December 04, 2006

What is learning and how do you measure it?

Schools are in the business of measuring learning. But what if learning cannot be readily measured in any meaningful way? Obviously, institutions are not likely to let a little thing like that get in their way. Once an institution has been set up, its primary goal, someone wrote, is its own survival and growth, not the mission it was originally set.

Here are two examples of student writing. One was copied down from the board, the other was unscripted writing cued only by watching a segment from the movie Home Alone. Can you tell which is which?

1) "Eye" rhymes with "my". "Eye" and "my" rhyme.

2) Kevin go to shopping. Then he get home on the way, two men pursue after kevin. Two men is thieves. When the night. two men come slyly kevin's house. and his family is bound to be paris, but the home held a party. so the thieves turned back the night.
"so the thieves turned back the night." Poetic, isn't it?

OK, the comparison is not a fair one, but it made me think that there are ways of tricking students into writing well. And that's fine until you ask them to simply produce an unscripted piece of writing. Then you find out what they really can (and can't) do.

After reading nearly 100 pieces like the latter example, I found myself wishing I had not allowed them to write freely, and had instead dictated what they should write. They wouldn't have learned much, but it would have been much easier for me to read! I wonder to what extent (if any) such subconscious longings affect teachers' procedures?

How much of what I ask students to do is genuinely meaningful and most likely to lead to some kind of learning? If I'm feeling bored and cynical after reading this stuff, maybe they felt the same while writing it?

I don't want them to write meaningless stuff. I don't want to assign meaningless assignments. I don't want to read meaningless assignments. Perhaps it is because it is I who assigns the assignments, without consultation? What do you think? Will consultation help create meaningful writing assignments? I suspect if I ask them for their input, I'll get variations on the theme of "You decide: you're the teacher, that's your job. (Our job is just to do what you say.")

I wonder if the following is a signal of cynicism?
The boy stoled a teethbrash.
The boy goes sleeping alone.
This is all he could write after watching two 20-minute segments. The first sentence is supposed to "summarize" the first segment, the second sentence, the second. That's all we get? Two sentences? Ah, but what if he hadn't been feeling so generous?

But I can't really blame him: I didn't ask him if he wanted to watch that (or any) movie; I didn't involve him in the decision in any way. I forced him to watch, then forced him to write about it. Perhaps I should feel lucky I got those two, completely civil, sentences and not a rude finger gesture or a clean pair of heels.

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