computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Friday, May 29, 2015


The last thing I want to think about, cheating. My job is to help people learn. Period. Cheating is not relevant to how I see my job at all.

Now, I work like most other teachers (I imagine). I give tests, all different kinds. Part of my job is to give concrete, usable feedback and it’s easier if we have a clear, limited task to comment on. Homework is shakier – I quickly end up giving comments on someone else’s French. Not useful.

I also need to give grades. They should be fair. Norway has no SATs or anything of the sort. Institutions of higher learning have to make up their own entrance requirements or simply use high school grades, so most do the latter. Understandably. This means that my grades have to be fair, so that’s another good reason to give tests.

Norwegian students are randomly selected for a small number of exams only, so that means that it is the grades that I give them that are important, so I shouldn’t really be surprised that many of them want to cheat. The sudden flood of cheating this year did surprise me, though. I can’t imagine that they have suddenly become worse at cheating, so presumably they are cheating more. There have been some pieces in the media lately about cheating at school, and some of my colleagues are talking about it, so we could be dealing with a sea change here.

Teenagers have traditionally had a dim view of the usefulness of school and in a system such as the one here, it’s the grades they are after more than the learning. This clashes with the way I see things: For me, the goal of French class is to improve your French. If that is the case, then submitting something that you didn’t write on a test is meaningless. If the goal is to get good grades, it can be a reasonable, even rational, choice.

So I need to admit to myself that I am part of a machine that is bigger than me and that has goals and functions that I do not approve of (sorting pupils, in this case). I can quit or change my practice. For the short term at least, I will have to choose the latter. I can clearly no longer ignore rampant cheating. It is grossly unfair to those who do not cheat. By not being concerned with cheating, I am effectively punishing those who do nothing wrong.

In practical terms, this means changing evaluation strategies. A wider variety of oral evaluation is one step. Tighter control of written evaluation is another - an unavoidable one. Since use of translation programs and communication are typical cheats, many of my colleagues argue for simple use of pen and paper, but my trouble is that I have great trouble reading my pupils’ handwriting. Seriously. There is always at least one paper that is completely illegible. And even for the papers that are legible, what do I do with them? Mark them and then give them back? Then they lose them and I am at a disadvantage when they come to me later and ask for coaching. I need some kind of portfolio of student output and paper makes this a challenge.

Our LMS has an add-on program that locks the computer, providing only a blank screen and no access to other programs until the pupil submits. I think I’ll have to use this and then paste the response into another program to comment on it. It doesn’t allow for the use of digital aids, but we’ll just have to work with those another time…

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"When I hear the words 'Formative Assessment', I reach for my gun...."

As a schoolteacher, I have a couple of main functions: helping people learn and evaluating what they have learned. These are not necessarily complementary functions. The grade you get at the end of the year may not increase your learning in any way. How could it? In fact, it may decrease your motivation for future learning.

The way this is being dealt with is increasingly to distinguish between ‘assessment of learning’ and 'assessment for learning’, with the latter being given pride of place. The rage now is to have a tight focus on the teacher’s assessments of pupils’ work with the goal of improvement. Children are to be given clear criteria, to be engaged in the assessment of their own work, and to be given feedback that clearly points the way forward.

I sat recently through a two-day seminar at work with a hired gun expert to help us work on ‘assessment for learning’. It used to be that Dylan Wiliam with his ‘formative assessment’ was the hero of the school authorities in Norway, now it’s John Hattie with ‘feedback’. Pretty much along the same lines. So now we’re all to become experts in helping pupils understand the criteria for good work and in giving feedback that is useful for improving.

The teacher clearly pointing to the path forward
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We have lots of solid research that supports the idea that working with these things will increase pupils’ scores. Sorry, sorry – I mean of course pupils’ learning. How could I as a teacher not support such measures?

The Norwegian professor of education Solveig Ă˜strem talks about how teaching rests on a paradox (most recently talked about this on the radio program ‘Ministry of Truth’ [in Norwegian]). Teaching is a wish for change in someone else. That “someone else” is, however, a person, a subject of their own. A subject with certain rights and an innate value as a human being. By wishing and working for change in other people, we risk having an instrumental approach to others, treating them as objects for pedagogical work instead of as active subjects of their own.

This the bad feeling I had in my stomach for two days while I was supposed to be happy that we were thinking about how we could help the students learn more: our enthusiasm for  ‘assessment for learning’ risks letting assessment permeate everything we do, resulting in a highly instrumental approach to other human beings. We risk creating a school day that is inhumane and inhuman when our point of departure is always assessment, always improvement. Our pupils are people first, active subjects of their own, not objects for our pedagogical measures.