Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Choosing to Learn

In my Learning Sciences and Technology Design seminar we recently read a draft of an upcoming book by Dan Schwartz, a Professor here at Stanford. He argues that we need to reconsider our assumptions about assessment in order to better capture the things we actually care about as educators. Instead of evaluating student knowledge, understanding, or even skills, he argues, we should try to assess student choices. That is, what a information or skills a student knows, and even her ability to learn further information or skills is not as important as the decision to learn.

That choices are central to how we move through the world is perhaps obvious, but it is striking how infrequently choice is a core part of any assessment framework (multiple-choice tests certainly do not count as "choice" in the sense that Dr. Schwartz means it). Even forward-thinking educators tend to focus more on acquisition of skills or overly-ambiguous notions of "metacognition" or "critical thinking" than on the specifics of decision making.  And specifics are the keys.  "Making good choices" is as bad a curricular goal as "being able to organize the following events chronologically."  A better option is a synthesis of the two, perhaps something to the effect of: "Given the task of explaining a historical event, choosing to organize parts of that event chronologically."

It seems to me that little education - indeed, even little of my own education, excellent though it has been - is organized around this kind of formulation. I believe that the most successful students end up adopting good strategies and making good choices, but Denise Pope's Doing School (about which I've written previously) suggests that a great many of our most successful students (if grades are our standard for success) in fact make terrible choices, ethically, academically, and even physically.

For my own part, I am struck by how often the schools I've attended - even Stanford - have not only tacitly accepted but in fact actively encouraged poor choices and unhealthy habits.  And I don't just mean ambiguous moral choices, but concrete habits of mind and academic practice. For example, in spite of Stanford's ostensible lack of concern over grades, their various administrative policy practically forces students to waste hours of time engaged in a gamey calculus over which courses to take credit/no-credit, and which to take for a grade. If I choose not to engage in this practice, I put myself at a disadvantage in terms of various small-scale political interactions that are inevitable in a graduate school.   On the other hand, the process itself, besides consuming intellectual energy better spend elsewhere, has undesirable effects on the way students engage with the particular courses they are not taking for a grade and the way professors engage with those students.

In other words, by separating this seemingly administrative cultural artifact from the curriculum, we've set up a situation where knowledge and skills are within the purview of the course, but where the most important actual decision making is made at an institutional level.  In graduate school - which is at least theoretically preparation for a life in the academy - this is perhaps not overly troubling, but as we shift our gaze to undergraduate or k-12 education, it's easy to see that students are often well-taught to make bad learning choices by the broader curricula and institutions in which they find themselves.  My rule of thumb for this kind of supposition is simple: if Stanford's graduate programs have a fundamental pedagogical or curricular problem, odds are that same problem can be found - and, indeed, is probably worse - at earlier stages of the education system.

So what is there to do? Unfortunately, it seems to me that this problem is virtually intractable in our current education system because it is endemic not merely to our curricula and pedagogy, but to our very culture, our policies, our institutions, and even our economics.  That is, there is a good reason we teach bad choices in schools: because our political, economic, and social systems are built upon the majority of people making bad choices.