Writing for the real world

Yesterday I was asked about the tone and rules of blogging for assessment, and I was really interested that this was “as opposed to blogging in the real world”.

This is a problem we’ve made for ourselves, but it’s not triggered by blogging itself. There’s an expanding inventory of post-conventional assessment activities that pride themselves on “real world” applicability, and yet we insist on applying the one tool you don’t find in the real world—grades—in response.  In fact, there’s a pretty strong case that the gap between the real world and the university world is forced by grading as a practice. Grades tether higher education to K-12, and make it really hard to convince students that university work is aligned to professional practices.

The thing is that in most professional settings, someone who doesn’t like your last piece of writing is at best going to give you feedback and support to have another go; and at worst is simply going to overlook you next time. Sometimes people who love your work will say nothing at all until you express self-doubt. You’ll struggle for an afternoon over a two-page paper and it will come back from the executive office cut to a paragraph. Some days you’ll write with a skater’s elegance, and everyone will overlook the writing but adopt the idea that you proposed. You’ll submit things for publication that get rejected, and other things that aren’t so good that get published. And so on.

Grading is a really poor preparation for all this.

But here we are, and understandably students want to know which side of our mouths we speak from when we say “authentic”.  If they write in the accessible tone of blogs they like and follow, will we then grade them according to the conventions that  are responsible for so much awful academic writing?

I think we can push ourselves a bit harder here, to accept that students writing on public platforms like WordPress are already in the real world. If we have to grade this, we should try to draft statements of competency and achievement on the basis of what we know about real world writing, not on some effort to force equivalence to term papers, exams, or university essays.

But what I really wanted to mention was this lovely post by Pat Thomson, on writing “I” as an academic.

Pat writes an excellent blog for academic writers. Her post is on one of the most tired assumptions in academic writing, that if you write “I” in a paper, the floor will open up beneath you and you will be hurled into a pit of crocodiles. The result is contorted writing, and no sense of who thinks what. I love this post because it’s practical, and focused on writing in public.

Making the grades [Dave Cormier version]

Here’s another practical approach to the dilemma of assessment, from Dave Cormier’s excellent blog:

I think I would say, rather, encourage the writing of self-assessment strategies by the students. I’m thinking that this should be included in the syllabus as a structuring piece around student reflection… both reflections in the blog and reflection in their own learning plan.

Teaching students how to make good questions for themselves, to ask them in ways that are going to lead to effective searching and learning, is something that should be overtly done. Taking time to specifically say that people are allowed to look at their own knowing, plan their own path to catch up, and that this will allow them to participate more fully in the community.

I love this. I’m not sure “teaching students how to make good questions” is how I would put it, but I like that this approach treats asking questions as a craft skill, like teaching people how to make good shelves.

So the question is: what is the craft of evaluation? If it can be learned, and I think it can, does that mean it has to be taught? Or is it like the skill of self-evaluation that all writers learn through writing?  I read a comment today from a student writer who was dismayed by pieces she’d written earlier in her blog, and I recognise this feeling. But it’s truly a sign that things are working as they should: the reason you can now see that it’s less than you want to achieve for yourself is that you’ve got better at judging writing since that time.

Judges at a cake show

“The Tyranny of the Judges”, Telegraph UK, 2009, photo credit ALAMY

The more I read, the more I think it’s possible to create a more open approach to grading with student writers, that doesn’t respond to the nuance, craft and trust that reflective writing represents by holding up a number, as though we’re judging a cake show.

Making the grades [Howard Rheingold version]

Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom at Stanford includes an example of the negotiated approach to grading that really interests me. Among other useful, practical advice in his wiki on expectations in relation to assessment, is this:

In order to learn valuable skills that will become necessary in your future lives (and which are not sharpened through traditional grading practices), each student is asked to agree to a contract for a specific grade (contract grading), to participate in helping co-learners evaluate and improve their learning (peer assessment), and to engage in regular reflection on what he or she has learned (self-assessment).

Contract grading, as Rheingold points out, isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s for those who can plan ahead with some confidence that the goals they set for themselves have been correctly aligned to their personal resources and skills. Essentially, contract grading treats the grade not as feedback delivered by an expert diagnostician, but as a deliverable that can be achieved with good management. Agreeing to achieve an A grade isn’t the same as intending to aim for an A grade. The contract sets out what actions and standards secure an A grade, and peer review then confirms (with some modest plus or minus leeway) whether that task was completed. There’s a penalty system, of course, and some waiver instruments to enable students to negotiate misadventure.

It’s really worth reading this part of the course wiki at length if you’re interested in alternatives to “traditional grading practices”.

But I have some questions. First of all, I’m interested to know more about what role students themselves play in developing the framework for considering their learning to have been successful. Advocates for meaning-centred learning argue—effectively, I think—that humans learn best when what they’re learning aligns well to their own sense of purpose at that time. There’s a bit of jargon, but in essence their point is that meaning-centred learning is:

a learning theory that holds that human learning is the self-motivating and self-regulating process of creating personal meaning in one’s life-world through reflective, critical, and inquiry-based activities that occur across all learning domains. Thus, according to MCL, the learner constructs personal meaning from his/her own experiences and their relationship to prior experiences within multiple life contexts in order to continually self-evolve as a mature personality who is capable of authoring his/her own life story (Kovbasyuk & Blessinger, 2013).

It seems to me that the challenge for both authentic and meaning-centred learning is to open up negotiation about grades so that the grades themselves are also able to be personalised. Institutions with whole divisions devoted to ensure that everyone’s measured by the same stick are notoriously weak at encouraging the capacity to identify, own and value your own judgment. And as a result one of the least well developed graduate skills is the capacity to judge your own achievements relative to context. But again, this is a skill that’s there to be learned. To be invited to set the terms on which you’re assessed is certainly something that lines up well with the future, even if it doesn’t produce an uninterrupted symphony of large-cohort assessment data for external reporting.

The second question I have relates to the role peer review plays here. Rheingold’s project openly addresses itself to “dedicated students who would earn top grades under any evaluation scheme”. It’s Stanford, let’s face it, and it’s based on a course taught at Duke U. So I have some questions about how to develop an environment in which negotiated goals that are also peer evaluated can be achieved among people who are in a wider range of personal circumstances. What levels of skill and trust need to exist within a community, that individuals will find common judgment to be just? How quickly can these be achieved?

These are really important questions for anyone who learns through writing in public. When you look at one piece of writing, and then another, and you can tell the difference, that’s the skill the grading delivers. I think we could share this.

Is it possible to evaluate reflective writing?

I’m extending the question that I have about student blogging for assessment, to have a think about how often students are asked to write reflectively for assessment — so reflective blogging is a kind of double word score. Reflective journals and portfolios are soup du jour, but there’s often a bit less clarity on what reflection is, and what professional competencies it underpins.  I have no idea how students know what to do. I’ve even heard colleagues talk about the value of reflective writing as being a way to prevent plagiarism. This seems disrespectful, and also doesn’t do much really to address why plagiarism is such a problem in academic writing at the moment.

Painting of Narcissus

Detail from Echo & Narcissus, by John Waterhouse 1903

Here are the kinds of questions I think we should be asking ourselves when we ask people to write reflectively. Have we explained the difference between reflection, description, and introspection? Have we taken into account cultural factors that might cause some people in some contexts to view reflective practice with suspicion, as an invasive or improper demand? What’s our response to the strongly implied contradiction between reflection as a practice of personal agency, and assessment as the cornerstone of institutional standardisation?

I also don’t think it helps that reflection comes to us weighed down with assumptions about self-absorption and distractedness, leading nowhere in particular. Narcissus famously becomes stuck in his reflective pose, and turns into a type of daffodil. Can we explain clearly and usefully how this is different from the reflective practice that we’re promoting?

To me, the difference is that the reflective practices that can be explored in writing support an enhanced capacity to act with intent, including in difficult situations. Critical reflective practice has a specific additional interest in achieving change in the systems within which we’re tangled. In other words, reflective practice really does fall into the careful-what-you-wish-for category.  It takes us into the realm of Derrida’s “let us say yes to who or what turns up” — it’s unconditionally hospitable to ideas that will disrupt the kind of stasis and complacency that assessment represents.

But if you take assessment out of the mix for a moment, there are plenty of resources that explain the value of reflective practice in action. The one I keep going back to is Donald Schon’s The Reflective Professional, from 1982. I really love Schon’s curiosity about how people actually get stuff done during their day, and his sympathy with the “crisis in professional knowledge”.  His chapter on ‘Design as a Reflective Conversation with The Situation’ really fits most activities: any professional who has the skill and confidence to revise their judgements as they move through complicated situations is engaged in this kind of reflective conversation. We’re all managing complexity, all the time, and there’s almost nothing in pre-graduate training that can fully prepare people for things that will happen once their theories of management, engineering, teaching, nursing and so on run up against messy human situations and human-designed systems. To be able to rebalance your aspirations in relation to your resources gracefully while moving at speed isn’t a freakish gift or a talent: it’s a skill that’s there to be learned.

For me, the usefulness of knowing how to reflect is that it enables us to rethink what we’ve done in the past, reorganise the elements of that personal history into a kind of diagnostic narrative, and from that to design for ourselves the compass that will help with decisions we face in the present and future. To be scrupulous, even rigorous, as a reflective professional you have to develop insights into the values and practices of identity that matter to you, and into the systems in which you’re entangled. These are the insights that enable you to reflect, evaluate and then act with purpose, rather than to react impulsively, particularly in challenging situations.

Getting better at reflection-in-action, as Schon puts it, is demonstrable, but not necessarily in ways that slot nearly into a grading rubric. Here’s my thought: if you’re asking student writers to have the courage to reflect in public, then ask yourself to have the courage to open your grading rubric to their collaborative design. Create the rubric that reflects and respects the values that they bring to the practice, and see if you can work out together the measures by which in this specific situation you would judge a reflection to be sufficient, complete, or compelling. It’s not a standard — it’s a conversation with the situation that you’re in.

In the meantime, I’m curious to know if others have discovered strategies for explaining, development or assessing reflective writing.

A question for student bloggers

It’s the beginning of a new semester, and I’m working in a course that requires all students to blog in public, including for assessment.  Sorting out what equivalence and quality means in this different environment has been a administrative headache, but an interesting one.

But there’s a conflict that I’m trying to figure out, as I’m reading some weary comments from students reviving their course blogs. For me, learning very cautiously to write in public in a way that isn’t tangled up with the endless quantification of academic productivity has been really liberating. It’s created a space for me to think for myself, to write directly for an audience of people whose opinion I value (no offense, academic journal readers), and it’s preserved a quiet space away from the hustle of my obligation to others.  I think I’ve become a better writer through doing it in public, without the safety net of a reviewer or editor: the stuff on the page is owned by me.

So I’m in favour of supporting students to develop this same sense of public personal confidence. The students I work with are good writers, whose writing is mostly wasted if it’s just produced for one marker, and traded for a grade. The writing itself is first the hostage, then the casualty. When it’s gone, who remembers it? who delights in it?

I believe students deserve to learn how capable they are as writers before they graduate and have to face the challenges of professional self-management.  I also know from personal experience the career benefit of being able to string a sentence together, and I know this isn’t some kind of talent: it’s the result of graft, error, and practice. So I think writing is a way of getting better at writing, whatever your starting position. And freefall writing is a solid way to learn about the risks and responsibilities of self-expression, particularly if you are identifiable in relation to your employer.

But something else happens when a practice of personal agency and creative autonomy is made compulsory. Specifically, do you still own both your voice and your relationship to your audience if you’re doing it for assessment?  What if you don’t want to write what you’re asked to write? What if you want to write something else, or nothing at all? What if doing it makes you feel resentful and disempowered?

I’m a notorious Facebook avoider.  I also avoid all sorts of other things: graduation ceremonies, weddings, The Blues BrothersGame of Thrones, team sports, planning days, and anything involving audience participation.  All of these small practices of refusal make me feel like I know who I am.  I’m worried that we’re curtailing this for students, and I’d like to think of some practical ways to address this.

UPDATE: Thanks to Gretel and Bec for permission to link to their weary comments, which got me thinking about all this in the first place.