Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why do arrows never hit their target when used in combination with a teaching machine?

Evaluation by competences has become the new credo of schools and educational reform in many countries in Western Europe.
We all know that giving global marks to students in a subject like mathematics or reading is vague, subjective, and depending on only a few test situations and thus unfair. We also know that this evaluation practice doesn't take into account complex learning processes that students have gone through. This leads to the conviction that evaluation by competences will me more objective and more precise. And, according to a common belief, the more items are taken into account the more precise the picture will be.

But will splitting up complex knowledge into multiple items really improve evaluation? How many items do we need to be able to attest a student that he/she has good reading skills?
Will learning be more effective when we can assume that "teaching to the test" will be transformed into "teaching to the competence item list"? Has there been considered, what difference it makes if the teachers themselves are in charge of defining the items or if the competence lists are centrally defined and distributed to the teachers as normative targets?
What will be the effect on students once they have gone through a schooling system where "myriads" of items have to be taken into account, especially when school has not been able, up until know, to get rid of subtle reward and punishment practices? Are people aware of the possible contradictions between competence items and their contradictory theoretical roots?

An interesting article by Véronique Marchand illustrates how the "evaluation of competences proceeds through reductionism" and states that "the complex action which constitutes every act of thought is reduced to a succession of procedures that become an end in themselves". (English translation) (French version)

When reflecting on this subject, I can't help but thinking that, even if Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not necessarily the direct and only mentor of the approach, it could well be that in in the end he will.
Why? Because the main arguments that are use to "sell" the approach to 'evaluate by competences' like 'reduce or even eliminate failure', 'set reachable targets for everyone', 'increase students motivation to learn' etc. have all been used in a similar way by B. F. Skinner when he argued in favor of his operant conditioning instrument, the Teaching Machine. And we all know that any given school system tends to assimilate (make it similar to what is already in place) new concepts.

It is often said that, if you don't know the history, you are condemned to repeat it. This applies to teaching as well. If you don't know in which theories your teaching practices are rooted, you may be condemned to do what you tried to overcome or to do differently and better.

So you teachers out there, I invite you to analyse what is hiding behind the competence item before checking the box. The item is not necessarily what it pretends to be. And please don't forget to have a look back to the roots of your teaching.
Take the videos below as a start and listen carefully to what Skinner says about the "free will".

Oh yes, what about the title?
Read to Véronique Marchand's article to the end and you will get the explanation.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain