The Crucible Of Opposing Thought

tumblr_lrjixsTw7r1qakkxh Thanks to Bob Kuhn, for the past week or so I’ve been involved in a LONG twitter conversation with @StopSBG (Note:  At the time of writing, this profile is "suspended"  Update: The account is live once again), an anti-Standards-Based-Grading (SBG) parent group in the Ankeny, Iowa school district. I’m not going to hold forth here on why I think the perspective offered by this group is rooted in misconception, if for no other reason than I’ve broadcast my thinking on the topic quite widely during the past week’s discussion. Anyone interested can easily find how I handle SBG implementation in my own classes, and why I think it benefits students much more than so-called “traditional grading”. Similarly, I don’t think it’s all that appropriate for me to discuss the specific implementation of the Ankeny SBG policy, as I am half a world away, and it does not affect anything that I do in my working life. Anyone interested can find the specifics of the policy here, and can reach their own judgements on how well considered the implementation is. Instead, let’s consider something else: the need for all of us to be rigorous in examining our beliefs, and the utility of opposition in that process.

Once I got involved, it became almost impossible to stop. Admittedly, a good bit of this is my “New York” sensibility about these things. I like a good argument, and I’m not afraid to speak (or type) my mind on things I care about. Still, this discussion reached past that, to other things.  The effect of having such a dedicated foil was to bring a huge variety of SBG moths to the flame. Quickly, the conversation moved from being one between individuals, and a single oppositional voice, to an invaluable venue to test the strands of SBG thinking in public discourse. Many voices chimed in on both sides.  Questions were asked, and answered.  I won’t pretend that the needle of the main opposition was moved one whit by what was said, but I will say that I believe the SBG case was made stronger and more cohesively by the chorus of voices who all said the same thing: while the specifics of different implementations are unique (and should be), the desire to give granular feedback on student performance relating to course standards is a unifying principle across all of SBG. And while I still find it hard to believe that anyone can take issue with this aim, I am comforted by the many educators, and members of the public, who understand why this is a desirable goal, and why it is obscured by traditional grading practices.

Dialogue, in the style of the great philosophical texts, has been largely mothballed as a literary form for a long time now, and it strikes me that tools like twitter have revised and updated the form for modern sensibilities, to major utility for the more tech-literate side of the education community. But like any tool that sifts through the massive stacks of information being heaved about in this age, the dangers of confirmation bias are ever present. I tend to follow educators who say things that resonate with me, which guarantees that my twitter PLN is filled with progressive, positivist notions of what education should be. This is why I think the introduction of the contrary voice on the topic of SBG has been so appealing to so many folks on twitter. By providing a position that takes issue with the fundamental practices of SBG, we have been given a major venue in which to see if our various ideas stand on their own merits. In the same way that Socrates would not have had the same result, had there not been a Glaucon, I think the explanation of the SBG ethos that has occurred during the past weeks would never have been possible had there not been a loud, shocking, oppositional voice to respond to.

If the SBG community were unable to rise to the challenge provided, we would have looked like quite the mess. If our ideas about assessment and its role in the learning process can not withstand critique, then it truly would be the time to consider if we should Stop SBG. Thankfully, I don't see that being an issue from the past week’s discussions. More colleagues have asked me about this mode of helping students know what they know in the past seven days than have in the past three years.  I truly thank everyone, with every stripe of thought, who participated in this discussion, and I look forward to more opportunities to test my thinking in the arena of public argument.