Food for Thought: (or Grade A Prime Rib snack with Dr. Davidson)

Just four syllabi into the semester and names like Chaing, Braundy, Thomas, Brown, Silver, Zuckerman, Davidson, Rorabaugh, Kincheloe, Siemens, Cormier, Stewart, and Shirky, to name but a few, have exposed our class to a variety of different educational concepts, terms, and philosophies. However, I noticed two not so subtle themes that connect all of them. First, they all want to change at least some aspect of our educational system. Well, that’s not accurate; most want to overhaul it. The overwhelming contention is that it is a system built to sync with the onslaught of the industrial age. In her book, Now You See It, author/educator Cathy Davidson points out that the current style of learning “reinforces a type of thinking and form of attention well suited to the industrial worker–a role that increasingly few of our kids will ever fill” (158).

Secondly, they all present their ideas of the ideal setting or approach, but I have yet to read a transition plan from any of them. How do they propose we get from here to there? Even Davidson points out that “we had over a hundred years to perfect our institutions of school and work for the industrial age” (158). Surely they don’t think we can flip a switch and get buy in from politicians (we agreed week 1 of the semester that the education system is indeed politically influenced), or from mass centralized parental portions of the population.

Technically, I think it is safe to acknowledge another commonality, debate on any of these angles or theories can fill libraries (or to most of their points, a lot of e-books). Since this is a simple blog and not a thesis (thank goodness) I will limit it to a few short chapters on a discussion of the virtues of grading.

Ok, since you are still reading, that means you pressed the read more button.  So either you have a sense of humor, are glutting for punishment, or you are just skimming to the end to see if the butler did it. Either way, let’s press on for a bit and see if we can hit any conversation generating nerves.

According to Davidson, we don’t know the exact origins of the “concept of assigning quantitative grades to students”, but there are a few cases documented in Cambridge dating back to the end of the eighteenth century. She pinpoints the first full adoption of the system of assigning letter grades in a public school system in the States in 1897. The practice was held as controversial throughout that century long span. A few short years into the 20th century even the American Meat Packers Association decided to adopt it as their system to distinguish the quality of meat, a practice that has likewise raised passions in consumers.

Part of Davidson’s grading argument (for students, not sure how she feels about meat) is that, “grading measures some things and fails to measure other things, but in the end, all assessment is circular: It measures what you want it to measure by a standard of excellence that you determine in advance. We too often substitute test results for some basic truth about a whole person, partly because we live in a test-obsessed society, giving more tests (and at a younger age) than any other country.” She goes on to point out that Americans are more inclined to believe the results of articles if they include numbers, and this is interesting–if you “include numbers, a chart, and an illustration of a brain–even if the article isn’t really about the parts of the brain–the credibility goes out the roof” (284).

Grading options and ideas vary more than the color options in a bag of peanut M&M’s (ok, there are actually more than that, but I need a snack). I suspect Davidson’s crowdsourcing grading idea is on the short list of more controversial plans. She describes crowdsourcing as “outsourcing to the crowd” and declares that it works best when the following nonhierarchical principles are followed:

  • Difference & diversity–not expertise and uniformity–solve problems.
  • If results are predicted, or a solutions is forced, then the participation and likelihood of success is reduced.
  • The community most served by the solution should be chiefly involved in the process finding it.

She goes on to explain that “while formal education typically teaches hierarchies of what’s worth paying attention to, crowdsourcing works differently, in that it assumes that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (176).

Now you can call it classic conditioning, or any other such philosophical term, but I do have trouble accepting many of the grading concepts that I’ve read about the last few weeks. I don’t want to buy a piece of prime rib that is graded “meeting standards” any more than I wanted my kids differentiated that vaguely when they were in school, but I have had a positive experience with what I think resembles Davidson’s crowdsourcing. It was in an undergrad speech class many moons ago. As I recall two-thirds of our grade was peer provided and the final third was the instructor. However, he did provide verbal feedback immediately following each speech; so arguably, he was providing some hints where the bowl was for Pavlov’s dogs.

It was difficult to locate any academic material that supported our current grading system, but passion, presumably mostly parents, do run red-hot and ramped against mass overhauls. The most common that caught my eye, and with which I agree, points out that attempting to revamp a system at a lower level (primary/secondary) without first modifying grading at the university level, may put children at a disadvantage.

So let me know what your thoughts are on grading. Just don’t grade my blog entry though, it might de-incentivize me (another ridiculous argument against grades that I couldn’t stomach expounding on).

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