The Appearance of Credibility and Other Useless Pursuits

I’ve got two other posts on the back burner because I spent hours this weekend fabricating the appearance of credibility.  It’s mid-term time, which means I’ve finally got to put together the dreaded markbook that I’ve been neglecting.  I used to think I neglected it because I’m lazy, but that’s not really the case.  I spend all sorts of time in and out of class getting materials, working on lesson plans and spending time individually with students.  I spend most of my lunches with students offering them extra help or just space to tinker.  I spend hours outside of school communicating with other teachers about education.  These are not the actions of a lazy man.

So why am I so reticent to build up my markbook?  Why does the idea of putting numbers into complex programs that divide and weigh marks make me roll my eyes and find something productive to do?  Because it’s all about building a fiction.

Yeah, you are, but you’re a really difficult
to calculate number!

Like so much else of what we do in our nineteenth century education factory, the idea of reducing human beings to numbers so that we can define them smacks of reductive, Taylorist thinking, but reducing people to easily compared numbers is what the system demands.  That grade has an aura of magic around it, we think it full of deep and profound meaning but it’s fabricated out of thin air.  

Learning is a complex, rich process, but we don’t focus on that in education, we focus on gross simplifications in order to spin out self supporting statistics.  We create numbers to justify the system, to give it the appearance of credibility and meaning.  The system feeds the system with evidence of its own success.  This goes well beyond k-12, post secondary is predicated on this fiction.

Each year we fabricate grades using complex alchemical processes.  Last year I had staff say they couldn’t use Engrade because it didn’t offer enough fine control over category weighing.  Our Ministry goes to great lengths to on this, and teachers agonize over it, yet no two do it the same, even in the same course, even on the same assignment.

The process of grading, from the teacher assessing a piece of work (and some of them also taking into account what the student’s sibling was like, or that they are in a bad mood that day, or that this is a nice kid who should be forgiven the odd error) to how it is entered in what mark program (it varies from teacher to teacher), makes this a very slippery slope.  We’re asked to assess curriculum but in most cases the personality and circumstances of the student interfere with this to the point where getting a good read on the last, best example of their demonstrated skill is impossible.  Even if it is possible, reducing their learning of complex subject areas down to a single percentage grade is absurd, yet that is what we do.

When someone says that grading is killing education I agree, but not because we should be living in a hippy commune doing whatever strikes us as fun.  The fiction of grading supports other fictions, like passing.  I wouldn’t trust anyone to do anything if they got it right 50% of the time, yet that is a pass in education.  Grading is killing education because it is meaningless in terms of learning.

Now that I’ve built that set of grades up all is safe from questioning.  You can’t question modern marking practices, they’re designed to prevent simple analysis.  That markbook I built is really to make the grade I give appear credible.  Look!  There are mathematics at work here!  This number must mean something important because it was calculated by a machine.  Grade production is an arbitrary, fictitious structure based on the constantly moving sands of circumstance and personality.  That it is used to discipline and direct students has more to do with enforcing the absurdity of the classroom situation than it ever did with learning.  If you don’t sit in rows and capitulate you’ll fail!

If anyone says, ‘Hey!  Why is that my mark?!?” I need only crack open the byzantine markbook and baffle them with categories and weights to quell any further questions.  Assessment of learning has been made sufficiently obscure as to defy questioning.

What do I do?  Nothing dear, you’re not qualified!
This may as well have happened in a classroom, it’s the
same approach.

We receive a great deal of PD around assessment and evaluation (you can’t serve the system unless you know what the system needs).  You’d think, based on how assessment works, that learning was a professionally mandated enterprise that the layman couldn’t hope to comprehend, just the way the education complex wants you to think about learning, it’s something done to you not something you do yourself.

Unfortunately, until parents stop expecting us to reduce their children to numbers this isn’t going to change.

Until post-secondary institutions stop empowering the mythology of marks by basing entrance requirements mainly on high school grades this isn’t going to change.

Behold! The Essay-inator!

In this corner, weighing in as the inevitable future, I give you: the writing algorithm!
… and in this corner, weighing in as a lazy, nineteenth century habit that no one can shake: tedious, overly structured High School English writing!


The trick is going to be creating an algorithm that plagiarism checkers won’t catch.  That shouldn’t be too hard as they tend to look for matching text, and any good algorithm would put the pieces together in varying ways depending on the variables given.


With a proscribed structure similar to sports stories or financial reports, it should be fairly easy to get Narrative Science to modify their writing engine to accept key points and put together a five paragraph essay that perfectly follows the tediously exact, point-proof-explanation requirements of high school essay writing.


The process should go something like this:

  • student logs in to the website and enters brainstorming ideas based on a cursory reading on the subject matter (Macbeth should be covered in 20 minutes, tops)
  • thesis (an arguable statement) is generated based on ideas given (or offered, depending on how much you want to put into this)
  • supporting points are suggested.  The algorithm places them in order of importance based on the number of hits and positive previous reviews, student picks the ones that grab them
  • the algorithm finds quotes from the play and lit crit that relate to each supporting point
  • body paragraphs are constructed following point/proof/explanation around chosen quotes
  • introduction and conclusion are generated based on body paragraphs
  • student reviews the paper for vocabulary or wording that doesn’t suit their style
  • if too complicated a word is used, the student can right click and get a list of synonyms
  • the completed paper, using variable data, is unique, and presented in the vicinity of the student’s knowledge of the subject matter, working vocabulary and writing style
Behold my essay-inator!

The point and click essay is finally here!


The efficiencies here should be obvious.  A typical paper requires hours of reading, then re-reading looking for quotes, then formulation of ideas, then organization… hours and hours!  This process could have a student sit down with a Shakespearean play they’ve never seen before, and have a finished essay completed in under an hour, on their smartphone!

They are still the authors, we’ve just taken the tedium and soulless nature of high school writing and given it to a machine, which only seems fair.

***

This is written facetiously, but it does raise a couple of interesting questions.  If high school writing requires such heavy duty plagiarism checking and tends to be about the same subjects using the same formats, and marked with the same rubrics year after year, what is the point?

If these guys have come up with an algorithm that can write data driven, structurally sound pieces this well, how long will it be before someone has put together a five paragraph essay-inator?  The only thing more soulless and formulaic than financial writing or sports reporting is high school English writing.  Time to let the computers do what they do best and take this repetitive, tedious work and do it more efficiently!

Up next, mechanized marking of essays: time to take the tedium out of being an English teacher!

If this works out well, we’ll be able to have students ‘write’ essays, and have them ‘marked’ in a matter of seconds!

Now that’s progress!