I tried to write a bit about "Criteria" a while ago, but I stopped short. My head was full and I just wanted to publish the post and put it behind me. I couldn't seem to put my thoughts into words. But it's still on my mind so I'm going to give it a shot again.
The criteria line-of-thought is largely to do with my thoughts in response to Peter Coffin's "Meritocracy" video, embedded below.
The video generally highlights the arbitrary nature of "criteria" and the ways we arbitrarily create criteria and credit those who subsequently meet said criteria. In that video, he works carefully around politics and popular culture.
But when I think about criteria, I think about education. I've been teaching for... 13 years or so now, largely in English. Despite most people's impression of English as a "literature" and "composition" field, ultimately English courses are literacy courses, no matter what level we're working at. One's ability to be literate dictates their success in English.
But literacy, on its own, is not easy to assess. I tend to say it's "slushy," insofar as there's something thick and murky about pinning a number to one's ability to read and write. This creates the classic English problem: there's no simple "right or wrong answer" in most of what we do in an English class. So how do we assess and evaluate something so slushy?
We use criteria. Whenever I've attended a professional development workshop, or taken a pedagogy course, they've drilled the need to "make criteria clear" in order to make it "authentic." "Make it clear to your students how you intend to mark them, and the specific things you'll look for in your assessment and evaluation. Then students will know what they need to do to succeed." And for years I've stood by this. I've done my best to make my criteria clear.
Oftentimes, I use rubrics. Some rubrics are charts that describe different aspects of something and allow a teacher to easily tally a score—3/4 for style, 2/4 for content, etc.; some rubrics are simple numbers with explanations, like the BC Ministry of Education's 6-point scoring guide for the recently abandoned English final examinations. I often adapt these official rubrics for my own assignments in an effort to "standardize" my evaluation. In the words of some of the courses I took for education in University, this helps make evaluation more "authentic." I have spent countless hours creating rubrics over the years, just trying, trying to make them work.
But no matter how "authentic" and "standardized" I try to make my evaluation, no matter how much time I put into it, "authentic" marking is a myth. The appeal to authenticity is always problematic and does not stand up to scrutiny. And if the foundation of authenticity is problematic, the scaffolding—rubrics, criteria, etc.—crumbles. If authenticity doesn't work, neither do the rubrics and methods that we've used to achieve that authenticity.
Authenticity is a myth that most of us educators fall for because it's easy. Rubrics, under the guise of authenticity, cover our butts from scrutiny. When we use a rubric and share it with the students, it decreases the chance that people will question what we're doing. Students will feel stupid if they don't get it, and parents will feel justified in blaming the student for not meeting expectations. "They gave you the criteria! Why didn't you succeed? What are you, lazy?" No one has the time or will to go through a rubric and see whether it works, so we can lean heavily on them.
Recently, there's been a drive to make sure student expectations are written in student-friendly language. Fair enough. It's good when students can understand what they're doing, But student-friendly language doesn't make marking more legitimate. If we're assessing something artificial, the results will be artificial as well. Education gurus say "don't just give the rubric—give feedback," because feedback is what helps students move forward.
So why do the rubric at all? Why create a bunch of criteria that will create artificial results? I don't see the reason for all this criteria anymore. In English class, I don't see any evidence that students learn from it. Why bother then?
This year, despite the amount of work it leaves me, I've moved away from rubrics. I'm getting students to write in MLA format so I can write all over their work, and I'm giving written comments at the end. My assessment for larger, edited assignments is essentially some comments and a general letter grade, a letter I can translate to a number in the marks. I feel like I'm remembering more about the students' writing and thinking, and they have a little more to respond to. And the unity in using MLA format for submissions works as the levelled playing field. I don't have to play the authenticity card anymore because there's no rubric to appeal to: what matters is "did your work improve" and "what can you do o make it better." That's it.
No more artificial, mythical criteria; no more box-creating, ridiculous rubrics.
For now. Until I need to cover my butt.
By the way, I think a lot of the drive towards rubrics and whatnot stems from the forces of "21st Century Education," which essentially posits that students will need to be creative tech users in order to succeed in the future we're creating. I've often liked the incentives of 21st Century Education—the job skills, the focus on creativity, the praise of malleability—but I've often found it problematic as well.
21st Century Learning is a corporate-capital-driven program that has perpetuated itself under the banner of "preparing young people for an uncertain future." But it's always, always a corporate future. But I've never been able to put my concerns into words.
I started reading B.J. Mendelson's Privacy. He's got the beginnings of it in a throwaway line right near the beginning of the book:
Corporations have snuck their way into education up here in Canada too.
What I find most insidious about it is this: they've been able to sneak in by rebuilding the framework altogether through all this 21st Century Education stuff. And here we are, trying to make an assembly line that will essentially feed the pop Capitalist system.
And in that system, the Silicon Valley tech leader is king. And the more we lean in this direction, the more we cater to those Silicon Valley Values.
Just look through the "Framework for 21st Century Education." It's essentially a Silicon Valley resumé.
Just some food for thought.
I teach, but I find education as a whole rather befuddling. Questions abound: How do we know if we're really helping students? Should we prepare students for the workforce or should we aim to improve their character? How much of what I do matters in light of the power of their genetics and culture? Should we aim to help students do what they love, or should we be pushing them to explore things they aren't familiar with? Do subject areas matter? Does this school system work like it's supposed to? Thoughtful educators grapple with these questions on a constant basis.
Here are four resources I've enjoyed recently that each explore these sorts of questions in their own way:
Frank McCourt's Teacher Man
A coworker loaned me Frank McCourt's Teacher Man and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an excellent book that both describes the social challenges of teaching and the difficulties in maintaining a seemingly normal life while trying to also be a teacher to a rotating cast of students. I could empathize with an enormous amount of McCourt's experiences, although it also taught me a little gratitude for the students I already have.
Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child
Through my local library, I listened to an audiobook of Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child and it surprised me a little. I agreed with most of the precepts in the book and I like how he consistently questioned the educational culture's fetishization of "Grit." Surprisingly, this book articulated the need for authentic assessment and evaluation better than most education books; in my experience, education books tend to put me to sleep, but this book was different. Kohn appears genuinely engaged with his content.
How Do We Fix It's interview with Jonathon Haidt
Jonathon Haidt has been on a podcast tour as of late, peddling The Coddling of the American Mind. I think this conversation's the best one I've heard so far in reference to the book. The hosts push him to clarify his ideas in ways that I didn't hear on CBC's Ideas. Haidt's ideas are interesting particularly in relation to Kohn's work (above). There's a lot of crossover in these people who insist that we need to learn to fail in natural ways as wee mature.
Spark's recent episode on Google Apps in the classroom
I enjoyed this episode of CBC's Spark because I struggle with my role in using Google in my classroom. I don't like using my classroom to teach students how to app. I know they use the language of "collaboration," but I fee as if the corporate nature of Google Classroom makes said collaboration more artificial. If you're collaborating in front of a screen... you're still spending more and more time in front of a screen. This episode is decidedly fair in how it treats corporate tech in the classroom.
On the TEDization of education.
A couple weeks ago, I finished listening to Sir Ken Robinson's The Element. The book acts as an accessible educational treatise and claims that we need to do better at preparing students for an unknowable future, one without a priority on standardized tests.
I can generally run with that. Standardized tests don't mean much beyond a student's ability to do that test that day; the breakdown of academic subjects is archaic and does not reflect the slushy reality of day-to-day living.
But I find the book's emphasis on "breaking the mold" a little... lacking. The overall tone seemed to reflect a direction in education that concerns me a little: I call it "TEDizeation."
TEDization refers to catering to the ideals that people see in TED talks. TED talks are popular, but not necessarily good. TED creates a false equivalence between the presenter and the research, and prioritizes inspiration over substance. People come out of these talks feeling good, but they don't necessarily carry the nuance needed for lasting change. I feel like The Element fits in that cookiecutter, insofar as it prioritizes passion, despite the ease by which our passions are misguided. It's not wrong... but it's artificial.
On You Are Not So Smart, a recent episode (embedded above) highlighted how our notions of the "self" change how we act like "fully realized" individuals. I've embedded it above. It's a good supplement to The Element, since Robinson's book comes off as highly self-indulgent. But I'll likely post more on that later.
But until then, I'd just like to exercise some caution about feeling like TED ideals are the ideals we want to imbue students with.
New school year.
I haven't really done any planning for the coming school year. I filled my summer with distractions: work, visiting Vancouver Island, and attempts to rest and relax. In spare moments, I couldn't seem to develop the get-to-it-ive-ness needed to really start planning for something as cognitively taxing as the coming school year. So I didn't.
But I'm here now.
Today we had a Professional Day presentation from somebody with a pretty good handle on the ins and outs of the new BC Curriculum. I'm hoping it rekindles a little of my enjoyment of teaching and helps me feel a little more like my work has a lasting effect on people. I miss that feeling.
A few years into my teaching, it felt pretty natural, like it was an extension of myself. I felt like I could come to the school and navigate it naturally, and it didn't seem to drain my resources too much. I could come to the school in the evening or afternoon and focus on my work and enjoy it, and I genuinely felt like I was getting stuff done.
The last few years, however, haven't felt that way. Admittedly, I've been very distracted: separation, drama, and fatigue can make it difficult to focus on work. Come to think of it, my inability to internalize my practice coincides with my inability to write or finish writing a song. Perhaps I'm just in a drained-creativity mode, whether in career or leisure.
But I hope that acting on some of my more progressive desires will help me make teaching a more real part of my life, not just a job. Perhaps building an effective in-class curriculum will help me get get my head back in the game.
I've been trying to do a few other phone-related things to get my head back in a good place. I deleted Pokemon Go from my phone; it seemed to have served its purpose in getting me to get outside even when I didn't want to. And although I still think I'd enjoy it, I don't miss it. I turned off my data so I'd be less likely to check my phone constantly. I also have decided to stop listening to podcasts when I go for walks; this lets my mind wander a little and helps me to keep from constantly filling my mind with talk.
In the meantime, here I am. Starting my 10th or 11th school year, a veteran of sorts who still doesn't feel like he knows what he's doing, who still expects the "Fraud Police" to come to the door and kick him out onto the street. But chances are, things will work out. It will. It will.
Things will work out.
British Columbia has declared a public health emergency over the recent rise in fentanyl-related deaths. Good on 'em.
The numbers themselves are harrowing. The Globe and Mail wrote,
B.C. had 76 illicit drug overdose deaths in January, the highest total in a single month since at least 2007. At its current rate, the province could have 600 to 800 overdose deaths this year, Dr. Kendall said in a news conference on Thursday. B.C. had 474 such deaths last year, a significant increase from 211 in 2010.
It seems to me that "state of emergency" is an appropriate term to use, considering those statistics.
I think it's shameful that anybody needs to die due to poor public policy. I believe these deaths stem from a refusal to educate people due to matters of criminalization, which creates an abusive black market.
I don't know how to write about this as a coherent post with a beginning, middle, and end. So here's a bulleted list:
The following podcast with Johann Hari discusses an upcoming UN summit on worldwide drug policy:
Hari made this succinct thesis, paraphrasing Ruth Dreifuss, who legalized heroin in Switzerland:
When you hear the phrase "legalization" what you picture is violence and anarchy. What we have right now with the Drug War is violence and anarchy. We have unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown drug users—all in the dark, all filled with violence and disease. Legalization is the way you restore order to that violence and chaos.
I agree. Bring it out in the open and regulate it for safety's sake. Let's stop this prudish silliness and learn how to deal with culture without criminalization.
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