Ken Blanchard, one of the most influential leadership experts in the world, said that “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. Not Wheaties; feedback. I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback lately because it’s one of the things that I don’t get nearly as often now that I’ve retired as I used to get when I worked. I know that this is an issue for me because I’ve noticed my response when I check the blog (several times a day) to see how many people have been reading it. That’s not all though. When somebody makes a comment a little red flag goes up on my screen and a great big smile crosses my face. Until I read the paper this morning I’d just attributed this to some insecurity; without feedback of the sort I used to get these are the ways in which my work is “approved” these days. Okay, you’re right … lots of issues embedded here.What made me give more thought to this today was an article that I read in the newspaper this morning about students and cheating. The article was inspired by a new policy introduced at Simon Fraser University recently. Students who are caught cheating are not only given an “F” but are given a new grade, an “FD” to identify that they’ve failed not because they didn’t work hard enough or aren’t smart enough but that they failed because of academic dishonesty. The article, by Mark Kingwell (a professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto), explores why it is that students are cheating so much these days. Several hypotheses are posited: it’s easy to cheat given the quick access to information – and essays – on the internet; students feel entitled to high marks (an outcropping of the way in which we’ve perhaps raised a generation that thinks they’re entitled to everything without much effort); and of course the prevalence of cheating leading to success – or at least very little negative ramification … business people, politicians, stars of all sorts – that we all read about and hear about every day. And then it gets more interesting.
Kingwell notes that research indicates that cheating or lying is actually harder than being honest. What does he mean by this? The National Academy of Sciences recently published the results of a study that showed that “in a random population, while many people behaved honestly with no perceptible mental effort – for them it was an automatic process – other people consciously decided to lie. The liars were working, while the honest people were just doing what comes naturally.” Brain scans indicate that the brain expends more energy – shown by scans lighting up – when people lie. Seems to me that we shouldn’t be focusing on how to punish students who lie/cheat, we should be asking ourselves why this is happening so much. Really, why are students cheating so much these days? Why are business-men and politicians lying/cheating so much these days? What’s gone wrong?
Here’s a photo of a chemistry class at Colorado University. What’s wrong with this image? Look at the number of students. It’s not uncommon for undergraduate classes at universities to have more than 500 students in them. I know from my own experience what happens when I teach a class that’s just too big; I get to know a handful of students who are the eager-beavers and excited about learning. They’re the ones who tend to sit towards the front of the class and who engage with me on a regular basis. The rest – I’m lucky if I can even call them by name by the end of the course. In his article, Kingwell refers to this as a “lack of individuation” and goes on to say that if we don’t treat students as individuals they won’t take responsibility for themselves.
I think that he’s only partly “getting it”. The problem, I think, starts long before students get to university. Instead of focusing on individual children – even in elementary schools – we’ve bought into the importance of standardized test scores; not measuring how individual students are doing or what challenges they’re facing but rather focusing on how the school/district/state is doing compared to other schools/districts/states. Yes, indeed, these scores are getting higher. Maybe, though, that’s mostly because we’re getting better and better at writing curriculum and delivering lessons that raise test scores. Does this mean we’re doing a better job at educating our children? No way!
Which takes me back to where I started. What feedback are we giving to individual students? What attention are we paying to how they’re doing – as individuals? How are we helping each child (and this is where I think the “No Child Left Behind” policy should be called the “Each Child Left Behind” policy) to reach his or her potential? How are we making sure that each child can engage in the kind of critical thinking that leads to understanding – not cheating? Kingwell’s article ends by saying: “If we don’t treat them [students] as individuals, students won’t take responsibility for themselves – and we’ll be the ones doing the cheating.”
I think he’s right. It just isn’t good enough to be anonymous; the lack of direct feedback and contact, the focus on quantity not quality, the missing human link …. these are the things we need to be thinking about. Even for me, someone who has a successful career behind me and who has achieved much in my life (I guess), I find myself doubting the value of writing this blog if I don’t get enough feedback. It doesn’t lead me to wanting to find ways to cheat; it just leaves me wondering whether I should continue writing. At the same time it’s a real object lesson for me and it encourages me to continue working for educational change, to continue talking about the need to change our system from one that values standard scores to one that values real learning. And … that requires real contact and real feedback.