The starting point for this post is an interesting discussion over the last couple of weeks on the Association of Learning Technology members’ mail list. (It is a closed list at ALT-MEMBERS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK)
The title of the discussion was “Do hybrid courses incubate mediocrity?” But one of the themes that emerged during the discussion concerned the awarding of grades/marks etc. In my posts I was critical from three different standpoints of what I see as the centrality of marks, grades and rank order assessment within current educational practice and discourse:
- Firstly, I was critical of the ‘instrumental’ view of education:
“… the view that one learns not because of the intrinsic value of the stuff one is learning but because of the perceived benefits that accreditation brings - so any 'effort' that is put into learning that does not provide 'marks' is regarded as 'wasted'. I would suggest that it is the prevalence of this attitude that is the real 'incubator of mediocrity' in higher education and indeed in schools also. Without commitment to the intrinsic value of the stuff of learning there can only be mediocrity.”
- Secondly, and closely related to this, I questioned the value of what I call ‘extrinsic motivation’ for learning:
“… we should do all we can to promote the intrinsic rewards of learning (e.g. students feeling "they are gaining something from participation" and "getting genuine learning") rather than the extrinsic rewards (e.g. "marks for participation").”
- Thirdly, I challenged the meaningfulness of marks and grades:
“Using a number to describe someone’s learning is at best a crude abbreviation. At worst it is a failure to understand the complex nature of human learning. Scientists have been showing us for nearly a century now that complex systems (like human learning) cannot be understood in linear and reductionist terms, and therefore cannot be described by simple numbers. I believe that it is about time the world of education moved away from its obsession with numbers/grades/marks/rank order assessment, rooted as they are in an outmoded and scientifically disproved seventeenth century Cartesian world view.”
In a contribution to the discussion thread Alison Bulbeck picked up on the final sentence above (“I believe…”) and questioned whether the issue represents a “wicked problem”. Alison also pointed out, quite correctly I think, that the obsession with marks, grades, rank order assessment etc. can be found across wider society, not just within a narrowly conceived “world of education”.
Now I am not sure if this issue constitutes a ‘wicked problem’ as described/defined by the systems thinker Charles West Churchman. But I do think that consideration of the issue points us towards the need to develop a new educational paradigm, and indeed Alison hints at this in her message when she says “everyone is still thinking in the old paradigm [my emphasis] of marks, grades”.
To explain what I mean let me start by going back about 470 years to the publication by Copernicus of “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”. In this book Copernicus challenged the accepted view at the time that the earth was at the centre of the universe. He suggested an alternative picture, that the sun was at the centre. This was a challenge both to common sense (‘it’s obvious, init, that the sun goes around the earth – we would fall off if we were spinning around the sun’) and to those who held power at the time – the Catholic Church with its insistence on the literal truth of the Bible. It was over 200 years before the idea that the earth was not the centre of the universe was generally accepted, but crucially this acceptance went hand in glove with one of the most important advances ever in scientific thinking: Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation.
Fast forward 470 years, and I will try to use similar language to describe the need I see for a changing educational paradigm. Many educators (not just me) are challenging the accepted view that marks, grades, rank order assessment and performance tables are at the centre of the educational universe, and they are presenting an alternative picture, in which the intrinsic value of learning and narrative descriptions of the achievements and capabilities of individuals are at the centre. This is certainly a challenge to common sense (‘it’s obvious, init, that kids go to school to ‘get the grades’ – they would fall off the economic greasy pole if they didn’t’). Challenging the centrality of marks, grades, rank order assessment and performance tables also challenges those who hold power in the contemporary world. For not only are politicians obsessed with these so called ‘measurements of performance’ but senior staff in institutions, and indeed anyone who wishes to further a career in education, dare not challenge the centrality of the numbers – they dare not suggest that maybe the marks and grades are not at the centre of the educational universe, even if deep down they know this to be the case – to do so would be professional suicide.
Perhaps what we now need is a genius like Newton to formulate and propagate a comprehensive basis for a new paradigm. I just hope that it will not take 200 years for this to happen! I just hope that it will not take 200 years for a new paradigm to be accepted, a paradigm that will go hand in glove with placing real learning at the centre of the educational universe.