Sunday, August 2, 2015

Who Fails when a Student Fails

Should not this be true also for schools?

Are we willing to take responsibility of the failure of our students? We conveniently try to shift the blame to the student, or to his genetic intelligence, or to his learning disability, or to his psychological deficiency, or to his parents, or to his family, or to his environment,...

As an academician I must have the moral courage to accept the responsibility for the failure of my students:  As a teacher, if my student fails then this is the time for my own personal evaluation of what could I have done and what I did not do followed by intense reflection. As an academic administrator, failure of my students should have become an opportunity for me to investigate what was wrong with my academic policies and processes, what should have worked but did not:
  • What remedial measures we could have taken but did not, 
  • what alternative methodologies we should have explored or adopted but did not, 
  • what curriculum changes we should have made but did not, 
  • how my teachers should have connected with the aspirations of students but did not,
  • what new research in learning we should have explored and adopted but did not, 
  • what skills my teachers should have had but did not. 
But, no we take the easy route and try to shift the blame to others. We tend to blame the student, his motivation, his background and his disabilities.

Original Intention of Assessment

Assessment was designed originally to understand how well we are doing, how much my students are learning and what changes I should be making in my approach. The original intention was to have a measure like a speedometer in a car that tells the driver how fast or slow he is driving so that he can manage his speed and driving. Speedometer is not designed to blame the car, the road, and other cars. Similarly, assessments are a device to help us understand the efficacy of our processes and methodology, and not for blaming others.

Refusal to Accept the Quality Imperatives of Production

School as Factory
Our schools are a product of industrial age and they typically use the  assembly line factory model [1]. The students are considered to be inputted in an assembly line organized in age based class rooms. All students, whether Tom, Dick and Harry as well as Einstein and Edison, they must all be fitted with a standardized curriculum and must pass through standardized tests during each year or stage of the factory production line till they are outputted. At which time the output quality control rejects the faulty products as failed. During the production process any student exhibiting creativity/intelligence to question the curriculum or teaching methodology or refusing to subscribe to irrational demands of the school is ejected on disciplinary grounds as a rejected waste or byproduct. 

Factory Model of School
The factory model in which rejects and failures were acceptable, has long been discarded by even the industrial producers. From statistical quality control (using devices such as Bell Curve) production management have long ago transited to TQM, zero defects output regimes and Six Sigma. A continuous and rigorous program of quality improvements has allowed the factories to achieve unbelievable level of outputs. Instead of one-size-fits-all type of standardization, they have moved to customization and configuration of their systems to meet the individual demands of customers. It is surprising to see that these quality models and customization models have not bee adopted by the schools that follow the factory model of mass production.

Please note that there are serious objections to the use of factory model in schools and I am not advocating it [4]. Learning can not be equated with putting together of inanimate components to produce a physical product. Ideally, we should throwaway this model. However, schools that are still following and are insisting on following this model should then subscribe to the higher levels of production standards such as Six Sigma and per customer/student customization (child-centered education). 

Bell Curve Assumption to justify not improving the system

Bell curve assumption is often used by educational institutions and even HEC to justify complacency and shifting the blame of the flaws of our educational system to students [2]. Bell curve assumption has its origins in the statistical control of quality assumptions of the 1950s, which has been largely discarded through recent quality standards such as Six Sigma.

Using the bell curve assumption, the system shrugs off its responsibility by saying that it is the natural distribution and not their policies, procedures or methodologies that are responsible for the failures. Hence, we are using essentially the same policies, procedures and methodologies in our schools and universities that were in vogue fifty years ago. By hiding behind this assumption, we refuse to accept the responsibility for improving our system of education by conveniently ignoring the tons of research literature and experiences of alternative methodologies that are vociferously advocating the changes that need to be made but were never made (see references below). No wonder the results are no different from what they were 50 years ago.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results ! [3]

Faulty Design of Assessment: Biased criteria

Faulty Assumption behind testing
Students are typically failing on assessments that are designed by people who have no training in the design of assessments. The assessments are typically favorable to a particular type of students and are loaded against other types of students. All students are expected to have the same type of intelligence on the same subject at the same date at the same instant of their lives. Hence, the issue of failure of students is a failure of the assessment system. Our assessments routinely fails to discriminate the students on the basis of their unique intelligences and  accomplishments; Our assessment assumes that everyone is at the same level of social intelligence, same level of emotional intelligence, same level of spatial and mathematical intelligence, same level of verbal intelligence, same level of mathematical intelligence, same same level of rhythmic intelligence, same level of natural intelligence, same level of physical intelligence, ... 

We therefore expect the monkey, crow, penguin, elephant, fish, seal and dog to be assessed similarly on their skill to climb a tree!! [4] This example illustrates that typically our academics are either not aware of the work of Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences) [5] and other researchers on different learning styles, or are unable to implement these theories in practice. 

The result is that the blame is shifted to the students. 

Subjectivity Masquerading as Objectivity

Untrained Assessors, paper setters and academics
Academic institutions are typically using the assessments as if they provide an objective and quantitative evaluation of the performance of a student [6]. However, if we compare our assessment system with that of a laboratory that conducts blood tests, we will find that the technicians of the assessment labs are mostly untrained, their testing machines are poorly designed, rusted and non functional, measurements are faulty with neither reliability nor validity. The same teacher may give a failing grade one day, and passing grade the next. The same answer script given to two different assessors would yield passing grade from one and failing grade from the other. Question paper may be measuring one thing today and exactly the opposite things tomorrow. This is akin to sending your blood sample to the same laboratory at different times and getting different results. Sending two sample at the same time, and getting different results. Sending two samples to two different laboratories at the same time and getting different results! (Thanks to Mr Tahir Javed for this example). 
Faulty Design of the Test

From Teaching to Learning

The educational approach is increasingly moving from teaching to learning [8]. The prevalence of the word "learning" today can be compared with the prevalence of the word "teaching" fifty years ago. Focus on "teaching" implies the centrality of a teacher. Focus on "learning" implies centrality of the "learner". Education is therefore moving from external control of educational experience by the teacher to the intrinsic control of learning experience by the student.

Is Failure a Crime? 

By Paulo Coelho, author of Alchemist
The moment we transit from teaching to learning, we begin to understand the importance of experience which is another name for trial and error. As famously quoted by Randy Pausch, "Experience is what we get when we don't get what we want." The strive for success requires that we should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Fear of failure and mistakes would stifle our initiative and would throttle our ambitions. 

In learning based educational systems, "failure" is not something to be abhorred and to be afraid of. Failure is  a stepping stone for the future success. The capacity to be nurtured in students is their ability not to be discouraged and not to lose hope in the face of failures. Students need to be taught application and commitment, which means, to keep on trying till success is at hand. In practical life the strive for excellence is achieved through continuous improvements and negotiating innumerable setbacks encountered on the path to success. Failure is not something to be afraid of, but an experience to reflect upon, to reorganize and to construct the next stage of effort. 

Carrot and Stick Assumption of Behavioral Control

External control and external determination of goals of people led to the behavioral theories of motivation. The science of behavioral control originated from BF Skinner and Pavlov and represents psychological manipulation to achieve the goals of the organization [9]. This is the dominant paradigm of teacher based education. 
Grades, points, failing/passing, medals are all representatives of the behavioral control brigade that has been dominating the educational scene since the beginning. The objective of behavioral control is to coax the students towards externally determined goals without their willingness. Gospel according to Bloom, also known as Bloom's Taxonomy has become lighthouse of this kind of assessment from which the behavioral school derives its inspiration. See my post Problems with Bloom's Taxonomy for a reference to this debate on Skinner vs Chomsky.
Skinner: A child is a clean slate, an empty glass
Chomsky: A child has a pre-installed thinking/creative ability.

Intrinsic Motivation vs Extrinsic Motivation

The shift in focus from teaching to learning indicates a greater autonomy to the student to determine the direction of his learning, and assurance of learning. Hence the tools such as authentic assessment, formative assessment, peer assessment and port folio based assessments are becoming  more popular. Objective is to stimulate the student towards making learning a life-long goal that is exciting, fulfilling and rewarding in itself. Pursuit of excellence should be the goal of each student [10]. Externally determined fail/pass criteria are irrelevant for the objectives of child-centered and life long learning. 

This movement towards intrinsic motivation is often called as self-consciousness, self-assessment, self-accountability, self-realization, self-motivation, self-direction and self-motivation. This has been the objective also of Iqbal's concept of "khudi" that is represented by words such as khud-agahi, khud-ihtisaabi, khud-shanasi, khuddari, etc.  

Heads I win, Tails you lose! Ownership Issue

I have seen institutions taking ownership of only their A-graders. The failures and low graders are often ignored. If we want to take credit of our students whose performance have been exceptional, we should also be ready to take debit of our students who failed and could not succeed. Our system must equally treat our failures and our successes. As we rejoice in the success of our students and shower accolades on the systems and procedures that delivered,  we must also show remorse and sadness over those who failed. We must conduct soul searching of where we went wrong, and how not to let the same thing happen again.  

To protect them from the flak that may be thrown at them on failures, the schools have designed elaborate systems to throw out potential failures before they fail at the board level. Starting from class seven, the schools start making lists of potential failures and develop strategies for throwing out the students who have been with them for several years but yet may not be able to perform at the board level. This is not just or fair.


[1] Creative Schools review – we need to call time on exam-factory education; The Guardian. Book Review of Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson
[3] The original author of this quote "It is insance ..." is not known, although it has been mis-attributed to several famous people. See for a discussion on sources here.
[4] Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Gatto
[5] Source unknown for  Judging a fish on its ability to climb... by Quote Investigator
[6] Theorgy of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner
[7] From Degrading to De-Grading by Alfie Kohn
[8] "Child Driven Education" and "Kids Can Teach Themselves"; Ted Talks resulting from the fascinating "Hole in the Wall" experiment  by Sugata Mitra
[9] "Insult to Intelligence: Bureaucratic Invasion of Classroom" by Frank Smith
[10] Pursuit of Excellence vs Guzara: How to teach excellence through everyday examples

See also:

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