Thursday, May 17, 2012

Means to What End?

The title for this article comes from a 4/22 Commentary in the The Chronicle entitled "Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams" by David Jaffee. Here's a bit of it:
If there is one student attitude that most all faculty bemoan, it is instrumentalism. This is the view that you go to college to get a degree to get a job to make money to be happy. Similarly, you take this course to meet this requirement, and you do coursework and read the material to pass the course to graduate to get the degree. Everything is a means to an end. Nothing is an end in itself. There is no higher purpose.
I put in bold the headline quote so you couldn't miss it. Instrumentalism is the idea that predicting cause and effect is more important than "understanding reality," and I'm not sure it's exactly the right concept for this argument. But the argument is still valid, and summed up in this ubiquitous practice:
On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning's sake; on the other, we tell students they'd better know this or that, or they'd better take notes, or they'd better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don't do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure. This communicates to students that the process of intellectual inquiry, academic exploration, and acquiring knowledge is a purely instrumental activity—designed to ensure success on the next assessment.
This is the "prepare and certify" model that I dissected in "The End of Preparation." In theory, the preparation (the cause) enables students to be functional in graduate school, employment, entrepreneurship, performance, public service, or some other worthy human endeavor after graduation. The reason I don't think our prepare/certify model is instrumentalism is because it's rare for anyone to check this connection between the preparation and its ultimate impact. That's mainly because it's so hard to do. Yes, we get studies about how much an undergraduate degree is worth in terms of life wages, but that doesn't say anything causal about the education itself (correlation is not causation).

The whole article is worth a read. Maybe I'm saying that because it reaches the same conclusions I have:
Authentic assessments involve giving students opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context. Ideally, student performance is assessed not on the ability to memorize or recite terms and definitions but the ability to use the repertoire of disciplinary tools—be they theories, concepts, or principles—to analyze and solve a realistic problem that they might face as practitioners in the field.
I have gone further and tried to show how we can do that. See "I-ACT: An Alternative to Prepare-and-Certify."

If you have some time to read it, there's a provocative article on the philosophy of science that is related to instrumentalism (my assessment), and does have a connection to the subject matter, albeit from the perspective of natural selection: "The Interface Theory of Perception: Natural Selection Drives True Perception To Swift Extinction" by Donald D. Hoffman. Here's the abstract:
A goal of perception is to estimate true properties of the world. A goal of categorization is to classify its structure. Aeons of evolution have shaped our senses to this end. These three assumptions motivate much work on human perception. I here argue, on evolutionary grounds, that all three are false. Instead, our perceptions constitute a species-speci c user interface that guides behavior in a niche. Just as the icons of a PC's interface hide the complexity of the computer, so our perceptions usefully hide the complexity of the world, and guide adaptive behavior. This interface theory of perception o ers a framework, motivated by evolution, to guide research in object categorization. This framework informs a new class of evolutionary games, called interface games, in which pithy perceptions often drive true perceptions to extinction.
I have added emphasis to the point I think connects to the current context: the way we think of the world, how this forms cause-effect models and the language we construct to process it, collectively form an "interface" that guides behavior in a niche, as the author puts it. If the 'niche' is negotiation of short-term hurdles using short-term memory and becoming skillful at doing minimal work to earn grades, that's a very different thing from being productive in the grandest way humans are capable of: through art and rhetoric, leadership and service--the effects we are actually hoping for when betassled students walk over the stage.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Dave -- thank you. You starkly lay out the disconnect between the learning we measure and the learning we care about.