Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Twenty Questions

Just recently I gave my students a take-home quiz containing 20 multiple choice questions. I am test-marketing this quiz for next year's students to take home in September at the beginning of the school year, to see if they can apply logic, reason and common sense to everyday school situations, such as what to do if you're absent on the day of an exam, what it means to be late to class, what to expect if you miss an assignment, etc. The idea for my current students is that they should, especially after having been in my class for a whole year, be able to get all 20 questions right and boost their grade average with what essentially amounts to a free "A."

Stunningly, incomprehensibly, most of the students who handed this quiz in got close to half the questions wrong. In one sense I should not have been surprised; after all, the questions were designed to illustrate all the possible wrong things I've seen students do (from which I drew the "wrong" choices for each question), in contrast with the one simple, logical, reasonable correct thing, but I have found in most cases that students tend to know what the right thing to do is even though they almost never do it. At the very least, they should have been able to determine what I would have thought the right answer was.

Two questions in particular stood out, in that the majority of the students answered wrong (correct answer in bold; typical student response in italics):

You are not late to class if
a. you have an excuse.
b. you have a note from guidance, dean, nurse, SPARK, principal, etc.
c. you are coming from gym.
d. you are coming from your arts studio.
e. your previous class ran long or let out late.
f. you come into the room less than a minute after the late bell.
g. you were in the room before the late bell and then left.
h. your belongings are at your seat when the late bell rings, even if you are out of the room.
i. you are standing just outside the doorway at the late bell.
j. all of the above.
k. none of the above.

On the first day of school in September, before the course begins, before any assignments are given and before any work is done or graded, your grade average is
a. 100
b. 65
c. 55
d. Zero (0)
e. whatever your grade in English was last year.
f. whatever you think you deserve.

Let's look at the first question first. The students were instructed to use logic, reason and common sense in answering, and to read each question and all the choices carefully. The question was, simply, under which of these circumstances are you not late to class? The question was not whether such lateness would be actionable or blameworthy. Given the strict liability for lateness policy I discussed in an earlier post, the students should have known that no matter what the reason is, if you arrive after class starts then you're late. The condition of being late involves arrival after a designated time, nothing more. Having a note or other mitigating factor does not alter the fundamental laws of temporal physics; a note does not turn back the clock. If you are late, you are late. Period.

(Note: The previous question was "You are late to class if...", so the fact of the student's arrival after the beginning of the period should have been a given, although in retrospect I might have wanted to include it in the question stem. However, many of the students who answered that question correctly, "...you arrive any time after the late bell, regardless of why," still answered this question wrong.)

The answer, then, indicates a couple of examples of flawed thinking. For one, it indicates that either the student did not read the question carefully or did not apply logic, reason and common sense, interpreting the word "late" to mean "at fault for being late." More notably, it indicates the mistaken belief that the perceived absence of blameworthiness somehow negates or cancels out the conduct. As anyone even vaguely familiar with tort law (or basic physics) knows, even if the conduct is not blameworthy, the event still happened, it cannot be undone, regardless of the actor's intent or whether he was knowingly "at fault." The question of fault is what is moot, not the conduct or condition. Late means late.

The wrong answer to the second question is even more troubling and even less surprising. The idea that every student walks into class with a perfect 100 average on the first day of school is one of the most ubiquitous yet completely counter-intuitive and, frankly, dumb ideas I've encountered in secondary schools. It's yet another example of what I discussed previously about every student and every parent thinking the child automatically deserves the highest possible grade and the most lavish, obsequious praise for whatever he does; that he's under no obligation to earn his grade points or do anything at all to deserve them.

Where does a child think her grade comes from? Where does she think the teacher gets the points from? Does it really make sense for a student to start the year with a 100 average and work his way down from there? If a grade is a commodity, using the economic model I discussed previously, what kind of sense does it make to start with the maximum? Why, for example, would anyone put $100 into a stock if there could be essentially no return on the investment, meaning the value could only go down? Why would an employee expect to receive his entire salary, let alone a glowing performance review, before his first day on the job? Why would a landowner pay a contractor in full before any work was done?

More importantly, where is the student's incentive to do his work if he knows that he has a 100 average right from the beginning? How does a student imagine her grade goes down from there? The student must figure, if she does the assignment and gets less than an A, her average will go down, but if she doesn't do it her average can't go down because she didn't do anything "wrong." In other words, if you do your work your grade goes down, but if you don't do it your grade remains the same. What kind of sense does that make? How else can you explain why students would or could ever choose not to submit assignments? Shouldn't any reasonable person know that if you don't submit an assignment you won't get credit for it? When I taught on Long Island, I had students flat-out refuse to submit certain assignments or do certain kinds of work, for no reason other than that they simply didn't want to or didn't "like" it, yet they had no conception at all that such refusal would or could result in failure of the course or even a lower grade. Somehow, I was the only one in that school who felt even the least bit troubled by this staggering disconnect from logic, reason and common sense.

I had a student tell me last year that I could not fail him for the first marking period because, as he put it rather forcefully, "I wasn't here!!" Let me rephrase and reiterate this, for emphasis: The child claimed that he should pass the course, because he was absent for the entire time in question. He had obviously done none of the course work, since he was not in class to do it, and thus had not demonstrated proficiency or improvement, nor could he participate or conduct himself properly in a class which he did not attend. Yet he insisted that it was unfair and wrong for him to fail, because he "wasn't here." He should pass, because he was absent.

No, really.

Setting aside for the moment the inherent, profound illogic of that contention, does it matter why he was absent? In this case, this particular student was absent from that class simply because he was chronically late to school and it was a first-period class; he "couldn't" get to school any earlier. But where do we get this idea that a student should automatically pass a class from which she has a long-term absence due to illness, injury, family emergency, etc., which is neither deliberate nor the result of her own negligence? At some point, don't we have to realize that a student has to actually take the course before he can pass it? This is how the first question discussed above connects with the second; i.e., the question of blameworthiness should be moot. Even if a long-term absence is not, per se, "her fault," a student cannot expect to pass a course she has not actually taken. That is simply absurd and no good can come from it. What we should do, the only logical thing to do, really, is find a way for her to take the course, even if it means staying in school an extra year.

The point is that in many cases it shouldn't matter whether a student's absence or other non-fulfillment of an objective requirement is his "fault" or not. Aside from the fact that teenagers and their adult enablers never regard their conduct as blameworthy to begin with, sometimes blameworthiness is simply not an issue. This idea that the absence of blameworthy conduct somehow changes an objective set of facts to the point where we are actually willing to act as if the thing didn't happen at all, or that it's "unfair" to follow the natural result of those circumstances if the child is not "at fault," makes very little sense. Life teaches us all eventually that sometimes unpleasant or inconvenient things happen even when we are not at fault. These situations need to be dealt with proactively, not artificially discarded retroactively.

We have an entire generation of children who believe that they should pass all of their classes with straight A's simply by virtue of having their names on the teacher's roster, and that they are entitled to have any unpleasant or unfortunate situation un-done and corrected in their favor so long as they are not to blame for creating it. In such an environment, no actual learning can occur.

No comments: