Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 12 – “Assessment strategies can be designed to allow for the possibility of resistance.”

This is fair and follows the main line in the thinking of the progressive school in education which is shifts to a student-led approach in the first instance, to all out deschooling in a Illichian form, or Holtian unschooling. Each has implications, especially on assessment, and on resistance, and largely I think on the learner’s experience in learning, what is to be learned, and the context and conditions in which learning is taking place. John Dewey (1938; p. 6) noted this when he saw that:

” … the gulf between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young is so wide that the very situation forbids much active participation by the pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do – and learn… that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.”

Pushed to extremes we can imagine orthodox, student-managed, and unschooling approaches taken to their extremes.

For instance, in a teacher led environment, everything that is learned passes through the teacher, who is an unquestioned, unquestionable, authority on the subject. Failure on behalf of the student to understand lies solely with them, and the only recourse is to study harder outside of school using books which are written by omnipotent authorities much like the teacher. The teacher’s failure to make things clear, speak clearly, or even understand the subject itself in order to make it clear or draw out salient points and features of a topic, to lend proper and easily digestible examples is never brought into question. Examinations are set by unquestioned and unquestionable authorities in ‘proper’ language, which like legalese, are attempts to speak in a lingo which is unambiguous, and not open to alternative interpretations. Similarly, such precise use of questioning requires similarly crisp and precise answers, such as precise recitation of passages and quotes from books on Macroeconomics, or precise heuristics used to reproduce answers to mathematical or physics problems. It is held that the student has not achieved enough ‘general subject knowledge’ as to make re-interpretations, or to improvise alternative answers, or even ways of answering. These exam papers are easy to mark as they are either right or wrong.

If a student cannot work in this way then they must concede that they will never be applauded as an authority, and seek vocational or at worse, manual, work. On achieving 100% then the student has essentially parsed with the wisdom of authorities – such as the teacher or book writer – they have joined with this society – but only at this level. There are many more levels after this one, which they, and not you, the student, can yet understand. This is a meritous process of teaching, learning and assessment in that those who can and will adhere to its modus operandi, those who have talent, or develop talent, to memorise, recur regurgitate and repeat will succeed. They are uniform and liable for ISO accreditation [possibly in a tattoo on the back of their necks?]

In a sense the entire system is about a machine that permits filtration, pupils and students, peter down and sorted according to abilities. The exam is but one, but a totally integral part of this process. The hidden curriculum, the tacit dimension of such approaches is the creation of a passive and receptive labour force schooled not to question or think, not to be creative or innovative, but accepting, effective and dutiful. This is presented as being the way to achieve within the society. The structure is militaristic and industrious, was it the reason for Japan’s attitudes which included seppuku (or ritual suicide) – hari-kari? Power is the central organizing concept in analysing assessment processes, and it has a long history enshrined in the Chinese Imperial Examinations, which from 206 B.C. aimed to select candidates from all sections of society regardless of rank or pedigree, who would be the best administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy. However, passing the exam entailed the memorization of large sections of the Chinese classics; it did require time and tutors which lay people who were busy tilling the soil could little afford. Also, the history of education systems in other countries, like Cambodia, especially during times of colonization point to the way in which exams acted as gates preventing certain people over others to proceed, such as being ideologically and cultural adapted to the dominant and prevailing view.

Student-managed or led learning or independent study is a very different prospect. It starts with the individual learner and works from a position of their needs and aspirations. Such ideas have a long pedigree, comes from a view that has a very long legacy indeed, at least back to Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius) in the 17th century, Giambattista Vico and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. It concurs more recently with the constructivist ideas on learning put forward by Lev Vygotsky, with his idea that education lies in the child’s collaboration with more skilled partners, Jean Piaget who also stressed interaction with peers, and Jerome Bruner and his social framework for interpreting experiences. These ideas hve shadowed the development of the modern university and the school into the modern era, institutions which really rose to prominence with the industrial revolution and the development of a consumer society. The school and university themselves are responses to the development of new organisational forms and needs for labour, material and knowledge.

Perhaps none more than Dr. Maria Montesori comprehensively captures the spirit of an alternative view of education and children, beginning with exploration into how best to communicate with children with learning difficulties from mental asylums the slums of Rome, she went on to consider who best to communicate learning to children per se. She didn’t just use words and blackboard, but rather promoted the use of ‘objects’ or ‘toys’ whose use contained implicit lessons in abstract thinking. The objects could be viewed as complexes of signs materialising educational knowledge, rather than simply articulating it. The essence of the objects or toys, in deed the whole design ethos of Montessori is summed up very well by Lillard (1997; p.11): simplicity, durability, beauty, possibility for creative use and discovery, the presentation of one new concept at a time, a progressive relationship between materials so one material leads naturally to the next, and, in so far as possible, the opportunity for children to correct their own mistakes.

What a contrast this is to some very poor curricula and syllabus material that I have personally encountered, both as a director of academic management and as a graduate student. Of course you want to be evocative and let students join the dots at some epistemological level, this is desirable, in fact only polite and necessary for students at an advanced level of intellectual pursuit, but pure-play incoherent material, such as topics which do not fit or relate at best crudely at best to each other, or different topics given by different lecturers presented at too sophisticated, or too shallow a level, or a failure to ensure that threads are highlighted through what appears disjointed or non-sequential [i.e. the student again, doesn’t ‘get it’]. These would be helpful and will discombobulate.

Many traditional lecturers act like designers, especially if they are pre-eminent in the field, they work from the premise that all the groundwork has been done in order for them to dazzle with their own deep understandings of the world, their science or their allure. I sat through one graduate school course on the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, just about grasping it as a coherent and relevant subject of study. At the end of the course, on the very last day, a Korean colleague whose English was adequate, but not great, had completed the coursework and essays, and was now asking bluntly what all of us who were keeping face by not wishing to appear stupid, wanted to ask. She asked, “What is this about?” The lecturer was bemused and somewhat stunned. His answer wasn’t too bad, and for the first time some of us, most of us, were able to grasp what we were supposed to have known. We still didn’t understand why it was important…

Montesori in The Absorbent Mind, (1949:p 81) also promoted the idea of the prepared environment.

“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.”

I consider this a key ingredient in learning in any context, and it could act as a fine metaphor for the digital interface, and the interface to learning resources.

The children still go to a physical environment, and do so at regularised times. This aspect of ritual is sustained. But when they get there not only are the other children around, but so are the objects or toys, and other learning apparatus. The teacher is there, but they are not directing the children to do this or that, they are mingling and interacting and prompting and easing children into understanding. They are not providing answers, they are merely eliciting them in a manner Socrates would be proud of, helping children discover the answers. The prepared environment is set out so that 5 year olds [or whatever other age] can function independently, unimpaired by redundant information, or arcane references. In short it also obeys the design ethos cited earlier. They are as Montessori recommended “following the learner” not within an infinite selection environment, which could lead anywhere, but a thought-out and thought-through environment. In a sense this is certainly not anarchy, it is still facets of a Skinnerian rat’s maze, but a very comfortable, inspiring and stimulating one, where there is no cheese at the end to tease performance but rather, intrinsic interest in process and method. The children can study whatever they want, that is, within the environment. There are rules, but not an iron cage, but they have to be adhered to, such as they must return any apparatus or objects that they have finished using to where they found them before taking out another. Children are people, with different disposition and coming from different family backgrounds and there are conflicts and traumas, and these have to be skilfully integrated into learning by the teacher as mediator.

Children need above all else to be independent. At root this is doing all those things that are basic like tying shoes, or fastening straps. It moves through cognitive abilities into higher orders which include learning to learn. They need this to succeed and be ‘fully functioning’, whatever that can mean or entail, I use it most openly here to mean politically participant as well as economically participant, again whatever shape or meaning that these entail, in society by learning. To learn this, encapsulates that well hackneyed developmental maxim, perhaps over-used and perhaps embarrassingly paternalistic “if a give am a fish he eats for a day, if I teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime”. [the reality is that it is more likely the local indigenous guy who will teach the aid worker to survive in that locale and terrain, that is, if the aid workers’ five-star hotel and decent French restaurant gets destroyed in conflict]. To be independent is a political stance, as to be so invariably entails the social and the political at some level. Not unless you are an entirely self-sufficient hermit, sealed in a mountain cave on land that nobody owns or has claimed, eating food he himself has grown or caught and drinking found fresh water – so many clichés…

Learning to learn insures an uncertain and unpredictable future, where one must re-learn, be agile, self-confident, adaptable and respond to change. Learning outside of a regimented regime, where one has options, within prescribed or designed limits can surely help with this. Now it strikes me that as a society moves towards ‘knowledge status’, that is, more people are required to interpret data and information and make decisions, that is, they are not required to act like machines on production lines. However, they still work within limits such as the market they are in or the firm to which they belong, or the office, workshop or team they are in, and so forth.

Learning in this fashion remains structured, but not in the ruthlessly upfront and indexed way that traditional schooling conducts its affairs, with its strict sorting of age groups, classrooms and subjects, its rules to maintain social order, its etiquettes and with an onus on conformity, complicity and not standing out too much in the crowd except to win the school Dux and make everyone envious, apart from those who don’t care and are disenfranchised already. Instead, children pace themselves at their work and alternate what they work on. Time can be spent on the human dilemmas and petite politics of working collaboratively with independent thoughts, values and feelings. Time can be taken to explore this with the children, not brush it aside with punishments or consolidating behaviours and differences with trips to therapists and counsellors.

There is a strange parody in a lot of the discourse happening right now with regards to standard assessments. On one side of a debate are advocates, mainly those coming from an ‘managerially relevant’ background – politicians, consultants, actuaries of educational processes, testing companies, private entrepreneurs, IQ psychologists, human resource people with their KPI style of dealing with matters, and so forth – and others who consisting of mainly teaching practitioners and educational researchers who do not view that education and learning is something which can be properly only understood by persistent and constant monitoring, followed by retribution and even firings of ineffectual teachers and closing of useless schools The view here is education is something much more fluid, dynamic and organic, it is an experience and it is always on – that is, it is lifelong and natural. The irony is that it is through a standardised test – PISA delivered by the OECD [set up in 1961 to promote democracy and the free market] globally to their member countries– that those responsible for education in the United States, and by extension other countries such as thee UK and Australia are dismayed that their children seem to be less proficient in subjects than the counterparts in Finland, South Korea and China. Michel Gove the UK education secretary calls for reforms to address this, making it is as Tight (1994) suggested, yet another ‘crisis’ in education, even though viewed by a more longitudinal view education in developed countries have achieved a lot. Poorer scores in reading could be due to the rise in computer communication, and new form of literacy. But the prescription to remedy this more monitoring and assessments, with the weeding out of poor teachers. The PISA survey claims to not address the contents of curriculum, but rather test for maths, science, reading literacy and problem-solving required for work and quality of life in the future society [wow all slippery terms]. Uniformity of results in Finland were impressive, strongest and weakest, and between different institutions and regions.

It is held that there is no inherent difference in students’ capacity or propensity to do this test, and that it can only be poor or ineffectual teaching which is to blame, and possibly poor academic management. When they look at the ‘Finland’ phenomenon and try to pick out differences, one aspect is that students do not submit to tests for most of their schooling, and they are not tested on a regular basis. Other contextual factors are also cited, such as homogeneity of ethnicity, and the fact that foreign movies on TV are not dubbed, as they are in many other cultures, but rather subtitled which helps with language acquisition.

In a sense I am fortunate enough to have had fair exposure to student centred approaches directly through my attendance at the radical School for Independent study at the former Polytechnic of North East London in the early 1980s, through to the 1990s. Not only did they reinvent the ways and means through which students developed and built knowledge, the academics there also offered more generally education as a means to improve response to the vicissitudes of a changing and challenging new work environment being hewn out of the old industrial order by the forces of free market enterprise and the city. It was recognition of these profound changes in the socio-economic, and technical, make-up of global society that drove them to develop the course. Those interested can pick up a copy of an early paper written by Eunice Hinds which gives the overview here, or read my brief overview from the ‘user’ perspective here.

Student managed approaches open the prospect not only of more unique forms of work and end-products being produced, more personally and professionally relevant compendiums of skills and knowledge learned – these are all the positive points [which may not apply to all students in all cases] – but foster above all else more inspired learning driven by promoting an intrinsic curiosity. This is a shift from extrinsic expectations: “I’ve got to pass this degree so I my parents will be pleased, and their investment has been worthwhile, I can get a decent job” to “this is fascinating, I really want to know more.” Why shouldn’t you study according to your past experiences and aspirations for the future? Why shouldn’t you study according to your own declared interest? Why should you not study a subject of your choosing, while understanding that subjects may be treated as independent but actually meld in the real world of work and creating experiences? Why shouldn’t you be assessed according to your declared and actual acquisition of skills, knowledge and experience gained through research and study? In many respects such learning within the boundaries of an institution represents the more mature version of a Montessori early years education. It does differ however in one major sense that it calls upon the adult student to plan and make a contract, one which may change according to the lay of the land, in a Popperian sense that new discoveries may lead to new directions and avenues, and new hypothesis, and calls for review of both skills and knowledge pursued and how it they may be assessed.

Assessments in this form of learning will then be based upon agreement with academic mentors on what the end result will be. In the case of the School for Independent Study, this also had to concur with the requirements of the Council for National Academic Awards, whom granted the degrees for polytechnics in England. Bearing in mind that many of the assessors of the course itself were traditional academics, themselves schooled in traditional ways, but aware of the standards and quality of work at this level of education, most if not all were highly impressed with the products emerging from the school. This is not entirely alien to the orthodox view as it is practised widely in post-graduate education, where the format may start with a proposal which is approved, delivered and discussed with peers and supervisors, and the product of this is a thesis of so many words in length, the subject matter, the research methods employed and the conclusions defined and written up by the student themselves, a process of independent study. They are also typically called upon to ‘defend’ their ideas and conclusions in public or semi-private oral examinations, whose outcome may form the substance of iterations and re-writes. This is a crafted end product, and there is no reason to restrict this way of research and learning to the post-graduate level. It is conceivable that other forms of end-product could be delivered as is already the case in the arts, but this will vary from case to case.

I will give the final category of unschooling little more than a cursory look. But this follows the proposal of Ivan Illich to deschool society. Formal education institutions exist in their current form only because tests and other forms of assessment are so poor:

The same people, paradoxically, when pressed to specify how they acquired what they know and value, will readily admit that they learned it more often outside than inside school. Their knowledge of facts, their understanding of life and work came to them from friendship or love, while viewing TV, or while reading, from examples of peers or the challenge of a street encounter. (Illich, 1971: p.73)

In a sense this opens the real disconnect between what happens in school and what happens outside. In Cambodia, a society which still suffers the residuals of being traumatised by genocide and the abrupt dismantling of all their social systems, education, health etc., there is an almost religious fervour when one raises the idea of ‘school’. Parents, many of which had no schooling or formal education themselves, faithfully send their children to school everyday in the blind belief that it is good or beneficial for them. They have no idea how poor or ineffectual the schools are [and they are poor, riddled with bad teaching and corruption], there is rather the idea that somehow school will transform children into successful adults. It has been, as it is in the developed countries, developed into a ritual, in many cases something to be resisted in its entirety Some kids welcome suspension or expulsion. But back in Cambodia, there is a post-colonial residual belief that this was the only way a poor child can become socially mobile, that is regardless of what goes on inside (I suppose I mean here the children and the school ), they will pass if they pay the right money and get a good job in the civil service, and wear slacks and a white suit. Frederick J. Hollister reported in 1958 that:

Since 1863, when Cambodia became a French protectorate, to be a government employee has been the highest ambition of Cambodian youth. As far as they and their parents are concerned, no other reason for education exists. To wear a necktie and shoes and occasionally a white suit reveals that one is a success. These are evidence that one does not have to labor in the rice fields, work as a coolie, or have the dirty hands of an artisan. Even though the skilled worker may earn a higher wage, his social position is much below that of the civil servant. Hence, every ambitious and intelligent young man aspires to government employment. Civil servants-high, middle, and low-comprise the content of an entire so- cial class.

In essence the rote learning in school may provide a rudimentary education in that some Cambodian youth can read and write their own language, and can count. They may also have some rudimentary colloquial English, usually through attendance in evening classes. But they are far behind in terms of other countries and I am in no doubt they would have problems with PISA. This means that most useful things they learn comes from out of school, from sitting or working in their mother’s shop or market stall, from interactions they have in buying and selling things, from television, magazines and now the internet.

Now the point is what kinds of prepared environment is the world around the child, how is it configured, who configures it, what are they learning, in short what kind of Skinnerian rat’s maze are they held within? The most extreme case of a problematic, unprepared environment, or prepared for them by global media, is the tragic case of neglected and feral children. People such as Genie, highlight the problems when there is a lack of social contacts and stimulating environments. These children adapt or learn to cope with deprivation, and in a manner which makes it difficult for them to develop or ‘come out’ of such states. It is also difficult to assess such states properly. I use this as an example to show that deprivation of stimulus is alien to what we have come to expect from the human condition, and it produces alien responses in those who are confined within them. There is a problem of communication as there is none, or very little.

Now when you contrast this with the story of the Chinese ‘dragon mothers’ admired in some quarters, appalled by others. They follow the tradition in pushing and reinforcing their children’s education to the point of chastisement, ridiculing them, threats, taunts and unrelenting discipline. micromanaging all aspects of their lives. Rather than cute environments stuffed with cuddly toys, the children of dragon mothers like Amy Chua wants their heads stuffed with facts and unrelentless memorization and performances of classical music.

After lots of shrieking and music-shredding in one particularly drawn-out battle over a tricky piece, Chua writes, “we worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.” There’s more of this. It’s appalling.

Yale Law School professor, Chua in her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” details what should be considered the opposite of non-stimulus, by making her children embark on hours-long piano practice without food, water or bathroom breaks, rejected handmade birthday cards as too carelessly done, and any grade lower than an A was unacceptable, they were forbidden to play instruments other than the violin and piano, they were denied watching TV, they were denied the ability to be in a school play or have a sleepover with friends. There was some resistance by her older daughter but one only wonders what the end game of this is. Chua’s lauded approach also contrasts with the laissez-faire approach of another academic in Canada, an education professor, Carlo Ricci, whose ideas on unschcooling has their daughter doing anything she wants. If nature and nurture have anything to do with it, and the idea of cultural capital, unschcooling does have a difference if your parents are standard professors, and your entire world is embedded within communities of learning and its discourse. What if you are unschooled in a socio-economically depressed single-parent environment?

The point of the matter seems to be for me is there is a difference between formal, student centered and unschooling approaches. I have presented them as a kind of spectrum with student-centred in the centre and the others at either polarized end. Perhaps it is not like this at all, but within most formal school systems, there is more latitude for students having some dispensation on what they study and how they go about it, and is unschooling really an option for those with anything like an impoverished environment, socially, economically, environmentally and vocationally. I look around and have encountered illiterate people in my time in developing nations. They function, they do things, but they are very vulnerable to change and do not have elaborate schemes of why things are as they are. They cannot question or raise debate on those who claim power over them. They can only repair to mysticism and animistic beliefs as reasons for why things happen, their attitudes to everything from sex, to health to making money is affected. They rarely plan ahead more than a day. They may be street wise, like the children on the beach who have learned multiple languages in order to beg or sell their fireworks or necklaces on the beach, but their horizons are closed beyond this reality, and later, they will have to adapt, which they cannot do much better than Chua’s children can probably ever improvise, even though her 14 year old achieved a début at Carnegie hall.

They say that everyone has a chance to succeed in the economy. If you are unemployed, then obviously you are just not trying hard enough.

I take “resistance” here as an attempt by the student to usurp the absolute authority of the examiner, or the parent [in Chua’s case] to put forward a case which challenges their opinion and authority over the final product, and offers to convince on the basis of some alternative method or style of critique. The difficulty with traditional methods of examining the results of a student’s endeavours is that the results often seem to be handed down from on high, with little explanation of how marks were determined, and with consequent puzzlement on the part of the learner. Was Socrates right when he noted that as people grew accustomed to writing down their thoughts and reading the thoughts others had written down, they became less dependent on the contents of their own memory?

I think this is important, but must be stipulated and understood from the very start of the project and a negotiated item between the lecturer or manager and the learner. Goal posts may change, but this should not be arbitrary or fickle. Perseverance and a stomach for challenges and wicked problems is what make education relevant to the individual, industry, and society [not necessarily in that order].

Resistance, learning to resist, learning to be diplomatic, democratic, learning to negotiate, to participate, are all important parts of a critical pedagogy for today, but it must be understood in its wide phenomenological and political perspectives. This is a human element which is not affected by technology, bar it operating as a vehicle for resistance [like mobile video during the Arab spring], whilst garnering support for your view.

I with a quote from B.F. Skinner in his classic Novel, Walden II, because I probably used his rat’s maze rightly or wrongly in this diatribe, Walden II protagonist, Frazier says:

Since our children remain happy, energetic, and curious, we don’t need to teach “subjects” at all. We teach only the techniques of learning and thinking. As for geography, literature, the sciences – we give our children opportunity and guidance, and they learn for themselves. In that we dispense with half the teachers required under the old system, and the education is incomparably better. Our children are not neglected, but they’re seldom, if ever, taught anything.

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