a colorful snail moves across wood

MMDU: “I Would Prefer Not To.”

MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly (MMDU) was a rambunctious series of discussions in early 2014 about the past, present, and future of higher education, focusing on topics rising directly from Cathy Davidson’s distributed #futureEd experiment and its various offspring.

This week, among other topics, the #futureEd MOOC-ish course-like thing considers assessment: how we fund and accredit institutions and how we measure learning. In 2009, Cathy Davidson offered a risky and still novel post about “How to Crowdsource Grading”, in which she describes foregoing external summative assessment in favor of peer feedback and her own “feedback to the feedback.”

Assessment and standards are elephants in almost every room where discussions of education are underway. My goal here is not to demonize assessment but to dissect it — to cut right to its jugular: Where does assessment fail? What damage can it do? What can’t be assessed? Can we construct more poetic, less objective, models for assessment? In a system structured around standards and gatekeeping, when and how do we stop assessing?

Over the weekend, I tweeted, “Education needs more conscientious objectors”, and this week’s #moocmooc chat will build upon that.

Taking a cue from my mentor Martin Bickman, I’ve chosen never to grade, or at least almost never. While I still submit grades at the end of a term, I’ve foregone grades on individual assignments for over 12 years, relying on qualitative feedback, peer review, and self-assessment. In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow writes, “assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under.” My goal in eschewing grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather than simply evaluate it. Over many years, this has meant carefully navigating, and even breaking, the sometimes draconian rules of a half-dozen institutions. And I’ve brought students into meta-level discussions about these choices and have encouraged the same sort of agency among them. I tell students they should consider our course a “busy-work-free zone.” So, if an assignment doesn’t feel productive, we find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose its instructions. And when our assessments fail us (as they often do), we don’t change our learning, we find new tools for assessment.

This is but one example. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” More than just assessment, this is what our next #moocmooc chat will explore: the ways we respond (both actively and passively) in the face of institutional demands we find unethical or pedagogically harmful. The reference to Bartleby here is more than a coy nod. With its incessant refrain, “I would prefer not to,” the story critiques the change in labor at the turn of the industrial age, the same age still attempting to drive a very different educational landscape.

The answer to Bartleby today is not to throw up our hands, but rather to ask: “Okay, what would you prefer to do?” And this is where I hope we’ll end up in this week’s discussion. How can we work together to make a guide — a how-to manual for saying “I would prefer not to…” in a grander and more collective way? How can we turn a simple act of civil disobedience into a revolution? And when we put our tools down and stand back from the furnace, the letter press, or the paper mill, what will we turn to build instead?

If we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to protect ourselves and our students? What work-arounds can we employ as we build courage and community for revolt? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle? Finally, what kinds of assessment can or should we bring to our own strategies? If we write manifestos as a form of active resistance, how do we determine if they’re working? As we organize, how do we measure the impact of our assembly? When we muster our pedagogy as a form of activism, how do we decide what counts as talk and what counts as action?

See our original announcement for info. about the 6-week discussion series we held in 2014, and click here to see the announcement for a similar event in early 2015.

[Photo by Ian A Kirk.]

7 Responses

  1. Be still my heart. This speaks to me completely—and nothing gets people madder than standardized tests . . .except when I say I crowdsource grading! It makes people crazy when I say peers can be responsible members of a community with standards and that is more important than a grade. So my standard answer, “when your baby walks for the first time, do you give her a test to see if she can walk? do you give her a grade on how well she walks? or do you applaud the accomplishment, help her stay steady, and hope that next time she will go even further, stronger, faster?” If real time feedback works, you don’t need the letter grade. If education works, you don’t.

    For the MOOC, in order that some teachers in the course can get credit and a salary, and for some others too, I had to write machine gradable tests so I used the best research out there to make tests that have no wrong content. Not all the answers are right–I ask for best, relevant, etc (and you can take it 10 times and get full credit for passing!) But we know that intentionally false information gets remembered as just plain “information” so we worked to make sure all the quiz questions were, in effect, study guides, with lots of good thoughts and information, even if not all of it was relevant to the question. I teach until 8 EST but if I can, I’d love to be part of MOOC MOOC. Thanks for all you do!

  2. Assessment is something each of us does many times a day, every day even by those who are not teachers. Merriam Webster has as a definition for assessment “the act of making a judgment about something,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has “estimation, evaluation” as one of its definitions. We assess many times a day, every day. We are not going to get away from assessment because this is what people do.

    I think many of us bristle at 2 issues with assessment:

    1. external summative assessment
    2. being forced to make the implicit explicit

    With external summative assessment, some other group is determining standards that may or may not align with our goals, and they are using the results to reward or punish our efforts. Even when it is not an onerous body wielding the external assessment, external assessment still happens. A professor may comment about the students that come from colleague X’s section as being better prepared than the students from colleague Y’s section. This, too, is an external summative assessment.

    When we are being forced to make the implicit explicit, we are often uncomfortable with the process and, sometimes, the result. When engaging students with questions to help them probe more deeply in a self-reflection, the teacher made an assessment that the students were not probing deeply enough or additional questions would not have been asked. Asking the teacher how he or she knew the students were not probing deeply enough is requiring the teacher to make the implicit explicit. Replying “because I can tell” is not acceptable to many.

    I welcome your challenge to dissect assessment as long as we realize each of us assesses many times a day, every day. Some questions for consideration:

    How do we get to assessment that is meaningful?
    What is meaningful?
    Who gets to decide?

    1. Thanks for the lengthy comment, Bruce. Lots of great fodder for discussion here. I agree with almost everything you’ve said. I’m not opposed to the sort of everyday assessment you describe. Unfortunately, formative assessment is not what I see getting institutionalized in the main.

      And what I wonder (and wondering is exactly what I want to see more of in our assessment practices) is whether we ought always to make the implicit explicit. Sometimes, careful meta-level consideration of process and product is useful. But, sometimes, the implicit is better off remaining implicit. Not knowing is a powerful space. This is why I nod to poetry in my prompt here — because I think it’s often better for assessment to open more possibilities rather than close them down. Sometimes, “I don’t know” or “because I can just tell” is the exact response we need to champion. Exacting assessment, rhetoric, and data quite often contradicts what I feel in my gut. Sometimes, my gut is wrong. But, sometimes, it’s right. This is what I think we lose when we approach assessment as the a priori de facto outcome of learning.

      What I’m advocating for here is not that we dismiss assessment altogether but that we take nothing for granted and that we treat our current assessment mechanisms more brutally than we have thus far. Strangely, my assessment of this conversation [wink] is that you, me, and Cathy are actually saying versions of the same thing but with some important modulations. I hope we find more opportunities for conversation.

      1. Jesse, I do not want to eliminate the implicit. The affective side of ourselves is the most powerful director in our lives, yet in higher ed we often focus on the cognitive with psychomotor thrown in occasionally for good measure.

        The issue I see with the implicit side is not its value, but in how it is used. For my gut to tell me that I am beating my head against a wall, and instead should search for a different approach or try again on a different day has been very important in my life.

        When giving feedback to someone on how to improve his or her writing (from my perspective), saying “I can tell the writing is not good” will not help them much. Why is the writing not good? What should be done differently to improve it? Similarly, if a person were to give me what I consider to be a good example of writing, and I say “do more of this” he or she may be left wondering what “this” is. The flailing about may be what we want for the process, but then I just made my outcome explicit.

        If I were taking a process approach, then my outcomes would be written around what I am doing to create a nurturing environment for the flailing to occur. I would deliberately choose not to close doors to possibilities, and I would assess how well I kept the doors open.

        When the implicit is used for summative assessment (graded assignments in a class), this can be every bit as tyrannical and oppressive as an outside body imposing a summative assessment on a course, discipline or institution. To the learner, someone else’s assessment is an outside body.

        I agree we should question all we do about assessment, both formative and summative. I think we may still be talking past each other about assessment. Having a gut response is an assessment by my definition. This means gut responses get questioned as well.

        I am open to finding a way to use the implicit in providing feedback, but currently I am having trouble imagining how this would work unless we are focusing on process which is acceptable to me. I do hope we can have more conversations because the broader conversation will happen with or without us.

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