Education — Excellence and Quantification

I’m often asked about how I write, and while, like most writers, I’m perfectly happy to flaunt my knowledge and expertise, one of the things that I’ve learned over a long career is that almost every successful writer is unique in the way he or she approaches the craft. Oh, there are similarities, and a certain degree of grammatical competency is a necessity, but there are hundreds of variations on the theme of writerly success, and most people seem to understand this.

What most people don’t understand is that what is true in writing is also true in all professions requiring skill and thought. Once one gets beyond the mastering the necessary and basic competencies, the variations among the great and the successful are considerable. Again, the result must be outstanding, but how one uses competencies to achieve the result can differ considerably.

All that is why I’m appalled at the current educational craze for quantification and assessment along standardized lines. Using a building metaphor… that’s like saying you need to use a saw twenty percent of the time with a certain motion, a hammer thirty percent, a trowel fifteen percent, etc., regardless of what you’re building or what materials you’re using. Good and great teachers come in all flavors and talents, as do mediocre and poor ones, and trying to shoehorn teachers and students into the same methodology is a recipe for disaster.

Those who favor testing as a determinant don’t do much better, because tests essentially measure the use of certain skills in a short time period and the retention and regurgitation of information under pressure. That’s absolutely necessary in some professions, and counterproductive in others. Test are useful in measuring certain fundamental skills, such as mathematics, grammar, reading, basic history and government, but far less useful in determining how well students will apply those skills in the real world. Winston Churchill was an indifferent student at anything that bored him, but ended up winning a Nobel Prize in literature for his History of the English Speaking Peoples and The Second World War, not to mention becoming prime minister of Great Britain.

Then there is the fact that, whatever the testing methodology, it will play to the strengths of some students and against the strengths, or weaknesses, or others, while not necessarily measuring true ability. Those who think swiftly do comparatively better on objective tests, and may do less well on essay tests requiring longer concentration and focus, while slower, but surer thinkers may not do well on any form of timed test.

Yet it seems that all too many of those involved in education in the United States, whether as teachers, administrators, politicians, or parents, are looking for a magic solution that will instantly tell who is learning well and who is teaching well.

There’s no such thing, not instantly. The results are there, but they take years to show up, when it becomes clear that significant numbers of students from a school, or students who learned from a specific teacher or professor, make their marks on the world in some fashion or another. In this impatient society, that just won’t do. We need to know… now!

And so, flavour du jour solutions come and go, and rather than adapting a system that generally worked well for white middle-class and upper class students to a broader range of students, that system is being replaced with another, every few years, because no one can tell what worked and what didn’t. New buzzwords and approaches inundate the educational community almost every year, and yet there’s little improvement in the overall performance of American students, even while the “reformers” ignore those schools that have actually gotten results because they don’t fit the current new idea or they try to replicate on a large scale the results of a phenomenal teacher, ignoring the fact that great teachers are individuals and cannot be cloned, just as great writers cannot be cloned.

Excellence is individual and unquantifiable; mediocrity is shared and easily quantified.

4 thoughts on “Education — Excellence and Quantification”

  1. Corwin says:

    I totally agree with you. As a retired teacher I saw this over and over again and it frustrated me to the point of wanting to give it all away. This one size fits all mentality appears in almost every area of life and in most countries. People are unique and one size will NEVER fit all; I can’t comprehend the stupidity behind the concept. For example: I taught the top level and the bottom level classes of a particular grade level maths. Do you think I taught them the same way? Of course not; that would have been not only ridiculous, but counter-productive. I tailored both my content and methods to learning capabilities and both groups had success; the top kids nearly all got A’s while almost all the bottom group at least passed the course. I actually got more satisfaction from seeing the low achievers succeed than the high ones; it’s one of the joys of teaching.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    It is an issue of control: people want control even when control is meaningless, counter-productive, and perhaps injurious. It is an illusion that measuring all the various outcomes of a process gives control over a process: the control comes not from the measurement, but from using the data gathered to actually make decisions. Too often, we make decisions then gather the data to support the decision. The other thing that occurs is applying macro-level ideas to what are intrinsically micro-level issues.

    (long explanation to arrive at a point… sorry)

    In medicine, there is a saying “Don’t just do something, stand there!” A quiet, introspective moment is more often needed rather than a hip-shot solution. It is nearly always more useful to actually think about all the collected data and to attempt to integrate it into a plan of solution for the problem. In medicine, it is called ‘differential diagnosis.’ Taking the top 8-10 disease processes that could be causing a problem and then developing a plan to rule them in or rule them out.

    Medicine by algorithm often puts this backwards: “Chest pain algorithm” sets in motion a series of treatments and testing to find out what is causing Cardiac chest pain, but not all chest pain relates to the heart and these are often overlooked… so the patient suffers until someone realizes that there is another answer. What is appropriate for an entire population is often inappropriate for specific cases.

    The learning process for each individual is exactly that: individual. The medical decision making processes for each individual is the same.

    From my own experiences in the public school systems, education has been doing this longer than medicine, but industrial (call it socialized, if you will) medicine is leaping into this technique with both feet.

    It isn’t serving education well. It isn’t going to serve medicine well.

  3. D Archerd says:

    While all the points made above are certainly valid, the fact remains that students (at least American students) are “graduating” from high school unable to write a well-formed, grammatical sentence with all words correctly spelled, unable to balance a checkbook, and startlingly ignorant about basic geographic and historical facts. While the “one size fits all” education does a disservice to those more than one standard deviation away from the mean in either direction, we really do need to have some established definition around what body of knowledge and basic skills should be required for graduation, and there is not really a more efficient way of determining that than testing.

    The issue arises from what one does with that data. If it were simply used as a basis for qualifying for graduation and/or a basis for continuing education similar to the British system of A-level exams, that would be one thing. But with school’s funding and even existence on the line as well as teacher bonuses and continued employment, the overwhelming incentive is going to be to “teach the test” or even outright fraud as a couple of school districts have already been exposed in committing.

    My father taught high school science for 40 years and always considered teaching an art and the career of being a teacher as a profession not a job, one not readily amenable to quantification (and he would have been appalled at the notion of a teacher’s union). But without objective test results, separating good teachers from bad comes down to extremely subjective judgments, judgments all-too-often colored by personalities and local politics. My father suffered from this at the end of his career (and ironically, would have been protected from such arbitrary abuse by the teacher’s unions he despised).

    Yes, it would be better if we could recognize that there are many different styles of teaching and accommodate that in our measurement of teaching performance. But it’s hard to see how we can dispense altogether with objective testing. We’ve got to do something better, because the present system isn’t working.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    This link is about higher education… but it is applicable

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