Sorting and Judging and the Accumulation of Power

This past week, while not sleeping in the wee hours, I have been replaying some old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. It is a nice idealistic universe to escape to during well, you know…

In an episode from the otherwise regrettable first season, three individuals, cryogenically frozen for the past 300 years, are found and awakened by Lt. Cmdr. Data, an android. It’s not a bad premise; explore the progression of humanity through the eyes of the non-human, non-emotional android. One character, a wealthy entrepreneur/financier stereotype of 1980s greed is frantic to gain access to his accounts anticipating untold wealth from the interest alone. When told by Captain Picard that humanity no longer valued the accumulation of things and wealth, and humans now had their material needs met, the thawing capitalist declared it isn’t about the things and the wealth, it’s about power. “What do humans strive for now?” He asked. To better ourselves, personal growth, knowledge and wisdom, and enlightenment was the captain’s response.

Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future is built on the premise that if we found a way to meet the lower needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, we would then be freed-up to pursue the upper. Maybe so. I don’t know. I couldn’t resist the graphic that added “WiFi” to the base of the pyramid. That’s funny. This set me to thinking about how we educate and indoctrinate our children into, and how to live in, a capitalist democracy, which led to pondering the connection to teaching, assessment, and grading. This is what my current students are thinking about this past week, so I’m thinking about too.

I’m pushing my students to consider what a teacher can do beyond traditional grading that often is simplified to awarding points for right answers, or a simple letter grade, but nothing else. Providing feedback (grade) of that nature is doing a very good job of helping to enact the story that results in the stereotypical competitive, materialistic (potentially morally vapid) capitalist portrayed in that ST: TNG episode. For many teachers, every assignment, no matter how small, is to be scored, graded, recorded, and therefore, the students judged and sorted.

One of my students pondered on a discussion board (she earned 10 points—just kidding), if moving away from using points as a main component of feedback, what do I do with basic skill assignments such as spelling tests or multiplication tables? How do I grade them?

This connects to what I call a crisis of perception in education. Education is often reduced to the accumulation of basic knowledge and skills with the power and wealth (points and standing) awarded to those sorted and judged as best at that. Sound familiar. Accumulation of power. But that isn’t the goal of education, or it shouldn’t be. Those basic skills are supposed to be the foundation upon which we explore personal growth, wisdom and knowledge, and enlightenment as part of living in a moral, capitalist democracy.

We’ve given that up, largely, and have made our focus on just the accumulation of those basic skills much like we’ve given up the purpose of our lives to the accumulation of things and wealth—of power.  

This is our crisis of perception.

So, what to do with the spelling test and multiplication table quiz? Yes, those still need to be taught (and assessed). But, the purpose isn’t to spell correctly and know 9 x 7 as an autonomic response. The purpose is to understand the patterns of language and computation, so that those skills can happen autonomically during the pursuit of more important aims.

Why not use the spelling test to inform the teacher and the student which patterns of spelling are not yet understood. Every elementary teacher right now is saying, but that is what I am doing and why I’m grading it. So they know what they can or can’t do. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Even if you think you are identifying and practicing those patterns, the student is experiencing this instead: I failed, the 5/10 is now in the grade book, my parents see the grade. I can’t spell.  

“But I have to grade!” You might say. And you might. Assess everything. Provide feedback on everything. But the feedback must feed forward to increasing application of skills to things that are important to personal growth, knowledge and wisdom, and enlightenment as part of living in a moral, capitalist democratic society.

When we grade and record for all posterity in the grade book the practice of a skill as the end goal of education, really all we are doing is sorting and judging those that require more practice and those that do not as winners and losers at learning. We are beginning the accumulation of power.

Save the grading (if you must) to those things that are most important and are an application of information and skills. The rest is practice. And if failure isn’t risk free in practice, then it isn’t practice. And that just leads to education PTSD.

2 thoughts on “Sorting and Judging and the Accumulation of Power

  1. This really very powerful, and feels accurate when describing the child’s reaction to seeing their grade as a direct reflection of their self-esteem.

  2. “We’ve given that up, largely, and have made our focus on just the accumulation of those basic skills much like we’ve given up the purpose of our lives to the accumulation of things and wealth—of power.” YES! So true! The resulting shallow knowledge and limited understanding of subject matter certainly make for as empty of an education as a life based on wealth and power.

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