• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


There Is No Such Thing as an Educational Innovation

We can't innovate teaching and learning, but that doesn't mean we don't change.

August 18, 2015

There is no such thing as an educational innovation.

I’m wondering if I believe this. If we accept the definition of something “innovative” as “revolutionary” and assume that if something is genuinely innovative it must transform what came before in a sudden flash, I think I might.

Or maybe I don’t believe it because right now, I’m innovating in my first-year writing course this year by adopting a kind of grading contract.

The grading contract replaces my point-based, letter grade with weighted assignments system, with a simple three point scale (Proficient, Above Proficient, Below Proficient) for each assignment. Every activity associated with the course – attendance, peer critique, drafts, in-class writing, discussion, group exercises, etc… - will “count” towards the grade. If students do the work of the course, they cannot earn less than a B. If they excel, by scoring above proficient on the assessed work, or by doing additional writing, they can earn an A. If they fail to do the work of the course, the bottom's the limit.

The goal is to value process over product and empower students to focus on what they’re learning, rather than tying them in knots in pursuit of a specific grade.

I’m doing this because it puts my pedagogical practice in line with my values. Previously, I would try to sell the notion that good process results in good product to my students, emphasizing drafts and revision, and encouraging them to dig-in on those aspects of the course, but at the end of that, I’d grade them only on the end product.

The disconnect seems obvious to me. Students who enter the class highly proficient at writing can get high grades based on their already extant skills without engaging in the bulk of the coursework, while others who struggle with writing may make great strides in both their process and product, but still score poorly.

It’s not that this is “unfair.” A writing course can and should grade writing.

But it also felt like a missed opportunity. The strong writers didn’t move forward as much as they could. Those who lacked proficiency often made great strides in their work that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the assignment grades. This was particularly true at the start of the semester, and I’ve witnessed what happens when the enthusiasm for progress dies.

So, I’m going to try something different, something innovative[1]. To me, this change feels revolutionary. It upends a practice – putting numerical scores on student writing – that has been central to my teaching for the entirety of my career.

But in the realm of composition studies, it’s not revolutionary in the slightest. I am drawing on the scholarship of dozens, maybe more, who have theorized and practiced these things in their own classrooms.

For the theory underpinning the change, I am relying heavily on the extensive work of Peter Elbow on these subjects, as well as Asao B. Inoue’s “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time has helped in developing the specific grading system and assessment tools I’ll be using.

Cathy Spidell and Willam H. Thelin have helped me anticipate student resistance to the use of grading contracts.

I’m also working with an informal group of other English faculty at College of Charleston who are doing their own experimenting with specifications and contract grading.

I believe that adopting contract grading is going to both improve student learning and allow me to spend more time on the work that is most meaningful – helping students improve their writing – by saving time on what I think is least meaningful – making fine-grained distinctions and offering justifications between grades of 83 and 86.

My innovation is, in reality, an iterative process that I’m joining midstream.

This should be equally true of something like a MOOC. Distance learning goes back to long before I was born. Even computer-assisted distance learning can trace it’s roots to the 1970’s. If it’s a revolution, it’s a very slow one.

The reason the MOOC tsunami hasn’t yet – and never will – overwhelm the university is because all those breathless boosters rooting for disruption seemed to ignore the iterations in distance-learning studies that came before them. Even as they decried the “sage on a stage” model, they recreated it on the screen, and called it revolutionary.

It’s not that we can’t learn online. It’s just that learning online is every bit as complicated, and perhaps even more so, as learning face-to-face. Lots of thoughtful people are studying this. They are figuring out many things, but as of yet, there is no revolution because there can’t be.

The reason we haven’t been able to revolutionize the educational process is because it is enormously complex, and there is no such thing as a universal practice. You may as well claim that you’ve innovated writing a novel, or parenting, or marriage.

We can learn lots of things about those processes, but those things we learn will never transform into an innovation that is universal and scalable.

Effective teaching must be built on a relationship between students and teacher, and that relationship must be genuine. My switch to a grading contract is in the service of that goal. Even if the adoption of a grading contract works well for me, it may not for someone else because of who they are, or the sorts of students they teach.

However, that we can’t revolutionize teaching and learning doesn’t mean it’s static. The way I teach has changed radically over the years. Even what I teach in a composition course has changed.

As a TA in grad school, I was tasked with teaching essay forms (descriptive, narrative, process, etc…), but over time, scholars and teachers have come to recognize the limits of this method in developing writers with skills and processes flexible enough to adapt to any occasion.

The field within which I work has evolved, and I’ve changed along with it. Judged against those early years, my current approach is beyond revolutionary, and yet I don’t think I could’ve arrived in the place I currently find myself any sooner.

I’m even going to be in a different place next year. Such is life.

I barely recognize what I did 20 years ago as teaching. I served my students as best I could at the time.

I’m better now.




[1] I’m choosing not to share my full scheme publicly because I want to see how it goes for a semester before I open myself up to the slings and arrows of the internet, but ultimately, I hope to turn the experiences into a dialog about how we approach this intersection of process and product and the role grades and grading play.



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