What kind of teacher are you?

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a column by Steven Pearlstein that caught my attention.  Pearlstein makes an argument that won’t be new to many of you:  that the internet has the potential to be a disruptive technology in education, that instructional technology has the potential to move us from an industrial model of schooling to a very individualized model of education.  The specific example he offers is the video approach of the Khan Academy.    Pearlstein observes:

Think about it for a minute. If education moves to a teaching model in which students learn through online tutorials, exercises and evaluations created by a handful of the best educators in the world, then how many teachers will we need preparing lesson plans and delivering lectures and grading quizzes and tests? Surely we’ll need some for one-on-one tutoring, or to run small group discussions, or teach things that can’t or shouldn’t be taught online. Despite assurances to the contrary, however, there’s likely to be fewer than we have now — fewer but better-paid with more interesting jobs — just as has happened in nearly every other industry that has gone through a similar transformation.

This isn’t a completely novel idea.  It’s similar to the model used by Western Governor’s University, though WGU is not the only model consistent with this idea.

Pearlstein argues that this would make the way we organize students in cohorts, for example 1st grade or 12th grade, essentially obsolete, since though  students would work in parallel, the would progress at their own rate.  In a way, that’s what higher education is already doing. While we think of a bachelor’s degree as taking four years, increasingly students are taking more time or less than that.  What determines graduation is the accumulation of sufficient and appropriate course credits.  So the designation of first year or senior is less meaningful than perhaps it once was.

What particularly struck me  from the article,  though, was a throw-away line, a quote from Salman Khan:

[G]rading will suddenly become simple: Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.

Which brings me to the point of this post:  How do you feel about the idea of all of your students earning As in your courses?  Does that make you feel uncomfortable, or does it make you feel excited?  The answer to that question, I think, identifies what kind of teacher you are.

Khan’s idea is a form of “competency-based learning.” and it has the potential to radically change how we view higher education.  The way college works now is that students take 14 week courses (the length of a “semester”), and they are evaluated on how much they’ve learned by the end of that period.  Some students get As, more get Bs, more get Cs, and some fail.  But if you think about it, isn’t 14 weeks an arbitrary period of time?  What if it takes someone 16 weeks to master the material?  Why shouldn’t we let them do that?  Would an employer care?  I suspect not, since right now what they seem to care about is whether or not a potential employee earns a degree, regardless of how many semesters it takes.

Some of you are no doubt thinking this idea is crazy.  Every student can’t earn an A.  If they did, it would diminish what an A grade means.  Only a select few, the best students, should earn an A.  Okay, what does an A mean?  Is it a statistical notion, e.g. the top 10% of students?  Or does it mean mastery of the material?  I want to argue for the latter.

I’m not advocating grade inflation.  I’m not a particularly easy grader, so I’m not arguing that we simply define A work as what most of our students achieve.  Rather, I’m suggesting that teachers should think carefully about what mastery means in the context of a specific course.  Then, if students can master the material with additional time spent studying it, why not change higher ed to allow that?

Perhaps, deep down, you think that some students just aren’t bright enough to earn an A. I used to think that way, but Khan has thrown a wrench into that thinking. (I’m not saying that every student is happy or even willing to do the work to earn an A.  That’s a different issue.)  Why do you think that?  What does an A mean to you?  Does it mean mastery, or does it mean the grade only the best students get?  I had a student some years ago, who graduated earning As in every course but one.  That course she took in her first year.  When she asked the instructor where she fell short, he replied, “No where, but I reserve As for majors only.”

If you agree that A means mastery, why don’t you think that everyone should be able to master the material?  What does it say about you as a teacher if not all of your students can master the material?  Could it mean that you’re not willing to put in the effort it would take to help them master it?

Maybe we should reward our best students, not by giving them As (and relegating the rest of our students to lower grades), but by allowing them to demonstrate mastery in less than 14 weeks, and then moving them on to higher level courses.  (This could also mean Master’s-level courses for our undergraduates.)  Wouldn’t we be doing them a service if they complete the degree in less time? Then we could use the “time” saved (in terms of teaching effort), to help the weaker students.  In the end, all students (or at least most) master the material, though admittedly this would make it harder on graduate schools to discriminate between applicants.

By defining college-level work as mastering the material what I am actually proposing is grade deflation, since the passing grade is now an A.  We would need to provide support for students to learn at their pace–they couldn’t just cruise (or “ride the escalator” as I tell my students) until the end of 14 weeks, take the credit and move on–they would have to actually master the material.

Is our primary responsibility as professionals to be teachers or graders/sorters/screeners? If we created a system that led to mastery, wouldn’t that be a better outcome for  students, the higher education system, employers, nearly everyone?

I don’t claim to have the answers to all these questions.  I realize there would be massive problems of implementation.  But I think the questions are worth grappling with.  Don’t you?

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5 Responses to What kind of teacher are you?

  1. Leslie M-B says:

    Lots of food for thought here.

    I’m wondering, however, how this would work at someplace like Boise State, where the four-year graduation rate is only 8% and the six-year graduation rate is 26%. A lot of our history students take Spanish 102 and multiple math courses several times each before they eke out a C. It seems this insistence on mastery across the board would mean even lower graduation rates.

    It also means I would never have graduated from college, as I’m practically innumerate. And it would shift the burden of teaching students with serious learning disabilities to teachers–after all, if the students aren’t getting a A, then it’s the teacher’s fault in this paradigm, yes?–when really this should be a team effort between teachers and disabilities resource folks.

    Maybe I’m already jaded, but I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to work with every student until she has an A, particularly if I’m teaching a general ed course where not every student wants to be there. Maybe at a small liberal arts college with highly motivated students (or someplace like Grinnell, where there aren’t gen ed requirements, so students have greater freedom to pursue classes they’re motivated to take), but not at a university like mine where the average age of an undergrad is 26 and most students are working to support themselves. I don’t think most of them in that demographic would want to persist in every class until they earned As–they can’t afford that kind of time in each class.

  2. Janice says:

    Interesting idea but incredibly labour-intensive, isn’t it? I mean, you’re going to have to get many students up to competency first, let alone all the way up to mastery. That involves a lot of effort on their part. I think that four year degrees would be a thing of the past.

    I suspect this model also depends on being able to compartmentalize. Imagine having 1/5 of your students easily achieve mastery, 2/5 achieve mastery with another few weeks to months of effort and the final 2/5 take at least another term or more to get there. How do you keep on track with all of them? You’d have to track everyone, do lots of individual tutoring (and that’s a pretty daunting prospect) and much, much, much more assessment of and engagement with their work-in-progress to get those students who’re finishing up in current programs with a “D” or “C” grade to pull their standard up to “A”.

    Either that, or we’ll just wear down enough so that after an extra term or two, we do the rewrites ourselves and give them the “A”. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I do know a lot of students who see no value in doing the work. I’d rather see them drop the course and maybe leave university for a while until they decide they’re ready to put in the effort. That might be the flip side of this proposal: only students who come in with great preparation and/or great work ethics will make it through!

  3. Carol Cross says:

    Personally, I think the idea that education should allow all students to work towards mastery–or as much mastery as they are willing to work for–is what we should be doing. But that doesn’t mesh with most current educational institutions, nor, I suspect, with the value systems of many educators–as you point out in your post.

    I read that article and posted my response on my blog at: http://teachingyourmiddleschooler.blogspot.com/2011/05/does-khan-academy-represent-future-of.html . Of course, I am coming from a totally different perspective. However, I am glad to see you raise the issue at the college level. These are the kinds of questions that really matter in education.

    And, I LOVE the name of your blog!

  4. Pingback: The College Course as an Experience (or set of experiences) | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

  5. I think norm-referenced grading on a per-class basis is a terrible idea, and I think most educators support that idea. We should judge independent students based upon their own competencies and mastery of the expected course objectives – not based on the arbitrary nature of who happens to be sitting beside them.

    Your idea is interesting. I could see some courses being offered on a ‘C/I’ basis, with assignments and learning objectives being judged in the same way. The instructor simply repeatedly marks an effort ‘incomplete’ and returns it until it meets the appropriate criteria, helping the student to understand how to improve the assignment upon the way.

    The effectiveness of this idea will depend upon the context in which it is used.

    As others have noted, it’s incredibly time and labor intensive, as you’re grading the same assignment multiple times. I could see it working marvelously in small, graduate level courses where all of the students ought to be motivated and have a great deal of experience incorporating criticism.

    I don’t see it working in large courses with many sections in the same course number, unless there’s some way to do it that I’m missing.

    I also think that there are situations in which online courses are appropriate and situations in which face to face courses are the best approach. Perhaps I’m stuffy and old-school, but I think it’s hard to replace having the professor in the room with you. No matter how interactive the internet gets, you don’t get more interactive than being in the same room together hammering out an idea.

    If you’re going to do a face-to-face course, a schedule becomes necessary – and we get at least somewhat locked into the old paradigm, if we’re going to move the majority of the students along at a reasonable pace. I suppose you could disentangle course due dates and exams from the presentation of material, though – but this would make most students less likely to succeed over time, I would think, rather than more likely, as lectures became foggier in their memories and they became more reluctant to seek out the professor to ask their questions.

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