Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Vocabulary and the Assessment Problem

The teaching of vocabulary is a good microcosm of some of the biggest problems of education.

We know how to teach vocabulary badly. It's a process that has been refined and perfected over decades, and even if you don't use it as a teacher, you probably knew it as a student. The basic outline looks something like this:

1) Get list of vocabulary words
2) Go through the motions of some sort of practice activity
3) Cram words* into your brain
4) Take test
5) Forget words completely

* If teacher is prone to matching or multiple choice tests based on the teacher's one and only acceptable version of the word definition, you need only cram enough to recognize the definition when you see it, which requires minimal brain space. Recognition is not full fluency, as witnessed by everyone who still retains enough high school French to understand what they hear, but can no longer speak it.

Nobody on God's green earth believes that this process produces students with larger, more effective vocabularies.

But teachers still do it (and for years I was one of them) because it's quick and efficient and simple and, best of all, it's a system that students can quickly learn to game, which means that we can point to all our test result data and declare, "Look at how successful I am!" Meanwhile, students get good papers to put up on the fridge. It's the oldest bad deal in the annals of education. You help me look like I'm teaching something, and I will help you look like you're learning something.

The heart of the problem lies with the definition of "success."

The definition of successfully teaching vocabulary is that students use the new words correctly in the proper context without any prompting. If I want to teach my students the word "plethora," I'll truly know I've succeeded when students use "plethora" correctly because they've just run across the perfect moment to do so. That's true success.

But of course, that success is hard to measure. I can't follow all of my students around all the time, monitoring every spoken and written conversation they have.

I have a pretty good idea of what success would be, but it's almost impossible to measure, and even harder to measure within a proscribed time frame.

So I start limiting the parameters of success.

Maybe I say that the student has to use the word correctly during my class period, before I have to turn in grades for the grading period. A little more measurable, but these days this is what I more or less do, and it is an absolute bitch in terms of record keeping. And I've changed the task-- now I'm asking them to actively try to come up with a time to use "plethora." And if you believe in standardization, this method is full of holes. Each student will use the word in a completely different context. Some will have the advantage of having heard other student compete the task. Every single student is going through a different assessment.

So to standardize things, I can take several steps. I can create a written assessment that they will all take at the same time, meaning that the time frame and the task are now more tightly constrained. Maybe I do a fill in the blank. Maybe I have matchy matchy words and definitions.

But now I have radically altered the definition of success-- the goal now is for students to make the right response to the word in highly controlled situation. Can you recognize the official definition for "plethora" when you see it? Can you put plethora in the right blank (when you know that one of these blanks must use "plethora")?

I have turned a comprehension and synthesizing goal into a simple recall task and changed a worthy objective (know how to use "plethora" effectively in writing and speaking for the rest of your life) into a dull, simple competency (know how to put "plethora" into the proper blank in a sentence created by someone else, one time, this Friday). And as virtually every sentient being on the planet already knows, being able to do the simple competency has absolutely nothing to do with actually using an increased vocabulary.

By setting out to create an assessment that is standardized, that is constrained by time, and which requires the student to be reactive rather than active, I have completely changed the goal, the point, the purpose, the objective of the teaching. I have turned a valuable educational goal (increase your active, functional vocabulary) into a stupid one (be able to take standardized vocabulary tests).

That problem-- how to assess accurately without changing the whole purpose and point of the teaching-- is one that ed reformsters over the past decade have absolutely and completely failed to acknowledge, let alone solve. No, I take that back-- Common Core is an attempt to redefine education as mastery of a bunch of simple tasks that are already so thoughtless and dull-witted that the standardized test will not have to redefine them. And Competency Based Education is more of exactly the same thing. Reformsters have come up with a plethora of approaches to assessment, and they all stink.