Stirring the Pot in Education!

This cartoon originally appeared on Great website, check it out!

Wow, I knew that this whole social media thing was powerful.  But something happened to me yesterday that I never could have predicted!

I wrote a post earlier this summer called Three Revised Things to Unlearn about Learning.  One reader was so……mmmm….let’s call it “inspired”…that when he started his own blog recently his first post was an open letter to ME in response!  And even though he and I don’t agree about much, I think that is really cool.

So here’s your Friday homework:

1. Read my Three Revised Things to Unlearn about Learning post.

2.  Go read Paul Genge’s open letter to me.

3.  Then read my response to Paul (I posted it on his site, but as of this writing it is still pending moderation, so I am also posting it here, for your reading pleasure).

Finally, jump in!  What do you think?  What do YOU need to believe something works?

My response to Paul:

Hi Paul-

First off, let me apologize for not getting back to this sooner, after you originally posted it in July. And thank you for the reminder! I’m very flattered that I am the subject of your very first blog post!

That said, I’m not sure that I’m flattered by your description of my blog post as a “caricature.” I’ve seen those artists drawing caricatures before, and my post was intended to be sincere. But onward…

Before getting into the specifics of what you stated in this post, let me first clarify, for your readers, what my background is. I’m a scientist. I was trained originally as an experimental psychologist before expanding into educational psychology and instructional design. When you’re trained as a scientist, you are trained to value certain things above others. (To get an idea of what, see my blog post “How to Argue with a Scientist,” here: But the one thing that scientists have in common is that we strive for data-based evidence in what we do, whether we are neuroscientists, biologists, environmental scientists, or learning scientists, like I am. For scientists it’s about the data.

Now, to move on to what you’ve written in your post. If I take some of your points individually, I think you’ve inferred beyond what I actually wrote in my post. For example, I don’t think I suggested that all learning is linear…I’m a huge proponent of non-linear instructional design that allows for adaptive instruction to adjust to learner performance on a moment-by-moment basis, something I think I’ve made clear in many of my posts. In addition, I did not dismiss collaboration….instead, what I did in my post about Richardson’s position was question his definition of “competition” and try to unpack that in the context of how we conduct standardized assessment. Moreover, I think many of the ideas in your “What If” section are very interesting and not dissimilar from what I myself would like to see.

So instead of responding to each and every part of your post, let me just try to clarify my own position: I am all for trying new and different approaches to education. I don’t particularly care for the current multiple-choice version of standardized testing because I think that performance-based assessment is more meaningful. It’s not important to me that everyone (or anyone) else buys into the underlying theoretical approach that I do (behavior analysis). I think personalized instruction that adapts to individual learners is great. And I certainly don’t deny that a school’s culture, a teacher’s personal beliefs and the individuality of the kids impacts what happens in a classroom.

AND when we are making decisions about how to educate kids I want to see evidence that what we do WORKS. I believe that we, as educators and as a society, have a responsibility to turn out capable, confident young adults who can contribute meaningfully to society. Measuring what we do is important not only because we, as instructors, can then modify our approaches to make sure we are fulfilling our responsibility, but also so that we as a larger society can then replicate the approaches that work across many schools. If you, Paul, do something really amazing that works really well in improving your students’ skills, then let’s use it everywhere. But we have no way of knowing that’s the case if we aren’t measuring anything. And as a scientist, I’m just not willing to accept anecdotal “evidence.” Yes, the proof of what a student can do is in the work itself. The work itself IS a measure. It is a performance-based measure. Let’s use it as such. Do I care about assigning that work a letter grade? Not particularly. But I do care about describing that work using some kind of metric that allows me to communicate with other people about what has been achieved. My commitment to measurement is not pedantic; it is practical.

My goal is this: I want to be part of a movement that figures out what works in producing young adults that have amazing skills sets, including problem solving and critical thinking and creativity, that can go out and build a kick-ass world. And like it or not, in order to figure out what does and does not work, you have to measure something. Otherwise all you have is subjective opinions. If for you, as an educator, that is enough, then have at it. But for me, as a scientist, it is not. And I make no apologies for that.

So yes, I care about measuring learning outcomes. The question I pose back to you, Paul, as someone who is clearly committed to education and kids, is why DON’T you?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in Instructional Design, Learner Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Stirring the Pot in Education!

  1. Gina Luciano says:

    This should help us stir the pot. As I said, I was laughing so hard watching this, that I’m sure my neighbors are calling the police for the noise. ” Their own financiual gain…” All we have to do is listen to this nincampoop Nikpour, to know that we descended from the apes–actually she comes from a lost strain in the evolution of man.

  2. karen mahon says:

    Gina, I love it!! Three cheers for science!! Thanks for posting this…it’s hilarious!

  3. Christy Cole says:

    What do I need to believe something works? Proof. There’s a reason why the saying, “The proof is in the pudding” exists. Because you can’t just say you make the best tasting pudding, you have to prove it. That said, I don’t completely discount gut instincts and intuition either because there are a lot of things that are subjective. Knowing whether a child has learned the fundamentals though is NOT subjective. You know when a child is not reading or writing at grade-level. You know when a child doesn’t understand the material being taught. You also know when a method of teaching or testing is not working.

    I’m concerned that both Paul and Will seem to advocate for a learning environment that completely eschews measuring learning outcomes. I agree that we need to move testing into the background and not the foreground. Too many of my teacher friends are being forced to focus on testing to the point that teaching and learning are definitely secondary. It’s taking the already broken education system and flushing it further down the toilet, which I honestly didn’t think was possible. However, that doesn’t mean that measuring learning outcomes is bad and needs to stop. It simply means the way in which we are currently measuring them needs to change.

    As for Paul and his response to your post, I don’t really think what he wrote is a response to your post. You kept a clear focus on the issues Tina Barseghian wrote about when discussing Will Richardson’s 2012 ISTE presentation. Paul was writing about everything Will threw out there. Big difference!!!! And while I think that Will made some very interesting points, I question the helpfulness of others.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for commenting, Christy. I agree that gut instinct and intuition are fine for some things. And, to your point, that the effectiveness of our instruction isn’t one of them! And I completely agree that the way we are measuring outcomes needs to change. I’m a huge fan of formative assessment and I would love to see that being done on an ongoing basis….measuring student performance so that the teachers and kids have continuous feedback about how they’re doing, and the teacher can use that feedback to modify instruction. Kids don’t need to be graded on it….imagine if teachers had access to performance data on an ongoing basis and could be modifying their instruction all through the year. Heck, we wouldn’t even NEED high-stakes, multiple-choice, end of year testing….we’d already have all the performance data you could shake a stick at!!

      As for what Paul and Will believe about measuring learning outcomes at all, I’ll let them speak for themselves. I truly don’t know where they draw the line. But I sincerely hope you’re wrong, Christy, in saying that they want to eschew measurement completely!

      Thanks again!

  4. Paul Genge says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your response. Glad you are flattered that my first blog post was inspired by you.

    I apologize for the “caricature” comment. I see caricature when we compare the worst parts of someone else’s ideas with the best of our own. It was born out of your criticism that students generate their own curriculum and the loss of focus on academics that would result. Discussion comments were focused on the question of how today’s self-referential students would learn anything in following such an approach. My thinking was that you had to know that Will Richardson’s ideas are about improving and deepening learning and that you were allowing an unhelpful mischaracterization to exist on your blog. As I recall, that was the reason for that comment and I can agree that it was unfair to characterize your post that way.

    I truly believe that you could help this discussion around standardized measures in a personalized approach to education. That is why I wrote you.

    I believe that it is difficult for one community of practice to understand another. I remember an example of how physics, mathematics and engineering might seem to be close in epistemological stances. But each discipline generates knowledge based on principles the others would find unacceptable, irrelevant or unworthy of their own. This is the reason for the length of my post to you. I tried to describe the impact of standardization (of curriculum and assessment) from my community to yours and the benefits for students of a different approach.

    Let’s take the best of your ideas about the importance of data and mine around the human context of their effects on learning, anchor the process to an example, and see if we can learn something from each other (or at least me from you).

    Perhaps my Mark Klassen, student cinematographer, description might be a starting point. Assessment is changing in tandem with curriculum, and my questions to you in that section would be:
    1. What you would measure for Mark and his classmates as part of the personalized approach I have tried to describe
    2. How you would define the learning you are measuring and make it operational and
    3. How we can be assured, as process skills become richer and content knowledge much more open, that our scoring criteria fully reflect the quality of student thinking, and that these inferences would be reliable?

    Alternatively, you could come up with your own example from Richardson’s blog concerning how you would answer these questions around measuring empathy, curiosity or creativity in a standardized way.

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