Moving Past Wishes

Many many many moons ago, when I was teaching English in my first “real” job in a community college in Washington state, I decided to try a technique called “negotiated assessment” that I’d heard about at a conference. The conference was about learning outcomes assessment — a fairly new paradigm at the time — and when I heard this idea I immediately wanted to try it. Why should I be the only one who assessed my students’ learning; why couldn’t they do it? Wouldn’t that help them pay more attention to their learning process and outcomes; wouldn’t it also, perhaps, potentially, lighten the power I wielded with my pen and my gradebook?

Grade A

Many thanks to Steve Snodgrass on Flickr for making this image available to use.

At the time it was a risky experiment for me: I didn’t yet have tenure, and here I was, giving the power of grading over to my students (except that I wasn’t — more about that below). My department chair (who was also the chair of my tenure committee) was supportive of the experiment, and so I tried it out. This was long before I knew much about learning or assessment; long before I knew how to support students in taking more ownership over their learning; long before I formally knew much about reflection, about deep learning, about metacognition, about self-directed and self-determined learning; long before I had devoured Freire and hooks and Dewey and Kegan and Daloz and Palmer and Doll and so many others; and it was long before I had enough experience  to really design the approach so it worked well.

Nonetheless, here’s how it went in my English 101 – College Composition course that spring semester:

  • I created the course description, the learning outcomes (some of which were departmentally prescribed), and the learning activities and assignments for the course.
  • I led and facilitated the course activities and provided direct instruction when needed.
  • Students engaged (or not, in some cases) in the writing processes I set up (and required), including peer review, responding to feedback on multiple drafts from me and other students, learning about revision as “re-seeing” and editing as cleaning up fly specks on the window so readers could see the message clearly, etc.
  • I never graded a single paper; I provided LOTS of feedback on LOTS of drafts, but I never assigned an actual letter grade.
  • At the end of the term, students wrote a final essay self-assessing their learning through the lens of the learning outcomes of the course and feedback they received from me and others along the way. They put the paper in the front of a binder that contained all of their other drafts and final papers (a very fundamental form of portfolio at the time). Based on their “analysis” and the “evidence of learning” in the binder, they recommended a final grade for themselves.
  • The last week of the term, I met with each student individually to review the paper, the portfolio, and to discuss the grade they thought they should get, and to talk about how they should transfer their learning from this class to other classes and contexts (because surely, if I told them to, they would, right?)

It was a fascinating experiment in all sorts of things — students whom I considered to be “strong” graded themselves much harder than I would have; students I considered to be “weak” (or “flakey”) recommended A grades for themselves. (I am now ashamed that I had those thoughts about my students at that time, but I did.) During the meeting, we “negotiated” the student’s grade and came to agreement, using the portfolio as an anchor, on what that grade should be. (In actual fact I still actually did hold most of the power. For one thing, I totally over-ruled 2 of my 20 students. They most certainly did not earn an A let alone demonstrate much learning. What kind of pushover did they think I was!?!)

I was reminded of this experiment from many moons ago this past week when I read a new perspectives post about heutagogy contributed by Fred Garnett in the Heutagogy Community of Practice.  Read it here:

The PAH Continuum: Pedagogy, Andragogy & Heutagogy

In this post, Fred describes his practice of  “brokering:”

Writing the syllabus and developing the schedule of delivery along with the work to be completed meant that I was, in effect, building the framework of what I was teaching. Consequently I really understood what the boundaries were and so could better broker between the formal requirements of the education system and the personal desires of my learners; I had found that all these ‘failing’ students wanted to learn.  On the social impact course each student picked any technology that interested them to research and write about. I showed them how to “play” with the learning requirements, which can be used as creative constraints, and how best to meet them in their completed work. I also encouraged them to present that work in original ways rather than as just a written report. Although most presented reports a precious few tried original approaches, such as wall charts, cartoons, a class presentation with Q&A, and so on. Most importantly simply having the opportunity to present finished written work in ways that they determined meant that they thought about various ways in which to explain their ideas.

Here’s what I like about this concept and what I wish I had done in that class: I wish I had actually tapped into and understood the personal desires of my learners and showed them how to “play” with the learning requirements and how to best meet them in their work. I wish that I had encouraged them to produce artifacts that were original — that were personalized to their desires — that would meet the learning outcomes. And I wish that I had understood that my “failing” students — those that I unfairly deemed flakey, or lazy, or poor writers — probably did want to learn, but maybe not the way I thought they should. I wish … I wish … I wish…

This is why I am excited about heutagogy and wanted to start a Community of Practice focusing on it — it so nicely grounds and frames the approaches I try to use when I teach in a way that does not leave me wishing. It provides a way for me to organize and re-vision and re-enact my knowledge about self-directed learning; about authentic assessment; about learning outcomes, course design, and curricular structure; and about my preferred “teaching” approach.

I am so grateful to continue to learn about my practice — and to self-determine my path. Thanks to all who’ve joined the Heutagogy Community of Practice for already furthering my learning in ways I hadn’t ever anticipated.

Meet Polly

I’m in the process of writing a chapter for an upcoming New Directions for Teaching and Learning issue. My chapter is titled Boundaries and Student Self-Disclosure in Authentic, Integrated Learning Activities and Assignments. Phew – that’s a long title, and not very “sexy,” as one rhetoric professor used to advise:

Folks, whatever you do, create a sexy title. Academia isn’t sexy enough – you need to make your good work pop more. Use a sexy title.

He said this more than once with his emphatic Eastern European accent; it’s one of those grad school phrases that emerges for me every time I need a title. Make. It. Sexy. (You will note that I haven’t done very well following this advice.)

But I won’t deconstruct this issue now because I have a different problem. Her name is Polly.

Here’s the deal:

I have one paragraph in this chapter I am writing that is driving me crazy. My colleagues who have read the article all agree  — something is not right there. It contradicts itself; it’s not clear; the overall point is good, but the discussion doesn’t exactly, or directly support it, only kind of, sort of, but in fact not really. The ideas I have included for support are great! Nice! Really bold and interesting! But something is … off.

I named her Polly. She is my problem paragraph. So:

  • I tried just deleting her — that didn’t work.
  • I’ve re-written her about 20 times – that hasn’t worked.
  • I threw her out and started all over again – that hasn’t worked.
  • I “humpty-dumptied” her – that hasn’t worked.
  • I even resorted to putting her away for a while and coming back to her. Three weeks later … that hasn’t worked either.

Polly is just a problem. She just is.

But I haven’t given up. Polly and I are now going on walks together (my dog doesn’t seem to mind the extra company), sleeping together, and eating together. We do sun salutations and go grocery shopping together. Last night we took the recycling out together, because right now, we’re that close. And we’re working through it. We may need counseling, or intervention, or chocolate and wine, but I know we’ll make it. We just need to trust our relationship, our intentions, and give it our all together. We also know our time together is limited; the impending deadline pressure may force us work out our differences.

How we’ll get through it remains to be seen, but my money is on chocolate and wine. Polly and I seem to work best together under these conditions. (Between us, she behaves better when she is offered something yummy – she’s like me in that respect.)

In the meantime, Polly and I are going to hang out a bit more for the next few days and instead of working on our differences, I think we’ll work on that title …  we need to Make. It. Sexy. (Between us,  I am not sure Polly and I are up to that challenge. We’ll need chocolate and wine, for sure!)

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!

The Humpty Dumpty Method

Harriet Schwartz over at The Encouragement Lounge and I have been co-authoring a book chapter, and our recent versions of the chapter have involved less actual writing and more of what I am fondly referring to as the “humpty-dumpty” method.

When I humpty-dumpty an essay / article / chapter, I quite intentionally de-stabilize it and push it off the wall. In doing so, I take it all apart (crack up that old egg) and I put it back together again, differently. Unlike all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, when I’ve done it well, I end up with a  whole new egg, one without cracks or leaks, one that will keep organized the yolk and white on the inside, one that will be, well … coherent.

Other writers may call this process “revision” — the act of re-seeing what you’ve written in order to write it differently, in order to write it better (a different process, of course, than editing). But I like to call it the humpty-dumpty method because I don’t always know what I’m looking for — what it will look like —  until I actually crack it into pieces and start re-assembling it, piece by piece, checking for fissures and ensuring strength along the way.

The humpty-dumpty method for writing is worthwhile; even if you take that egg all apart and put it back the way it was, the exercise is typically beneficial because you’ve thought it through more so than you would have had you not humpty-dumpty’d it.

Now only if I could afford to practice the humpty-dumpty method with my kitchen. You see, we have this little crack in the ceiling … and in fact, we may need all the king’s horses, men, and then some to deal with it:

Husband considering the little crack in our kitchen ceiling.

The Rubric’s Trail

Several years ago, when I was the Director of the Learning Resource Program at the School of Extended Education at St. Mary’s College of California, I developed a college-level writing rubric. I am certain that I used some other rubrics in my massive collection to inform my composition of this one, so it wasn’t entirely my creation, and I am even more certain that several of my good-thinking SEED colleagues had input into its creation as well. At some point in my travels, I likely used the rubric in a workshop or at a conference, and I must have put it “out there” electronically as well. In some way, some 7-8 years later, this little pup seems to have found a digital home – the website of Bakersfield College.  (Click HERE to see it if you’re interested. )

What’s interesting to me is that in the last year, I’ve been contacted by four people — people I do not know — who have tracked down that rubric online (and subsequently tracked me down too) and have wanted to use it. One wanted to put it in a book she’s writing for college students, one wanted to use it as part of a writing course she’s developing, one wanted to use it as part of a research project to support the writing skill development of mechanical engineers, and one wanted to place a link to it on her university’s writing center website. In addition to these folks and the faculty at Bakersfield College, who are also apparently using it, it’s entirely possible that other folks are using it too. (And, frankly, is totally ok with me that they’ve not asked for permission because I doubt that I can take full credit for it anyway!)

Thanks to horizontal.integration on Flickr for making this image - "trail break" - available.

I have given my permission to these four, of course, because hey — why not share it? I mean, I also brought it with me to Marylhurst and it informed the university writing rubric that we use here now. My take on these things is simple: if it’s useful toward supporting learning — which all good rubrics should be — then by all means, use it! Be my guest!

But man! That old rubric of mine has been around the block, and apparently, continues to go to interesting places. And I am so happy for it. I only wish it could take me along on its journeys. If I could track its trail, and forge new ones with it, that would be really cool.

But instead I’ll act like the mama bird pushing her baby out of the nest.  Fly, rubric, fly. Fly far, far away from home. Go to interesting places; see amazing things; do good work; support and help others. But please, as you continue on these trails — old and new — please, do so only in the name of learning.

Back. Forward. Inward. Outward.

Homework Assignment for PLA Students

(Or Any Other Individuals Seeking To Learn From Their Mistakes Experiences)

Read the 16 Outcomes of Reflection. It’s a GREAT framework for reflecting!


  1. Think Back – about your topic / your experience / your learning.
  2. Think Forward – about your topic / your experience / your learning.
  3. Think Inward – about your topic / your experience / your learning.
  4. Think Outward – about your topic / your experience / your learning.

"Unstandardized" from Indexed

And write — back. forward. inward. outward. — about your topic / your experience / your learning.

And remember that sometimes to write IS to think. Strike that.

And remember that ALL of the time, to write is to think.

When It’s (It Is) Appropriate To Use An Apostrophe

Here’s (here is) a good review of when to use an apostrophe in a funny video.  (I *heart* YouTube!)

An English teacher / mentor of mine once told me that he tells his students that the apostrophe in “it’s” represents the dot of the missing “i” in “is.” That’s (that has) always helped me remember “its” versus “it’s.”

Something about the apostrophe must call to me as I realized that I noted another good learning tool in a previous post: It’s (It Is) Brillant