Busywork vs actual learning

As it turns out, education is not such a simple subject.

I was naive. Hell, I still am in many respects, but I’m here to address some of the gaping holes in this post.

My primary error while proposing a new grading system was that I didn’t know or was blissfully unaware of the fundamental difference between actually learning and just doing busywork. Because at the end of the day, the important thing is that the student has learned something. If the student spent 3/4 of the year studying or just a couple of weeks in total shouldn’t be of importance. We shouldn’t treat these students differently if both have retained the same amount of knowledge.

In the current education system, no matter where in the world you live in, trite busywork is what separates an excellent grade from an average one. And that’s because busywork is easily quantifiable. An “A” means the student did all of the busywork while a “B” means the student did only 85% of it.

Sometimes you can pass a class by just doing what the teacher says without ever absorbing any actual knowledge. Or in other words, you know that “2+2 = 4” and “2+3 = 5” but you don’t know what to do when confronted with a “2+3+2” operation.

Doing busywork doesn’t always translate into knowledge or a lesson learned or any understanding of any kind. Taking a test on the other hand … does evaluate actual knowledge to some extent. (That is, if its done well, but I’m not getting into that topic for now). So, actual knowledge is only quantifiable through tests.

The problem most of the time is, as I’ve said in the past, that tests don’t reward knowledge, they just punish mistakes. On top of that, tests only evaluate knowledge during the couple of hours that they last. After that, the student is free to forget all about the subject he just spent the last 2 or more days studying. Unless there’s another similar test in the future, of course.

But all of this is just a problem of written tests.

If the test is just a conversation between the teacher and the student, then these problems vanish. No longer are mistakes directly punished and there’s a more direct correlation between what the teacher sees the student knows and what the student actually knows.

There are still three problems to this approach though:

  1. The obvious one is that the teacher can’t evaluate 100 students in a day. Hell, I’d be surprised if he could do that in under a week. So: the efficiency of an oral test is deplorable, since it has been traded for effectiveness.
  2. How do you assign a grade in an oral exam? The teacher has to *gasp* actually judge how much the student knows.
  3. On the other hand, this approach means the teacher is depending on the ability of the student to communicate on the fly, to talk. Some people have an extreme difficulty to do this effectively, so they always prefer written tests because they can spend as much time as they want to try and build each sentence.

I used to be one of those people. In fact, I was like that through all of my schooling life. It wasn’t until I reached the university level of education that I started to improve. But that wouldn’t have been the case if at least someone had cared about my communication skills at an  earlier point in my life. And you know what? In retrospective, having regular oral exams would have helped me get over this problem.

Grading is also a problem for teachers that don’t want to engage students directly. These kinds of teachers could just grab a regular conversation and turn it into the equivalent of a written exam where a single mistake is enough to lower the grade. The solution: Get. Better. Teachers. Teachers that care about what they’re teaching and most of all, that care about the students themselves.

So now we’re only left with one major issue as to how to improve testing procedures: Efficiency.

Yeah, there’s no getting around that. There’s a trade-off that can’t be broken, at least not until we invent a chatbot intelligent enough to do the testing.

Well, since we are talking only in theory, we could say that the teacher’s job should be to test and teach at the same time. That the classrooms should have at most 20 students and perhaps more than one teacher. That the teaching process be 30% exposition and 70% conversation.

And maybe while we are at it, we should stop world hunger, give an interesting and fulfilling job to everyone and cure cancer. I’m very aware that what I’m proposing is far from possible in most parts of the world. However, I would settle for something like this:

The ladies and gentlemen that are responsible for how our education systems work, would you please give a f*ck?


One thought on “Busywork vs actual learning

  1. Diego Doumecq

    Ok, this comment from Confanity made for this post on Shamus’ blog is just too perfect, so I’ll copy/paste it here as an alternative that would work better than what I proposed for many assignments:
    “I’m in favor of a system that measures proficiency. If you got people who really knew a field — like the Misters B and C — and possibly also have formal study of education as a discipline, and have them design tests that cannot be passed without proficiency — like Mr. C’s assignments — then you don’t need grades at all; you just need pass/fail.

    And while we’re at it, why not abolish school years along with grading? You study each subject at a given level until you think you’re ready to try out the level’s assessment; if you fail that, you study until the next chance (I see these tests as occurring periodically; every quarter, perhaps?) and try again. When you pass, you move to the next level and start studying the material there.

    You study each subject up to the level of your ability and desire, and that goes on your transcript. Being in level 7 math doesn’t prevent you from being in level 4 Spanish, nor in level 10. You don’t have to achieve any particular level of anything to graduate, but any potential employer will be interested in your transcript to see what you’ve mastered. In some cases there might be branches (Science in particular would branch and re-branch), and there might be recommended prerequisites (you’re almost certain to fail Physics 13 unless you have Math 12), but in theory at least it’s a simple system, difficult to manipulate and totally free from both arbitrary letter and number assessments, and from being forced to study the same things as everybody else your age regardless of individual ability.”

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