Tom Bennett copped a lot of criticism recently over his charges that this earnest, articulate and clearly well-educated student had fallen into the popular trap of ‘progressive instrumentalism.’ Confession: I had to look up what this is! It’s the idea that education should exist for some practical purpose. I believe that education should have a practical value, but mainly insofar as it can lead to further education (vocational or otherwise) that can then be applied in the workforce. Education is the foundation for what comes next, not the what comes next itself.
The cousin of instrumentalism seems to be ‘authentic’ assessment. Who doesn’t love authenticity? If you look at the dictionary definition, you might be tempted to think that authentic assessment means rigour, accuracy and validity. But you would be mistaken. In education, this tends to mean that a task has some kind of real-world alignment, based on the subjective view of a teacher who has (often) spent most of their life in schools. Think business plans for food trucks, awareness campaigns for social justice issues, and in English, the podcast.
au·then·tic ə-ˈthen-tik ȯ-
a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact
‘paints an authentic picture of our society’
I don’t think I would have such a big issue with the podcast if the direct teaching went along with it. As a teacher, do I really have the real-world skills to teach interviewing, sound editing, research and the mechanics of discursive writing, on top of critically analysing a text? If I had both the time and expertise then maybe I could justify this choice. Usually, with a task like this, the crafting of the assessment itself happens through many hours of student struggle outside the classroom. It’s difficult to justify the opportunity cost.
Daisy Christodoulou in Making Good Progress talks about the deliberate practice method where skills are broken down, and formative assessment of the component parts is conducted as part of the sequence of learning in preparation for assessment. She distinguishes this from the generic-skill method, where students learn to think critically by engaging in critical thinking, learn to solve problems through problem-solving and so on. I am sure there are isolated cases where teachers use the deliberate practice method to break down authentic tasks, using formative assessment cycles to monitor and correct. But it’s hard to imagine teachers having expertise in each of these actually highly specific project areas.
This brings me to the ethics of generic-skill learning — and by that I mean teaching and learning cycles where there is little direct instruction, little formative assessment of component skills and the end product is difficult to assess with validity. Sometimes I think that authentic tasks are based on the tastes and whims of the educated elite. Is a literary podcast really authentic for a 15-year-old? Are hipster food trucks really the most efficient way to learn about business? As Doug Lemov once said, it’s our role to find the shortest path to learning.
A few years ago, I taught a class full of students who struggled significantly with literacy. I wanted to find some kind of unifying motivation for them to focus on a series of intense lessons on sentence types. I asked how many of them aspired to go on to further study and almost the entire class put up their hands. Had I spent several weeks teaching visual design, sound production or video production skills, those students would have been several weeks further away from their ambition to undertake tertiary study. Multiply this by a year of the generic-skill approach and you can see their problem.
I frequently hear the claim that universities set group and problem-based tasks, and therefore genric-skill learning prepares students for tertiary success. It’s true that most university tasks are about demonstrating how students research and consolidate independently. But by this stage, these people are adult learners (and I will add that any university worth its salt would not assess using group work!) I look at learning as a very long game. Students need a surprising amount of revision and every time I start a new unit, my students are novices once again.
The expertise reversal effect tells us that students need to move beyond direct instruction and solve problems to continue learning after they have mastered the skill or content in question. But as teachers, I think we undercook our instruction in the hopes of seeing students leave the nest early. When my students graduate, my aim is for them to be critical, creative problem-solvers, with a wealth of knowledge and automaticity in the skills that will help them go out into the world and solve the problems they want to solve.
This is so en point Rebecca. Further to the problem of authentic tasks is students’, and often teachers’ lack of knowledge in the area. Little time is given to looking at the context of the problem. The result is often a shallow, simplistic response and/or most of the time is spent in the production of the task (movie, podcast, infographic or ‘Tedtalk’). Students know it’s not real-world and they know they have only skimmed the surface.
People seem to quickly forget the intensity and progress they made in university. First year raised the bar on high school and third and fourth year made first year seem easy. Preparing to make the most of their next years endeavours should be more than enough a goal for any year in school.
For 11 out of 12 teachers they can get first hand input on how well that is going very easily.