Saturday, October 28, 2006

Learning, Testing, Living

Peter Levine has a very interesting post on opportunities and outcomes in education, arguing that we should focus more on the former. I'm inclined to agree -- at least, if "opportunity" here is being used as a proxy for "unmeasured outcomes"; I see no reason to care intrinsically about merely offering opportunities in schools, regardless of whether anyone ends up taking them! But I certainly have doubts about the extent to which "assessments" really measure what's important in schooling.

In the worst case, some tests might merely measure one's rote learning skills. Even the more illuminating ones are, in a sense, ultimately just measures of how good you are at tests. (I'm reminded of the scientific definition of IQ: "what IQ tests measure"!) This correlates with various other skills that we're more interested in, of course, but the gap is worth bearing in mind. In any case, the most obvious -- and serious -- problem with all this is the risk of what we might call "assessment fetishism", i.e. caring more about the superficial measurement than the underlying value it's meant to be measuring. Hence we have students who care for nothing in a course besides their grades, and institutions that cater to this demand by "teaching to the test". Education is replaced by accreditation. But hey, so long as it allows employers to sift out the top x% of the workforce, who really cares, right?


Perhaps it's hopelessly idealistic, but I find something awfully appealing about the idea of unassessed education. (There's always blogging, I guess!) It's much more fun that way -- so much so that I have no trouble at all in motivating myself to pursue unassessed learning. I guess assessments do force me to do more concentrated and rigorous work than I otherwise might. But they are a bother. I'd much rather just write blog posts and discuss readings in tutorials all day! (Would it hurt my education? I'm not convinced.)

I've heard rumours that not everyone shares this love of learning. But that can't be natural. Ideally, introducing philosophy to kids before they lose their natural inquisitiveness (and by "lose" I mean "have beaten out of them by bad teachers and tedious curricula") would instantly fix that. Or, if my optimism is misguided and some people are just naturally incurious, perhaps we need to make an earlier split between training and educating institutes. Regardless, I guess the thing to do is increase school choice (via vouchers, basic income, etc.), and trust that parents will eventually find the kind of institution that best suits their child.

Levine concludes:
The other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest--all of which are consequences of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who "leave them behind."

Well, maybe. But that strategy is no use if kids hate school and drop out, or if kids pass our reading exams but cannot use written texts for practical purposes, or if kids make it through school but don't know what to do with their lives.

I'm especially impressed by that final point. So many students just seem... adrift. They don't seem to have reflected much on their core values, or what they want from life. They just float wherever the current takes them. It seems such a shame. We should -- and a philosophical education would -- do more to prepare young people for the toughest question they'll ever run away from: how to live?

[Aside: being "prone to arrest" sounds like an odd disposition. Is this euphemistic for being prone to criminal activity ("justice impaired"?), or am I missing something?]

Oh, another thing: I really liked Levine's second point (go read it) about the sheer negativity of typical outcomes-based approaches. The message is always "don't screw up!". But so long as you don't do badly, no one really cares about your actually doing well -- which makes the educational system long on psychological sticks, and short on carrots ("relief" doesn't count!). Not a pleasant arrangement. And viewing adolescents primarily in negative terms, as "bundles of problems instead of assets" (as Levine puts it), seems a pretty sure way to screw up their self-conception and impede their flourishing.

Say, that reminds me of the greatest essay ever written:
I'm suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it's physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I've read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren't crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead... we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time...

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society... Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend...

If life seems awful to kids, it's neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It's because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. You don't have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy.

Read the whole thing.


  1. I like your point that young people can, despite many people's impulse to believe the contrary, show a genuine and instinctive interest in learning. And I agree that Philosophy is the subject most likely to quicken that interest. Who can possibly be uninterested in what-is-the-right-thing-to-do, and what-there-is-in-the-world, and how-we-can-know-about-it? In saying that, I suppose that a really bad philosophy teacher could be just as damaging to the inquisitiveness of youth as a really bad maths teacher, say.

    And, if philosophical questions are not interesting to a student, there is one question that every student must surely be interested in: why should I be at school? Schools could do a lot better at answering that question, I think. Perhaps schools could introduce "education classes" of some kind, to discuss that sort of question.

    (Thanks for the essay reference, by the way)

  2. Hey Richard

    I tend to agree that we over examine, and that this is harmful to education and the desire to learn, especially when we treat it as important or a measure of where kids will end up some day (BTW It is much worse over here in the UK than back in NZ in the UK they have exams in primary school that they take very seriously!) And I also like the notion of learning without external assessment, although I think people should be encouraged to assess themselves themselves.

    The other major problem is that as institutions and schools are judged themselves by how well their students in creeps a tendancy to teach to exam not to teach knowledge.

    The other general problem is that exams the most popular form of assessment are an absolutely aweful way of assessing whether someone is actually any good at something especially in areas like philosophy. To do give one example I have a friend who got 95% in her critical thinking paper, and yet she is one of the worst critical thinkers I know.

    It is telling I think that at the higher and higher stages once we start taking students seriously we back away from exams and move to essay and then thesis based assessment.



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