Tom Haymes has taken a leap of faith -- he's abandoned textbooks, thrown away the traditional syllabus, and is encouraging students in his American Government class to design their own educational paths. Inspiring? Yes! Easy? Not even close.
In the "Unbound" series, Haymes describes his own experience breaking the educational paradigm at Houston Community College and the often surprising reactions and outcomes that go along with it.
In every class I teach, I struggle with some basic tenets of our industrialized education system, which inhibit creative exploration of the vast storehouse of human knowledge available to us today. Instead, the first question out of most student’s mouths is almost always, “How do I get an ‘A’ in this class?” or even worse: “How do I pass this class?” “What can I learn in this class?” is a question I have yet to hear. This should not surprise me because our students are well trained by the time they get to college. They have learned to beat the system and skid through to graduation on the skins of their teeth. For students, obsessing over grades is second nature to them (as it is to my own kids).
This construct is harmful to learners because it impedes true learning and creative thought. As someone who has always loved learning for learning’s sake, I find this particularly frustrating. Daniel Pink, drawing on decades of psychological research, shows fairly conclusively that external motivators like money and grades destroy our capacity for creative thought.
The industrialized educational system is always working against my educational goals. It is a lot harder to evaluate skills and assess final product when everyone is looking past that to what their final grade will be. A central part of my pedagogy is pushing grades to the background or at the very least to try to trivialize their effects, but it’s a little like trying to hide green beans in chocolate cake. I fight this battle with my own kids in K-12 and it’s hard with sustained effort, and even more difficult within the constraints of a 16-week class that meets once or twice a week.
I recently changed my focus to make “kinder, gentler” grading. I did this by implementing a cumulative point system. No one failed assignments. It was all a process of accruing points. Furthermore, I wanted to achieve a certain level of gamification using insights from Tom Chatfield such as creating many small rewards and providing them with rapid feedback.
To achieve these goals, I gave each student a code and created a spreadsheet, which, in turn, created a bar graph to show how many points everyone had accrued relative to the rest of the class and relative to the bars necessary to achieve a grade.
Achieving rapid feedback was a monumental task in itself. I couldn’t grade fast enough. Therefore, I don’t know if this aspect of the class was given a fair shake. It was also a major challenge developing a point system that did what I wanted to it to do. The delays in getting this finalized and workable put my grading way behind. On the bright side, the process should be more efficient in future semesters.
The other area that Chatfield mentioned, that of frequent, small rewards, required constant attention on the students’ part, and they were reluctant to take responsibility of their points. While we, as teachers, expect the students to put in consistent attention in the class, the reality is that most students want to be able to check in only on the week of a test or a paper deadline and essentially coast through the remaining weeks of the semester. Although my expectations seemed clear, I found that about 2/3 of the way through the semester, many had failed to accumulate enough points.
The point accumulations reflected posts on Google+ as well as their participation in in-class activities. They were prompted to post twice on Google+ per week as a minimum activity. One post was in response to a question or opinion. The other required them to bring in an outside source relating to the topic of the week. At that point in the semester (the 7th week), they should have had a minimum of 14 posts. No one had 14 posts and about 1/3 of the class had less than 5. I gave them opportunities to catch up point-wise by commenting on others’ posts but this was a real struggle for many of them. It would have been unfair to those who did the work on time to allow the slow starters to make up posts.
The second major part of my evaluation strategy was to articulate to students what I was evaluating I started this out with a frank discussion what kinds of skills should be practiced in college and how the course could facilitate that. I introduced them to the National Education Association’s: “Four C” rubric as I think it nicely encapsulates what I think is important to get out of college and suggested that we use these four variables (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) to evaluate their performance.
The problem that occurred as I reached this level of granularity was that I had created a four-headed hydra trying to translate the Four-C’s into a workable grading scheme. This was one of the key reasons that I didn’t get feedback to the class as quickly as I wanted to. I essentially ended up developing a manual Learning Analytics system to translate the variables into points.
The net effect was that I forced myself into an incredibly complex grading system that took me half the semester to figure out. The extent to which I applied tech was limited to creating a complete 12-page workbook in Numbers (it did better graphing than Excel). Frequent rewards meant that I had to deal with extremely small numbers and never really achieved the level of finesse that I usually demand from my grading.
Over and above the logistical hurdles that I created for myself, I don’t think the grading system taught the students much, if anything, about their relative skills in the four areas. I did discuss how I was assigning points while discussing grades within the class. However, I could tell the students were almost entirely fixated on the total points, not how they could earn points in communication versus critical thinking, for instance.
My struggles with the grading system and my misstep in developing a more constructive system was perhaps the most disappointing result from this part of the experiment and goes back to my original dilemma. I never figured out how to move the discussion beyond, “How do I pass this class?” to “What can I learn in this class?”
It seems I’ll never be able to get beyond the fundamental realities of needing a final grade in the class as long as the larger educational system uses the transcript/degree as the final yardstick of educational achievement. Perhaps a more successful application of gamification principles would at least make this part of the class more fun and trivial.
The students themselves live with fundamental contradictions in their own attitudes toward their educational investments. On the one hand, they play the grading game with seeming indifference when it comes to the value of an individual class. On the other hand, they are totally fixated on their final grade as the only valuable thing they get out of wasting their time in a class they don’t want to take in the first place.
New Media may give us some routes forward but until it undermines these fundamental contradictions in assessment, technology’s transformative power will be very limited. Solving the grader’s dilemma may require adjustments beyond the capacity of any individual educator to achieve, but I’ll keep trying.
About Tom Haymes
I have taught at HCC since 2001. In 2006, I became Instructional Design Coordinator at Northwest College and subsequently Director of College Educational Technology Services. Prior to working at HCC, I worked for several Internet startups in Austin, Texas where I filled roles as diverse as Project Manager, Business Intelligence Analyst, and Director of Marketing. My technical experience extends to 2 ½ years working for Apple and Motorola in a technical support and systems analyst role. My academic background is in political science where I have two Master’s Degrees from Georgetown University. I have published widely in technical and non-technical areas including, most recently, my article entitled “The Three-E Strategy for Technology Adoption,” which appeared in the December 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly. I have incorporated my political science background with an interest in military history to study the societal and cultural barriers to the adoption of technology.
I have a keen interest in photography which I have been seriously pursuing since 1981, which was also coincidentally the year I got my first computer (Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, yeah!). My photography website is at http://www.haymesimages.com.
Current and ongoing projects include:
1. The New Media Seminar at both Northwest College and our district offices.
2. Developing a Learning Analytics system for HCC.
Thumbnail and images via Tom Haymes
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