep 7) Write a 500-word personal learning statement
(Sep 21) Develop an interactive media project with Scratch
(Oct 12) Create a remix
(Oct 26) Design a critique protocol
(Nov 16) Revisit personal learning statement from first week”

(Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, p. 17)

Based upon these explicit objectives, I decided to produce a check-list as a T-550 assessment:

assessment

So, it’s not perfect.  It doesn’t take social-emotional skills into account.  It doesn’t take work effort or attitude into account.  And it’s certainly not very creative. But given the loose boundaries of “assessment”, this is what I consider to be a fair, objective assessment for meeting the tangible goals of T-550.

This is not in any way meant to belittle the enormous growth that I have been blessed with by taking T-550 – both personal and professional.  From exposure to novel ideas for constructivist thinking to chances to creatively explore the field of education and inspiration from professor Brennan, guests, and especially fellow classmates, my progress in this course was momentus.  However, the effort and results are so innately intertwined that rather needing a grade or number, what the student takes away is as good a measure as any as to personal engagement with this course.

A Duckworth Daydream

After reading Duckworth’s essay “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”, a overpowering drowsiness overcame me and I drifted off into a deep sleep.   As I slumbered, a dream faded into existence.  It was a dream of a school.  A school of ideas.  Where children went not by compliance but rather by curiosity.  For this school was a laboratory of learning, with eager, knowledgeable teachers standing by to help guide students on their journeys of personal inquiry.  For the most part the teachers remained relatively quiet, smiling and nodding.  The students, on the other hand, were always talking, verbally working through their own wonderful ideas through a vocal blueprint.

Then, at the precisely right moment when the child posed a question, a teacher would ask a guided question of the student.  The effect of this question was that of a rare candy on a Pokémon, propelling the student to a sudden evolution, jumping to a new stage in learning.   The astounding part of these “lessons” was the immense confidence of the student.  For as soon as an idea escaped a student’s lips, he or she would dive into the materials and books around them, testing out the idea immediately.  And as the student pursued a novel thought, the teacher would follow right along, offering new tools and resources along the way.

As the day continued, the wonders never ceased to amaze me.  Not only were the teachers helping the students pursue their inquiries the teachers themselves were learning along with the students, even taking personal notes about the discoveries that both student and teacher made.  It seemed as if the teachers were not only accepting of the student driven path, they were actually embracing the unanticipated!

Sometimes, students would arrive without a specific question.  In response, teachers would direct students’ attention to a pile of materials on the floor, or an interesting feature in the school yard.  The students were then asked to develop a problem to asses! How different this model than the traditional answer location and regurgitation of a traditional school.

In addition to using the materials in the building, the teachers also encouraged the students to access background knowledge.  For instance, when a student was studying properties of a puddle of water, the teacher reminded the student of the towel he left on the poolside that became totally soaked even though just a corner was in the pool. “Wait!” cried the teacher “Maybe the water climbs up the towel, just like a prince climbing Rapunzel’s hair!”  “That’s a wonderful idea”, cried the teacher, “What else can water climb up?”.

At the end of the day, when the final bell rang, it was nigh impossible to remove the students from the school premise, many of them begging for just one more hour or two.  Although I was only there but a day, I was sure that these students would graduate from the school and unleash their intellectual curiosity upon the unsuspecting world.

Duckworth, E. (1972). The having of wonderful ideas. Harvard Educational Review, 42(2), 217-231.

The Art of Critique

As social creatures, we cannot live without reacting to others.  These reactions may strengthen relationships, such as with compliments or praise, or weaken relationships, such as with insults and shade-throwing.  However, teachers (and parents) also have to care about the results of their reactions on the development of the child.

The reactions we give to a student may produce the unintended consequence of sending the student down a dangerous developmental path.  Koberg (1972) lists pride, fear, jeolousy (i.e. envy), and (over) competitiveness as the four main “demons” that students may adopt (Koberg 1972,p. 13).  Holt (1982) further stresses that fear has become especially ingrained in almost all modern day students, and that this “fear destroys intelligence” (Holt 1982, p. 92).

So how can teachers fight against the fearful mentality whereby students will avoid creative risk and pushing themselves academically for the safety of conformity and mediocrity?   It all comes down to the reactions we give our students.   We give these reactions in a variety of forms, ranging from a pat on the back and a smile to yelling out loud and publicly shaming.  But, as it turns out, the right kind of feedback is not so easy to find.

Resultado de imagem para terence fletcherTake the two extremes:  The praise-a-palozza over a second grade paint project vs. the chair thrown by jazz instructor Terrence Fletcher in the 2014 film Whiplash.    On one hand, the paint project reaction of “Wow, that’s great” without further specific elaboration will never help the child improve.  In fact, an overdose of praise produces children who will not be able to handle failure and will give up at the turn of a dime.  On the other hand, pushing students to the brink of suicide with barages of harsh criticism and totalitarian teaching will instill an unhealthy fear and sense of insecurity.   So where’s the magic middle?

As a teacher, I have often grappled with this problem.  For some reason, the mistakes that students make jump out like firecrackers, while it takes effort to find areas to praise.   There is, however, hope.   The best advice I have heard about how to react to children came from youth-adult relationship expert Michael Brandwein.

Michael had two main points about how to give beneficial feedback to children – specificity and directed inquiry.   First, Michael gave the example of teaching a child to swim.  The child tries and fails repeatedly to reach the other side of the pool.  Finally, the child prevails.  If a parent just says “attaboy, way to go!”, the child will be left in doubt.  What is the parent praising?  Instead, the parent can be more specific in praise, and say “I’m really proud of you!  Even though you had to try many times, you stuck with it and never gave up. That shows real perseverance!” Not only is that parent being clear about what the child has accomplished developmentally, but the parent has given the child a specific trait to be proud of.

Second, Michael discussed how to react to an art project.  There are several bad approaches:  “Wow, great job” is unclear and”That’s a nice spaceship” is too risky because it might not be a spaceship; “What is that?” is just plain rude; instead, a parent can help the child grow by eliciting the child to discuss the work.  Some beneficial question types are “Why did you choose to use blue?”, “Where did you start in that painting?”, and, best of all, “Tell me more about your painting!”.

In addition to the wisdom of Michael Brandwein, Stone and Sheen’s 2014 essay “Thanks for the Feed Back” provides an excellent explanation of what feedback really is and how we can best use it.   Stone and Sheen introduce three types of feedback: appreciation, coaching,  and evaluation.  Appreciation is saying “I see you! I value you”.   Coaching is when we want to help someone improve.  Evaluation is comparing or ranking the worth of an action.     According to Stone and Sheen, we need to not only understand which type of feedback we are giving, but also which type the recipient needs.  If a student comes up and says “Look at my painting”, they are looking for appreciation feedback.  If a student makes a mistake, the teacher should be aiming for a coaching response.

In addition, Stone and Sheen make it clear that any single type feedback is never adequate and may be harmful.  Those who give feedback should work on providing all types to students throughout the day/week/semester/and lifetime.   This balance of feedback types brings us full circle back to our original question:  how to balance reacting to students.   Rather than looking for a middle ground, teachers need to provide a wide variety of feedback types to students.  Just as our diets require diversity for proper growth, so too do our students need a balance of criticism, both positive and negative, subjective and objective, and creative and productive.

Credit

Pic – Pinterest

Brandwein, Michael – June 2015 training talk

Holt, J. C. (1982). How children fail. Da Capo Press.

Koberg, D., & Bagnall, J. (1972). The Universal Traveller: A Companion for Those on Problem-solving Journeys and a Soft-systems Guide Book to the Process of Design. Kaufmann.

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2015). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. Penguin.

To Heck with Good Intentions

Ivan Illich waivan_illichs quite the character.   This Austrian-born philospher / Catholic priest traveled to Mexico to work in a language school for missionaries.  However, he hated the idea of missionary work, and his purpose was to observe the effects of this auspiciously benevolent enterprise.

In 1968, Ivan Illich presented a keynote speech to a missionary conference entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions.”  In this speech, before a crowded room of societal do-gooders and staunch proponents of volunteerism, Illich denounced these missionary endeavors as damaging and ineffective.  Calling them “mission-vacations”, Illich criticized Peace Corps volunteers of well-off Americans to foreign countries as “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideals of democracy, equal opportunity, and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these” – page 2.

As a Fulbright English Teacher, I have often pondered about the use of sending U.S. idealists out in to the world.   After all, in the broad sense, who’s to say we are more than mere pawns in U.S. diplomatic strategies?  As Illich states, the largest us exports are money and guns, and the third largest export of U.S. idealists is intended to support the first two.  By spreading English and promoting American ways of life and politics, we take a semi-role of modern day colonists.  Our mission civilatrice preaches the religion of US capitalistic interests, and promotion of US culture often trumps meaningful understanding of foreign cultures.

Illich proposed having these idealists first volunteer in U.S. to find out what good (or lack of good) they are truly doing without the distortion of cultural differences and linguistic barriers.   Perhaps there is merit in sticking to the “think global and act local” mantra, and we should, as Illich entreats us, keep our travels as what they truly are – vacations.

It’s hard to think about the other side of the equation since I’ve been a lucky privileged white American for the majority of my life.  For all the positive reactions that are visible to American volunteers as guests, we can leave never thinking about any negative impacts culturally or psychologically that we may have caused.   So in a sense, based on the fact that I don’t know the full story of my impact due to cultural and linguistic barriers, I would have to agree with Ivan that I “failed” in the fully altruistic sense.   However, had I striven for a true cultural equilibrium, staying longer until I had learned enough of the the language and culture to view myself from a local perspective, then I would be able to prove Illich wrong.  Similar to immigrant Irishmen signifying through blackface or Willa Cather signifying through the workers, the only way for U.S. volunteers to take on a truly benevolent position abroad is to become the culture they are trying to help.

Illich, I. (1968). To hell with good intentions. Service Learning Reader: Reflections and Perspectives on Service, 1-8.

Wikepedia image

Remixing or Robbing?

Lawrence Lessig’s Remix (2008) incited a spark of passion in me that had been dormant for years.  His stance on artistic rights both infuriated me and critically challenged my foundational beliefs.   So it is out of necessity more than whim that I now address remixing “intellectual property”, an issue that I take very personally.

Lessig is an advocate of “free use”, that is, he believes that the public should be able to use media (music, writing, movies, etc…) for personal creative uses.   According to Lessig, societies can be divided into two camps

– Read and Write (RW) societies where the public actively consumes and produces media inspired by consumption, and

– Read Only (RO) societies where the public only consumes.

The gist is that RO societies are bleak dystopias ruled by commercialism and RW societies are the best thing since sliced bread – more democratic, more creative, more productive.  (Lessig 2008)

The point at which my temperature began to rise was when Lessig proposed that the public should not need permission to use artistic content, but HE NEVER MENTIONED GIVING CREDIT!

One thing about Lessig is that he rarely takes the perspective of the artist, and what happens when you aren’t given credit.

When I create videos or media, I always strive to follow YouTuber Casey Neistat‘s sound advice: always credit.  Whether music, quotes, or even inspiration, everything that came from someone else should be acknowledged.  I ran into an ironic situation with my own film making.   I decided to make an homage to my greatest filmmaking inspiration – Casey Neistat.  I made a vlog in his signature style, with his signature glasses, and signature content topics.  After titling my video “Vlog a la Casey” and mentioning his influence in my description, I dropped the bad boy on YT.   Weeks later, my friend posted his own vlog, using the same style, same shots, and same music as my vlog! I was outraged, not at being an influence but because neither me nor the music artist were credited.

And that’s not the only experience I’ve had with the issue of “intellectual property.”  It all started in elementary school…

A brief timeline of Matt’s experiences with “intellectual property”

-Elementary school: Matt designs his own trading cards with pictures of strange monsters.  Fellow students like them until someone calls Matt out for “copying” the Magic the Gathering trading card game.  Matt feels betrayed and burns the cards.

– Early College:  A History of Jazz course with Professor Katz exposes Matt to the dangers of cultural appropriation.  For example, the Truth Hurts song Addictive sampled “exotic Indian music.”  That sampled material turned out to be “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai“, a song recorded the the superstar Indian singer  Lata Mangeshkar for a 1981 Bollywoodfilm.  Commence $500 MILLION lawsuit for copyright infringment.   After the course, Matt associates appropriation with the evils of colonialism/imperialism.

– Mid-College: Matt discovers a cool Israeli fusion band called Balkan Beatbox, and Matt’s favorite song by BBB is called “Hermetico“.  Jump two years later – Matt hears “Hermetico” on a U.S. top 40 station!  Wait a minute…that’s not Hermetico.  That’s Jason Derulo, sampling BBB in his new hit WITHOUT GIVING CREDIT!  Matt is both amused and infuriated.

– Mid-College: Matt tries his hand at music remixes.  One remix Young & Beautiful + Sweater Weather Baker Mash-up becomes his channel’s most popular video.  Another remix is shot down by YouTube for copyright infringement and is banned from the site  (Me Myself and The Hills).  Matt stops remixing songs.

-Late-College:  A professor asks Matt to help make some movie montages from major motion pictures.  The montages are seen by  seen by hundreds of people live in seven large Chinese performance halls.   Matt is proud!

– Post-College: Matt’s vlog is copied.  He’s not happy, but it all works out.

As you can see, I’ve come full circle in the RW space – from copier to copied.  I understand Lessig’s yearning for a society with free remixing – the ability to draw from media leads to educational and community development.  But I also understand that there’s a difference between needing to ask permission and quoting without citation.   The bottom line is you NEED to reference influences and samples.  Otherwise, it’s plagiarism, and that’s definitely not cool.

To make my point, I will turn to two examples that Lessig uses. When highlighting the multiplying effect of remixing media into new contexts, Lessig highlights John McIntosh’s remix video “The Matrix Has You” and Soderberg’s “Read My Lips” videos (Lessig 2008).  I thought, wow these guys seem cool, let me look them up. After searching for the videos by title on Google, I found them and had a good laugh at the clever way that these two portray political perspectives.   However, there was one thing missing.  It wasn’t in the title, it wasn’t in the description, and it wasn’t anywhere on the page.  The name of the original creators.   That means that the thousands of visitors who wandered onto these videos watched them without anyway of attributing credit to McIntosh or Soderberg.  These two artists have been forgotten; not only is this depressing, but also it’s plagiarism.

Lessig writes Remix with only the best intentions – to allow creativity and learning to flourish like Sousa’s reference to “young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs” (Lessig 2008).  But there is a major difference between singing a song with friends and posting a song remix to the internet – a remix is a digital, distributable product.  A product that wields the power to uplift or negate another’s creativity and work.

The format of credit doesn’t have to be fancy or time-consuming. A small, clear note at the end or in the description is all you need.  So regardless of whether or not you remix rap songs or reggae, or if you mash montages and musicals, you’ve gotta give credit where credit is deserved.

AND NOW FOR MY CREDIT:

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. Penguin.

Blog?

This rant is a blog.

A space for sharing those sparks of anger and passion that demand action.  Or at least to be written down.

Why am I starting this now?

Maybe it’s the academic stimulation of Cambridge.  Maybe it’s the fact that T-550 requires posting in a journal.  Or maybe we all need a rant blog.

So join me, all who wish to be engaged in life, on this journey of defiance.

And to close this premature beginning, I offer a quote inspired by a student’s mistake:

“HoResultado de imagem para frog on computerw dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Blog! ”

– Emily Dickinson, -ish

(image Brighthub.com)

(Channel Art: Stephan Brostein)