Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Appearances can be deceiving, in education, too.


Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (1769 – 1844) was a Russian journalist and a poet. He started his poetic career from translating Aesop fables to Russian. Later on he had become famous for his own fables. One those fables titled “Quartet” was about four animals trying to play music.
A monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear got musical instruments and wanted to wow the word with their music. But whatever they did all they could produce is cacophony. To fix it they tried different ways to sit around – in a circle, in a line, etc. But nothing helped. The moral of the story is clear – the way we sit does not matter if we don’t have the right skill (e.g. cannot play musical instruments).
This fable comes to mind every time when I read about another school or a college or a university which tries to improve its teaching by reshuffling the subjects and courses. The same courses are being regrouped under new umbrellas, like individual capacities (competencies, areas of abilities, etc.). The new classification is declared to boost students’ philosophical views, vision of social forces, quantitative reasoning skills, communicative skills, general logic, etc. But each group is no more than an on-paper re-classification of the same old courses which have been taught for decades. The fact that those courses now fall into different “baskets” does not lead to the new learning outcomes for student taking those courses.
If a teaching strategy within each course has not changed, the learning outcomes of students will remain the same, as well. Changing the appearance without changing the substance will not make any difference in the final “product” (in education this final product is students’ skills, knowledge, abilities, competencies).
If a school, or a college, or a university wants to help students to achieve new learning outcomes, it has to start changing the teaching strategies within the courses. However, in that case there would be no actual need to re-classify the courses, unless the school would also wanted to change the way it manages the teaching process as a whole (changing administrative tree, funding, information flaw, etc.).
But changing the teaching strategies within the courses is a much harder job to do than just rearranging them on paper.
Of course, every school administrator would reject my statement and would tell us that the school does a lot to change teaching culture, to advance teaching approaches. But ask the said administrator one simple question: “How do you know that what you do actually works?”, “How do you measure the success?”
Turns out, down the road, if you peel off all vague descriptions and walk through the fog of generic statements, there is only one real criteria used to access the result of all innovations, which is student satisfaction.
Not the volume of the actual knowledge, not the set of the actual skills, but what students feel after the course.

And to make students feel good, all a faculty needs to do is (a) be friendly (talk to students after the class, tell them an occasional joke, listen to student’s grievances, …), and (b) produce a reasonable grade. The latter part is easy; no matter how faculty taught the class, no matter how students performed on the exams, there is a procedure which makes any result look “normal”, it is called “scaling”. Just take the actual distribution of the final grade and fit it into a Bell curve with the reasonable average. 
Of course, it does not mean that every faculty does just that.
The point is that no one really knows what does faculty do, and
what did students actually learn. And - no one wants to know. No one wants to look into that Pandora’s box.

Appendix
Below you find the Russian – English translation of the fable, done via Google Translate (I have not change a single word in it, although Google did a poor job translating this fable).
The prankster-monkey,
A donkey,
Goat,
Yes the toe-bearded Teddy Bear
The Quartet started to play.
They got the notes, bass, viola, two violins
And they sat down on the meadow under the limes, -
Capture the light with your art.
Struck in the bow, tear, but no sense.
"Stop, brothers, stop! Cried the Monkey. - Wait!
How does the music go? You are not sitting like that.
You with the bass, Misha, sit down against the viola,
I, prima, will sit down against the second;
Then the music will go wrong:
We have a lot of woods and mountains! "
They settled, the Quartet began;
He nevertheless does not care.
"Wait, I've found a secret! -
Screaming Donkey - we, indeed, will get along,
If we sit next to him. "
The donkey listened: they sat in a row in a row;
And yet the Quartet does not sound like it.
Here are more than the old they went to the analysis
And disputes,
To whom and how to sit.
The Nightingale happened to fly to their noise.
Then with a request to him to solve them.
"Perhaps," they say, "take an hour for patience,
To quartet our order in order:
And we have notes, and there are instruments,
Just tell us how to sit! "-
"To be a musician, so must the skill
And your ears are pale, -
The Nightingale answers them, -
And you, friends, no matter how much you sit down,
Everything in musicians is not good. "

Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals
GoMars.xyz



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