Reflection: Why I’m stopping daily updates

I’ve written a lot in the past month and a half. Now, because I’m committed to evaluation, I have to look back at all of it and think about some difficult matters:

  1. Is anyone reading this?
  2. Are the people reading this the ones who can make change?
  3. Is the best way to do this?
  4. Should I be doing something else?

There are roughly 1,000 people who see my posts, between direct subscribers who read in e-mail, Facebook and the elusive following community on Twitter.

Twitter shouldn’t count, as I know from direct experience that the click-through rate from Twitter is tiny. (My posts have been shared by people with 5-10,000 followers and it has turned into maybe 10-20 more people reading.) Now I’m down to maybe 4-500 readers.

Facebook shares a longer fragment of my ideas but the click through is still small. Perhaps this brings me down to the roughly 200 followers I have, who have (over time) contributed about 1,000 ‘Likes’. However, almost all of these positive reinforcements stem from a different phase of the blog, a time when I was blogging conferences and being useful, rather than pontificating on the nature of beauty. My readership used to be 100 people a day, or more. I can’t crack 80 today and the way that I’m blogging is unlikely to reach that larger audience, yet it’s what I want to do.

The answer to 1 is that a few other people a day are reading what I write. I’d put it as high as twenty on a good day but most days it’s under ten.

2’s a tricky question. We can all make change; that’s one of my firmest beliefs. However, there is making change and then there are change makers. I know several people in this area quite well and they read me occasionally but it’s not something that they dedicate time to do. I have people that I always read but I can’t make the changes they need. It’s frustrating. No doubt, my ideas appeal to some people but change takes will and capacity to change, not just a sympathetic ear. I don’t want people to read this and feel trapped because they can’t make change. The answer to 2 is, probably, ‘no’.

3 follows from 1 and 2. If my readership is small and my ideas have little influence then this is not the best way to do things. We face enormous challenges. We need effective mechanisms for sharing information. If I am to make change, I have to invest my time wisely. I am not a large-scale player or a change maker. I need help to do it and if that help isn’t coming from this avenue, I have to choose another.

4 is easier. I can focus on my scholarship, practice, and research, rededicating the time I’ve been spending on this blog. People read papers where they don’t read blogs. Papers drive recognition. Recognition gets you the places to speak where your voice can be heard. There is no point having written all those words in a blog if it’s rarely read. This has been a highly rewarding experience in many ways but you have to wonder why you’re doing it if very few people read it or remember what you’ve written.

I wanted people to think and to talk about the ideas shared here. For those of you who have let me know that this worked, my thanks!

I’m tempted to keep going with the daily blog but the aesthetic argument traps me here. Spending time on something that isn’t working and insisting that it’s valuable is self-deception. Investing energy into an avenue that isn’t achieving your goals isn’t good. I cannot deprive my students of the hour or so a day that I’ve been spending doing this unless I achieve more for them than I would by doing some other aspect of my job.

Students and teachers: the true focus of any aesthetic discussion of education; the most important aspects of any discussion of what we should be doing because they are people and not just machine parts. As for us, so for them.

There are more discussions to be had but they’ll show up in more formal places, most likely. I’m always happy to talk to people about ideas at conferences. I’ve already started a face-to-face discussion about taking some of these ideas further in a more traditional research sense and I’m very excited about that.

But perhaps it’s time to let this blog go, listen to the numbers, reflect on the dissemination of knowledge, and accept that I would not be following my own advice if I were to continue. I love the beauty argument. I think it’s great. I stand by everything I’ve written this year. I just don’t think that this is the way to move people towards that agenda.

Thus, the daily updates stop with this post. I’ll still post things that interest me but there’ll be fewer of them.

I’ll leave you with the message I wanted to get across this year:

  1. Educational philosophy is full of the aesthetics of education. Dewey and Bloom just scratch the surface of this. The late 19th and early 20th century were an incredible time of upheaval and we still haven’t addressed many of the questions raised then. To the libraries!
  2. Fair, equitable, well-designed and evidence-based education is at the core of any beautiful system.
  3. Every day, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing is beautiful, good or true, taking into account all of the difficult questions of how we balance necessities against desirabilities, being honest about which is which. If we aren’t managing this, we need to either seek to change or accept that what we are doing isn’t right.
  4. We should leave enough time for ourselves in all of this, as there should be no sacrificial element to beautiful education.
  5. Change is coming. Change is here. Pretending that it won’t happen isn’t beautiful.

I hope that you all have a fantastic learning and teaching year, with many amazing and beautiful moments and outcomes!

This year, I hope to be at several conferences and I look forward to talking to anyone about the ideas in this phase (or any other phase) of the blog.

Have a great year!


More on the #ATAR, @birmo looks to the Higher Education Standards Panel

The Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, appears as concerned over the disconnect between the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and university entry as I am. In his own words, students must have “a clear understanding of what they need to do to get into their course of choice and realising what will be expected of them through their further study.”

This article covers some of the issues already raised over transparency and having a system that people work with rather than around.

“While universities determine their own admission requirements, exploring greater transparency measures will ensure that Australian students are provided real information on what they need to do to be admitted to a course at a particular institution and universities are held to account for their public entry requirements,” Senator Birmingham said.

Ensuring that students are ready for university but it’s increasingly obvious that this role is not supported or validated through the current ATAR system, for a large number of students. I look forward to see what comes from the standards panel and I hope that it’s to everyone’s benefit, not just a rejigging of a number that was probably never all that representative to start with.

Bright Sparks 21 Jan 2015 VC

Senator Birmingham, Minister Pyne, Professor Bebbington (VC of Adelaide) and A/Prof Katrina Falkner with one of the Bright Spark participants.

Perhaps I should confess that I would like a system where any student could get into University (or VET or TAFE or whatever tertiary program they want to) but that we build our preparatory and educational systems to support this happening, rather than just bringing people in to watch them fail. Oh, but a boy can dream.

Streamlining for meaning.

In yesterday’s musings on Grade Point Average, GPA, I said:

But [GPA calculation adjustment] have to be a method of avoidance, this can be a useful focusing device. If a student did really well in, say, Software Engineering but struggled with an earlier, unrelated, stream, why can’t we construct a GPA for Software Engineering that clearly states the area of relevance and degree of information? Isn’t that actually what employers and people interested in SE want to know?

This hits at the heart of my concerns over any kind of summary calculation that obscures the process. Who does this benefit? What use it is to anyone? What does it mean? Let’s look at one of the most obvious consumers of student GPAs: the employers and industry.

Feedback from the Australian industry tells us that employers are generally happy with the technical skills that we’re providing but it’s the softer skills (interpersonal skills, leadership, management abilities) that they would like to see more of and know more about. A general GPA doesn’t tell you this but a Software Engineering focused GPA (as I mentioned above) would show you how a student performed in courses where we would expect to see these skills introduced and exercised.

Putting everything into one transcript gives people the power to assemble this themselves, yes, but this requires the assembler to know what everything means. Most employers have neither the time nor inclination to do this for all 39 or so institutions in Australia. But if a University were to say “this is a summary of performance in these graduate attributes”, where the GAs are regularly focused on the softer skills, then we start to make something more meaningful out of an arbitrary number.

But let’s go further. If we can see individual assessments, rather than coarse subject grades, we can start to construct a model of an individual across the different challenges that they have faced and overcome. Portfolios are, of course, a great way to do this but they’re more work to read than single measures and, too often, such a portfolio is weighed against simpler, apparently meaningful measures such as high GPAs and found wanting. Portfolios also struggle if placed into a context of previous failure, even if recent activity clearly demonstrates that a student has moved on from that troubled or difficult time.

I have a deep ethical and philosophical objection to curve grading, as you probably know. The reason is simple: the actions of one student should not negatively affect the outcomes of another. This same objection is my biggest problem with GPA, although in this case the action and outcomes belong to the same student at different points in her or his life. Rather than using performance in one course to determine access to the learning upon which it depends, we make these grades a permanent effect and every grade that comes afterwards is implicitly mediated through this action.


Sometimes you should be cautious regarding adding curves to address your problems.

Should Past Academic Nick have an inescapable impact on Now and Future Academic Nick’s life? When we look at all of the external influences on success, which make it clear how much totally non-academic things matter, it gets harder and harder to say “Yes, Past Academic Nick is inescapable.” Unfairness is rarely aesthetically pleasing.

An excellent comment on the previous post raised the issue of comparing GPAs in an environment where the higher GPA included some fails but the slightly lower GPA student had always passed. Which was the ‘best’ student from an award perspective? Student A fails three courses at the start of his degree, student B fails three courses at the end. Both pass with the same GPA, time to completion, and number of passes and fails. Is there even a sense of ‘better student’ here? B’s struggles are more immediate and, implicitly, concerns would be raised that these problems could still be active. A has, apparently, moved on in some way. But we’d never know this from simplistic calculations.

If we’re struggling to define ‘best’ and we’re not actually providing something that many people feel is useful, while burdening students with an inescapable past, then the least we can do is to sit down with the people who are affected by this and ask them what they really want.

And then, when they tell us, we do something about changing our systems.

Total control: a user model for student results

Yesterday, I wrote:

We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.

Grades are the fossils of evaluation

Assessments support evaluation, criticism and ranking (Wolff). That’s what it does and, in many cases, that also constitutes a lot of why we do it. But who are we doing it for?

I’ve reflected on the dual nature of evaluation, showing a student her or his level of progress and mastery while also telling us how well the learning environment is working. In my argument to reduce numerical grades to something meaningful, I’ve asked what the actual requirement is for our students, how we measure mastery and how we can build systems to provide this.

But who are the student’s grades actually for?

In terms of ranking, grades allow people who are not the student to place the students in some order. By doing this, we can award awards to students who are in the awarding an award band (repeated word use deliberate). We can restrict our job interviews to students who are summa cum laude or valedictorian or Dean’s Merit Award Winner. Certain groups of students, not all, like to define their progress through comparison so there is a degree of self-ranking but, for the most part, ranking is something that happens to students.

Criticism, in terms of providing constructive, timely feedback to assist the student, is weakly linked to any grading system. Giving someone a Fail grade isn’t a critique as it contains no clear identification of the problems. The clear identification of problems may not constitute a fail. Often these correlate but it’s weak. A student’s grades are not going to provide useful critique to the student by themselves. These grades are to allow us to work out if the student has met our assessment mechanisms to a point where they can count this course as a pre-requisite or can be awarded a degree. (Award!)

Evaluation is, as noted, useful to us and the student but a grade by itself does not contain enough record of process to be useful in evaluating how mastery goals were met and how the learning environment succeeded or failed. Competency, when applied systematically, does have a well-defined meaning. A passing grade does not although there is an implied competency and there is a loose correlation with achievement.

Grades allow us to look at all of a student’s work as if this one impression is a reflection of the student’s involvement, engagement, study, mistakes, triumphs, hopes and dreams. They are additions to a record from which we attempt to reconstruct a living, whole being.

Grades are the fossils of evaluation.

Grades provide a mechanism for us, in a proxy role as academic archaeologist, to classify students into different groups, in an attempt to project colour into grey stone, to try and understand the ecosystem that such a creature would live in, and to identify how successful this species was.

As someone who has been a student several times in my life, I’m aware that I have a fossil record that is not traditional for an academic. I was lucky to be able to place a new imprint in the record, to obscure my history as a much less successful species, and could then build upon it until I became an ACADEMIC TYRANNOSAURUS.

Skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex at Palais de la Decouverte


But I’m lucky. I’m privileged. I had a level of schooling and parental influence that provided me with an excellent vocabulary and high social mobility. I live in a safe city. I have a supportive partner. And, more importantly, at a crucial moment in my life, someone who knew me told me about an opportunity that I was able to pursue despite the grades that I had set in stone. A chance came my way that I never would have thought of because I had internalised my grades as my worth.

Let’s look at the fossil record of Nick.

My original GPA fossil, encompassing everything that went wrong and right in my first degree, was 2.9. On a scale of 7, which is how we measure it, that’s well below a pass average. I’m sharing that because I want you to put that fact together with what happened next. Four years later, I started a Masters program that I finished with a GPA of 6.4. A few years after the masters, I decided to go and study wine making. That degree was 6.43. Then I received a PhD, with commendation, that is equivalent to GPA 7. (We don’t actually use GPA in research degrees. Hmmm.) If my grade record alone lobbed onto your desk you would see the desiccated and dead snapshot of how I (failed to) engage with the University system. A lot of that is on me but, amazingly, it appears that much better things were possible. That original grade record stopped me from getting interviews. Stopped me from getting jobs. When I was finally able to demonstrate the skills that I had, which weren’t bad, I was able to get work. Then I had the opportunity to rewrite my historical record.

Yes, this is personal for me. But it’s not about me because I wasn’t trapped by this. I was lucky as well as privileged. I can’t emphasise that enough. The fact that you are reading this is due to luck. That’s not a good enough mechanism.

Too many students don’t have this opportunity. That impression in the wet mud of their school life will harden into a stone straitjacket from which they may never escape. The way we measure and record grades has far too much potential to work against students and the correlation with actual ability is there but it’s not strong and it’s not always reliable.

The student you are about to send out with a GPA of 2.9 may be competent and they are, most definitely, more than that number.

The recording of grades is a high-loss storage record of the student’s learning and pathway to mastery. It allows us to conceal achievement and failure alike in the accumulation of mathematical aggregates that proxy for competence but correlate weakly.

We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.

Being honest about opportunity


A friend and colleague responded to my post about driverless cars and noted that the social change aspects would be large, considering the role of driving as a key employer of many people. I had noted that my original post was not saying whether cars were good or bad, delaying such discussion to later.

Now it is later. Let’s talk.

As we continue to automate certain industries, we are going to reduce opportunities for humans to undertake those tasks. The early stages of the industrial revolution developed to the production lines and, briefly in the history of our species, there was employment to be found for humans who were required to do the same thing, over and over, without necessarily having to be particularly skilled. This separation marked a change of the nature of work from that of the artisan, the crafter, the artist and that emerging aspect of the middle class: the professional.

While the late 20th and early 21st century versions of such work are relatively safe and, until recently, relatively stable employers, early factory work was harsh, dangerous, often unfair and, until regulation was added, unethical. If you haven’t read Upton Sinclair’s novel on the meat-packing industry, “The Jungle”, or read of the New York milk scandals, you may have a vision of work that is far tidier than the reality for many people over the years. People died, for centuries, because they were treated as organic machine parts, interchangeable and ultimately disposable. Why then did people do this work?

Because they had to. Because they lacked the education or opportunity to do anything else. Because they didn’t want to starve. Because they wanted to look after their families. This cycle plays out over and over again and reinforces the value of education. Education builds opportunity for this generation and every one that comes afterwards. Education breaks poverty traps and frees people.

No-one is saying that, in the post-work utopia, there will not be a place for people to perform a work-like task in factories because, for some reason, they choose to but the idea is that this is a choice and the number of choices that you have, right now, tend to broaden as you have more recognised skills and qualifications. Whether it is trade-based or professional, it’s all education and, while we have to work, your choices tend to get more numerous with literacy, numeracy and the other benefits of good education.

Automation and regulation made work safer over time but it also slowly reduced the requirement to use humans, as machines became more involved, became more programmable and became cheaper. Manual labour has been disappearing for decades. Everywhere you look, there are dire predictions of 40% of traditional jobs being obsolete in as short as ten years.

The driverless car will, in short order, reduce the need for a human trucking industry from a driver in every truck to a set of coordinators and, until we replace them in turn, loading/unloading staff. While driving may continue for some time, insurance costs alone are going to restrict its domain and increase the level of training required to do it. I can see a time when people who want to drive have to go through almost as much training as pilots and for the same reason: their disproportionate impact on public safety.

What will those people do who left school, trained as drivers, and then spent the rest of their lives driving from point A to point B? Driving is a good job and can be one that people can pursue out to traditional retirement age, unlike many manual professions where age works against you more quickly. Sadly, despite this, a driverless car will, if we let it on the roads, be safer for everyone as I’ve already argued and we now have a tension between providing jobs for a group of people or providing safety for them and every other driver on the road.

The way to give people options is education but, right now, a lot of people choose to leave the education system because they see no reason to participate, they aren’t ready for it, they have a terrible school to go to, they don’t think it’s relevant or so many other reasons that they made a totally legitimate choice to go and do something else with their lives.

But, for a lot of people, that “something else” is going to disappear as surely as blacksmiths slowly diminished in number. You can still be a blacksmith but it’s not the same trade that it was and, in many places, it’s not an option at all anymore. The future of human work is, day by day, less manual and more intellectual. While this is heavily focussed on affluent nations, the same transition is going on globally, even if at different speeds.

We can’t just say “education is the answer” unless we accept how badly education has failed entire countries of people and, within countries, enter communities, racial sub-groups or people who don’t have money. Education has to be made an answer that can reach billions and be good while it does it. When we take away opportunities, even for good reasons, we have to accept that people just don’t go away. They still want to live, to thrive, to look after their families, to grow, and to benefit from living in the time and place that they do. The driverless car is just a more obvious indicator of the overall trend. That trend won’t stop and, thus, we’re going to have to deal with it.

A good educational system is essential for dealing with providing options to the billions of people who will need to change direction in the future but we’re not being honest until we accept that we need to talk about opportunity in terms of equity. We need to focus on bringing everyone up to equal levels of opportunity. Education is one part of that but we’re going to need society, politicians, industry and educators working together if we’re going to avoid a giant, angry, hopeless unemployed group of people in the near future.

Education is essential to support opportunity but we have to have enough opportunities to provide education. Education has to be attractive, relevant, appropriate and what everyone needs to make the most of their lives. The future of our civilisation depends upon 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.


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?