Sunday, November 8, 2015


In 2013, I was working with UE Student Austin Willis on a project called, "Technological Enhancement of Humanistic Education: Modeling Student Interaction in a Classroom Setting." We did not get as far as we wished, but the project has never been far from my mind. (It was this project that produced the classroom complexity graphs posted earlier to this blog.) One thing we did discover, however, is that having a know-it-all extrovert in a class can enhance class discussion because he or she can become a target that can prompt others to enter the dialogue. Of course, this depends on a variety of factors including the personalities of the professor and students, in particular the know-it-all, the arrangement of seats in the classroom, the time of day, etc. Such a finding is confirmed by taking a complex systems look at the classroom. 

The book pictured to the left is one of several on the topic and very worth reading. The reference is: Davis, B., and Sumara, D. 2006. Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching and Research. Routledge. Chapter three, in particular, provides a good explanation of the need for a non-linear approach to education in general and the classroom setting in particular. It also provides an explanation of how linear approaches to education came about. Conventional approaches have a long history that goes back to Euclid, according to the book. The argument is compelling.

Complexity theorists (including myself) challenge the notion that student learning works best by an implicit foundationalism that thinks of learning as a matter of acquiring the right building blocks for knowledge in the right order. Such a view does not take into account the complex dynamics that make every instance of a course unique, and it fails to recognize the fact that students make their own connections in and between their classes, their out of class activities, and their personal histories. If we do acknowledge such factors, which means that each student and collection of students are unique, then it is difficult to know before a teachers enters a class how a schedule of topics should be set up and even what particularities need to be addressed to suit the curiosity and the pre-exiting knowledge base of individuals taking the course. Teachers who are not sensitive to these factors may well miss critical opportunities to enhance student learning, not to mention that they may increase the risk of boring students with perceived and unexciting irrelevancies.

Outcomes-based assessment of learning that addresses particular courses and not the students holistically can have, and often does have, the effect of forcing teachers to ignore the particularities of students in their courses and their needs by requiring a preset intellectual trajectory that must serve a predetermined end. This flies in the face of the notion that a classroom is a complex system nested inside of another complex system which is the school, college or university, a point made very clear by this book.

Though the history of linear approaches to pedagogy and assessment is long, Davis and Sumara note that the latest wave of linear reinforcement of educational practice began in 2001 with the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act. They write, 'A major trigger in the discussion ... was a symposium hosted by the United Stated Department of Education on the topic of 'scientifically based research,' during which it was asserted: 'Clinical trials ... the gold standard in medicine ... are the only way to be sure about what works in medicine.... [The] rules about what works and how to make inferences about what works ... are exactly the same for educational practice as they would be for medical practice'" (37).

Not only does the claim of the U.S. Department of Education ignore complexity in medicine, it draws a false analogy between the scientific practice involved in clinical trials in medicine and the practice of assessment needed for assurance of success in the classroom. The results have been devastating to the nation's educational system, and now the linear assessment movement has found its way into higher education, where accreditation agencies are asking for outcomes-based assessment there as well. But how this is to be done is largely left unspecified. So there is room here for creative solutions that may allow for an assessment system that appreciates complexity while enhancing student reflection on their education.

The stage is thus set for another project for the CSML. A preliminary idea would be to integrate student evaluations of courses with assessment exercises transformed into the format of an online game. Such an approach could offer students the opportunity to consolidate their learning individually, while still providing a university with much-needed assessment data. To be successful, the assessment exercise would have to be something students could complete in thirty minutes to an hour. If students were to do this at the end of every semester, institutions would be able to gather longitudinal data about the development of students as individuals, even though they are engaged and embedded in learning collectives, while using the same exercise to further the goal of helping students achieve the educational objectives of an institution. 

This idea is, of course, preliminary, but certainly it's not outside the realm of possibility, and there is a growing literature to support it. I will post further entries to this blog as my ideas on this notion develop in dialogue with the literature on computer-assisted assessment and complexity theory in education research.

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