Life Is A Legitimate Classroom

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Earl’s Library of Universal Knowledge. Thanks to roberthuffstutter on Flikr for making this image available.

OH. MY. GOSH. THIS. IS. GOOD! Read this: A Letter From a Hybrid Student

Then think about these two points that Teo makes:

1) “…it takes courage to assert that one’s life is a legitimate classroom.”

2) “Our lives are our source material; our histories, a text worthy of exploring in community.”

Then consider that Prior Learning Assessment allows this assertion to gain ground and to have higher educational value – that is, that students can articulate their life-as-classroom learning and earn college credit for it.

We could say: “Good for you, you know a lot! You are learned! You are intelligent! You are knowledgeable!” Which is all true.  But the message that often comes with that (mostly from employers) is also, “…but you don’t have a degree.”

PLA addresses this issue – it helps students claim and earn credit for their knowledge (some say it legitimizes knowledge that adult learners come to college with, but I don’t believe that this knowledge is illegitimate prior to a credit or two being associated with it).

Just watch these student videos – hear their perspectives, their voices. Did they get credit for their experience? NOPE – for their learning!

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Here is a recent article that speaks to PLA, and a quote from me about how it can have quality and integrity:

College Credit Without College

Sleazy prior learning practices still exist, says Melanie Booth, dean of learning and assessment at Marylhurst University.

“There are some PLA programs out there that look like credit laundering,” she says. For it to hold water, “you’ve got to translate your experience to academic knowledge.”

Translate your experience to academic knowledge. Because Teo said it:
Life is a legitimate classroom.

Is He Learning?

Last week we received my kid’s first report card from his new school and we had our first parent-teacher conference. So you all know, Mac is 3 and 11/12ths years old and he is in preschool. So this is all new to us. The report card and the conference have me thinking about assessment (of course) because really, that’s what it’s all about. Is Mac learning what we want him to learn, and what evidence do we have to prove it?

First Official School Photo

The report card is not a card that says “A” or “C” or any other grade, but is, in fact, a rubric.  There is a description of where his learning levels are in several categories, accordingly:

(E) = Exceeding – consistently exceeding grade-level expectations; a strength

(M) = Meeting – developmentally appropriate or meeting grade-level expectations

(D) = Developing – working towards grade-level expectations

(X) – Not assessed at this time; not applicable

For each category, there are specific learning items that are assessed using this framework (some are skills; some are knowledge areas; and a lot is behavior, as you might expect for students who are 3 and 11/12ths years old). Here is an example from the listening category:


  • Effort – M
  • Demonstrates comprehension in the daily routine – M
  • Listens attentively to spoken language – M

(No comment here about how I would assess his listening skills. Let me just say we might have a case of grade inflation happening here. Or an inability to transfer skills from one context to another. Either way … )

Thus, across several categories and skills, we now know where his teacher sees his strengths and where we can help support his improvement. For example, he can count from 1-6 (E) and sort objects by color, shape, and size (E), but he needs more work in demonstrating self-control (D) and accepting responsibility for his own actions (D). He is doing as expected in recognizing his own name in print (M) and cutting across paper with scissors (M).

This takes us to the parent-teacher conference, which was also about assessing his learning and was evidence-based. His teacher had an iPad with about 30 pictures of Mac taken from the beginning of the year. Together, we looked at evidence of how he held a marker in September, October, and November; we were able to see differences in technique by looking at actual letters, shapes, and pictures he had drawn in an accompanying portfolio of work. She also had samples of his writing in which we saw evidence of how he wrote M – A – C in September compared to how he writes M – A – C now (not much improvement there, frankly. The M is still upside down thus spelling WAC instead of MAC. No comment…)

My point?


We pose questions: What and how well is he learning? What evidence do we have? And what do we need to keep working on? And in answering these questions, we learn and his teacher learns and his school learns! Assessment = Learning = Assessment = Learning and around and around we go through the learning cycle. And we love it because we care.

Overall, Mac seems to be learning and doing pretty well in school (which is awesome considering that he is 3 and 11/12ths years old and has trouble listening … but apparently only with us). To provide further evidence that he is learning, here is a conversation between Mac and his dad this morning:

Mac: I want to wear these pants today.

Dado: Cool! These are cords!

Mac: Oh – I can’t touch those. I am not supposed to play with cords. They’re dangerous!

This after yesterday’s moment of inquiry, accordingly:

Mac: After the champion wins, is that when they get the chips?

Dado: The chips? What chips?

Mac: Yeah, the champion chips, Dado.

(Yep – most certainly grade inflation.)

Liberating For Learning

As I continue to work through and ponder the readings for the Assessment Leadership Academy I am participating in, and as I talk with my colleagues about assessment, the conundrum of grading keeps surfacing. The key question seems to be:

What is the relationship between grading and assessment?

I recently responded to an AALHE blog post about grading in which the author wrote this:

If we reverse our assumptions, we can think critically about how grades can be used to assess student learning.  It seems to me that a few things need to be in place first, though — with a performance-based approach, that would include shared rubrics, mapped curricula, and faculty who regularly “norm” to the rubrics they use through some sort of appropriate validity process.  Given those conditions, grades could be used with sufficient validity to produce useful aggregate data.  (Why Not Use Grades?)

My response was this:

I think the relationship between grading and assessment is often one of the biggest conundrums for faculty — it certainly has been for me! And I think you’re right that we need to think differently about the role of grades in assessing (and dare I say promoting?) learning.

I like the explanation offered by Mary J. Allen in her book Assessing General Education Programs (2006): grades can be a tool to promote student attainment of outcomes IF grades reflect the extent to which students meet / master course outcomes. As she writes, “Grading procedures should align with course outcomes, and course grades should indicate the extent to which students have mastered them” (p. 100).

The concept of grades as an assessment tool — and thus a learning tool — helps change this direction. But the “A” word always comes back into play: Alignment. When I have this conversation with my colleagues, this is where I focus. To what extent are the assignments and other graded activities (projects, exams, etc.) aligned with the outcomes? If we can do good alignment work (and Allen shows an example of a Grading Alignment Matrix that I’d like to use), then we can feel more comfortable that grading can be good assessment.

But here’s the conundrum for me: Students often focus their efforts on the grade, not the learning. We have probably all heard our students say “What will it take to get an A?”

Thanks to for making this image available.

Of course, for people who care about Learning (capital L intentional), this is the wrong question! An alphabetical letter usually cannot tell me what a student knows or can do. Nonetheless, the pressure our students experience for a good GPA, financial incentives (in the case of some of my students, their employers will only reimburse tuition if they earn a B or higher, for example), and the desire to be the “A” student get in the way of the bigger picture: Learning. We can work with our students to refocus on the intrinsic rewards of learning and how learning supports their own personal, professional, and educational goals, but the extrinsic rewards for good grades often overshadow these.

In the PLA program, I have the great and wonderful gift of teaching courses that are Pass/No Pass, so that we can focus on the learning experiences and outcomes and not “what will it take to get an A.” It’s freeing for me and I believe it’s freeing for my students (my students: please feel free to chime in here). The Pass/No Pass system does not affect a student’s GPA in any way – it is GPA neutral. The key to learning and integrity, though, is still in alignment and in assuring appropriate quality and rigor: all defined and supported by the learning outcomes and their corresponding activities and assignments.

An additional benefit of the Pass/No Pass system is that I get to focus on where I think the biggest-bang-for-my-teaching-buck can reside, in my formative assessment work — in the feedback I provide (and my students provide to each other) to improve or deepen their learning. I worry a lot less about making evaluative judgments on their performance in my class. (Frankly, I also have a lot fewer um…shall we say, “attempts to negotiate” in a Pass/No Pass system than when I teach a class that has A-F grades. I have a 3-year old; I don’t need any more “attempts to negotiate” in my life!)

There are several downsides to Pass/No Pass as well, of course (a very real one I’ve encountered is that some employers will not recognize a Pass as a legitimate grade for which to allow tuition reimbursement). I am in no way advocating for this kind of structure over an A-F system (nor am I about to launch into a critical comparison and contrast of systems — that would be a dissertation or at the very least a white paper, not a blog post). But I am saying that in many ways, the Pass/No Pass approach is liberating for me. I believe it is liberating for my students. And most of all, I am absolutely certain that it’s liberating for learning.

Think Again


Apparently there’s now an app for critical thinking! Read all about it here:

Critical Thinking: There’s An App For That

Ditch your Liberal Arts education – who needs it?  And hey – you no longer need to engage in dialogue or reflection with others — what a waste of your time! And reading, writing, and learning math? Nah – don’t bother!  And learning about ethical frameworks? Or what it means to be human? Or science, art, music, history, literature, sociology, etc? Money down the drain, I say. Just download this app and soon you’ll be able to think your way out of a paper bag! As it promises:

The ‘Think-O-Meter’  app challenges your thinking and helps you develop a Sherlock Holmes-like attention to the evidence at hand. Think through dozens of scenarios and test your ability to separate reliable facts from assumptions, focus on the relevant information, and think critically to get the right answer.

Wait. . .


The “right” answer??? What does this mean, the “right” answer?

Hmmm … it must not work very well. Not many people I know who think critically would claim there is a “right” answer to many problems. They might even go so far as to frame different questions, or pose new scenarios.  Or at least say, “You know what? I think that’s an ill-formed problem. Let’s consider a different way of approaching it.”

Wow. Total bummer! I guess the developers of the Think-O-Meter need to think again. Too bad there’s not an app for that!

Though It’s About You, It’s Also Not *All* About You

Image from The Center for Dewey Studies, SIU Carbondale

“I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. All reforms which rest simply upon the law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile…. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move…. Education thus conceived marks the most perfect and intimate union of science and art conceivable in human experience.”

–John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

Nor Did Your Computer

Last week was the final week of Spring term, and as so often happens, a lot of the work of teaching carries over into this week.  What appropriate timing, then, for me to find this lovely gem from Indexed.

"Your dog never really ate any homework" from Indexed.

To my students: there may be a lesson here. I’m just sayin’.

My Third And Final Major Was English

David Brooks has written an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called History for Dollars in which he advocates for studying the humanities, and it has me nogging.

Thanks to quinn.anya on Flickr for making this image available.

Brooks argues that studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

I object to his implication that blogs “lack the heft” of critical thought and inquiry, but I have to agree with almost every other proposition of his editorial. Let me tell you why.

My first major in college was journalism. I had spent the previous 3 years in high school tirelessly advocating for Freedom Of The Press and a separation of advertising and editorial (my main objective being to convince the school administrators that placing a Planned Parenthood ad in the student newspaper paper was not an endorsement for having sex). It made perfect sense that I would be a journalism major: I had prior experience on the newspaper and yearbook, passion, and it could be practical. I could get a job.

My second major was speech pathology and audiology. I changed it from journalism about a month into college because I decided I wanted to try to do something different from what I had been doing. It wasn’t an analytical decision at the time; it was more like wanderlust meets “I want to be employable after graduation.”

I liked this new major because I was learning in multiple disciplines: anatomy, language development and linguistics, psychology, neurology, etc. We also got to look at cadavers, which was scary and horrifying and amazing, all at the same time. However, in my first session in the speech clinic, when a distraught but forceful mother of a child with a bilateral lisp was insistent that we “FIX HIM!!!” in time for a speech he had to give at his church, my clinical supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to your future.” An off-the-cuff comment, but I listened.

My third and final major was English because I liked to write and I liked to read, and I didn’t want to spend time taking courses that I didn’t like. I temporarily set aside my pragmatic paycheck-oriented concerns and decided to focus on learning. And with that came great freedom and deep engagement and, as Brooks argues and I fully believe, marketability.

I have applied lessons from my English courses — from all of those Australian novels and Middle English Prologues and poems and essays and tree structures and Latin roots —  to every aspect of my work. From supervising and supporting employees, to preparing and monitoring budgets, to writing grants, to giving presentations to friendly and challenging audiences, to teaching and mentoring, to learning new computer programs or programming my voice mail, to communicating with various stakeholders and advocating with fierce grace, I call upon my English major skills and capacities of mind each and every day.

Brooks implies that there is money associated with a humanities education; I suspect that might be true (it has not been, for me). But what I DO have is compassion, creativity, energy, communication, and, in general, happiness with what I can and like to do.

My third and final major was English.  And as for The Big Shaggy? I’ll continue to nog on it, with heft (eh hem!), because, as Brooks asks:

…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

Yes. Yes it does.