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Junot Diaz on Accreditation vs. Education: Not getting *expletive* by mistakes

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Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, spoke to our school community this past Friday night. He was a riveting speaker whose talk has already generated huge amounts of discussion within  the community (and not just because he’s the only speaker we’ve had who made no attempt to modulate his language in an effort to appear respectable).

During both of my classes with sophomores on Saturday morning, students made the observation that Diaz would like the way I teach physics, specifically because of my emphasis on making mistakes in order to learn. The subject of making mistakes came up while Diaz was talking about problems in our educational system. He made the distinction between accreditation and education. When the name of the school means everything, and the only goal is the next step of the process (getting into a big name high school, getting into a big name college, getting a job with a big name firm, making lots of money), then what is happening is accreditation, not education. So for our students, this means that getting a St. Andrew’s transcript with an appropriately high GPA could be viewed as the accreditation they need for the next step in their journey to… what?

Diaz differentiated accreditation and education several ways, but the difference that caught my students’ attention was that mistakes are fatal and debilitating during accreditation. “You make a mistake, and you’re f*****.” Diaz argued that mistakes are critical to learning, so if student are going to be educated, they need time and space to mess up, figure out how to fix it, and reflect on what they did. Mistakes are crucially important for education, but to avoided at all costs for accreditation.

Diaz admitted graduating high school without passing a single math or science class. When I hear stories like this, I think of all the times I’ve heard criticism of my standards-based grading system to the effect “There are no second chances in <fill in subject name>.” Diaz needed a second, third, fourth chance, but the system gave up on him too soon. When I see grades averaged across an entire semester, I wonder what is important–the average of where the student started and where she ended? Or is where the student ended up more important? For accreditation, the average of where the students started and where they finished is important, because the task is to rank students for the college selection process. Letting grades reflect only what the students know at the end of the course is education, because it helps the student to track what they learned and it reflects what they learned, not where they started. If college admission offices have a problem with this, I suggest they ask their professors how educated are the accredited students they admitted.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/09/25 at 19:12

What Salman Khan might be getting right

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Salman Khan created Khan Academy, a website where you can get short video lectures about math (and many other subjects now). He is being credited with “revolutionizing education,” a description with which some critics take issue. Rather, these critics say (if I may boldly paraphrase), these videos are just standard lectures packaged a different way, and therefore still suffer from the same problems of transmission that live lectures suffer.

Sal Khan has given a TED talk video entitled “Let’s use video to reinvent education” which is worth a listen. Yes, there has been hype about Khan Academy… the “reinvention of education” being credited to any one website or just to the “use of video” is a little much… but I think there are two lessons here that are worth considering.

First, there is “flipping the classroom,” with lectures being homework and practice problem-solving becoming classwork. Second, there is the idea of making sure you master each skill before moving on.

Flipping the Classroom

I was interested in seeing Khan’s video lectures when I first heard about them last summer because I have nieces and nephews who occasionally ask me for long distance tutoring (usually just short term “I can’t get this one thing” kind of help). I thought perhaps these videos could serve as a first line of help, as in “Watch so-and-so video, then let’s talk.” I was not overwhelmed by the videos, specifically because they seemed a pretty direct translation of whiteboard, classroom lecture to a computer screen. Also, the presentation was a bit messy, with what looks like a mouse being used to “write” … but maybe that’s just me being picky. And anyway, there’s just no reasonable way to make the video lecture interactive other than the fact students can rewind and pause, skip over parts that seem too obvious, etc. (which definitely makes video lectures better than traditional lecture, especially for the easily distracted like me).

I had also been experimenting with videoing short lectures for my own physics classes, with the hope of freeing up valuable classroom time with the students. I believe in making class time practice time (I think I’m stealing this phrase from Grant Wiggins, but I’m not sure). I do short mini-lectures occasionally, so I reasoned that if the kids could watch these lectures at night, we could get right down to practicing with new concepts, practicing new skills, and talking more about what we were doing. Currently this effort is not going so well in my own classroom, mainly because I haven’t created many lectures and the whole idea is still a novelty to my students. The result is many students figure they don’t have any “real” homework when a video lecture is assigned. It is short, it is a video, there’s nothing to turn in or show me the next day, so it falls to the bottom of their priority list.

Nonetheless, I still think that having students puzzle over lectures at night and do problems with each other (and with me) during the day is vastly preferable to the standard classroom. So I’m going to keep experimenting in the direction, and I hope to write about this topic in detail in the future.

Finally, if I can find someone who presents a topic more engagingly or more clearly than I do, I’d rather have my students watch that lecture over my lecture. I’ll add value the next day when the rubber meets the road in my classroom.

Mastery-based Progression

The other good idea in Khan’s video is that a student should master each concept or skill rather than moving on with incomplete or faulty knowledge. I have been using Standards Based Grading this year for the first time in an effort to track student mastery of learning objectives in a more rigorous and transparent (to the student and to me) way. The point that Mr. Khan makes when he asks what the student who made a 95 on a test missed, and whether that small misunderstanding or gap will hurt the student in the future is an excellent one. Using traditional grading techniques, the student with the 95 feels that he’s finished, rather than feeling like he still has 5% more to learn before he can say “I’m done.” The entire idea that you get one chance to learn a skill or concept before moving on is just totally odd to me. I have in fact heard teachers say “The students just get one chance in my class,” and I shudder thinking of all the holes I’ll have to fill next year with those students. The reason for “moving on” is often the quest for more coverage, but there is also a strand of thinking that those who get the concepts and skills quickly are just more talented and should be sorted for college admissions.

In the near future I hope to write more on Standards Based Grading, sorting students by grading (and grading philosophies in general) as well as the idea of innate talent.

Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/12 at 14:53

Posted in grades, SBG, talent