What Teaching Taught Me

While creating my web content, I was guided by the wisdom of Dean Spitzer, author of “Transforming Performance Measurement”, in rethinking how we measure success.  One item that struck a chord for me was understanding the difference between evaluation and performance measurement.   As a former teacher, I have some strong views about measurement – specifically, the measurement of learning through testing.  I never could grasp the value of rote memorization in the classroom and my gut instincts told me that it was the wrong way to the right answer.  Speaking of guts, I knew from students in my first teaching job who still recall the pile of stinking, dripping intestines I used in my unit on bovine digestion that engaging the learner in the lesson (we called it “hands on learning” in Agriculture & Natural Resources Education preparation) was more effective in creating a lasting impression.  In my most recent classroom experience, I changed my delivery system to encompass all levels and styles of learning by using self-paced study units. To downplay the need for measurement, all subsequent testing was done with open notes.  I also had a more pressing goal: to teach students basic study skills that included 1) coming to class prepared, 2) completing the assignments on time, and 3) utilizing resources that were provided before moving on to the next level. Mastery of the subject matter was secondary and sadly enough, some students failed at both.  On the positive side, test scores improved drastically at first, but then leveled off as students tried to beat the system.  They began to focus only on completing the assigned work for credit, rather than doing the assignment correctly to pass the test.  Bad idea. Soon they were failing in study habits, the daily work and their tests.  

What I have learned from Spitzer is that I really wasn’t measuring my students progress at all, I was evaluating their performance.  The central component of the word evaluation is “value”, meaning when you evaluate, you place a value on whatever you are evaluating.  I don’t know anyone who enjoys having a value placed on them and their performance. Since the outcome of an evaluation is a judgement, that opened doors to suspicions about the fairness of the process and my motives.  You get the idea.  Measurement should be a nonjudgemental process of collecting, analyzing, and using information for understanding whatever is being measured. In systems thnking they use Control Charts for this purpose. 

Just as measurement in organizations creates the basis for effective management, my understanding of measurement in the classroom created the basis for my teaching style. I shunned traditional forms of grading in favor of a format that I thought would be more inclusive, interactive, and innovative, three requirements of a good performance measurement system, without fully understanding the role of each within a system. In retrospect, I realize that I tried to change one aspect of a system without accounting for the impact of that change on the system as a whole.  Given adequate resources, I could have redesigned my entire approach with input and feedback from the students to ensure that they were doing the assignments for the right reason (to learn), and not for a reward (“A” grade), which is exactly why organizations need to decouple measurement from rewards. The fact that many students still failed was significant.  It signaled a need for better two-way communication about how to improve (coaching and mentoring) and how to evaluate one’s own progress – two skills that are desperately needed to have an engaged workplace.  And now you know: I may have failed some students in more ways than one, but I don’t regret it because without failure, improvement is limited.

Contact Kristine Ranger at 517-974-5697 or kristine@knowledgenavigators.com