Idiot with the Drill

I must be a “schooler” because the parable at the beginning of Papert’s chapter is ridiculous.

I think even worse how pretentiously he presents that there’s pushback against the idea that teachers shouldn’t be able to recognize the future classroom. Of course there is. Talking about the surgical theater brings up visions of a plethora of electronics all used to monitor different vital signs. We don’t need a pulse oximeter in the classroom to ensure that we are safe. Most people don’t need an oxygen mask. No one needs to be under constant supervision because they have been sedated with a drug the potentially could stop their heart. The comparison intentionally leads people in the wrong direction and then tries to use their obvious confusion at why the classroom would ever need to look like a surgical theater to make a clarion call for megachange.

This chapter was written in 1992, why would the classroom need to change so radically that teachers from 100 years before wouldn’t understand what was going on? Video games can be a great teaching tool, but are they necessary to create most of the change he was talking about? We talked in class two weeks ago, about a group of students that were taken outside and asked to walk around barefoot in order to facilitate a more student directed learning while emphasizing critical thinking skills. Is he expecting the classroom to look more like the matrix where we can plug in and experience new things we otherwise never could?  How much of a role does technology need to play in changing the philosophy of the education system?

Again, maybe my schooler mentality is obstructing my ability to see the future of the machine.

More to the point, however, why is making bad comparison something we should avoid? Example: me. I’m writing this blog post. We had two really good readings about finding your teaching self, and I’m stuck on this terrible parable. I’m not even talking about the rest of the chapter the bad parable came from.

Maybe it’s a flaw of mine, I should be able to look past the parable to see the bigger picture, right? Perhaps, but story telling is a powerful teaching tool. If you haven’t read some of the research on how well humans learn through story telling it’s pretty interesting. The basic gist of it is that stories help us experience things, not just hear and process. Stories stick with us longer. They incorporate more parts of our brain than when receiving facts. They have been a part of human existence probably from its beginning. Keep in mind the earliest cave paintings are more than 40,000 years old. We are hardwired to listen and relate to stories. I’m sure this is why storytelling was listed as something lectures are good for a few weeks back.

Back to Papert though. If the megachange needs to occur in the mindset of educators and the basic philosophies of the education system. The focus of the parable shouldn’t be on technological tools. Because that’s all they are… tools. And tools are only as proficient and creative as the craftsman that holds them. If the craftsman has new tools, but their mindset, philosophy, and creativity hasn’t evolved with the tool then the tool won’t be used to its full potential anyway.

Let’s end with a story about a man provided with the technology that could change they way he does his job. It’s called. Idiot with the Drill.


A Voice Without Experience

I have not taught a class and I have not been taught how to teach. I am fortunate enough that as a graduate student, I have been funded through GRA positions through several different programs. However, I do want to go into academia and the longer I put off teaching, the more daunting it feels. I’m afraid of being out of touch and not remembering what it is like as a student leanring a subject. I’m afraid of teaching just to pay the bills and not out of passion, as I was taught. As a graduate student, I’m told that teaching is secondary to research and should not be the main focus of my efforts. But if I do not put in the time and effort to become a good teacher, how do I improve? Do I have to wait until I become a professor to have the time to become a better teacher? But even then, if I want to continue doing research, how I will get tenure is through my research, not my teaching. Unlike the small, liberal arts, teaching-focused university I attended as an undergraduate, research universities put their focus on the products of research, again leaving no time to better my teaching skills. Will I then have to wait until I get tenure? Or will I have to put research aside to focus on the teaching? Can I find this balance?

How do I develop a teaching voice? I can’t develop one through trial and error, there are students’ education on the line. When I tell people I study mathematics, they almost always tell me they dislike it and can trace it back to a teacher they had in middle school or a professor in college. I don’t want to leave such a neative impact on students. I can’t learn through theory. Students are individuals and will not fit into a theoretical mold. How do I have a teaching voice without having experience teaching and how do I take the time to appreciate teaching when time is stretched so thin?

Boundary Issues

I can recall my dad exclaiming many times growing up “I’m here to be your dad, not your best friend.”  This of course was after I’d done something stupid, as teenagers tend to do, and was being reprimanded for it.  Of course in the moment, I always thought “why not both?”  But that was part of learning while growing up.  I already had friends that were my peers.  Looking back now, I realized what I really needed was to be held accountable.  That was what my dad was teaching me.  He was tough on me, but not unfair, and I feel like this helped to mold me into a reasonably responsible adult.  Reading Sarah Deel’s journey in her development as a teacher really resonated with me in many of the same ways that my relationship with my dad did.  She described this delicate balance between being a teacher and being a friend.  While I still think “why not both,” I can appreciate that certainly one is more important than the other.  Much like Sarah described, I’ve tried to mimic some of my more memorable professors while I was an undergrad, and even a grad student.  While this has provided some guidance, I think I found myself trying to be more likable than someone who was truly teaching.  Once I came to this realization, I reminded myself why I came back to school, and why I wanted to teach.

Much like the rest of the class, my journey to get here has been unique.  Watching the set of College Gameday on tv this morning echoed my time here as a freshman in that glorious national championship run in 1999.  Yes, I’m a little older than the traditional grad student but I hide it well.  In the fall of ’04, I finished grad school down the street at Radford, got married and at a youthful 20 something, I was hired as a police officer in the town I grew up in.

While I was always fond of academia, I didn’t think I’d ever return.  I told myself that I’d love to go back to school, get my Ph.D. and teach as a “retirement” job once my law enforcement career ran its course but doubted the possibility as something I’d really follow through with.  I dove into the job head first, and loved it.  Growing up, it was all I ever wanted to do.  Of course, my dad being my dad, he always asked “what’s next?”  While he respected my career decision, he was always nudging me to strive for more.  I think he just didn’t want me to settle for what I already had.

I learned very early on, that while I learned an enormous amount from my time in college, the thing it did not prepare me for was this job.  I was a first generation police officer so I just learned as I went.  In college, I had only one instructor who ever had any personal experience in law enforcement.  She was a medically retired officer from one of the Carolinas that taught my “Intro to Criminology” course while she was working on her Ph.D.  The irony of the situation is now clear, but I digress.  The lack of personal connection between instructors and the actual job became something I really focused on as I began to close in on ten years of working.  I began to see fresh recruits from the academy who were entering a world that academia had not prepared them for, much like myself a decade before.  That voice in the back of my head reminded me of that “retirement” job that I entertained when I had graduated, but I only let it linger for a few moments.  By this time, I had made detective and several specialty teams, and promotion was on the horizon.  Why give this up to go back to school?

I recall the events unfolding very vividly from here.  Around 2pm on a Friday, I recieved a call from my mom.  College football kickoff weekend was only a day away, and I had made plans to have my family come enjoy a BBQ at my house and watch the Hokies.  I expected this was a call about the ensuing details.  “Dad’s been in an accident, you need to come to Hylton” was all mom said.  Lights an siren, I raced to the main entrance of my old high school to discover dad was gone.  He was fatally struck by a car of a student at the school while he was waiting at a crosswalk.  I didn’t know it then, but this moment was the reason my dad wanted me to always strive for my best, and not settle.  Because life can change at the drop of a hat, and regret is far more powerful than you’d ever expect.

To make an already long story a little shorter, I made the decision, with the support of my family, to reinvest in that pipe dream of a “retirement” job.  I moved back to the New River valley and was admitted into school as a part time Ph.D. student while I worked 12 hour night shifts for Blacksburg’s finest.  My passion for academia was reinvigorated, motivated by the thought of influencing students who had the same passion for law enforcement as I once had.  This began the molding of my teaching voice.  While I may not take the same line in the sand approach of “I’m here to be your friend, I’m here to be your teacher” stance like a father-son relationship, I can certainly appreciate the perspective.  Much like Sarah Deel, approachability is huge, but so is accountability.

Grading system is a giant monster

It’s very competitive to get in a top ranking university in China. The admission is only based on one examination (college entrance examination), and there is only one chance to take the examination every year. If you cannot get a good score, you have to be back to high school and wait another year. It’s so cruel and you will never want to fail the exam. There are lots of debates about college admission in China because it seems not reasonable to make decisions based on one examination. But it is how it works now. Based on this situation, grading system is so popular and almost every middle school and high school use the grading and ranking system to evaluate students’ academic achievements.


I have very complicated feeling for grading. When I was in high school, every students received a tiny piece of note after midterm and final exams. On the note showed the score and ranking of each subject in the class and the whole grade. And the school asked us to show the note to parents and got them sign the note. I always feel extremely anxious before I got the score ranking note. If I got a nice ranking, it would be very encouraging since the hard work got the gains. But if it is not very satisfying score, I always had a lot of emotions aroused. For one thing, it’s disappointing because it proved a poor performance to some extent. Secondly, there was pressure from my parents. Moreover, everyone is worried about the college entrance examination and want to be completely prepared for it. Overall, I am not big fun of this kind of assessment method. But I cannot say I hate it because it could help me know how I was doing for each subject and make a specific goal for next time.


I must say some learning process is not fun at all. Especially for the subject which there are right answers for every questions. Then the teachers need to score the homework and exams. But what happened to the subject which there are no correct or wrong answers? “Learning scientists confirm that it is relatively simple to test for subject matter content recall and difficult to assess independent critical thinking and creativity.” As illustrated in Marilyn M. Lombardi’s article. I used to be reluctant to accept the scores on thesis about history or culture topic. Because there are no correct viewpoint. I do not think the teacher or anyone has the right to say it is good or not.


Grading system improve the performance for some people in some subject. On the other hand, it also reduce the motivation for those who cannot adapt to the system. It is like a giant monster which is chasing after me. Sometimes it makes me want to study and work harder to gain a better ranking. But sometimes it makes the whole thing so scary. For the teachers, I would suggest use it carefully and deferentially.

Disincentivizing Lives

This week’s readings along with the two Dan Pink videos made me think about the role of incentives in human life. It is widely accepted in Economics literature that incentives leads to a positive impact of performance (See Note 1). The authors show that the impact of monetary incentives lead to a positive impact on performance. Recent research has, however shown that this does not hold in all cases. The negative impact of incentives has been demonstrated in pro-social behavior (Note 2), online communities (Note 3) among others. A variety of explanations have been forwarded to explain the negative impacts of incentives including signaling, types of markets, driving out of intrinsic motivations etc. In light of this evidence, Dan Pink revisits a study conducted by Ariely et. al. (2009) (Note 4 for anyone who wants to take a look at the study). Participants of the field experiments conducted in India were assigned to tasks that involved creativity, memory or motor and skills. Participants in the low and mid incentives were found to perform better than those in the high incentive condition. The authors also established that a propensity to choke was not the causal factor behind this phenomenon (Shout out to Carlos Mantilla who brought this up in class).

At this point I want to point out the two key takeaways from this study. Firstly, the authors show that there is a non-monotonic relationship between performance and reward (specifically very high rewards leads to diminished performance). Secondly, for tasks involving cognitive skills, high levels of incentive decreased performance.

Although taking the lessons of this study and applying it directly to assessments in classrooms is a bit of a stretch but I’ll try anyways. My personal experience with grades is that they have to be used appropriately. I do not like to be told and reminded daily about my grades and my rank in class (a system prevalent in most Asian countries). On the other hand in classes where grading scheme is simple, I have found that I tend to work less and take away fewer things from the course. A case of no incentives and very high incentives (or at least sensitivity to incentives), in my opinion, are equally bad. Being an ex-student of economics, I cannot argue for doing away with all forms of incentives. However what I would argue for is to make people and organizations less dependent on numbers generated through tests as a measure of quality. A quality of a student cannot be gauged simply through a number assigned to him/her. The scores assigned to us stay with us throughout our lives and in many cases have a larger impact than we realize. In India, student suicide claimed the life of over 48,000 individuals between 2010-2015 (Note 5). Academic failure was one of the primary reasons. Data collected from American students suggest that, about one-third suffered from depression (the study does not specifically point to grades as a causal factor) (Note 6).

All I am saying is we should not disincentivize people’s lives in order to provide incentives in their academic ones.


  1. Ehrenberg, R. G., & Bognanno, M. L. (1990). Do tournaments have incentive effects? Journal of Political Economy, 98(6), 1307-1324. doi:10.1086/261736
  2. Ariely, D., Bracha, A., & Meier, S. (2009). Doing good or doing well? Image motivation and monetary incentives in behaving prosocially. The American economic review99(1), 544-555.
  3. Sun, Y., Dong, X., & McIntyre, S. (2017). Motivation of User-Generated Content: Social Connectedness Moderates the Effects of Monetary Rewards. Marketing Science.
  4. Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large stakes and big mistakes. The Review of Economic Studies76(2), 451-469.


P.S. This was a late post worthy of a red card.


The curse of exceptional peers and other weekly pessimism

I want to call attention to a paper that is quite related to this week’s readings:

It is actually discussed in more layman’s terms here (good for me as I am far from a psychologist).

We saw in most of the readings, and the TED talk, that the traditional carrot and stick method harms creativity and performance in anything other than mechanistic tasks. Also, grades force students to narrow their focus onto achieving high marks rather than learning, and can even average grades can discourage students expecting (especially if the peers do better). The Rogers et al. (2016) paper goes beyond that, suggesting that even without grades, seeing their peers do better on a graded assignment harms performance.

The authors actually ran two experiments for this paper. In the first, they collected grade data from a MOOC they offered. The course assignments included writing essays, as well as reading and grading their peers’ essays. This allowed the authors to track the “quality” of each individual as well as the quality of each peer essay read by each individual. They found that students exposed to excellent mid-term essays generally turned in less impressive final essays. These same students were even less likely to finish the course than those who graded poor peer essays. Their second experiment involved writing and grading SAT essay questions, and again those exposed to high quality writing reevaluated their own skill and were less confident in their abilities. Moreover, they were more likely to feel that essays were an unfair measure of skill, but still felt ashamed by their lack of success. The conclusion they drew was that even encountering superior work can have an incredibly demotivating effect.

To be honest, I have felt this a lot. Obviously imposter syndrome is a big part of graduate school, and we are bombarded with exceptional work all the time (“read this Nature paper while you’re trying to publish your masters work”). But I would suggest it is even worse in an interdisciplinary PhD program. Most of my colleagues have different backgrounds, and have many skills far beyond my own; I’ll never compete with the computer scientists in writing code or the statisticians in model design. Being forced to face this routinely, especially in our department seminars, is often crushing. I spend half of those seminars barely able to follow along, even when listening to junior colleagues – it took a year before I realized some of the other students were just as lost when I gave my talks.

Accordingly, even if we eliminate grades in favor of more detailed evaluations, the competitiveness and the feeling of self-doubt will still haunt many students. It makes no difference if it is a graduate seminar, or a grade-school arithmetic problem on the chalk board. I don’t know how we can get away with this.

Incidentally, about 2% of the 150,000 registered students completed the MOOC, which lends support to the opposite argument: a lack of incentive to finish (and penalty for failure to do so) totally guts motivation.

Second point, Alfie Kohn’s essay was fantastic. I want to agree with virtually every point, but as one might have guessed, I feel stirrings of pessimism. One must never forget that a student’s entire career depends on these grades. You can eliminate letter grades, and replace them with the analytical grid Dr. Elbow described, or you can use detailed assessments. All good in theory, but if an employer, college, grad school is going to base hiring or admissions decisions on those assessments, you can be assured that the student will focus on optimizing them, rather than learning.

In centuries past, it may have been the case that most students attended college pursuing a classical education simply for their own benefit. But today’s middle-class is generally built upon these degrees. The quality of the school and the “rank” of the student are literally of life-affecting importance. Until this changes, students will always prioritize ranking over learning. I don’t agree with Elbow that they want to be ranked, it is simply inevitable.

Becoming “Real”

There are few things in life that confound me more than humans choosing to do something – often repetitively – when they know the outcome will be unfair, unreasonable, unrewarding and/or unrevealing. Grading performance in an academic setting is one of those things. Alfie Kohn’s arguments for re-thinking assessment are both sound (research-based) and logical.  One particular revelation struck me as being at the heart of the matter: Maehr and Midgley’s (1996) observation that “an overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence.” Kohn himself summarized the issue even more clearly: “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.” Isn’t this completely counter to what is intended to be accomplished in the education endeavor?

This observation is reflected in a few of the blog posts others wrote reflecting on this topic:

Vanessa Guerram did an interesting post on the difference between educating for the workforce (filling a need of society) versus educating to empower [the individual].

The notion that somehow economic security trumps individual fulfillment has confounded me for years. And as Vanessa eloquently acknowledges “if education systems focus on students’ learning experiences, education will be about empowering students so they can find the tools they need to make their difference in the world.”

If students are able to focus on becoming experienced – possessing both skills and understanding – won’t they be productive citizens and contribute to the greater good of society?

Jaci Drapeau finds Kohn’s arguments limited and more synergy with Elbow’s argument for “more evaluation” which focuses on growth of students’ abilities or sophistication.

I appreciate Jaci’s reading of Elbow. Through her blog post the clarity of the language used – evaluation versus assessment – was more clear after contemplating it from her perspective. Evaluation, in Elbow’s work, is akin to an apprentice relationship: the student learns from a master and receives guidance, crtique, and challenges along the way to refining one’s craft/understanding. Through the experiences one learns and becomes more capable of applying understanding to new situations, problems or innovation.

Lauren Kennedy questions the feasibility of an alternative evaluation system (narrative) in the context of a system that is based upon summative assessment and grades quantified in numbers.

Lauren’s contemplation of where would the education system be without some sort of number-based assessment system was also clarifying. It helped to see the existing system as serving its own needs rather than those of the individual “engaged … in what they’re doing.” (Kohn

Becoming a real _______ [can be filled with any occupation or title] requires the development of the skills, mindset and demonstrated proficiencies that are expected within the field(s). And, while we have established systems where grades represent progress toward becoming real, they rarely reflect ‘real’ anything.

Feedback (both positive and negative) is essential to progressing and developing one’s craft.  Few humans exist and work simply for the benefit of themselves. Effective feedback can be liberating for the perfectionist and the individual who is stuck in an unproductive process: it can be the catalyst for new perspective that leads to original insight. Feedback that leads to an informed evaluation of a student’s progress – their growth – through certain carefully crafted exercises/projects/artifacts intended to develop one’s skills, thinking and articulation should be the aim of any educational endeavor. Grades mean next to nothing to anyone involved in the ‘earning’ or ‘distribution’ if there is no meaningful and intentional feedback.



Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership69(3), 28-33. Retrieved from:

Maher, M. L., & Midgley, C. (1996). Transforming school culture. CO: Westview.

I hope I get a good grade on this post

Within my teaching program, we have talked a lot about the differences in assessment versus grades. Typically, they are generally thought of as being interchangeable, but they actually mean two very different things. I believe that we should use assessment as a means of seeing where people are at with the material and the concepts being taught. Maybe that is complimented with a grade and maybe it isn’t. However, I don’t think that assessment should always have a grade attached to it. Assessment also may look a lot of different ways. It could be as simple as “write down two things you learned today” or as casual as walking by student groups and listening to what they are discussing.

When it comes to grades, we get into this conversation of what is fair and what is not? I have had classes where the professor curved the class and just as many students got curved down as those that benefited from the curve. Should a student’s grade ever suffer because of how others in the class perform? It can especially be difficult to not incorporate generality into grading when you have a larger class. It isn’t possible to get to know each of the students and to witness their efforts (or lack thereof). When grades are involved, you also take away a person’s ability to freely make mistakes. And that is disappointing when we often learn the very most from our mistakes.

My favorite point made in The Case Against Grades is “grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.” I find myself experiencing this on a regular basis. If the assignment says, “write five pages,” there may be times when I literally write five pages because that is merely what I need to do to get the assignment done. I have to admit that although I wasn’t too keen on blogging for this class, Dr. Nelson has kept her promise that we have freedom within the assignment. This has made it a lot more enjoyable and I find myself not dreading my homework Sundays.

The What Motivates Us video was very interesting. The statement about treating people like people rather than machines and horses really stuck with me. I feel like that is how to be a successful teacher in the classroom. Students typically want to be seen as humans rather than just another body in a seat. Although students have responsibilities they need to be held accountable for, it is still important that a professor recognizes that students have real lives outside of the classroom. Exploring one’s purpose is not an easy feat. The word “purpose” goes so far beyond the classroom.


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A Conversation on Grading

The theme of this week is assessment. This is a topic that brings out many diverse viewpoints, but it does seem that the majority of people agree that what we are doing right now is far from ideal. With traditional methods of assessing student performance, teachers promote the competitive culture of the modern education system and actually demotivate students. I can personally say that I am one of those students who was never really motivated by grades, much to the dismay of my mother. I would often get poor grades in classes, even though I would have high test scores. I never really understood why people were so motivated by grades. I enjoyed learning and often would loose points on assignments that I had done, but just never turned in for a grade. I thought I was a misfit in a group of students who all shared some unspoken understanding/level of content with the way that we were evaluated. It wasn’t until college that I really started to appreciate that I was part of the vast majority of students who really don’t perform well within the methods that are traditionally used to motivate students. In reading the article by Alfie Kohn I thought the quote about grades and testing was rather accurate,

Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.

Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”

Furthermore, even if these traditional assessment methods didn’t impede learning, they are also very poor indicators of the skills and competencies that students need in the modern workforce. Right now our education system produces students who are really good at memorizing content and regurgitating it in a a well defined setting. In a modern work setting, people need to be able to think critically and solve problems in settings that are often very loosely defined.

The perspective that Alfie Kohn brings to the table in the article, “The Case Against Grades” is very insightful. I really appreciated the fact that he tackled the issue from a practical perspective, focusing on tools and techniques that educators can use to actively begin to transform their classrooms. Change can often seem difficult and jumping into a new teaching and assessment style can seem like a really big undertaking, but I felt that Kohn did a very good job of providing guidance and examples so that teachers can approach the change confidently, without feeling too overwhelmed. I was amazed at finding out how long research has shown that traditional assessment does not produce desirable results. It is time that we begin to shift away from these outdated and ineffective techniques.

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