Wednesday 30 May 2018


I'm too old and tired to get angry but . . . my shoulders do slump sometimes as I feel my vocation as a teacher being diminished by the needs of objective assessment. Science at The Institute is split into two streams - the Physical and Biological - which are weighted most unevenly. Youngsters don't seem to be interested in doing chemistry at Third Level and nobody really knows why; whereas biology is recruiting much better. It may be because we put 'Forensics' in the Degree title after CSI became super-successful on the TV. It may be because there are jobs for the boys-and-girls in "Pharmaceuticals", another word that appears as part of a degree title.  In any case, behind the scenes and without my involvement, my Department has been crafting a new degree to replace the rags of a four year course that used to be Chemistry and has gradually morphed into Environmental Science.

It was, accordingly, a surprise last week to be invited to a meeting with the External Panel which has over several months been reviewing the new course paying particular attention to the new modules which have been developed especially for the new degree. Large tracts of the old course have been preserved and all our courses have a common first and second year where the fundamentals of biology, physics, chemistry and maths are presented, examined and forgotten. We all forget 90% of what we learn over the subsequent day or two, so it's not surprising that students in second year claim they've never heard of X . . . and could we go over it again? There's ways of teaching, say, The Calculus, which make it rapidly forgettable. A couple of members of the external panel had clearly done some recent CPD [that would be continuous personal development] at the TLC [we all have a teaching and learning centre even if some places call it Centre for Enhancement of Learning & Teaching (CELT)] at their home institution.

I know this because, although the External Panel were very happy with the C for concept, the culture, the curriculum, the creativity and the content of the course they wagged their fingers and sighed over the Learning Outcomes.  Tsk tsk, they told us, you must never use the words knowledge, recognise or understand in college-level LOs because those words are not sufficiently high up the tree of Bloom's Taxonomy. No, no, no you must use Measurable Active Verbs [MAVs ??] like D for define, describe, detect, differentiate, distinguish. If you are in the realms of rocket science, I presume you can move on to the E for evaluate, explain, elaborate, estimate.

Bloom's Taxonomy is named for Benjamin Bloom the chair of a US committee tasked to help educators design curricula and assessments. The book of their deliberations was Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals . . . there has been no film of the book and the clips on youtube are a) woeful and b) a long long way from going viral. I suspect because nobody really gives-a-damn; although LRC people talk Bloom's Tax up a storm.

Two helpful comments came from other members of the External Panel.

1)"Wouldn't it be great", mused one, "if you could write your learning outcomes in language you and your students could understand and then whack them through Google-translate into Bloomspeak at the appropriate level?" That's my sort of guy, slightly cynical, good crap-detector, clearly engaged. There are six levels to Bloom:
The small discs/layers at the top are built on the foundations below. The higher the step the more valuable and the more discriminatory: only Harvard students can do the Evaluate and Create stuff, the rest of us bumble along just trying to remember where we left our glasses.

2) the other comment was "You can't design unambiguous exam questions with words like know, recognise or understand". If you use measurable action verbs in the LOs, then the exams write themselves. There was a lot of sage nodding at that insight because it showed a clear way to close the circle of syllabus, learning outcomes, test, mark, label, dismiss. I've ranted and railed about the constraints this puts on teaching anything that matters.

It might have been the same guy who added a schoolmarmish argument against using understand in LOs. "If it only happens IN the student's head it's not an OUTcome, is it?". It took commendable self-discipline that I didn't leap across the Board Room table and assault him (verbally) "I will show and tell my students things next year that they will remember for ever and use with advantage but will never write down in an exam" -

  • how to do tabs and accents in Word
  • where (and indeed what) is my pancreas;
  • that you and your pet hamster have red blood cells of the same size; 
  • that not knowing something is okay; 
  • that demeaning somebody is not; 
  • how to make F for flapjacks (a skill whose utility is waaaay beyond Bloom)
  • that irony is different from sarcasm;

While searching for good video on Bloom's Taxonomy - fail! - I came across Azul  Terronez' definition of a teaching excellence: Great Teachers Eat Apples. There's more to it inside. Terronez advocates teaching children how to Listen. Too many teachers just drive on through the content without pause. If they stopped & listened they might try a more effective way of getting their stuff over. But for Terronez the medium in the message: by listening to students you give them respect. That respect will be absorbed and brush off on others.

No comments:

Post a Comment