Vol. 15 : No. 1
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
on development, advancement and proficiency
by Guy Bensusan
Grading has traditionally followed two ethics, Ideal and Comparative. In the former, the student's achievement is measured against a yardstick of knowledge, in the latter by competing with others for points. Both measures, along with their various objectives, subjective and mixed testing techniques used to create numbered databases, are universally recognized as being highly faulty, incomplete and imperfect. Both, however, continue to be "the methods clearly preferred by most doctors" - to which we can add masters, bachelors, adjuncts and teaching assistants. They have the tacit approval of many administrators, and those from the creators and marketers of commercially lucrative tests promoting national standards.
Standards in the quantitative manner used by many teaching-centered and content-centered teachers may be having their place somewhere, but for me they are a dehumanizing revolving door. Standards create the basis for labeling winners and losers based on how fast, how much, how far and the like. This system seems to presume that all or most students cannot be or become top quality, and only a few can be excellent. That does not work for me and my experience demonstrates just the opposite to me.
When we change our grading standard over to that of personal growth, another world opens up, allowing those who do not fit in the old boxes to function in a different way. In our Post-Post-Modern era of multiculturality, diversity awareness and acknowledgement of variations in learning styles, multicultural perspectives and taboos, affective and psychomotor learning-mode predilections, plus acquisition-rate metabolisms, there are far too many variables to be considered than are taken into consideration by the ideal and comparative steamroller standards.
In teaching to the wide variety of university students I have dealt with since 1963, it is crystal clear to me that the old box does not, will not and cannot fit everyone. And when I hear my colleagues agree and say, "Yep, it does not work any longer," I am tempted to reply, "While I am glad you see the need to change, I also think that the old box that does not work now probably did not work before, either. We just did not notice because in the way we were we did not face the situations we are in now. The differences are major shift in who the studies are, in the conditions for colleges and universities, in the technology available, in the job market and its needs, in the evolution of performing scholarship, in the shift toward andragogy, in the changes of access and in the motivations of the learners."
We are no longer the same nation that built the educational system that we have many rights to be proud of - though not totally. Perhaps we might consider the changes in our business world as a parallel: railroads worked well at one time - I traveled across the nation easily. Now I fly. It is not just a matter of speed, but of quality and opportunity for new combinations of activities.
The highway system of the 1940s carried me from New York to my new home in the San Fernando Valley. Now I can only find bits and pieces of Route 66 as I speed along Interstate 40 in my Japanese Toyota Camry or German Volkswagen Campmobile. As I drive, I watch the Santa Fe flatbed cars carrying truck trailers to other hubs, where they will become eighteen-wheelers on other Interstates.
In similar fashion, the needs in education have changed. We need more teaching that helps learning, more skills in becoming able to futurize, which is to become competent at coping with where we are going ever-more-rapidly. I would steadfastly argue that if I cannot know for certain what facts a student will need twenty years from now, I should instead consider providing that student with a different bunch of stuff while he is in my classroom. And what should that be? My answer is the ability to learn on his or her own.
That means to me acquiring the ability to see how some of yesterdays basic beliefs and approved aphorisms as well as fundamental facts are being replaced by what is being learned from our expanding comprehensions and resource bases. The old is constantly being besieged by the new - and we need to know how to tell the seasoned good stuff from the obsolete malarkey, as well as be able to detect which part of the emerging knowledge is worth our while, since we will never have time of all of it.
Competition in this country. Learning is not something someone gives you or a situation where someone wins over someone else - learning is a process or growing that take place inside, perhaps like the building of muscles or the achievement of greater stamina and endurance from within. While a purpose of education was once to assure society of prepared workers and citizens, a higher level of intent is to help each person attain fulfillment of self and potential by learning to learn - something the world has yet to see.
Another factor merits consideration. When the professor tests the learner, various cross-purposes and vested interests are at work. It may be that learner-helping alone should be the dedication of the professor, and that testing for competence should be in the hands of a disinterested professional tester, or the prospective employer, who will know exactly what skills and capacities are required for the specific tasks that the prospective employee may be hired for. As things now stand, a grade of A or B or C means nothing to an employer since they are rankings rather than qualificational descriptors.
A shift to a measuring of a student's growth over a learning term can be salutary in many ways. The teacher benefits because concentration can be on the learning experiences and achievements, rather than devising methods to create a spread of numbers that will translate to a ranking of grades. Since I tried unsuccessfully for twenty years to formulate standardized tests that would eliminate the curve, I concluded that the curve itself was the problem. A pre-established curve begets itself; when you let these evil curves have their own way you wind up with a bunch of little curvelets all over the place. And if you give them an inch, there goes the neighborhood!
Growth requires no curve. No fuss, no bother, they are so very easy to deal with and care for. It is another world, a different paradigm, another order, genus and species of concepts. Here the questions are, "Did the students acquire new knowledge, skills, abilities and perceptions? Did they work at all the tasks and accomplish them? Did they move beyond where they were? Were they gaining new and additional levels of comprehension? When they needed information, did they know where to do find it? When they found it, had they learned how to validate it? Did they learn how to perceive ideas from more than one perspective and can they apply what they learned in a practical manner? Have they clearly and tangibly advanced beyond where they were? These are the legitimate questions in this venue.
We may not like to hear about it in our smugly struggling society, but we really do live in a multicultural nation, a multicultural hemisphere and a multicultural globe. The revolution has been going on and the older order is passing, even if many folks have not noticed. The future will be more global, frontiers more open and nationalism greatly redefined. The many cultures have generated from unique geographic, historic and cultural conditions and events, and do not fit into neat little concepts like first, second and third world.
You cannot give the USA and A, Mexico a B and Zaire a C. It overlooks the obvious and is meaningless - you must have a yardstick of criteria in order to measure something that may only in part be measurable. When we shift that to students, the real point is not the comparison between Patruska and Ahmed, Florencia and Bubba, but their individual advancement, and that also holds true for the Anglos, John, William, April and June. So, while I can, and actually used to set up a list of things to be learned and tested students for how much they have memorized, all it did was show me that some persons memorize better than others, and I already knew that.
However, in substituting the A, C or F for the concept, I also distorted the meaning. The grade means nothing. If I were to give many tests for other aspects of learning (such as creating a decathlon of swimming nine different strokes, playing chess, writing poetry, playing a guitar, chopping wood, cooking a meal, changing the baby, wiring a lamp, comparing historical documents, reading to resident retirees, and speaking a foreign language), I might feel better about getting a little closer to the need, but only a little.
One basic difficulty is that when a professor of one generation sets up criteria for excellence for the younger generation growing up in a climate of accelerating cultural, technological and organizational velocity, and speed of employment changes, some serious questions of appropriateness and ethics arise. Twenty years ago I was able to predict where I would be and what I would be doing a decade later. Ten years ago, I would have predicted those things for now - but I would have been wrong. Now, I assume I may still be working with learners, but my vocabulary has changed and with the technology explosion I wont even venture how my learner helping will be "delivered" or worked with.
I do NOT want to use traditional standards for giving grades to learners in my class. I want to establish a set of principles, thought processes and applications of inquiry for student to learn to use so that they are able to cope with whatever is coming up ahead. Some things need to be memorized, sure, but many more will simply require some ability to figure out relationships, know when you are being fed propaganda and become able to find your way through the marketplace without falling into traps.
I do not see this as a quantifiable procedure, because I must deal with each one's growth in relation to their individual uniqueness. However, I do expect to find and use some sort of scientific or formulaic approach to growth as a measure. Questions emerge rapidly here when we deal with the variables of students not starting at the same place, not being alike in their abilities, cultures and learning styles, not able to dedicate the same amount of time and effort, not traveling the same distance and not ending up even on the same map. The Idealists and the Comparativists will see these as insuperable barriers - but those are etic rather than emic viewpoints, that is, they look at the learner from the outside rather than from within.
In truth, I have found the Growth standard to be utterly uncomplicated to understand and absolutely simple to apply. There are no formulas, no ratios or percentages, nor additions, subtractions, multiplications, divisions or deletions. The questions are simple. Where did the student begin? Did they perform the assigned tasks? Did growth take place? Did it occur in several different areas? How far did they get? Did they work hard and regularly? Are the consequences of the growth apparent?
Naturally, if one uses growth does one not need a starting point? Sure, and one only needs to ask the student to write a reactive response to a straight-forward question about some aspect of the course topic on the first day of class, put it in a file, and return to asking the same question at midterm and again at the end of the course to be able to see that. The answers will have changed, and the phrasing, vocabulary, outlook, levels of response and multiplicities of consideration will have indicated the nature of the individual growth. The use of the Hexadigm, The Ladder, Bias and all the other models will have left their mark, while the Escalator will have provided a clear sequence of growth, every two weeks. In addition the three self-assessments, early middle and late will have illustrated the students self-perception of the growth, while the project will be a specific demonstration of application of course principles.
As the semester progresses, student development becomes visible in participation, in helpfulness to others, and in various other ways, including willingness to present and share what has been learned without formal credit. However, this can be a teacher's mental trap, because one cannot assume the quiet ones are not advancing simply because they are passive. To use the Internet Listserver jargon, "Lurkers also Learn!" The act of sitting and listening to debates and discussion without saying anything hides what is in truth going on in their minds? Often this will show up in reflection essays, or in written comments performed for peer evaluation. A teacher must carefully examine assumptions about where evidence for growth is to be found.
That evidence will be right there in the portfolio into which the student has accumulated everything from all semester long. And when should it be graded? Only at the end of the term, after the student has had the whole semester to demonstrate personal effort, persistence, improvement through progress and continual revisitation, and the enlightenment which shows through when the student who was a beginner many weeks before can now explain, compare and contrast, draw parallels, see slantings of meaning, and otherwise discuss a complex subject in daily conversation. When that happens, I know the student has acquired necessary tools and has learned to use them.
One aspect of the growth requires that it be individual. The world we are moving into requires teamwork, meaning that we must get along with others and learn how to work with them rather than only be loners.
I think back to a moment in my life when, after many many learning sessions in a swimming pool with a skinny little thirteen year old girl who could not move her legs, she finally swam the length of the pool. We had worked week after week to help her find ways to get those legs up higher in the water so that she could propel herself forward with coordinated breathing. She kept trying, and the key to doing it was to tilt and push her head down deeper into the water. On one day, she began by asking her father to carry her out and seat her on the end of the diving board. Taking a deep breath, she rolled herself forward, dove into the water, came up floating on her back, stretched out toward the other end, took long strokes with her arms and breathed on alternate sides, and went the distance. I swam in parallel several feet away. When she reached the other end, there was no ceremony, no extrinsic reward, just the sparkle in her eyes and the broadest grin you could imagine. And her parents were just as pleased. I remember that day in 1955 and the hug she gave me just as clearly as if it were yesterday. She will never win any medal for Olympic swimming, but she triumphed over herself, giving herself more incentive to go farther. I never saw her again, though I heard that she went on through high school and walked across the stage with canes at graduation.
Helping someone else in no way diminishes your own chance of getting an A, and is personally rewarding as well.
It will become apparent that the students will be eager and able to establish growth criteria. They will write about it, talk about it, and advance even more rapidly than they thought possible. My intuition says this relates to liberation from worry about failing and a consequent ability to relax and grow.
What are the kinds of growth? What will show? In writing, there will be a general move from description to other levels; analysis, comparison, and change in vocabulary. As the essays grow, there will be more crossover, assessment of author position, a consciousness of slants and biases. The models terminology will appear, and essays will take on several levels of discussion.