Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rigorous ruminations

It's that time of year again, the time when I am in Greece and contemplating if I will continue teaching (if it is offered, that is) or retire properly. If there was one thing that could sway my decision to step away, it is marking. Now, what I don't want to engage in is the usual teacher's moan. Instead, I want to think about how the inherently unpleasant activity of marking is partly the result of our educational philosophy and argue for a rethink of how we assess student achievement and make the exercise more meaningful for tutors and students.

At the moment, rigour is all the rage. It is Gove's big idea. The trouble is, it doesn't mean anything. Rigour is a posture rather than a policy. Given the reforms of GCSEs, it appears that at the moment it means basing assessment on traditional exams. For me, exam marking this year wasn't difficult, but it was boring. So many of the answers were the same; competent but formulaic. This is hardly surprising when we spend a lot of time teaching students how to pass exams by producing what is required.

As for coursework, often the same applied. Sometimes there was a spark of originality, but I was also running into a fair amount plagiarism. You see less of it in the first year, so that I have the impression that whilst we are busy teaching students the formula of how to pass, they are learning how to plagiarise from their peers.

And this is one reason why marking is such a disagreeable activity. Assessment becomes about gaming the system, rather than expressing the excitement of learning.

Let's start with exams. One of the most interesting thinkers on education was Patrick Geddes. There is a good chapter on him in this (sorry). He saw exams as the antithesis of rigour. Despite becoming a professor of botany, he only ever took one exam and that was to demonstrate how ridiculous they were. He wanted to show that it was possible to pass a qualifying exam with only one evening's study beforehand. He did it and became a qualified inspector of mines without knowing anything at all about mining. Rigorous?

The pest of plagiarism is too easily palmed off on student dishonesty, though that is still at the heart of it. But it isn't helped by the way we make it too easy. The internet is full of stock answers to stock questions, so perhaps one of the solutions is to stop asking them. I also think that it is intrinsically linked to the development of skills, including self-expression - finding a voice - and critical thinking. We do not put enough effort into teaching students how NOT to plagiarise, relying only on the implementation of stringent sanctions as a deterrent.

This is partly what we end up with in universities; students doing something manifestly unfulfilling accompanied by tutors doing something that they hate. It is time for change. But what?

I am not one of those techno-enthusiasts who think that the Internet has changed everything. However, it has altered one thing irrevocably; the relationship between students and resources. Where once resources were scarce, putting a premium on knowledge and recall, now we are carrying around vast libraries in our pockets. Part of modern education is learning how to use the Internet properly and not as a convient crib for cheating the system. So I was intrigued by two, if overly evangelical, pieces from a few weeks back.

It is obvious that MOOCs (massive open on-line courses) will have to rethink assessment to deal with both the volume of students and the way that they learn. I liked Anant Agarwal's call for blended learning, augmenting traditional delivery as part of the college experience. But it was Sugata Mitra's article that struck me most. Even if it was directed at schools, you can see the universal application and I liked this about exams.
In school examinations, learners must reproduce facts from memory, solve problems using their minds and paper alone. They must not talk to anyone or look at anyone else's work. They must not use any educational resources, certainly not the internet. When they complete their schooling and start a job, they are told to solve problems in groups, through meetings, using every resource they can think of. They are rewarded for solving problems this way – for not using the methods they were taught in school... 
If examinations challenge learners to solve problems the way they are solved in real life today, the educational system will change for ever. It is a small policy change that is required. Allow the use of the internet and collaboration during an examination... 
I am a solitary person, not fond of group work, but there is still no reason why his approach would not be adaptable to the likes of me. I really like the way he sees this process opening up interesting and difficult questions; ones that can never be plagiarised or produce stock answers. And as I read on I thought, 'that sounds familiar.' If you omit the Internet, it is very similar to ideas published at the end of the First World War - by Patrick Geddes. He wished to replace assessment with something he called "estimation," using the sort of practical work that Mitra is arguing for today. The Internet is not changing everything, but it is making old ideas cease to appear outlandish and instead seem modern and necessary.

The idea of rigour is locked into nineteenth century methods of assessment, which, in turn, produce unimaginative work, plagiarism and the hell of marking. And as for me, if I was still running programmes in adult education I would be experimenting with all these new/old ideas. Instead, as a humble part-timer, I have to do what I am given. Maybe this will sway my decision as much as anything.


Anton Deque said...

One of the best and shortest essyas I have read on this vexed subjects.

Our Masters are not interested in education or economics for expanding what is good and true, but onlt for turning the clock back.

Anton Deque said...

I failed typing ...

looby said...

I'm not sure what I think about the idea of collaborative work. In my limited experience of teaching (here and in Portugal) it tended to give the lazy ones a way of avoiding doing any work. The bright, keen ones, carried the others. Which I suppose has its moral advantages but doesn't necessarily lead to an increase in the originality or quality of the work produced.