How does competency based assessment work?

From the previous post, I asked how many times a student has to perform a certain task, and to which standard, that we become confident that they can reliably perform the task. In the Vocational Education and Training world this is referred to as competence and this is defined (here, from the Western Australian documentation) as:

In VET, individuals are considered competent when they are able to consistently apply their knowledge and skills to the standard of performance required in the workplace.

How do we know if someone has reached that level of competency?

We know whether an individual is competent after they have completed an assessment that verifies that all aspects of the unit of competency are held and can be applied in an industry context.

The programs involved are made up of units that span the essential knowledge and are assessed through direct observation, indirect measurements (such as examination) and in talking to employers or getting references. (And we have to be careful that we are directly measuring what we think we are!)

A vintage Czech eye chart.

A direct measurement of your eyesight or your ability to memorise Czech eye-charts.

Hang on. Examinations are an indirect measurement? Yes, of course they are here, we’re looking for the ability to apply this and that requires doing rather than talking about what you would do. Your ability to perform the task in direct observation is related to how you can present that knowledge in another frame but it’s not going to be 1:1 because we’re looking at issues of different modes and mediation.

But it’s not enough just to do these tasks as you like, the specification is quite clear in this:

It can be demonstrated consistently over time, and covers a sufficient range of experiences (including those in simulated or institutional environments).

I’m sure that some of you are now howling that many of the things that we teach at University are not just something that you do, there’s a deeper mode of thinking or something innately non-Vocational about what is going on.

And, for some of you, that’s true. Any of you who are asking students to do anything in the bottom range of Bloom’s taxonomy… I’m not convinced. Right now, many assessments of concepts that we like to think of as abstract are so heavily grounded in the necessities of assessment that they become equivalent to competency-based training outcomes.

The goal may be to understand Dijkstra’s algorithm but the task is to write a piece of code that solves the algorithm for certain inputs, under certain conditions. This is, implicitly, a programming competency task and one that must be achieved before you can demonstrate any ability to show your understanding of the algorithm. But the evaluator’s perspective of Dijkstra is mediated through your programming ability, which means that this assessment is a direct measure of programming ability in language X but an indirect measure of Dijkstra. Your ability to apply Dijkstra’s algorithm would, in a competency-based frame, be located in a variety of work-related activities that could verify your ability to perform the task reliably.

All of my statistical arguments on certainty from the last post come back to a simple concept: do I have the confidence that the student can reliably perform the task under evaluation? But we add to this the following: Am I carrying out enough direct observation of the task in question to be able to make a reliable claim on this as an evaluator?

There is obvious tension, at modern Universities, between what we see as educational and what we see as vocational. Given that some of what we do falls into “workplace skills” in a real sense, although we may wish to be snooty about the workplace, why are we not using the established approaches that allow us to actually say “This student can function as an X when they leave here?”

If we want to say that we are concerned with a more abstract education, perhaps we should be teaching, assessing and talking about our students very, very differently. Especially to employers.


What do we want? Passing average or competency always?

I’m at the Australasian Computer Science Week at the moment and I’m dividing my time between attending amazing talks, asking difficult questions, catching up with friends and colleagues and doing my own usual work in the cracks.  I’ve talked to a lot of people about my ideas on assessment (and beauty) and, as always, the responses have been thoughtful, challenging and helpful.

I think I know what the basis of my problem with assessment is, taking into account all of the roles that it can take. In an earlier post, I discussed Wolff’s classification of assessment tasks into criticism, evaluation and ranking. I’ve also made earlier (grumpy) notes about ranking systems and their arbitrary nature. One of the interesting talks I attended yesterday talked about the fragility and questionable accuracy of post-University exit surveys, which are used extensively in formal and informal rankings of Universities, yet don’t actually seem to meet many of the statistical or sensible guidelines for efficacy we already have.

But let’s put aside ranking for a moment and return to criticism and evaluation. I’ve already argued (successfully I hope) for a separation of feedback and grades from the criticism perspective. While they are often tied to each other, they can be separated and the feedback can still be useful. Now let’s focus on evaluation.

Remind me why we’re evaluating our students? Well, we’re looking to see if they can perform the task, apply the skill or knowledge, and reach some defined standard. So we’re evaluating our students to guide their learning. We’re also evaluating our students to indirectly measure the efficacy of our learning environment and us as educators. (Otherwise, why is it that there are ‘triggers’ in grading patterns to bring more scrutiny on a course if everyone fails?) We’re also, often accidentally, carrying out an assessment of the innate success of each class and socio-economic grouping present in our class, among other things, but let’s drill down to evaluating the student and evaluating the learning environment. Time for another thought experiment.

Thought Experiment 2

There are twenty tasks aligned with a particularly learning outcome. It’s an important task and we evaluate it in different ways but the core knowledge or skill is the same. Each of these tasks can receive a ‘grade’ of 0, 0.5 or 1. 0 means unsuccessful, 0.5 is acceptable, 1 is excellent. Student A attempts all tasks and is acceptable in 19, unsuccessful in 1. Student B attempts the first 10 tasks, receives excellent in all of them and stops. Student C sets up a pattern of excellent,unsuccessful, excellent, unsuccessful.. and so on to receive 10 “Excellent”s and 10 “unsuccessful”s. When we form an aggregate grade, A receives 47.5%, B receives 50% and C also receives 50%. Which of these students is the most likely to successfully complete the task?

This framing allows us to look at the evaluation of the student in a meaningful way. “Who will pass the course?” is not the question we should be asking, it’s “Who will be able to reliably demonstrate mastery of the skills or knowledge that we are imparting.” Passing the course has a naturally discrete attention focus: focus on n assignments and m exams and pass. Continual demonstration of mastery is a different goal. This framing also allows us to examine the learning environment because, without looking at the design, I can’t tell you if B and C’s behaviour is problematic or not.

CompFail

A has undertaken the most tasks to an acceptable level but an artefact of grading (or bad luck) has dropped the mark below 50%, which would be a fail (aggregate less than acceptable) in many systems. B has performed excellently on every task attempted but, being aware of the marking scheme, optimising and strategic behaviour allows this student to walk away. (Many students who perform at this level wouldn’t, I’m aware, but we’re looking at the implications of this.) C has a troublesome pattern that provides the same outcome as B but with half the success rate.

Before we answer the original question (which is most likely to succeed), I can nominate C as the most likely to struggle because C has the most “unsuccessful”s. From a simple probabilistic argument, 10/20 success is worse than 19/20. It’s a bit tricker comparing 10/10 and 10/20 (because of confidence intervals) but 10/20 has an Adjusted Wald range of +/- 20% and 10/10 is -14%, so the highest possible ‘real’ measure for C is 14/20 and the lowest possible ‘real’ measure for B is (scaled) 15/20, so they don’t overlap and we can say that B appears to be more successful than C as well.

From a learning design perspective, do our evaluation artefacts have an implicit design that explains C’s pattern? Is there a difference we’re not seeing? Taking apart any ranking of likeliness to pass our evaluatory framework, C’s pattern is so unusual (high success/lack of any progress) that we learn something immediately from the pattern, whether it’s that C is struggling or that we need to review mechanisms we thought to be equivalent!

But who is more likely to succeed out of A and B? 19/20 and 10/10 are barely distinguishable in statistical terms! The question for us now is how many evaluations of a given skill or knowledge mastery are required for us to be confident of competence. This totally breaks the discrete cramming for exams and focus on assignment model because all of our science is built on the notion that evidence is accumulated through observation and the analysis of what occurred, in order to be able to construct models to predict future behaviour. In this case, our goal is to see if our students are competent.

I can never be 100% sure that my students will be able to perform a task but what is the level I’m happy with? How many times do I have to evaluate them at a skill so that I can say that x successes in y attempts constitutes a reliable outcome?

If we say that a student has to reliably succeed 90% of the time, we face the problem that just testing them ten times isn’t enough for us to be sure that they’re hitting 90%.

But the level of performance we need to be confident is quite daunting. By looking at some statistics, we can see that if we provide a student with 150 opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and they succeed at this 143 times, then it is very likely that their real success level is at least 90%.

If we say that competency is measured by a success rate that is greater than 75%, a student who achieves 10/10 has immediately met that but even succeeding at 9/9 doesn’t meet that level.

What this tells us (and reminds us) is that our learning environment design is incredibly important and it must start from a clear articulation of what success actually means, what our goals are and how we will know when our students have reached that point.

There is a grade separation between A and B but it’s artificial. I noted that it was hard to distinguish A and B statistically but there is one important difference in the lower bound of their confidence interval. A is less than 75%, B is slightly above.

Now we have to deal with the fact that A and B were both competent (if not the same) for the first ten tests and A was actually more competent than B until the 20th failed test. This has enormous implications for we structure evaluation, how many successful repetitions define success and how many ‘failures’ we can tolerate and still say that A and B are competent.

Confused? I hope not but I hope that this is making you think about evaluation in ways that you may not have done so before.

 


Too big for a term? Why terms?

I’ve reached the conclusion that a lot of courses have an unrealistically high number of evaluations. We have too many and we pretend that we are going to achieve outcomes for which we have no supporting evidence. Worse, in many cases, we are painfully aware that we cause last-minute lemming-like effects that do anything other than encourage learning. But why do we have so many? Because we’re trying to fit them into the term or semester size that we have: the administrative limit.

One the big challenges for authenticity in Computer Science is the nature of the software project. While individual programs can be small and easy to write, a lot of contemporary programming projects are:

  1. Large and composed of many small programs.
  2. Complex to a scale that may exceed one person’s ability to visualise.
  3. Long-lived.
  4. Multi-owner.
  5. Built on platforms that provide core services; the programmers do not have the luxury to write all of the code in the system.

Many final year courses in Software Engineering have a large project courses, where students are forced to work with a (usually randomly assigned) group to produce a ‘large’ piece of software. In reality, this piece of software is very well-defined and can be constructed in the time available: it has been deliberately selected to be so.

Is a two month software task in a group of six people indicative of real software?

calendar-660670_960_720

June 16: Remember to curse teammate for late delivery on June 15.

Yes and no. It does give a student experience in group management, except that they still have the safe framework of lecturers over the top. It’s more challenging than a lot of what we do because it is a larger artefact over a longer time.

But it’s not that realistic. Industry software projects live over years, with tens to hundreds of programmers ‘contributing’ updates and fixes… reversing changes… writing documentation… correcting documentation. This isn’t to say that the role of a university is to teach industry skills but these skill sets are very handy for helping programmers to take their code and make it work, so it’s good to encourage them.

I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

from John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed”,  School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897)

I love the term ‘continuing reconstruction of experience’ as it drives authenticity as one of the aesthetic characteristics of good education.

Authentic, appropriate and effective learning and evaluation activities may not fit comfortably into a term. We already accept this for activities such as medical internship, where students must undertake 47 weeks of work to attain full registration. But we are, for many degrees, trapped by the convention of a semester of so many weeks, which is then connected with other semesters to make a degree that is somewhere between three to five years long.

The semester is an artefact of the artificial decomposition of the year, previously related to season in many places but now taking on a life of its own as an administrative mechanism. Jamming things into this space is not going to lead to an authentic experience and we can now reject this on aesthetic grounds. It might fit but it’s beautiful or true.

But wait! We can’t do that! We have to fit everything into neat degree packages or our students won’t complete on time!

Really?

Let’s now look at the ‘so many years degree’. This is a fascinating read and I’ll summarise the reported results for degree programs in the US, which don’t include private colleges and universities:

  • Fewer than 10% of reporting institutions graduated a majority of students on time.
  • Only 19% of students at public universities graduate on-time.
  • Only 36% of state flagship universities graduate on-time
  • 5% of community college students complete an associate degree on-time.

The report has a simple name for this: the four-year myth. Students are taking longer to do their degrees for a number of reasons but among them are poorly designed, delivered, administered or assessed learning experiences. And jamming things into semester blocks doesn’t seem to be magically translating into on-time completions (unsurprisingly).

It appears that the way we break up software into little pieces is artificial and we’re also often trying to carry out too many little assessments. It looks like a good model is to stretch our timeline out over more than one course to produce an experience that is genuinely engaging, more authentic and more supportive of long term collaboration. That way, our capstone course could be a natural end-point to a three year process… or however long it takes to get there.

Finally, in the middle of all of this, we need to think very carefully about why we keep using the semester or the term as a container. Why are degrees still three to four years long when everything else in the world has changed so much in the last twenty years?


The shortest interval

Tick tick tick

If we want to give feedback, then the time it takes to give feedback is going to determine how often we can do it. If the core of our evaluation is feedback, rather than some low-Bloom’s quiz-based approach giving a score of some sort, then we have to set our timelines to allow us to:

  • Get the work when we are ready to work on it
  • Undertake evaluation to the required level
  • Return that feedback
  • Do this at such a time that our students can learn from it and potentially use it immediately, to reinforce the learning

A commenter asked me how I actually ran large-scale assessment. The largest class I’ve run detailed feedback/evaluation on was 360 students with a weekly submission of a free-text (and graphics) solution to a puzzle. The goal was to have the feedback back within a week – prior to the next lecture where the solution would be delivered.

I love a challenge.

This scale is, obviously, impossible for one person to achieve reliably (we estimated it as at least forty hours of work). Instead, we allocated a marking team to this task, coordinated by the lead educator. (E1 and E2 model again. There was, initially, no automated capacity for this at the time although we added some later.)

Coordinating a team takes time. Even when you start with a rubric, free text answers can turn up answer themes that you didn’t anticipate and we would often carry our simple checks to make sure that things were working. But, looking at the marking time I was billed for (a good measure), I could run an entire cycle of this in three days, including briefing time, testing, marking, and oversight. But this is with a trained team, a big enough team, good conceptual design and a senior educator who’s happy to take a more executive role.

In this case, we didn’t give the students a chance to refactor their work but, if we had, we could have done this with a release 3 days after submission. To ensure that we then completed the work again by the ‘solution release’ deadline, we would have had to set the next submission deadline to only 24 hours after the feedback was released. This sounds short but, if we assume that some work has been done, then refactoring and reworking should take less time.

But then we have to think about the cost. By running two evaluation cycles we are providing early feedback but we have doubled our cost for human markers (a real concern for just about everyone these days).

My solution was to divide the work into two components. The first was quiz-based and could be automatically and immediately assessed by the Learning Management System, delivering a mark at a fixed deadline. The second part was looked at by humans. Thus, students received immediate feedback on part of the problem straight away (or a related problem) while they were waiting for humans.

But I’d be the first to admit that I hadn’t linked this properly, according to my new model. It does give us insight for a staged hybrid model where we buffer our human feedback by using either smart or dumb automated assessment component to highlight key areas and, better still, we can bring these forward to help guide time management.

I’m not unhappy with that early attempt at large-scale human feedback as the students were receiving some excellent evaluation and feedback and it was timely and valuable. It also gave me a lot of valuable information about design and about what can work, as well as how to manage marking teams.

I also realised that some courses could never be assessed the way that they claimed unless they had more people on task or only delivered at a time when the result wasn’t usable anymore.

How much time should we give students to rework things? I’d suggest that allowing a couple of days takes into account the life beyond Uni that many students have. That means that we can do a cycle in a week if we can keep our human evaluation stages under 2 days. Then, without any automated marking, we get 2 days (E1 or E2) + 2 days (student) + 2 days (second evaluation, possibly E2) + 1 day (final readjustment) and then we should start to see some of the best work that our students can produce.

Assuming, of course, that all of us can drop everything to slot into this. For me, this motivates a cycle closer to two to three weeks to allow for everything else that both groups are doing. But that then limits us to fewer than five big assessment items for a twelve week course!

What’s better? Twelve assessment items that are “submit and done” or four that are “refine and reinforce to best practice”? Is this even a question we can ask? I know which one is aesthetically pleasing, in terms of all of the educational aesthetics we’ve discussed so far but is this enough for an educator to be able to stand up to a superior and say “We’re not going to do X because it just doesn’t make any sense!”

What do you think?


Small evaluation, big impact.

One of the problems with any model that builds in more feedback is that we incur both the time required to produce the feedback and we also have an implicit requirement to allow students enough time to assimilate and make use of it. This second requirement is still there even if we don’t have subsequent attempts at work, as we want to build upon existing knowledge. The requirement for good feedback makes no sense without a requirement that it be useful.

But let me reiterate that pretty much all evaluation and feedback can be very valuable, no matter how small or quick, if we know what we are trying to achieve. (I’ll get to more complicated systems in later posts.)

Novice programmers often struggle with programming and this early stage of development is often going to influence if they start off thinking that they can program or not. Given that automated evaluation only really provides useful feedback once the student has got something working, novice programming classes are an ideal place to put human markers. If we can make students think “Yes, I can do this” early on, this is the emotion that they will remember. We need to get to big problems quickly, turn them into manageable issues that can be overcome, and then let motivation and curiosity take the rest.

C64_startup_animiert

That first computer experience can stay with you your whole life. (Mine was actually punch cards but they don’t blink.)

There’s an excellent summary paper on computer programming visualisation systems aimed at novice programmers, which discusses some of the key problems novices face on their path to mastery:

  1. Novices can see some concepts as code rather than the components of a dynamic process. For example, they might see objects as simply a way of containing things rather than modelling objects and their behaviours. These static perceptions prevent the students from understanding that they are designing behaviours, not just writing magic formulas.
  2. There can be significant difficulties in understanding the computer, seeing the notional machine that is the abstraction, forming a basis upon which knowledge of one language or platform could be used elsewhere.
  3. Misunderstanding fundamental concepts is common and such misconceptions can easily cause weak understanding, leaving the students in the liminal state, unable to assimilate a threshold concept and move on.
  4. Students struggle to trace programs and work out what state the program should be in. In my own community, Raymond Lister, Donna Teague, Simon, and others have clearly shown that many students struggle with the tracing of even simple programs.

If we have put human markers (E1 or E2) into a programming class and identified that these are the problems we’re looking for, we can provide immediate targeted evaluation that is also immediate constructive feedback. On the day, in response to actual issues, authentic demonstration of a solution process that students can model. This is the tightest feedback and reward loop we can offer. How does this work?

  • Program doesn’t work because of one of the key problem areas.
  • Human evaluator intervenes with student and addresses the issue, encouraging discovery inside the problem area.
  • Student tries to identify problem and explains it to evaluator in context, modelling evaluator and based on existing knowledge.
  • Evaluator provides more guidance and feedback.
  • Student continues to work on problem.
  • We hope that the student will come across the solution (or think towards it) but we may have to restart this loop.

Note that we’re not necessarily giving the solution here but we can consider leading towards this if the student is getting visibly frustrated. I’d suggest never telling a student what to type as it doesn’t address any of the problems, it just makes the student dependent upon being told the answer. Not desirable. (There’s an argument here for rich development environments that I’ll expand on later.)

Evaluation like this is formative, immediate and rich. We can even streamline it with guidelines to help the evaluators although much of this will amount to supporting students as they learn to read their own code and understand the key concepts. We should develop students simple to complex, concrete to abstract, so some problems with abstraction are to be expected, especially if we are playing near any threshold concepts.

But this is where learning designers have to be ready to say “this may cause trouble” and properly brief the evaluators who will be on the ground. If we want our evaluators to work efficiently and effectively, we have to brief them on what to expect, what to do, and how to follow up.

If you’ve missed it so far, one of our big responsibilities is training our evaluation team. It’s only by doing this that we can make sure that our evaluators aren’t getting bogged down in side issues or spending too much time with one student and doing the work for them. This training should include active scenario-based training to allow the evaluators to practise with the oversight of the educators and designers.

We have finite resources. If we want to support a room full of novices, we have to prepare for the possibility of all of them having problems at once and the only way to support that at scale is to have an excellent design and train for it.


Equity is the principal educational aesthetic

I’ve laid out some honest and effective approaches to the evaluation of student work that avoid late penalties and still provide high levels of feedback, genuine motivation and a scalable structure.

Scheme2

But these approaches have to fit into the realities of time that we have in our courses. This brings me to the discussion of mastery learning (Bloom). An early commenter noted how much my approach was heading towards mastery goals, where we use personalised feedback and targeted intervention to ensure that students have successfully mastered certain tiers of knowledge, before we move on to those that depend upon them.

A simple concept: pre-requisites must be mastered before moving on. It’s what much of our degree structure is based upon and is what determines the flow of students through courses, leading towards graduation. One passes 101 in order to go on to courses that assume such knowledge.

Within an individual course, we quickly realise that too many mastery goals starts to leave us in a precarious position. As I noted from my earlier posts, having enough time to do your job as designer or evaluator requires you to plan what you’re doing and keep careful track of your commitments. The issue that arises with mastery goals is that, if a student can’t demonstrate mastery, we offer remedial work and re-training with an eye to another opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge.

This can immediately lead to a backlog of work that must be completed prior to the student being considered to have mastered an area, and thus being ready to move on. If student A has completed three mastery goals while B is struggling with the first, where do we pitch our teaching materials, in anything approximating a common class activity, to ensure that everyone is receiving both what they need and what they are prepared for? (Bergmann and Sams’ Flipped Mastery is one such approach, where flipping and time-shifting are placed in a mastery focus – in their book “Flip Your Classroom”)

But even if we can handle a multi-speed environment (and we have to be careful because we know that streaming is a self-fulfilling prophecy) how do we handle the situation where a student has barely completed any mastery goals and the end of semester is approaching?

Mastery learning is a sound approach. It’s both ethically and philosophically pitched to prevent the easy out for a teacher of saying “oh, I’m going to fit the students I have to an ideal normal curve” or, worse, “these are just bad students”. A mastery learning approach tends to produces good results, although it can be labour intensive as we’ve noted. To me, Bloom’s approach is embodying one of my critical principles in teaching: because of the variable level of student preparation, prior experience and unrelated level of privilege, we have to adjust our effort and approach to ensure that all students can be brought to the same level wherever possible.

Equity is one of my principle educational aesthetics and I hope it’s one of yours. But now we have to mutter to ourselves that we have to think about limiting how many mastery goals there are because of administrative constraints. We cannot load up some poor student who is already struggling and pretend that we are doing anything other than delaying their ultimate failure to complete.

At the same time, we would be on shaky ground to construct a course where we could turn around at week 3 of 12 and say “You haven’t completed enough mastery goals and, because of the structure, this means that you have already failed. Stop trying.”

The core of a mastery-based approach is the ability to receive feedback, assimilate it, change your approach and then be reassessed. But, if this is to be honest, this dependency upon achievement of pre-requisites should have a near guarantee of good preparation for all courses that come afterwards. I believe that we can all name pre-requisite and dependency patterns where this is not true, whether it is courses where the pre-requisite course is never really used or dependencies where you really needed to have achieved a good pass in the pre-req to advance.

Competency-based approaches focus on competency and part of this is the ability to use the skill or knowledge where it is required, whether today or tomorrow. Many of our current approaches to knowledge and skill are very short-term-focussed, encouraging cramming or cheating in order to tick a box and move on. Mastering a skill for a week is not the intent but, unless we keep requiring students to know or use that information, that’s the message we send. This is honesty: you must master this because we’re going to keep using it and build on it! But trying to combine mastery and grades raises unnecessary tension, to the student’s detriment.

As Bloom notes:

Mastery and recognition of mastery under the present relative grading system is unattainable for the majority of students – but this is the result of the way in which we have “rigged” the educational system.

Bloom, Learning for Mastery, UCLA CSEIP Evaluation Comment, 1, 2, 1968.

Mastery learning is part and parcel of any competency based approach but, without being honest about the time constraints that are warping it, even this good approach is diminished.

The upshot of this is that any beautiful model of education adhering to the equity aesthetic has to think in a frame that is longer than a semester and in a context greater than any one course. We often talk about doing this but detailed alignment frequently escapes us, unless it is to put up our University-required ‘graduate attributes’ to tell the world how good our product will be.

We have to accept that part of our job is asking a student to do something and then acknowledging that they have done it, while continuing to build systems where what they have done is useful, provides a foundation to further learning and, in key cases, is something that they could do again in the future to the approximate level of achievement.

We have to, again, ask not only why we grade but also why we grade in such strangely synchronous containers. Why is it that a degree for almost any subject is three to five years long? How is that, despite there being nearly thirty years between the computing knowledge in the degree that I did and the one that I teach, they are still the same length? How are we able to have such similarity when we know how much knowledge is changing?

A better model of education is not one that starts from the assumption of the structures that we have. We know a lot of things that work. Why are we constraining them so heavily?


Education is not defined by a building

I drew up a picture to show how many people appear to think about art. Now this is not to say that this is my thinking on art but you only have to go to galleries for a while to quickly pick up the sotto voce (oh, and loud) discussions about what constitutes art. Once we move beyond representative art (art that looks like real things), it can become harder for people to identify what they consider to be art.

Kitsch

This is crude and bordering on satirical. Read the text before you have a go at me over privilege and cultural capital.

I drew up this diagram in response to reading early passages from Dewey’s “Art as Experience”:

“An instructive history of modern art could be written in terms of the formation of the distinctively modern institutions of museum and exhibition gallery. (p8)
[…]
The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. (p8)
[…]
Why is there repulsion when the high achievements of fine art are brought into connection with common life, the life that we share with all living creatures?” (p20)

Dewey’s thinking is that we have moved from a time when art was deeply integrated into everyday life to a point where we have corralled “worthy” art into buildings called art galleries and museums, generally in response to nationalistic or capitalistic drivers, in order to construct an artefact that indicates how cultured and awesome we are. But, by doing this, we force a definition that something is art if it’s the kind of thing you’d see in an art gallery. We take art out of life, making valuable relics of old oil jars and assigning insane values to collections of oil on canvas that please the eye, and by doing so we demand that ‘high art’ cannot be part of most people’s lives.

But the gallery container is not enough to define art. We know that many people resist modernism (and post-modernism) almost reflexively, whether it’s abstract, neo-primitivist, pop,  or simply that the viewer doesn’t feel convinced that they are seeing art. Thus, in the diagram above, real art is found in galleries but there are many things found in galleries that are not art. To steal an often overheard quote: “my kids could do that”. (I’m very interested in the work of both Rothko and Malevich so I hear this a lot.) 

But let’s resist the urge to condemn people because, after we’ve wrapped art up in a bow and placed it on a pedestal, their natural interpretation of what they perceive, combined with what they already know, can lead them to a conclusion that someone must be playing a joke on them. Aesthetic sensibilities are inherently subjective and evolve over time, in response to exposure, development of depth of knowledge, and opportunity. The more we accumulate of these guiding experiences, the more likely we are to develop the cultural capital that would allow us to stand in any art gallery in the world and perceive the art, mediated by our own rich experiences.

Cultural capital is a term used to describe the assets that we have that aren’t money, in its many forms, but can still contribute to social mobility and perception of class. I wrote a long piece on it and perception here, if you’re interested. Dewey, working in the 1930s, was reacting to the institutionalisation of art and was able to observe people who were attempting to build a cultural reputation, through the purchase of ‘art that is recognised as art’, as part of their attempts to construct a new class identity. Too often, when people who are grounded in art history and knowledge look at people who can’t recognise ‘art that is accepted as art by artists’ there is an aspect of sneering, which is both unpleasant and counter-productive. However, such unpleasantness is easily balanced by those people who stand firm in artistic ignorance and, rather than quietly ignoring things that they don’t like, demand that it cannot be art and loudly deride what they see in order to challenge everyone around them to accept the art of an earlier time as the only art that there is.

Neither of these approaches is productive. Neither support the aesthetics of real discussion, nor are they honest in intent beyond a judgmental and dismissive approach. Not beautiful. Not true. Doesn’t achieve anything useful. Not good.

If this argument is seeming familiar, we can easily apply it to education because we have, for the most part, defined many things in terms of the institutions in which we find them. Everyone else who stands up and talks at people over Power Point slides for forty minutes is probably giving a presentation. Magically, when I do it in a lecture theatre at a University, I’m giving a lecture and now it has amazing educational powers! I once gave one of my lectures as a presentation and it was, to my amusement, labelled as a presentation without any suggestion of still being a lecture. When I am a famous professor, my lectures will probably start to transform into keynotes and masterclasses.

I would be recognised as an educator, despite having no teaching qualifications, primarily because I give presentations inside the designated educational box that is a University. The converse of this is that “university education” cannot be given outside of a University, which leaves every newcomer to tertiary education, whether face-to-face or on-line, with a definitional crisis that cannot be resolved in their favour. We already know that home-schooling, while highly variable in quality and intention, is a necessity in some places where the existing educational options are lacking, is often not taken seriously by the establishment. Even if the person teaching is a qualified teacher and the curriculum taught is an approved one, the words “home schooling” construct tension with our assumption that schooling must take place in boxes labelled as schools.

What is art? We need a better definition than “things I find in art galleries that I recognise as art” because there is far too much assumption in there, too much infrastructure required and there is not enough honesty about what art is. Some of the works of art we admire today were considered to be crimes against conventional art in their day! Let me put this in context. I am an artist and I have, with 1% of the talent, sold as many works as Van Gogh did in his lifetime (one). Van Gogh’s work was simply rubbish to most people who looked at it then.

And yet now he is a genius.

What is education? We need a better definition than “things that happen in schools and universities that fit my pre-conceptions of what education should look like.” We need to know so that we can recognise, learn, develop and improve education wherever we find it. The world population will peak at around 10 billion people. We will not have schools for all of them. We don’t have schools for everyone now. We may never have the infrastructure we need for this and we’re going need a better definition if we want to bring real, valuable and useful education to everyone. We define in order to clarify, to guide, and to tell us what we need to do next.