Let me throw a little puzzle at you to see if you can figure out these connections.
What does this:
Have to do with this:
I will give you some background context and, by the time we are finished this lesson, you should be able to see very clearly the schooling foundations of evolution, and the foundation of linear/natural progression or progress, and the foundational implications of the scientific method.
Before I share some background context with you, let me briefly tell you a bit about these three important schooling foundations.
First, there is an underlying foundation in schooling that suggests that some people are naturally better than others — some superior; some inferior. Fortunately we have removed the statement “more evolved” from our discourse, but the foundational ideas of cultural or racial superiority are still lurking in the background.
You are already very familiar with the foundation of time and the way that time has been represented linearly (as in a timeline). This linear time foundation, along with the idea that human beings evolve from primitive to cultured, lays the foundation for the evolutionary foundations inherent in schooling practices. We see it in schools today when some students are thought to be culturally inferior to what the school standards expect of students. There is a foundational belief that some groups are inherently ‘better’ than others. And this foundational belief is so powerful that you will hear many teachers determined to “raise up the lower classes.” We see it playing out in the racial inequities in those students deemed to be appropriate candidates for future career aspirations. We see it in the insidious messaging some students receive suggesting that they are less capable learners than the culturally dominant groups. In our not too distant past, we saw extreme examples of children having their own cultures violently expunged from their lives — whether prevented from speaking their own language or whether taken from their families and placed in boarding schools to have their own cultures eradicated.
Historically we can look back to Herbert Spencer, whose ideas on evolution predated Darwin, and whose writings influenced some of the philosophers and educators we consider to be important in our own American experience. I am speaking of the popular philosopher John Dewey and psychologist William James here.
Ask yourself as you reflect on this evolutionary idea of who it is that determines curriculum content. Then ask yourself why certain groups (people) in very influential in making the curricular decisions? Ask yourself who it is that benefits most from the curricular decisions being made? Ask yourself this: What would happen by those groups in power, if curriculum and tests were designed in such a way that the minority groups outperformed the ‘dominant’ culture? We can be quite certain that there would be an adjustment to the curriculum and tests to shift the content and results to show the dominant culture excelling.
Now, let’s toss in some background context that I think you will find very interesting.
Grades. Whose perspective anyway?
Let me share with you a perspective about grading. You have probably grown up with the perspective that grading is so important. You have heard stories about getting good grades. Some of you have been made to feel good if you received good grades; and, some of you have been made to feel bad if you didn’t receive good grades. These are the stories. These are the narratives. And, as you know, relying on a single narrative can be dangerous.
But were did grades (or at least grade point averages) even come from?
A short history on shoes?
The GPA system is attributed to William Farish (1759–1837), a British tutor in chemistry and natural philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He was well-known for his developments of the method of isometric projection and the first written university examination system. Isometrics and examinations have one thing in common: ‘metric’ or the standard or method of measuring. When a tutor with expertise of complex isometrics handles a simple educational assessment problem, most people, past and present, will agree that nothing can go wrong. However, it definitely is a surprise that Farish borrowed this idea from the shoe industry where workers were paid by the number of shoes they made graded on acceptability (Hartman, Jaksa, & Pallandino, 2000).
The grading system Farish invented was first implemented in 1792. When an institution of Cambridge’s stature implemented the system, other lesser universities would naturally follow. Against such an illustrious background, it is not a surprise that the grading system attracted a lot of attention and got adopted by other professors in other lesser universities and later by secondary school teachers. Its wide adaptation, and with modifications, at the institutions of higher learning soon enshrined it with awe of a sacred cow. Thence, it perpetuated itself and took on various façades, and became almost religious.
Let’s listen to another perspective–another narrative (or story).
To continue this questioning, we might ask, “why do we grade our students?” Once again we find ourselves giving grades to our students because that is what has been done in the past. It seems to make sense. Why would we even question such an activity. But then when we ask about the origin of grading and begin digging a little deeper, finding that a lazy professor from the 18th century created the practice of grading from the way shoe factories were grading the quality of shoes, we begin to get a sense of the strangeness of all of this. We begin to get a sense that a lot of what we do was just a made-up practice by someone. Furthermore, we might begin to wonder why we follow a practice that really does have questionable beginnings. What is it that makes these ‘questionable activities’ a part of our school lives? Why have we adopted an institutional practice that insists on ranking students? Well, I suppose narratives have a lot to do with that. While we are on the topic, let’s take a brief trip to a conference and listen to Ben Zander, a teacher, and conductor who has spent quite some time unraveling the narratives of grading.
Questions (Response Set Three)
1. Mr. Zander says he only teaches “A” students. Why does he say he only takes “A” students?
2. What does Mr. Zander mean when he says, “The relationship is transformed”?
3. Do you think there is value in this perspective?
Let’s listen to Alfie Kohn sharing some research regarding grades.
Why Grades Shouldn’t Exist – Alfie Kohn
Questions (Third Set Continued)
4. What are the three effects grades have on students according to Alfie Kohn?
5. According to Alfie Kohn who should we blame when we become grade-grubbers?
There we have it. We have begun to consider that the narratives that we have regarding schooling might not be the only narratives. They might not even be the best narratives. Furthermore, perhaps one day we can begin to change some of the narratives to make schools better for everyone.
Now, I am getting a bit off track here, but let me share with you a few short statements by Alfie Kohn. We can already hear two different narratives being examined.
I have to share one more here with you.
If Kohn is right about the research, which he is — that there is plenty of research that shows the problem with grades — then there must be another story being told (another narrative) that is preventing an honest consideration of the research. That is not to say that some schools don’t challenge grading, but who has control of the narrative here?
Let’s look at one of our frames here to see how that Purpose, along with the background might inform our understanding.
Using Letter Grades
Of course grades, as you know, are used for many reasons: to simplify teacher-to-student responses; to encourage students to comply with teacher expecations; to act as a form of punishement; to try to keep students ‘on task.’ At what point does grading discriminatory? Some of the background contexts give it away: a belief that some students deserve better grades; that there is an inferior/superior hierarchy; that some students naturally belong; that some students are simply living out their future potentials; that all students have access to (or experience) the same culturally dominant realities.
Notice the similarity to standardized testing:
Let us consider for a moment the bell curve. You have probably heard of the bell curve.
But have you ever wondered how people have used the bell curve to suggest that some students are inferior to others?
“The Bell Curve” controversy
What does Charles Murray have to say?
Charles Murray on Education Myths
Questions (Third Set Continued)
6. What do you think Charles Murray believes about student abilities and student intelligence?
What does Marva Collins have to say? Since Murray did mention her in his book, it is important that we hear her side of the story. We don’t want an incomplete narrative here.
First, this is what Charles Murray wrote:
“Stories Too Good to Be True
Accounts of phenomenal success stories in education—the inner-city school that suddenly excels as the result of a new program or a new teacher—are a perennial fixture of American journalism. Are they true? If the question is whether an inspirational teacher or some new program has the capacity to make an important difference in students’ lives, then the answer is surely yes. But claims for long-term academic improvement, let alone increases in cognitive functioning, typically fade as soon as hard questions begin to be asked. A case in point is Chicago’s Marva Collins, who gained national attention with claims that her shoestring-budget inner-city school, launched in 1975, was turning out students who blew the top off standardized tests and were heading to the best universities. Between the ages of 5 and 10, she claimed, her pupils, deemed “unteachable” in regular schools, were reading Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, according to stories in the popular media. According to other newspaper reports, she was asked by both Presidents Reagan and Clinton to become secretary of education. She continues to train large numbers of teachers in her methods.
Excerpt From: Murray, Charles. “THE BELL CURVE.” Apple Books.
Now let’s listen to Marva Collins and her students:
Marva Collins 1995 Part 1
Marva Collins 1995 Part 2
Questions (Third Set Continued)
7. What does Marva Collins believe about student abilities and student intelligence?
Oh yes, my little quiz of sorts from the beginning.
A number of devices have been used in the past to examine people’s physical features so that judgements could be made on their worth. Let me share this short passage from John S Haller, Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority 1859 – 1900:
By 1860 many of the century’s naturalists were leaving phrenology to cranks and outdated enthusiasts of Comte, while placing more and more credence in the new evolutionary psychology as a valid means of determining intelligence. Yet the transition from phrenology to the psychology of Herbert Spencer was neither distinct nor, for that matter, ever really clarified in the community of anthropologists. This situation was exemplified in the continuity of race concepts developed during the heyday of phrenology, which were assimilated without notice into the vocabulary of the evolutionists. Phrenology died a pauper’s death in the late nineteenth century, victimized by the vicious ostracism of the period’s most reputable anthropologists. But race classification, begun or “proven” by the phrenologists, relegating Mongolian, Malayan, Indian, and Ethiopian to inferior roles beneath the Caucasian, was seldom criticized.
The claims of men like Franz Gall (1758-1828), Charles Bray (1811-1884), John Jackson (1835-1911), and Paul Broca stimulated a prodigious interest in the comparative measurements of the size of the brain. As the science of man grew more professionalized, would-be phrenologists moved from exterior skull measurements to skull capacity. . . . .
Yet, despite the difficulties involved in cranial measurements, anthropologists assumed the existence of a uniform relationship between the size of the skull and the development of the intellectual faculties, a relationship which resulted in a graduated series of skull measurements from the anthropoid through the various states in savage man, culminating in the most civilized nations. Beginning with the Australians, Hottentots, and Polynesians and moving slowly up the ladder into the civilized nations, cranial capacity corresponded directly with the degree of civilization achieved. . . .
The Civil War in America stands as a watershed in nineteenth century anthropometric a developments. Body measurements collected during the war years marked the culmination of efforts to measure the various “races” or “species” of man and derive a semblance of understanding as to specific racial types. . . .
The war marks a watershed not so much because its conclusions were new but because nearly all subsequent late nineteenth-century institutionalized attitudes of racial inferiority focused upon war anthropometry as the basis for their beliefs. . . .
Drawing statistics and relationships out of a multitude of examinations of soldiers, the Sanitary Commission sought to construct Quetelet’s average man. In finding him among the “native American,” British American, English, Irish, German, “foreigner,” Negro, Indian, and “college students,” the commission deterred profits of an abstract man to whom they assigned a statistical intellect, capacity, judgement, and tendency. It was a study oriented from its very inception upon a proper understanding of the varieties of man—a reflection of the reformer’s zeal in the early years of anthropology in America. . . .
The instruments used by the commission—andrometer, spirometer, dynamometer, facial angle, platform balance, calipers, and measuring tape—were intended to measure “the most important physical dimensions and personal characteristics.” John S Haller, Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority 1859 – 1900, pp. 17-29
Well I don’t think I need to tell you that there were physical differenced between groups of people. And I don’t think I need to tell you what group were deemed to be the most evolutionarily advanced.
It strikes us as ridiculous when we see these obviously discriminatory tests done on peoples’ bodies and then having the outlandish results used to make biased judgments. And yet we consider for a moment the similarity between the measuring instruments used on bodies and the measuring instruments we have in place in the name of learning, assessment and evaluation. When the Purpose is one of comparison, aren’t these “mental/cognitive’ measuring devices doing much the same thing?
Questions (Third Set Continued)
8. What do you see as some of the problems associated with grading, the bell curve, and assumptions of cultural superiority as these play out in our public schools? When you speak to this, use specific examples from what we have covered in this lesson.
You will notice in question 8 that I am trying to see how well you are synthesizing and analyzing the content here as well as your ability to share with me your depth and breadth of understanding on the topic.
Have a great day!