German is remarkably efficient at capturing complex emotions in a single word. The weight gain associated with a breakup or other emotional turmoil is called kummerspeck—literally, grief bacon. Americans have appropriated the German word schadenfreude –taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others—I assume because it so perfectly captures the driving force behind much of our popular culture: reality television, tabloid journalism, the 24-hour news cycle.
I recently learned another German word that I feel needs to be embraced, if not by the culture as a whole then certainly by those of us in education. Schlimmbesserung is an improvement that makes things worse. I entered the teaching profession in 1995 and, since that time, have lost count of the number of times I've witnessed or been the victim of schlimmbesserung.
Last month, a participant in one of my beginning teacher seminars asked my opinion of a new policy in his high school. The faculty had been tasked with administering common formative assessments, or CFAs, that would provide baseline data against which they could measure student progress. Concern arose that the students were simply marking random answers on their CFAs, which the leadership team interpreted as a failure to take the process seriously.
Before I reveal how they "solved" the problem, let’s first examine their logic. I present the following syllogism:
- Students marked random (incorrect) answers because they didn’t take the process seriously.
- If students took the process seriously, more of their answers would have been correct.
- Different answers would provide better data.
Now, this explanation applies if, and only if, the students both were and believed themselves more capable than their responses suggested, thus making their incorrect responses acts of pure defiance.
Research ethics, however, demand that we examine all the possible explanations of the data. Is it possible that the students’ answers only seemed random because they didn’t know what the right answers were? Alternatively, is it possible they marked random answers because they knew they lacked the necessary knowledge or skills to do otherwise? In Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham explains that people enjoy thinking but only “if we judge that the mental work will pay off with the pleasurable feeling we get when we solve a problem.” Absent the belief that effort will yield the dopamine rush of success, most people will give up. This is why I no longer even attempt sudoku puzzles.
If the students didn’t try because they either knew or suspected that their effort would not result in a payoff, there is no reason to believe that greater effort would have resulted in more correct answers. More importantly, the administrative team ignored the very solid data their students provided, that, at best, they lacked confidence or motivation and, at worst, were incapable of correctly answering the questions. “What forest? I don’t see any forest! There’s too damn many trees in the way!”
To incentivize the students, the principal mandated that their scores on the CFA be counted as 10% of their semester grade. It is bad enough that those outside the profession dictate policy that is counterproductive to our students' needs. I find it inexcusable that an instructional leader would demonstrate such disregard or ignorance of the function of formative assessment. These are tools to collect data regarding a student’s progress toward a learning goal which is then used to adjust instruction. Formative assessments should never penalize students for not knowing information they have not yet been taught. Nor are they tools for social engineering.
Even if we allow, for argument’s sake, that the original premise was correct, and the students randomly marked their tests because they didn’t take them seriously. Is it reasonable to then assume that these same students will feel differently if you threaten them?
I served my time in a public-school classroom and am therefore not unfamiliar with the many ways teenagers try to game the system. They can be real asshats. That impulse to test the boundaries and see what they can get away with is kind of what makes them teenagers. What separates us—the adults—from them is our ability to resist the urge, however strong, to respond to their impulsive, short-sighted behavior with impulsive, short-sighted behaviors of our own.
Educators do not take an oath of office, but maybe they should and, like doctors, pledge to, first, do no harm.