Teaching Against Deficiency

There’s been a lot of talk about “ungrading” and, of course, most of us are probably aware by now of the growing body of research that shows how standardized testing is not a useful measurement of student learning and may actually be doing harm to students. I don’t have anything really conclusive to say about all that today, but I do know that this semester I’m facing the beast of testing head-on.

These are good pens.
They don’t work on standardized tests, but they CAN write!
Image by Suzy Hazelwood via StockSnap

This semester, in addition to my usual 4/4 load of freshman composition, I’ve taken on teaching a 6-class, 3 week seminar that is, in essence, a test prep course for a timed writing standard exam that’s administered within my university and is required for graduation. After all, administrators love testing as an indicator of “rigor” and other buzzwords like that.

The exam itself is familiar to me. I’ve been participating in the grading for this exam program for a while. It’s a pretty basic, normal timed-writing task. The kind of thing I actually enjoyed as a student, because I’m one of those students who generally tests well and was able to see it as a game, not a measure of my self-worth. The kind of thing most students dread. Both as a student and a teacher, I’ve seen for a long time the damage these tests do to students who have other strengths than my own. Part of the reason I chose to take on this seminar, in addition to the fact that it pays better per hour than my usual teaching load (that’s an issue for another day), is that I am hoping that I can help my students realize that while the exam is a requirement for their degrees, it’s not really a measurement of their worth or even skill. It’s just a check point, and I’m here to help them game the system and get past it.

But I’m working at a disadvantage. I’m playing on hard mode here, and not just because it’s a class I’ve never taught before. The students I get are scared; they are in the seminar either because they failed the exam already or because, due to transfer credits or scheduling or whatever other circumstances, they missed the credit hour limit for taking the exam without support. These are students who, by the very merit of being placed in front of me, have been told that they’re deficient. They are not deficient, though. I imagine it’s similar for any instructor who is teaching “remedial” courses.

Too often, teaching core courses in college isn’t challenging because students are unprepared. Too often, it’s doing damage control because somewhere along the way, students have been wounded rather than supported. Instead of giving them feedback in spaces with real but minimal consequences, we’ve punished them until they’re afraid to move. We’ve made the consequences of trying and failing too big, and now they’re scared.

Challenging topics might just be too high of stakes topics
Image by Snufkin via StockSnap

In my all-time favorite pedagogy text, What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy, James Paul Gee outlines thirty-six learning principles. The violation here is against Gee’s sixth principle, the “‘Psychosocial Moratorium’ Principle” in which “Learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.” That is, the students need a space where they can try to write without fearing that their entire expensive education hangs on this one exam.

For most of my students, writing has been wrapped up with intense consequences. It’s being set into an unfamiliar space–writing with a timer, writing a genre they don’t read, writing about topics they know very little about–and being threatened to perform at the cost of hopes, dreams, and their very identity. This is not a space they can take risks in.

My students are not deficient. Already I’ve tested their writing, and I was pleased. These students definitely can write. But they are facing something terrifying, and all I can do is coach them, but the very fact I get to coach them has already signaled to them that they’re out of chances.

I don’t really know what the take-away is today. So many of us educators are working inside a broken system that squeezes us as much as it squeezes our students. The tests aren’t going away no matter how much we say they should.

Care to dance?
Image by Anton Nicu Adrian via StockSnap

But I do know this: my students are not deficient. They are far more competent than they know they are, and that’s because they are being told to measure their competency in a high-stakes test with an artificial prompt. In a metaphor, we teach our students to dance, but we test them on how well they dance on a stage that is both shaking and on fire. And then they measure their own dancing ability by the score we give them on that blazing, tremulous stage, not by how they dance on a normal dance floor, because we tell them the test is a fair, objective evaluation. No wonder they think they’re deficient, and no wonder they’re scared to dance at all.

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