Monday, 27 July 2015

A Thin & Fragile Pretense

I'm still mulling my way through The World Beyond Your Head, by Matt Crawford.  It's a slow go because I'm re-reading and thinking over what I'm looking at, often paragraph by paragraph.

On page 153-4 Crawford is talking about the way in which we depend on established values when transacting with each other.  He is talking about how he bills his motorcycle repairs, but I found a surprising correlation between this and my current views on grading:

P.153-54 The World Beyond Your Head by Matt Crawford

This could easily be re-written to describe my own battle with grading:

Consider the case of a teacher. In handing a final grade to a student, I make a claim for the value of what they know about what I have taught them, and put it to them in the most direct way possible (a grade). I have to steel myself for this moment; it feels like a confrontation.  (I hate grading, I feel it actively discourages learning by implying there is a definitive end)

 The point of having posted criteria, rubrics, due dates, class rules,  and the use of complex grading systems with byzantine weights and balances, is to create the impression of calculation, and to appeal to the authority of an institution with established rules. But this is a thin and fragile pretense observed by me and my student - in fact the grade I present is never a straightforward account of the skill of a student. It always involves a reflection in which I try to put myself in the shoes of the other and imagine what he might find reasonable.  (Freeing myself from the tyranny of grading programs is both professionally satisfying and existentially terrifying – what are we all doing here if not making numbers?!?)

This lack of straightforwardness in valuing learning is due to the fact that learning is subject to chance and mishap, as well as many diagnostic obscurities. Like medicine, teaching and learning are what Aristotle calls "stochastic" arts. Especially when working on complex skills at the high school level, in trying to teach one discipline (learning how to code), I may unearth problems in another (the student has little grasp of basic logic). How should I grade for work done to solve a problem beyond the realm of what I’m supposed to be teaching? Should I hand off this new problem to spec-ed, or simply blame previous grades and move on? (I do neither, I consider a student who is able to overcome previous failings to catch up to his peers to be superior to a student who is simply going through the motions because this is easy repetition for them)  This question has to be answered when I formulate a grade, and in doing so I find that I compose little justificatory narratives.

When a student receives a grade, I usually go over the reasons with them in detail, and I often find myself delaying the presentation of the grade, because I fear that my valuation isn't justified (I can never have all the facts needed to be completely accurate). But all my fretting about the grade has to get condensed into a simplistic number for the sake of systemic learning on an established schedule (our education system is predicated on the receiving of numbers that are so abstract as to be virtually meaningless). Whatever conversation may ensue, in the end the grade achieves a valuation that is determinate: a certain amount of educational value exchanges hands. As the student leaves the class for the last time, I want to feel that they feel they have gotten a square deal in terms of me not using grades as either a gift or a punishment; I want to come away feeling justified in the claim I made for what I think they know and can do.   (but many teachers don't - empathy and grading can be safely made mutually exclusive thanks to the absolute truth of mathematics, the more complex the calculation, the truer the grade it produces must be)