Thursday, March 03, 2016

How average am I?

Years ago, during my California days, when talking about teaching and students, a colleague--who also moved out of the state--described the challenge this way: we need to target the "average student."  That means there will be students who will be above average, and there will also be students who are below average.  To make things worse, odds are that most faculty were consistently above-average students, which means that we have no idea what it means to be an "average student" leave alone the below-average.

My conclusion has always been one additional step--this is all the more the reason why the factory-style mass education system won't work.  Especially with the growing technological opportunities, customized education ought to be a lot more possible, like how the rich and the powerful in history had their personal tutors.

So, of course, I am always delighted when more important people say stuff that appeals to me.  Like when a Harvard professor, Todd Rose, says this about higher education:
In higher ed we have a brutally standardized system. It doesn't matter what your interests are, what job you want, everyone takes the same courses in roughly the same time and at the end of the course you get ranked.
A brutally standardized system.  A system that even developed the idea of the "average" grade, even when we insiders know all too well that grades are useless!  Especially the grades via the puke-inducing bubbling approach!

To make things worse, we blame students!
our system of judging people according to their deviation from the mean (faster, slower, stronger, weaker) is smothering our talents. The sweeping generalisations of averagarians, as he labels them, cannot but gloss over the multifaceted nature of an individual. The effect is pernicious in the extreme. Schools, for instance, rate pupils largely on their ability to learn faster than the average, and design curriculums to suit the speediest. Yet learning slowly does not preclude a student from ultimately mastering a subject.
So, what can we do?
There's plenty of ways we're making smaller units of learning to combine in ways that are useful to you. To me, competency based education is nonnegotiable. I don't think you can have fixed-time, grade-based learning anymore. I don't see how you justify diplomas.
It doesn't mean students can take forever, but allowing some flexibility in pace and only caring whether they master the material or not is a sound foundation for a higher ed system.
I am all in favor.  Oh wait, who cares about the students, right!


3 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

"There's plenty of ways we're making smaller units of learning to combine in ways that are useful to you. To me, competency based education is nonnegotiable. I don't think you can have fixed-time, grade-based learning anymore. I don't see how you justify diplomas.
It doesn't mean students can take forever, but allowing some flexibility in pace and only caring whether they master the material or not is a sound foundation for a higher ed system."

I can't imagine any teacher union would accept this. It is too hard to negotiate, to hard to define. The teacher will have to work too hard if there are, for example, ten different learning levels in a class. Is the teacher expected to have ten different lesson plans? Is he expected to teach ancient Greek history for four weeks because some kids learn more slowly, while also moving through the entire Roman civilization because other kids learn more quickly?

Nice ideal but impossible to implement.

Ramesh said...

"Odds are that most faculty were consistently above-average students" - Really ??????

Come on Khé - if you really don't care about grades, please award the poor girl at the back of the class an A :)

And I have no idea what "competency based education" is .

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, there is no way that a teachers union will agree to this. They won't agree to anything that threatens the status quo that has benefited them a lot. (I have never been a member of any union.)
The logistical issues you are raising are representative of the kinds of discussions we will end up having IF we were to sincerely admit that there is no "average" and that the factory model of education is the worst thing we can do to young people--all the way from their first grade in school. We need to ask ourselves what the whole point of education is.
(If you are interested, there is an awesome old TED talk on this, and an absolute laugh riot too: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY)

Yes, the consistent above-average smartness in the classroom, which then leads faculty to believe that they are the most important people on this planet! Both you and Anne will be delighted to read this awesomely polemical essay by the late RObert Nozick, who was a Harvard philosophy professor: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/policy-report/1998/1/cpr-20n1-1.pdf

You folks will love the idea of competency-based education. In this format, we clearly lay out what is expected out of a course. Maybe some students can demonstrate in two weeks that they are competent in that, while some other students may take six months to demonstrate their competence. Again, the status quo-loving higher education will not even want to attempt experimenting along these lines ...

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