Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Assessment Obsession

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, due to the inevitable, inexorable periodic pressure of grading inflicted upon those who practice my profession. Few teachers manage to avoid the necessity of testing and assessing their students’ work—and none of us enjoys the task.
Education has preoccupied utopian thinking at least since the time of Plato, and it figures prominently in his design of the Republic. William Morris’s response (in part stemming from his experience in the boarding school “boy farm” at Marlborough) to the question of how we should educate our young was—as he described it in News From Nowhere—to let it happen naturally. All children are hungry to learn, and adults need only supply them with the means to do so, by example primarily, and by allowing them to pursue what interests them while learning alongside adults about how to farm, how to develop a craft, how to build a boat, and how to live. Although he didn’t rule out “book learning,” Morris recognized that children require instruction and learn best through the example of adults. He completely rejected, however, Edward Bellamy's concept of compulsory education (through the age of 21) and preparation for the Industrial Army—centerpieces of Bellamy's utopian vision in Looking Backward.
When I look back on the significant moments of my own rather eclectic education, it’s clear that the memorable experiences are not those that took place in a classroom, but rather the explorations of my environments and encounters I had with the adults who helped shape my world view. Books were another major component, especially in a childhood that afforded little opportunity to watch television.
Now, as an educator of young adults, I’m faced with trying to combine a broadly-conceived philosophy of education (one that focuses on doing rather than rote learning) with a badly thought-out outcomes-based educational system. According to this regime, all courses need to show immediate results, and those results have to be quantified. I have to design course objectives that use “action verbs” to describe outcomes that can be achieved, demonstrated, and measured by the end of the course.
But what if what I’m trying to build is an intellectual toolkit that will allow students to learn how to determine what they need to learn in the future? How do I measure the ability to absorb information over time, make interesting connections, draw on experience, and combine new understanding with an existing knowledge base? What if my goal is to offer ways of seeing the world that can’t be measured in any meaningful way? What if I’m just trying to teach my students how to consider new ideas before jerking their knees in response to some pre-digested pabulum set forth in a textbook?
So I agonize over how to determine whether or not my students have learned anything during the quarter, and how I can measure that learning at the end of eleven weeks. I then must assign grades, for which I have drawn up rubrics to describe what they mean, in an effort to provide an assessment that actually says something about what students are actually accomplishing.
Ideally, my students would produce a portfolio of design work and essays that indicate what they’ve learned about the history of art and design. But I have upward of 150 students every quarter (that’s 600 students per year), and reading and responding to essays is enormously time-consuming. I’d never sleep if I were to assign a meaningful number of essays (say four per course per quarter) and a couple of design problems that would help me determine what students were learning about the principles and ideas being discussed in the class. So I end up giving exams that ask them to identify images, recognize terminology, and remember the characteristics of particular movements. I assign only one design problem (illuminate a literary text, for example, or produce a poster in the style of a particular design movement) that asks them to engage in the process of design and to describe that process in a concept essay. I ask them to conduct research—but not to write research papers, because I want their research to inform their design solutions. They produce annotated bibliographies of their sources to show me how they used their research, in an effort to make them aware that using others’ materials must be acknowledged. I’m generally quite pleased with the results of these “hands-on” projects (although the bibliographies generally leave much to be desired), and they usually tell me much more about what a student has learned than the exams do.
In other words, I do what I can to accommodate the “system,” but probably engage my students less and allow them to learn in a less meaningful way than I could if I didn’t constantly have to figure out how to “grade” them on what they learn.
Mind you, I have it fairly easy. Providing art students with even one creative assignment makes my job somewhat easier than my husband’s. He teaches philosophy courses (intro, ethics, social/political) in which he requires his students to think on paper. But his students (in a local community college) are not any more prepared to write coherently than mine are, and many of his students are on their way to four-year universities where they will major in business and politics and other professions that will determine the shape of our future economy.
The problem is that these kids have been taught to take multiple-choice, true/false exams that require only their ability to retain information long enough to pass a test. They have not been taught to think. They have not even been taught to write, except for the standard five-paragraph, “tell me what you’re going to tell me; tell me; then tell me what you told me” essay—which is hardly an essay at all because it explores nothing. It simply weaves a few facts together, artificially, mechanically, and inelegantly. And the only reason they’ve been taught this is so that they can pass the essay component of a standardized test, which will then be read by someone who’s reading for mechanics, not real analysis or synthesis.
What my husband’s dean calls “the assessment regime” has infected education in this country at all levels. In order for my college to be regionally accredited, for example, we periodically have to jump through a series of hoops governed by the latest fad(s) in higher education. I’m not knocking the necessity for improvement and internal accountability, but the accreditation process requires major input of statistics, and immediate results—an inappropriate goal in many fields that require long study in order for “results” to emerge. So the statistics give us a snapshot of the moment, but they tell us nothing about what’s really going on over the long term. I’m sure that ten years ago people were noticing that writing and math skills were both on the skids in this country. If anything, after all this assessment, and despite programs like “No Child Left Behind,” nothing has improved, and our students are falling further and further behind the rest of the world. In fact, one report (Math and Science in a Global Age: What the U. S. Can Learn from China) suggests that even though we know about practices that will produce significantly better results in math and science education, they are seldom employed in U. S. classrooms. The report cites several reasons for this, including badly-designed textbooks, but I would imagine that the pressure of immediate assessment “results” has at least something to do with it.
If anything is to change, the system has to be shaken up radically. I don’t have the energy, at my age, but I’d urge people interested in teaching to read Morris and reimagine the possibilities. I’d also urge parents to yank their kids out of preschool and take them into the garden, to the zoo, to the natural history museum, the art museums. When they’re older and the state requires them to be in school, do it yourself, or enroll them in a program like Montessori, that promotes experiential learning. If you can’t afford that, volunteer in the schools, participate in their governance, and make time out of school to compensate for what’s lacking or what you can’t change. No double income is worth the sacrifice many parents make. The stuff you can buy, the big house you can live in, the SUV—none of this is worth what you lose by not being the principle educator in your child’s life. Work at home, or don’t “work” at all; spend your own time learning, and pass what you learn on to your children. By the time I get them, it’s almost too late.
Oh; and before you do anything, get rid of the television set. Doing so couldn’t hurt, and it might make all the difference.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Thinking About Nowhere

Since I started this blog, I’ve spent quite a bit of time ruminating about different aspects of utopian vs. dystopian “life,” but I haven’t said much about what a utopia might actually “look” like, or what might go on there.

In part that’s because I’m still working on the book that prompted the blog, in preparation for putting it online (I bought the domains last weekend, actually). But since the book is in more or less its final form, I’ve begun to think about its implications, and how implementing it might actually happen. Throughout the time I’ve been interested in the idea of a good/no place (where things are somehow better than they are in the here and now, but remote in one way or another: physically, temporally, or philosophically), I’ve been asked about why I’m focused on this particular notion. Visions of utopia are usually relegated to the science fiction section of the bookstore—unless they’re concocted by political theorists or social critics like Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, or even Aldous Huxley. To me they’re particularly valuable forms of speculation: thought experiments not unlike those that take place in a scientist’s lab. The conditions are laid out, and the writer lets the characters work through ideas rather than go looking for a cheese reward.

But people who think about utopia are most often considered dreamers, who lack a firm grasp of reality, or—even worse—are thought of as unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky seekers of the land of Cockaigne, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Golden Age, Shangri-La, or some other impossible and/or imaginary goal. The philosophical pursuit of utopia, however, goes at least as far back as Plato, who outlined his ideal state in the Republic, and whose heirs have included many of history’s most imaginative thinkers.

For me, the idea of utopia has long been the subject of intellectual inquiry, and when I was teaching and working on my since-abandoned doctorate at UT Dallas, I created a course called “Utopia and Technology” that considered the history of utopian thought and its relationship to technological development. Two other courses, one on the philosophy of technology and another on the Arts and Crafts movement, considered the ways in which thinkers responded to new technologies, either positively or negatively. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and William Morris’s News From Nowhere, for example, represented opposing reactions the Industrial Revolution.

What seems clear now, early in the twenty-first century, is that many of the utopian expectations about what technology could do for us have not panned out. In fact, it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that we’ve completely lost control of our machines—in the sense that we’ve no real sense of where we’re headed. Problematic paths such as genetic manipulation, cloning, and nanotechnology are being pursued with no true assessment of what they imply or what they might produce were they to get out of hand. In addition, the frantic pursuit of fossil fuel sources has led to potentially irreversible destruction of vital ecosystems, and the potential unleashing of microbes or pathogens to which human beings and other species will have had no time to develop any resistance or defense.

In such a world, utopian thought experiments would seem to be a necessary antidote to the almost compulsive quest for economic “growth,” endless accumulation of material possessions, bigger and more complex everything, and less and less consideration of potential consequences.

I am greatly encouraged by the recent interest in sustainability and “green living” reflected in the popular press. I am, however, skeptical about its depth, because it may turn out to be just another economic fad destined to fade away when people realize how difficult it is to give up some of their treasured luxuries (especially their big cars and granite counter tops) in order to reduce their impact on the environment. As the blue recycling trash containers appear more and more frequently on curbsides in my very conservative town, I am reminded that most people around here are not actually recycling to save the planet—they’re doing it so that they won’t have to pay taxes to build a new landfill. I’ll become rather more sanguine about motives when I see the number of the larger green bins dwindle.

Sustainability must become a moral pursuit, and not just a tax dodge. People really need to spend time thinking about the consequences of their choices, rather than just pursuing life as usual, with the occasional token “green” choice thrown in. This will be especially difficult in a culture not given to introspection, except on a “personal growth” level directed by the latest self-help guru. We don’t teach philosophy in our schools, and although there’s a great deal of talk about critical thinking in educational circles, I see little evidence of its actually being taught. Most of my students are ignorant of basic reasoning principles because they’re taught to write according to a formula (the infernal Five Paragraph Essay) that leads more frequently to sophistry than to logic.

As a country we’ve become very concerned about the lack of math and science knowledge among schoolchildren, but the pundits seem unaware that reasoning develops within a much broader scope. If we just focus on math, science, and rote writing skills, we won’t be any better off than we are now, because thinking and understanding can only be done well within a much larger context that includes historical and cultural perspectives. Our children not only score badly compared to those in other “developed” nations in math and science, but they don’t seem to know much about the outside world, either. Geography is apparently no longer taught much at all, because my students (as bright and creative as they tend to be) come to me not even knowing how to read a map properly. My hope is that hot new technical toys like Google Earth will help to ameliorate this problem—but only if someone provides children with a reason to be interested in something outside their immediate life-sphere. But unless we stop insisting that every other country be just like us, it won’t make any difference in the long run.

Monocultures can be lethal in biological communities, but they’re dangerous to human communities as well. The intuitive understanding that cultural variety is important seems to lie behind continued efforts to foster social diversity in this country. But we’re creating a world for our children in which the same restaurants serve the same basic menus, people live in identical suburbs with no architectural variety (or interest, for that matter), view the same kinds of television programs, see the same kinds of films, etc. Our kids dress virtually identically to one another, thinking that this reflects their individuality. Malvina Reynolds warned us about this, back in the sixties ("Little Boxes"--nicely performed here by Raymond Crooke), but we don't seem to have learned much since then. I am reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, The Lathe of Heaven, in which a well-intentioned (but insufficiently imaginative) psychiatrist directs the hero (who has the power to effect change through his dreams) to create a world without conflict, and everyone turns the same shade of gray. To me this all seems entropic, as if we’re all slowly drifting toward identity with one another: all living the same kinds of lives at the same temperature so that conflict will no longer exist.

All of these problems and issues seem to provide fertile ground for utopian thought, and that’s more or less what I’ve been trying to do in this blog. The book, More News From Nowhere, has been my “laboratory,” where the parameters have been set up to allow the citizens of my eu-topia to address many of them in an effort to find a better way to live. Blogs have a way of generating conversations of the kind that precede my characters’ arrival in their ou-topia—and when I first began to write it (about ten years ago), I had no idea that this particular format would develop; nor had I any idea that internet forums would proliferate as they have. So it will be interesting to see, when I get the new website up and running later this month, if a little conversation about utopia can happen here.

Photo: A view of Big Pine, California, from near Uhlmeyer Spring. This is one of the settings for More News From Nowhere.