Sunglasses and Education
Do you own a pair of sunglasses? If you do, consider putting them on...There. Does the world look different now? Let's proceed one step further. Sunglasses come in shades of yellow, blue, red, green--and probably a great variety of other colors. Doesn't each color make the world look different? I could say that our choosing to wear one color over another is arbitrary, and, therefore, how the world looks to us is arbitrary.
We do a lot of things arbitrarily. A teacher's choosing a method of evaluating his students is one example. In Wassermann's case study called "It's up to You, Mrs. Buscemi," Mrs. Buscemi, a math teacher, chooses to evaluate her students according to a formula. In the case of a student named Adam, here is his mark calculated: "Five major tests: 50%, 37%, 42%, 48%, 40%. Assignments: 40%. Class participation: 40%. Total: 297 [divided by] 7 = 42.43%" (1993, p. 159). Call this mode of evaluation green sunglasses.
Should that arbitrarily chosen procedure prevent Adam from entering a local college that requires (arbitrarily) a 65% score? Before you attempt to answer that question, let me add some flesh and blood to Adam's name. Mrs. Buscemi's principal tells her,
"Did you know that [Adam] had been accepted into a local community college, conditional on his passing all his courses? He would be the first in his family ever to go to college....Do you know what this means to a black family from the projects? It wasn't that Adam was being lazy, or shirking. He was enrolled in extra courses, off campus, to make up the requirements he needed for college. He was also working part time [this and the previous sentence explain why, although Mrs. Buscemi has offered to give Adam extra help, he has never come to her for any]. That's a heavy load for a grown man, let alone a boy of 18. Can't you see your way clear to giving this boy a boost up by passing him?" (Ibid.)
Is Mrs. Buscemi's integrity as a woman of her word, of her calculation, of her evaluation, being challenged? She seems to think so. She tells her principal,
"If I give him a passing final grade of 65%, what does this say to the other students who earned grades of 65%? What does this say about any of the other grades I've given, where in-class averages are fair representations of a student's work during the course?" (Ibid., p. 160)
Before I continue probing Mrs. Buscemi's dilemma, I'd like to unfold this world of evaluation, in the next two paragraphs, to present a broader view.
Mrs. Buscemi speaks of "fair representations." But isn't one man's garbage another man's treasure, and one man's "fair" another man's "unfair." Do you believe that? Lev Vygotsky, the Russian education psychologist, would have argued that "traditional tests of intellectual functioning...[were] extremely limited [and unfair] because...we should be measuring...not what children can do by themselves...but rather what they can do with the help of another person [and, therefore, what they] have the potential to learn" (Berk & Winsler, 1995, p. 26). Call the traditional evaluation blue sunglasses, and call Vygotsky's method red sunglasses.
Let me add another view of evaluation. Kieran Egan, a well-known education theorist, explains:
The easiest thing to measure is what knowledge [especially factual knowledge] is remembered some short time after [schoolwork] is completed. This kind of measure accounts for a great deal of educational evaluation, and is taken [often too literally] as an index of the more important lesson taught [which could have been literary appreciation, mathematical appreciation, empathy, a co-operative spirit, honesty, or determination--all non-factual products]. (Egan, 1990, p. 53)
In short, not only is evaluation arbitrary, sometimes it's illogical. Is Mrs. Buscemi's original evaluation formula illogical?
I'll return to her dilemma. Could she reasonably assign Adam further assignments--for extra marks--to be completed during vacation periods? If so, his extra marks could be added to his 42.43%. Call this method yellow sunglasses. Or could she re-test him, using open-book exams, for a recalculation?
Some might balk at such a notion. Yet William Glasser presents an interesting argument in favor of teachers using open-book tests:
Most tests depend upon memory; reference materials are not allowed. I would hate to drive over a bridge, work in a building, or fly in an airplane designed by engineers who depended only upon memory. Engineers utilize handbooks and tables to look up important but hard-to-remember details. In my medical training, I have seen experienced surgeons call for a surgical book to be brought to the operating room when they were faced with an unfamiliar situation. (Glasser, 1969, p. 72)
If Mrs. Buscemi chooses to re-test Adam, using open-book exams, possibly allowing her to replace his original five major test scores of 50%, 37%, 42%, 48%, and 40% with higher scores, then call her new method of evaluation purple sunglasses.
How many other colors of sunglasses are there? Lots? Infinitely lots? And as for the colors I mentioned--green, blue, red, yellow, and purple--what are your preferences? Mine are...um, who really cares?1 The point is: our choosing one mode of evaluation over another is arbitrary, and just as one color of sunglasses over another makes the world look one way rather than another, that mode of evaluation arbitrarily affects what grade a student receives.
What would you do in Adam's case?
1 I will, however, describe one of my principal's of instruction that directs what modes of evaluation I decide to use: "[The teacher] lets [students] know that 'there is no such thing as a low grade that cannot be improved'" (Glasser, 1977, p. 602).