Monday, October 30, 2017

Competence vs. Content

From No Child Left Behind to Common Core to Race to the Top (both Original and Waiver-lite, ed reform has had a terrible problem with content.

By defining reading as nothing more than a set of decoding skills that exist in some content-free vacuum, these reforms have devalued the content and knowledge aspects of reading and writing. This has led to absurdities like suggesting that Of Mice and Men is a novel for elementary students and David Coleman's terrible teaching instructions. But knowledge of content-- and the role that content knowledge plays in reading-- have been banished from the English classroom.

Some defenders have tried hard to argue that rich content is written into the Core et al, but I think they are like folks looking at a car with no wheels saying, "Well, clearly we are meant to add wheels, because otherwise this obviously won't work." But while they think they see content at the heart of the standards, I think they just see a content-shaped hole.

What I know is this-- if I were willing to sacrifice students' education, I could prepare them for the Big Standardized Test by using no text except the daily newspaper and single pages ripped out of random books.

Now that competency-based pseudo-personalized algorithm-driven computer-based education is tomorrow's flavor du jour, we need to recognize that its content problems are even worse.

In PLCBE, everything needs to be reduced to "skills" that can be :measured" by "assessments" on the computer. You have probably encountered some rudimentary CBE in your workplace-- the HR department sends out an e-mail with a link to a "training" that involves letting some training slideshow play on your computer screen, followed by some multiple choice questions that you would have to be seriously cognitively impaired to screw up ("When a co-worker is injured and bleeding you should A) run away screaming, B) taste the blood to see if it tastes diseased, C) post pictures on Instagram or D) put on rubber gloves and call the company nurse"). Miss too many questions, and you're redirected to re-watch sections of the slides before you re-take the test. Get at least nine out of ten and congratulations-- you're a certified bloodborne pathogens expert.

PLCBE requires us to reduce everything to standardized test questions, preferably multiple choice. That means only the most superficial of items can be assessed. Imagine trying to assess a student's grasp of Hamlet with nothing but multiple choice questions, including questions that reduce complex long-debated issues. "Just how mad is Hamlet, really?" is reduced from a complicated and detail-rich debate strung out across hundreds of years and hundreds of actor interpretations is reduced to a true-false question-- with only one "correct" answer.

Reading a text is a complex activity that exists at the intersection of the text, the author's history, the author's intent, the reader's interest, the reader's background knowledge, and the reader's own questions about how to be fully human in the world. PLCBE, like the last twenty years of reading "advances", reduces all of that to one issue-- how skilled is the reader at decoding words, as if that were the sum total of reading.

This completely omits any considerations of creative or critical thinking and expression, and it is the very opposite of "personal." PLCBE fans will claim that computer software exists that can evaluate open-ended essay answers-- they are either kidding themselves or lying. No such software exists. Just as Grammarly will not help you write better-- it will just help you proofread for spelling, punctuation and typing mistakes-- essay-grading software still has no idea whether you are spouting gibberish or not, only if you are spouting gibberish that fits the pattern of written standard English. (For more definitive demonstrations, track down the work of my hero Les Perelman.)

No computerized algorithm-driven competency-based program is going to assign full texts. You won't actually read Hamlet at all-- just a single screen's worth, so maybe you will make sense out of the "too, too solid flesh" soliloquy without any idea of what came before or after. Don't worry-- just decode the words.

The rise of Big Standardized Testing was an attempt to replace the teacher's final exams with one created by the standards-and-skills champions. PLCBE is an attempt to replace the teacher as well. We've been having some spirited debates in English classrooms about the Canon and what belongs in it and how students should understand it and interpret it, but the new computer-driven teacher doesn't care about the canon at all because it has no tools for measuring things like "knowledge" or 'insight" or "understanding" or "ability to wrestle with literature's many paths to understanding society, culture and the human condition."

This is not a liberal vs. conservative thing. I'm not even sure it's a reformer vs. traditional public school thing, because I know plenty of reformers who do not subscribe to the reduce-education-to-a-technical-software-problem school of thought. This is about the dangerously reductive notion that all education can be processed through tiny, limiting, and ultimately inadequate tools, like trying to squeeze a Thanksgiving turkey out of a toothpaste tube.

PLCBE is a bad idea for many reasons-- I just don't want us to forget that one reason is that PLCBE is inadequate to either present or assess the higher order skills involved in reading and writing, and that by its very nature, it is the enemy of rich content in education, and that being the enemy of rich content in education is like being the enemy of protein, vitamins and nutrients in food.

No comments:

Post a Comment