GRAD 5114 – Who are you as a Teacher?

This week in Contemporary Pedagogy, we’re taking some of the first steps in the long process of putting together a teaching statement. I, of course, have a number of years to develop my teaching philosophy yet, but I’m looking forward to the practice. I’m aware that the things I love in a class are not what many students thrive on (my ideal course as a learner is a well thought out series of lectures without powerpoints but with an associated lab for practical application), and the range of classes I could have the opportunity to teach in the future is rather vast as paleontology straddles biology and geology.

What I kept returning to while thinking about the concept of the “authentic teaching self” – as this week’s topic was titled – was balancing approachability, care for students, cultivating respect, and authority. This is a difficult thing to manage for new instructors, and even more complicated for female faculty, who are often expected to go out of their way to accommodate students and possibly still be rated by students as inferior to male colleagues independent of teaching quality.

When I taught in Tanzania, I received a deal of respect for my position as a teacher, but I did have to navigate gaining student respect as one of the few teachers who wouldn’t consider corporal punishment. Being the disciplinarian to large classes of teenagers was outside of my comfort zone, but I certainly have higher expectations of my university-level students. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant here in America, I have not yet had a student venture out of line with their expectations of me.

I hope to be able to be friendly and approachable to my students. When I present, I prefer to sit at the table with the class and encourage questions and discussion. I make a point of being very clear about what I will and won’t tolerate in my classrooms (feel free to speak up with a question if I don’t see your hand raised, and I will strictly enforce punishment for  any form of cheating, no exceptions). Thus far, this has been plenty to ensure acceptable behavior. Still, I could certainly stand to add more tools to my belt in this area, as I’m sure situations will arise in the future which require more.

Thoughts and Reflection!

When reading the article titled: “Finding My Teaching Voice” by Sarah, I found her experience is very informative and interesting to reflect upon. I really like how she wrote her story and thoughts. Below I summarized what the most important takeaway lessors (in my opinion) and along with some personal experience:

  1. There are many different techniques but a few of them work for us, not all. That is we have different personalities and characteristics. It is to me like a medicine that might work for some people and not for others. A couple months ago, I was attending a teaching workshop where the instructor gave us a lot of techniques but she stressed out that it’s really important to realize that not all of them work with you, so the participants’ job is to find out the best teaching style that could work with them.
  2. Instead of coping with the exact character of the particular teacher, we should aim at picking up the best practice/teaching techniques and build our teaching style and keep improving it over time.
  3. One way to keep teachers being improved is to hold a monthly meeting with other teachers to exchange experience and thoughts.
  4. Teachers should get feedback from students so often (not only after the semester is over!). For example, the teacher could ask the whole class to answer one question using a questionnaire app (there’re plenty of FREE apps for surveys) if they had achieved the goal of today’s class and understood the most of it.
  5. One thing comes to my mind but could not address it: is it better to have an anticipated behavior so the students could easily predict teacher’s response for what he/she would do or is it better to follow unclear anticipated approach so that students never misuse this for their favor?
  6. One missing part I see in most of the courses I’ve been taking is we don’t what the plan is for today? Yes, we know the syllabus and the main topic for this week but don’t know what the details are we going to covered? What is the teacher expected from the students at the end of the class? To me, this is what makes students get bored as they don’t know what to learn. It’s like going on a trip but don’t the purpose of the trip nor know when it will end.
  7. One lesson I learned when teaching is that never things would come as perfectly as we expected! Simply, because we teach humans with different feelings and personalities, and each one had a different day that might affect his/her engaging in the class.
  8. Being always relaxed or very serious when teaching is a bad thing. To me, our teaching style should have relied on different factors such as today’s topic, the current circumstances of the class, and the level of engagement between the teacher and students, and so on.
  9. Preparation is a key factor that almost all the good professors I talk to are doing. They would prepare along enough although they have been teaching the course for years! Watch how much efforts this professor has spent for this class!


  1. The author said “Instead of assessing students equally, in some circumstances I have shifted toward assessing students individually” but a teacher might being trapped in treating them unfairly!
  2. The first 5-min of the class could be a great opportunity to increase the level of engagement and motivation between the instructor and students. One way is by discussing any non-related topic to the class and letting the majority of the students to express their opinion. That could maximize their participation and make the class more comfortable and relaxing to talk and express their feeling.

On Being Real

When I was searching for MFA creative writing programs, I realized that Virginia Tech’s package is a complete anomaly. Not only did I require funding for my graduate program, but, likewise, I desired teaching opportunities, so I maintained the expectation that I’d teach comp or creative writing at one of the universities. While this is the norm for funded programs, what’s also the norm is that they throw you right into teaching—without any kind of pedagogical training—on Day One. Also the norm, many schools make you compete among your cohort for these positions while there, hold annual callouts for reapplying—for proving your worth, for boiling your anxiety without ever having given you the tools for teaching-success in the first place. Here’s the message: You’ve seen someone teach, yeah? Now you can, too!…or, perhaps it’s: As a university, we realize you’re not ready for effective teaching, but, hey, you’re cheap! A good researcher! Here’s your side-gig! Attempt to guide those students paying $3,000 a-person for your class! 

Long-story-short: teaching is undervalued at institutions of higher education. Ironic, no?

Something I am especially appreciative of in my program here at Tech is its assurance of full funding, teaching placements and requirement to take a six-credit composition pedagogy class prior to teaching. In our pedagogy class in the first semester here, my cohort bonded through discussions of theory, weekly shadowing, grading practice, syllabus construction and guest-teaching opportunities—all of which helped us reflect on finding our teaching voices, becoming effective teachers and feeling as comfortable as possible prior to becoming instructors of record.

And then, of course, the real learning came when we got into our classrooms and just got to do the damn thing. Though, while I’ve gradually been building my self-awareness of my teaching style through the act of teaching, what’s encouraged this awareness has been constant reflection. Each semester, I take a practicum course that serves as a weekly teaching check-in; similarly, I have teaching mentors and I continue to take classes (like this! Hello!) that ask me to reassess my preexisting practices and values.

In reading Sarah E. Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” and Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills,” in particular, I felt quite lucky to be a person who doesn’t deal with teaching nerves, though, similar to these educators, I do consistently reevaluate my practices. Certainly there’s truth in the point that teaching can be performative, though I never think of my teaching in that way. I feel deflated when I read reflections like that of Deel who recalls worrying about how to be that charismatic professor who naturally engages students. I want to say this stems from self-confidence, so, I don’t know, just build some of that…but, of course, the issue is far more complicated than for what I’m giving it credit. Nonetheless, charisma, for me, comes from just being real—from providing transparency to my students about why I’m having them read this short story or analyze that Instagram post or consider the use of pathos in the lyrics of their favorite songs; from letting them in on my life once in a while and telling them a story about my sister’s test or the movie I saw last night or my love of blue raspberry anything (real life—this can come with benefits. Got a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher out of this personal-life point of transparency last week).

There’s an art to maintaining professionalism and authority without being an authoritarian; being an authoritarian will gain you no respect, anyway. Just fear. And although our culture can encourage us to believe that fear and respect are interchangeable entities, they’re not synonymous concepts. So, while we shouldn’t be spending time or energy on being people we’re not, we must also remember to be people, too. Part of authenticity is doing away with the robotic appeal, of being some intimidation-inducing hierarchical gods of knowledge, untouchable to our students. Part of being genuine and real and present is making human connections with our students—by speaking (verbally, one-on-one, you’re-a-person-hey-I’m-a-person, moving-the-mouth speaking), learning about their interests, their needs, their fears. I grow exhausted by the message that this kind of connection is impossible. While I’ll agree that our current system isn’t set up for more individualized care of a student, it absolutely could be. We just need to reinforce the importance of good teaching and reconsider our priorities regarding into whom/what we should be funneling our investments.

My Authentic Teaching Self

In reading the material this week, I was able to really capture and relate to the work by Sarah Deel. After being a professional student for so many years, we fail to truly understand the time and preparation being on the other side of the classroom means. At times when I think of what I would or will do when I am teaching a classroom, the simple thought of “Well I will just do what my previous teachers did” comes to mind. But what exactly does that entail?

After taking this course, and having some opportunities to think more deeply into the teaching and pedagogical process, I am aware that there is so much to consider. Not only from my perspective but also considering the culture of your institution, the background of your class, how the material you are teaching is changing over time. The things to consider grow exponentially when you really start to think about it. And presenting the information to students who are learning it the first time can be daunting.

That is why I enjoyed navigating through Dr. Deel’s self discovery of “finding my teaching voice”. For those of us that are more technically minded, we often strive to find a process or solution that works and can be implemented at later times on similar occasions. It was nice to see her approach and evolution to finding out that what she needed to do was to basically “be herself” and not try to emulate other professors she though were good.

Similar points were discussed highlighted by Dr. Fowler, although she did mentioned acting a few times I can see where it is applicable. I think one aspect which ins’t discussed on the job description, is that on top of teaching we are trying to motivate and excite students into our research interests. And to do that we need to be or “act” excited about our material and why what we are teaching is applicable to them for the purposes of the course but also how it comes into play in the daunting “real-world” that we are preparing them for.

Therapy Time

A quick disclaimer: This week’s readings and prompt hit me at an interesting time. Beginning the second and final year of my MA program, I am beginning to seriously think about what life will be like after grad school. Do I still want teaching to be an important part of my future and if so, what will that teaching look like? Needless to say, a prompt about finding my authentic teaching self really struck a chord and got me thinking about my future and myself. A wise individual once told me that some writing is for others and some writing is for you. Sometimes writing winds up being a way of essentially saying your thoughts out loud to make sense of them rather than conveying ideas to a reader. I think that this piece of writing is really more for me than for others, but I decided to post it anyway because I think that it is a good example of the process that we all go through when we start to think about our authentic teaching selves. With that said, on with the post…


This week we are talking about finding your authentic teaching self. In other words, its therapy time. Once upon a time, many years ago, undergraduate me didn’t understand why education programs were so focused on touchy feely stuff. Then I started to actually teach at the middle/high school level and I understood why – because teaching requires an emotional commitment, both towards your content and your students and because teaching will bring every ounce of your self-doubt and insecurity to the surface, regardless of how deep you thought you had buried it. I believe that teaching is an incredibly intense and personal act and thinking about how you teach inherently involves thinking about yourself as a person. In “Finding My Teaching Voice,” Sarah Deel stresses the importance of basing your teaching style on your personality, rather than trying to copy what other “successful” teachers do. This idea meshed with what I have already been told about teaching. During my internships for my MAED degree, teachers would always remind me that I had to find what worked for me, rather than copying what worked for someone else. Having said all that, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really spent much time thinking about my authentic teaching self, probably because to do so, I would first have to approach a much more intimidating question…

So who am I?

That’s a complicated question. Who I am sitting in a classroom of relative strangers is not the same thing as who I am when I’m with my family or my friends. Around strangers I am quiet, passive, calm reluctant to talk, (but willing when the time is right), careful with my words, not standoffish but also not engaging, humble and reserved. Around people I have known for a long time I am still humble, but also stubborn when I know (or think) I’m right. I am calm, but also passionate about people and ideas. Often times I’m still quite, but I’m also prone to be blunt, almost unreasonably argumentative, and frequently sarcastic, although also loyal and caring.

Which is the real me? Is my public persona just some front because I’m afraid that people won’t like me if I’m more open with them? Or is that quiet, reserved, guy just another facet of my personality, one that’s every bit as genuine as the one I wear around the people that I’m close with? More to the point, which persona is appropriate for my authentic teaching self? Sherri Fowler stresses the importance of being genuine and I know that my reserved self has a tendency to be superficially cool and reserved, regardless of how I actually feel.   I think that sometimes this leads me to hide my passion, especially in front of students, for fear of appearing weird. Sherri Fowler also talks about the importance of being attentive to your student’s needs.  My less reserved self is a lot more likely to accidentally say something stupid that could perpetually wreck my relationship with students or even, depending on the circumstance, cause them some level of emotional harm. On the other hand, my reserved self is a lot less likely to convey that I care about my students.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying all of this. One of the reoccurring themes from my readings and research in history is that binaries tend to oversimplify and obscure. In reality, my self is probably a shifting continuum, changing with each circumstance. The question then, is where I need to fall on that continuum when I’m in the classroom and how to go about making sure that I wind up where I need to be. I know that I will be humble, calm, and a little bit reserved, because quite frankly I think I’m incapable of anything else. I know that I will need to embrace my social awkwardness so that I can be genuine and engaging with my students, while still retaining enough social anxiety to keep me from saying something that I shouldn’t say. I also know that I will need to convey my passion, both for history and for my students, but I also know that I will convey this passion in a calm, reserved way. Moving beyond the touchy-feely aspects of my teaching self, I know that discussion will be a major part of my classroom time, because I don’t have the speaking chops to consistently pull off an engaging lecture. Moreover, I know that my classes will have a heavy focus on concepts and critical thinking, because I tend to think analytically, but also because I believe this will help my students develop skills that will hopefully make them better citizens, and, God willing, make this world a better place.

Of course, finding my authentic teaching self is only half the battle. The other half is actually making this self a reality in the classroom. Theory is inherently simpler than practice and I believe the next step will be to determine the routines, both inside and outside of the classroom, that will help me make my teaching self a reality.

POST 4: “Teaching is not all about the teacher..”

In reading Shelly Fowler’s piece on The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills, I was presently surprised at the impact Fowler’s perspective had on me. Oftentimes, unless we are forced to stop and actually think about the authenticity that goes into teaching, we forget to actually do it. I am appreciative of this piece because of its ability to force that out of me, regardless of how elementary some of these points may have seemed (no offense to Fowler).

However, with all of that being said, the one thing that really resonated with me was the professor’s fourth point where they explain what exactly being the authentic teaching self means.

In said point, Fowler explains that, as my title suggests, “teaching is not all about the teacher; that is, teaching is not all about you.” Furthermore, the professor explains that as the teacher, you have to be present and aware of who you are in the classroom and what you are doing. However, what I think stood out most to me as a reader and teacher is the importance of taking a “step outside of yourself,” in order to be more,”attentive to the students and not make the classroom your stage with the students as a passive audience.”

As a Public Speaking TA who is in charge of roughly 80 students per semester, that final point has become by far the most important aspect of my role as the teacher.

Oftentimes I get so caught up in the ease of teaching and the relaxed nature that my role provides that I forget how difficult this course can be for people. For clarity, when I say difficult, I don’t mean long and strenuous equations that take hours to complete or full memorization of our upper respiratory system and it’s subsequent functions. What I mean by difficult is that this course is often very uncomfortable and stressful for students and even the most confident of public speakers find themselves uneasy come speech day.

Because of this, my ability to “step outside” of myself has become absolutely crucial to my students success. Furthermore, given the nature of the course and how hard it can be for students, being attentive to students has become a duty of mine, so to speak.

However, the thing about public speaking is that it lends itself to completing this fourth step. I have the flexibility to step outside of myself and be attentive to each and every student because I have to. As Fowler explains, you do have to take the specific course into consideration and I very much do that. My concern is that the completion of this step might not be the case in every course. Moreover, this might not be the case as I continue on in my career (teaching or otherwise) and that causes a bit of concern for me. Personally, I think it is imperative that we are able to disconnect from being the center of attention when it comes to teaching and I place high value on authenticity through attentiveness to every individual.

With that being said, my question is this: How am I to complete this step in the event that my career goes beyond that of teaching? If I hold this step high atop my list of “must haves” in terms of authentic teaching (or leadership), how can I ensure that I am able to properly incorporate it into every aspect of my career, or even life?

If you have gotten this far I appreciate you sticking around and very much look forward to hearing your responses!

Assessment of educational ability And Challenges

Assessment of educational ability to me should be a way to see if students are leaning. If that is the case, you move forward; if not you assist them by providing helps. This is to my view the best way to assess learning; it should not be a way of selecting best students, qualifying or disqualifying students to move at a higher level or a way of punishing them. Unfortunately, this is the most spread way assessment is done across the globe and it is more problematic in underdeveloped countries. I am even wondering if the way of assessing learning is not among the main factors that are holding some countries in Africa behind.

Is it possible to address this learning assessment approach and make it better for a better learning outcome?

To me it will be difficult because even in developed countries attribution of rewards based on good performance (weather it is about good grades or participation in class) is so rooted in education and all actors (educators, parents, students, leaders) even think that it is indispensable.

I think at younger age, when students just start school they barely know what they are there for.  But kids appreciate when they are praised. At school when we give a good answer for a question and teachers say “excellent” or “Good job”, etc we feel some joy, some pride. And the same reaction or feeling is noticed with good grade. At home parents are proud and some even show much more love and provide us with more presents than our siblings if we do well at school. These behaviors of teachers and parents motivate us as kids to work hard but which effect are those behaviors having on the students who did not do well. Never fully understood.

Growing up and being more mature our perception of grades or what motivate us to work for good grades can shift but still grades occupies a good place. For some being among the best is always a challenge while other just care about finishing their studies.

I have mentioned that assessing knowledge in the best way is more challenging for underdeveloped countries. The following are elements that one can face while willing to provide students with assistance after unsatisfactory results:

  1. Large number of students in the public schools in some places.
  2. Lack of material and human resources to provide assistance and support to the student in need.
  3. The fact of studying not because this is the field of study you want to focus on for what you want to do or become in the future but because of what can help you get a job and make money. It is not rare to hear mentor telling their mentee if you are choosing a field of study weather local studies or abroad choose a field that will allow you to get a job once back home. They do not hesitate to tell students “choose what can help you make money not what you want”. Even though this does not apply to everybody, it is a fact.

Thoughts on ranking, evaluating, and liking

From this week’s GEDI F18 blog prompts on assessment, I was most interested in Peter Elbow’s essay on forms of judgement: ranking, evaluating, and liking. I highlighted several of Elbow’s passages and found myself writing in the margins “YES! I can relate to that!” What resonated with me the most however, was his comment that ranking “is inaccurate or unreliable; it gives no substantive feedback; and it is harmful to the atmosphere for teaching and learning.” His example of grading unreliability – a single paper will receive the “full range of grades” from readers (based on research conducted in 1912!) – is extremely convincing.

Elbow also points out one of my major frustrations with grades – students tend to focus on the grade and ignore the feedback/evaluations. He says “I’m trying to get students to listen better to my evaluations—by uncoupling them from a grade.” I would argue in some cases that better “should” be deleted from the sentence, implying that students should simply listen to evaluations. I had a wonderful PhD adviser who told me to always include positive feedback on all of my student’s assignments. Before my students could submit their homework to a digital platform, I would often receive encouraging comments from them about my feedback. My comments made them feel good about their work and they looked forward to picking up their assignments. Last semester, however, I TA’d a lab where all of the assignments were submitted through Canvas. My issue with the digital platform is that a student can see their grade without going to their assignment. Therefore, students may not actually read the evaluations, especially if they are satisfied with their grade, and thus won’t benefit from the feedback.

I love that Elbow brakes down his grading into only two classifications, “Honors” and “Unsatisfactory.” From my limited teaching experience, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s easy to identify the good and the bad but ranking the students in the middle is ambiguous, time consuming, and I never feel good about doing it.

I also want to comment on Elbow’s statement that “many “A” students also end up doubting their true ability and feeling like frauds – because they have sold out on their own judgement and simply given teachers whatever yields an A.” I want to add to this that in other situations some “A” students might also feel that the quality of their work was unworthy of that A because they know that they did not put enough time, effort, or thought into an assignment, which is another issue with the grading/ranking form of assessment. In this situation, feedback is essential (e.g., maybe the quality of the writing was poor but the student hit on all of the major points of the assignment).

Elbow’s essay focuses on writing, thus I wonder how his ideas on evaluating and liking could be applied to the sciences. Would scientists ever embrace these ideas? Or do they prefer multiple choice assessments solely because they’re easy to grade and shy away from assignments that require more rigorous evaluation? While I was reading, I was trying to come up with some other forms of evaluating students in the sciences. My default was to still consider tests of knowledge without the stress of a grade, e.g., end-of-the-week, ungraded or bonus “quizzes” that are reviewed in class, or the replacement of mid-term exams with a semester-long project. I also pondered using participation “points” to encourage liking, e.g., participate by contributing to the course’s weekly folder an article related to the topic being discussed in class that week. Does anyone have another idea or comment on evaluating and liking in the sciences?

Abandon grades? Maybe the right reasons, but not the right time

Perhaps there is no doubt that the grading system is “inherently problematic” for most people in the modern society. However, from my personal experience, I think there are many problems although this assessment approach has many problems, it cannot be replaced right now. I disagree with Alfie Kohn’s statement that “Nor are grades a necessary part of schooling…we have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all”.
I can say that China is the most important country in the world to pay attention to the rating system, starting with the Imperial Examination System that appeared in the Tang Dynasty 1400 years ago. Since then, the selection of talents for the country through standardized tests has become the main purpose of education under Confucianism. However, the coin has two sides. On the one hand, the imperial examination system is considered to be rigid and lacking in creativity, which in turn leads to China’s scientific and economic development lags behind Europe in modern times; On the other hand, it promoted stability and social mobility. The poor, even the embarrassed, can change their destiny through hard study—the Confucius educational opinion of “instruction knows no class distinction” then became the mainstream value in China.
For modern China, traditional educational genes are still visible everywhere in the current education system. Some of the things that Chinese people are used to may be unimaginable for Westerners. For most primary and secondary schools, the student’s test rankings will be open to everyone; teachers will talk to parents if their children have poor grades; in the year before the college entrance exam, there will be an exam with six subjects almost every week…Scores become the most important thing for teachers, students and parents in education. Some standardized tests are not very useful, such as English. The English test of the college entrance examination and the graduate entrance examination are very rigid and almost useless for daily communication. In the three years of high school, students usually learn new knowledge in the first two years, and in the third year, they all review and keep doing exercises. This process is boring and painful for most people and is the toughest year in life. But for many people, especially those who are the bottom class or come from the rural areas, college entrance examination, one of the most important annual activities of the country, is the best way for them to change their destiny.
I am very grateful for this ranking system in China. I grew up in an agricultural city in a backward province in China. My parents didn’t have a college degree. My family didn’t have our own house until I graduated from elementary school. I need to work hard to get enough grades to enter the local junior school and high school with good education quality. I have also experienced more brutal competition, the college entrance examination. I clearly remember that I am the 475th among the more than 200,000 candidates in the province. This allowed me to enter a top ten university in China, which only recruits 30 students in our province. I keep my first place for four years in college, which gave me an opportunity to enter the best university in China to get my master’s degree. After that, I applied to come to the United States to study for a doctorate at Virginia Tech. I have no other specialties. Before I entered college, I rarely had free time to spend on sports and social activities or other personal interests such as music and painting. But is this all worth it? I think it is worth it. I changed my destiny and the fate of my family. I totally rely on my own efforts. Although this scoring system is not completely fair, I do benefit from it. If leadership, social skills, or specialties in sports or music are included in the assessment system, how do I compete with those with rich resources?
I admit that the grading system will definitely be reformed in the future. But any reform measures that do not consider social equity are ridiculous. Education can change not only the fate of the individuals but also a nation. Some education reform experiments are very good, but there are no conditions for promotion. Grading system reform is necessary, but the extreme idea that completely abandoning seems to me to be like Utopia and needs to be avoided.

Grading and Society

Grading: it’s probably the aspect of educating that all teachers (from elementary strait through university) like the least. Yet at the same time we all seem to assume that grading is both essential and inevitable, even as we may question our ability to reduce our understanding of a student’s learning into an easily quantifiable number, letter or rank. Virtually all of this week’s readings challenged the assumption that grades are essential for student learning, and in fact, many of the readings argued that grades are not only inaccurate, prone to bias and generally unhelpful, but also actively toxic to the learning process. I can’t say that I found any of this all that surprising. I already knew that it is difficult to assess the kind of higher order thinking which should be an important part of a college education (or any education really). I’ve also already seen how a focus on grades often keeps students from engaging in the material at a deeper level. As a matter of fact, every week as we talk about innovate learning techniques that can help our students think at a deeper level, I can’t help but think of that student on the front row raising their hand and asking if this is going to be on the test.

In a lot of ways, our students are even more attached to the system of grades than we are. Some of them, like Lisa Simpson, have their sense of self-worth tied up in these powerful little letters and others are simply acting on a rational calculation of their self-interest based on everything everyone has told them about how the world works. Get good grades in high school to get into a good college, get good grades in college to get a good job (or, just as often these days, get into a good grad school). On and on it goes. We can talk about innovate teaching all we want, but the fact of the matter is that for many of our students, all this learning stuff is just a way to get that fancy piece of paper that is supposed to open the door to the rest of their lives. Of course, reality is a lot more complicated. That little piece of paper might open some doors (although on its own it doesn’t open nearly as many as I expected it to when I graduated the first time around), but by itself, without the capacity for critical thought, introspection and other higher order thinking, it is unlikely to bring success and even less likely to bring any sense of happiness or fulfillment.

We might hope that the ‘real world’ would see the value of higher level thinking and actually encourage us to change the way that we assess, but unfortunately the ‘real world’ is often every bit as obsessed with measurable outcomes and simple systems of reward and punishment. I really enjoyed Dan Pink’s video, because he addressed the issue of assessment not in terms of education but in terms of business. I think this video points to a reality that debates in education often fail to consider, the reality that our obsession with overly simplistic measurable results is not an education problem, but a society problem. I can’t help but think about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he essentially argues that modern institutions (be they factories, prisons, armies or schools) are based upon the concept of control through constant observation. One important part of observation is breaking tasks down into simple steps that can be standardized, taught, observed and enforced (Foucault, 157). Perhaps grades are just a manifestation of this unseen force that underlays the fabric of modern society.

Wow. Now I’m starting to get depressed. Sometimes all of this feels like it’s beyond my control, like I’m just a cog in this unceasing machine. Alfie Cohn talks about this sentiment in “The Case Against Grades,” referring to it as the “better get used to it” philosophy. (Kohn) Cohn argues that the prevalence of grades throughout a student’s life is no reason to give in to bad policy. Instead, Cohn suggests that teachers seek out ways to minimize the impact of grades on student learning through alternative forms of assessment. Similarly, in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow gives several suggestions for ways that an individual professor can limit the harmful aspects of grades. For example, he talks about creating “Evaluation-Free Zones” by having periods where there are only ungraded assignments (197). These articles do give me some hope that I can help my students move beyond a focus on grades and begin to appreciate learning in its own right. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of this class thought when we discuss some of these ideas in class this week.


P.S.: Michel Foucault discusses education extensively in Discipline and Punish and I’ve only just scratched the surface of his analysis.  He gives an interesting (although also depressing) analysis of the role of education in modern society.

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