Thursday, 19 July 2012

30% Less than Perfect

Inherited protractor (partially polished)
Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am opposed to grading the work of art students for a variety of reasons of which this post is a continuation. On the other hand, attempting to assign numerical equivalents to more concrete subjects like Engineering or Healthcare for instance seems not unreasonable since the achievement of specific outcomes can both be more clearly set and measured. But without a clear example of what constitutes a top performance (ie: 100%) in a subject, there is little of substance for students to aim at or for staff to use as a benchmark by which other evaluations may be made. As a result it becomes almost impossible to agree that any particular work represents all that is required at any given level and therefore the highest marks simply languish unused waiting for that ‘perfect’ student who, of course, is simply an impossible amalgam of all the very best performances we have seen in the past.

Is a First Class Honours degree a sign of perfect achievement? Not in the least. Even a 100% achievement would only be perfect at Honours level, otherwise why have Post Graduate, Masters and Doctoral study? A First Class Honours degree is simply a reflection of attainment somewhere in the top 30% of the Honours degree classification.

So why on earth are there not more First Class Honours degrees being awarded to graduates each year?

In the UK around 10% of graduating students achieve “a first” while around 20% attain the "third" (third Class) category - the lowest category of Honours degree (graded at 40% or above). The other 70% of students achieve either a "two one" (Second Class Upper), a "two two" (Second Class Lower) or an outright fail. Very few students actually fail, and I’ve never heard of an Honours student getting less than 20%, though I’m sure it must happen.

That means that on average only 10% of students achieve anything higher than 69% at their degree assessment. Can it be true that the other 9 out of 10 students are really so ‘unexceptional’ that more of them can’t even reach the low 70s? Or is the education provided so poor that only the very strongest students manage to keep their heads above water? Neither. The reason there are so few firsts, I suggest, is because the general perception amongst staff is that the highest category should be reserved for the very best performances, or, as a colleague once said to me when I began teaching: “We don’t hand out firsts like sweeties here Jim.” Indeed.

There is a contradiction in this though. If honours level is not the very highest level of study and if a first class honours is not an indication of perfect performance (ie: it should logically contain work that is fully 30% less than perfect at that level) then it is quite clear that the expectations of the highest category of the Honours classification are a distortion.

Surely 100% performance on a degree course should be achievable through the production of the highest standard of work expected at that level, not some unachievable notional pinnacle of excellence. In most cases a top ranking student means a graduate who is fully equipped to begin engaging in a professional context - though it is recognised that even there they will still have a lot to learn. Instead it would seem that the very highest grades attainable (90%+) are being reserved for those one or two geniuses that might, by chance, grace our hallowed halls. And of course those individuals never do arrive and we probably wouldn't even recognise them if they did.

An alternative approach is to dispense with percentages as much as possible and to simply assign each component of work to a band and to add everything up at the end. Whilst this is an improvement it ultimately runs into the same difficulties of vagueness since, without a clear understanding of what represents the highest expected performance, it is impossible to accurately situate that all important cutoff between a First Class and a Second Class degree? Furthermore, this does nothing to remedy or highlight the fact that a First Class Honours degree can and should contain work that is in each and every respect 30% less than the top level expected.

Friday, 6 July 2012

On The Ignorant Schoolmaster

A certain toddler adds notes to my book.

“We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate the division between those who know and those who don’t, between those who possess or don’t possess the property of intelligence.”
— Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, (1991)
Recently I finished reading "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Despite having some reservations about confronting another French descendant of the Heideggerian line, I actually found the book immensely thought provoking and almost entirely accessible. Indeed it was heartening to read: “Man is a being that knows very well when someone speaking doesn’t know what he is talking about.” In fact Ranciere does a ‘masterful’ job of interweaving historical record and philosophy in what could be considered a 21st Century manifesto.

The book centers around the work of Joseph Jacotot, a 19C schoolmaster who developed a “panecastic” method of teaching what he didn't know  - hence the "Ignorant" in the title. One of Jacotot’s five fundamental precepts in his “Universal Education” was that everyone is of equal intelligence. Ranciere makes a fantastic case in championing Universal Teaching – so much so that I found myself making copious notes in the margins. It just so happens though that I've also been reading "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker which makes a yet more convincing case for the reverse, backed up by overwhelming evidence and clear - but characteristically lengthy - argument. Ranciere does nonetheless concede that:
“It is true that we don’t know that men are equal. We are saying that they might be. But we know that this might is the very thing that makes a society of humans possible.”
If, as Pinker’s research seems to prove beyond all doubt, we are not of equal intelligence, is it then the case that Ranciere and Jacotot’s arguments entirely crumble? Whilst I would like to have had a good deal more evidence to be convinced that Jacotot’s method really had the impact that is claimed for it, I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss it. Instead I think we have to seek an alternative explanation for the apparent success of Universal Education. The conclusion I am left with after weighing up the evidence and arguments presented on both sides is that where learning is concerned it is not so important what you are as what you believe. In other words, if you believe you are just as able as everyone else (i.e. of equal intelligence) then this belief is far more likely to lead you to persist where anyone else would desist and to have confidence where anyone else would have doubt. As is becoming increasingly clear; talent is certainly advantageous, but when compared with gritty determination its influence upon achievement is nowhere near as profound. There are exceptions of course, but as Stefan Zweig has pointed out in his book “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture”, talent can be little more than superfluous unless it is allied to persistence and determination:
“He excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was eighteen… he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua... He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy... As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.” - Stefan Zweig (2009)
Another important precept in Jacotot’s teaching is this: “every man has received from God the faculty of being able to instruct himself.” i.e. given an opportunity and properly facilitated - especially with a meaningful subject - people are very adept at self education. This may have been a radical claim in its time, but in the present day it appears to be little more than a commonplace. More to the point, it doesn’t in the least explain why in some cases teachers do make a difference. We’ve all been taught by ignorant teachers in our lives but the results were rarely, if ever, positive.

When reading The Ignorant Schoolmaster I was frequently reminded of something Goethe wrote:
"Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be." 
Once again it comes down to the idea of self-belief mentioned above. It seems to me that what really drives the success of Jacotot’s  teaching - indeed all good teaching - is the way that people are treated. Self-belief is an incredibly potent instrument, whether it comes directly from the individual or whether encouraged in them by the conviction of a respected parent, friend or teacher. If it comes from the individual, as seems to have been the case with Jacotot’s students, then all to the better. But if it can be facilitated, enabled or encouraged - so long as this doesn’t engender dependence - then all to the better too.

So, in spite of all the evidence in Pinker's favour, how you "treat" people seems more profoundly crucial for the vast majority of people than those rare and fickle gifts of talent. I don't think I know anyone who hasn't at some point in their lives been inspired by someone - whether a teacher, parent or friend - that made them feel as though they had a special ability - a “talent” if you will - that was worth serious attention and effort. Whether these teachers were in fact correct in spotting some unique gift is perhaps peripheral to the immense force of conviction that comes from being encouraged by the evident faith of someone one respects or admires – by being treated as you can be and ought to be.