On a warm Tuesday at the very end of summer, my college held its twice-yearly faculty "in-service education" day. The theme: "improving student learning outcomes" as part of the transition from a "teaching institution" to a "learning community."
For the last decade, the administration has been eager to impress upon the faculty that we are not merely teachers but "learning facilitators." Learning, we are told, is a collaborative process, more rich and democratic than the top-down method of traditional teaching. Few of us unblessed by graduate degrees from Schools of Education have any real idea what that means, and so the powers-that-be decree that we have these regular indoctrination sessions. The untenured faculty among us are advised to attend and feign earnestness, while the tenured folk hang around to see what sort of a free lunch will be put on. Rarely are either the workshops or the meals memorable.
As Inside Higher Ed has reported, the Department of Education last week gave a $2.4 million dollar grant to three different college associations to help them figure out how colleges could measure “student outcomes.” The goal is seemingly noble; all of us in higher ed are, one presumes confidently, concerned with student learning. The problem, of course, is that for a very long time the vast majority of us have been doing an outstanding job of assessing student outcomes: We call it testing and grading, and for most of us, it’s worked splendidly. But of course, we who teach students haven’t always had the benefit of an education in Education. (Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach get education degrees and become administrators -- it’s an old and not unfair maxim.) And in order to demonstrate “reform” and “improvement”, the educrats must first convince the faculty that our time-tested methods of evaluating our own instruction and our students’ work have been entirely inadequate.
As part of teaching the teachers that they don’t really know how to teach, last Tuesday at our “faculty education day” I was handed a little yellow binder stuffed with handouts of articles from various education journals. I got a free pencil (alas, already sharpened) which had "PCC Flex Day 2007: The Passion for Learning" emblazoned upon it. In my folder was a little self-survey, so that I could discover my own unique learning style, and then share it with my colleagues during the stimulating "breakout sessions" that were sure to follow. After all, the educrats opine, we can't really be effective "learning facilitators" until we become aware of our own learning styles -- and how our own "ways of learning" may be obstacles to understanding the needs of students (sorry, "fellow learners") who have different styles.
On the agenda for the day, the following:
--Turn in your program assessment form at your food station to get your meal!
The Ed.D.'s were on to us! They knew we came for free food, and so a crackdown had been implemented: no ticky, no lunchie. No self-assessment, no stir-fry over rice. Luckily enough, I had packed some trail mix, a nectarine, and a vegan protein bar, so the blackmail didn't work on me.
Seriously, of course, the real reason for all of this wallowing in self-congratulatory edu-speak is that the community colleges, like most public institutions, are worried about accountability. Accountability is the buzzword of the decade; the taxpayers (and their duly elected representatives) want to know that they're getting something in return for their billions. That's not unreasonable. But as anyone who has taught the humanities with passion for any length of time will attest, the most enduring outcome of our work as teachers emerges over the course of a student’s entire life. The educrats have decided that the best way to prove accountability is to create measurable, testable, "student learning outcomes" (SLOs). The problem is, they expect that outcome to be manifest by the end of the semester in which the student was enrolled and evident in the form of a test that can be given at many colleges to allow for comparison. Evidence of authentic learning almost invariably takes much longer to emerge and its value for the student is independent of whether the student down the road or across the country had a good learning outcome.
The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that worrying too much about assessing learning is one of the chief enemies of inspiring our students to want to learn. Look, I want all my students to pass their final exams, get good grades, and remember what it is that they've learned. But I'm teaching history, not providing a certificate in refrigerator maintenance. My final exams assess the ability to construct coherent arguments as well as what, on one given day, a student has managed to memorize. But that doesn’t mean that even the most carefully crafted exam can assess learning because the real learning happens long after the student has left the class.
Especially in my humanities and gender studies courses, I know full well that it will take many of my students years and years to connect what they've learned in class to their own lives. Often, the epiphanies and break-throughs that matter will happen long after students have left this campus, long after they've moved out of reach of the educrats and their assessment tools. I always compare the job of a good teacher (I'm not a learning facilitator) to a gardener or a farmer. I know it sounds patriarchal, deeply Western, and unfashionably hierarchical, but there it is: I sow seeds in the soil of students' hearts and minds. (Some of the time, my seed falls on rock, other times it ends up in the thistles, but some of it ends up in nice, loamy earth.) And here's the thing: I don't often get to see what blossoms and what doesn't, because whatever flowers do bloom will generally do so months or years after the student has left my class.
All teachers love it when their students report an “a-ha!” moment. We make a great mistake, though, in assuming that if these epiphanies are going to happen to our students at all, they will happen during the term we happen to be teaching them! Some of the most vital lessons I learned from my professors as an undergraduate only became clear to me a long time after I had left their classrooms, after the seeds they planted had had time to undergo a very lengthy germination.
So if the politicians and the educrats want to assess my skills as a teacher, they need to do more than look at my students' test results. We all know that students can cram in information for a December final -- and most of the facts they memorized will have vanished from their heads by Super Bowl Sunday. But a new way of seeing the world, of seeing, say, gender roles and relationships in a new light -- that may well endure even though there are no reliable ways of assessing that sort of internal transformation. The most important things my students learn in my classes can't possibly be measured by any government-provided instrument. I've been teaching long enough to have students come back years and years after taking a class; some just mouth platitudes such as "I really liked your class" but a few say wonderful, heartening, reassuring things; they tell me in detail how something I taught them helped change the direction of their lives. Most of the time, they'll say something like "I didn't realize it at the time, but when you said X, it started a whole new way of thinking about the world."
There's no SLO that can measure that.
Look, I know who pays my salary. If the state legislature and their Ed.D. flacks want me to tweak my syllabi to emphasize the vocabulary of accountability, I'm happy to do it. But I'm still going to teach -- primarily through lecture in an ancient, top-down, one-sided way. I'm going to pour out my enthusiasm and my passion, laboring in a field filled with rocky soil and pockets of rich earth. And for the most part, I won't be around to see the harvest. That's what it means to teach.