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Another Cup of Tea

It was time for tea again with my former colleague J, six months after our last visit. We decided to go to a nice old-fashioned tea shop in the New Territories. The corona virus having been kept almost entirely at bay in Hong Kong, the mall containing the tea shop was full of customers, though we were masked and had to have our temperatures taken when we went in. We settled on a “cream tea” and, after some enjoyable personal catching-up, turned to school.

It was not a happy discussion on J’s part. For the past few months she had had to shift from live teaching to managing the ‘flickering blue stuff’[1] on her Zoom screen, as had we all. We both know, as do our students, that live teaching is better and that the FBS is a temporary expedient. The problem any good teacher must solve is how to carry on with at least some integrity and success. She does not need administrators breathing down her neck. She does not need all those tendentious education consultants that appeared after the closures like worms in a spadeful of freshly turned earth. She does not need the dreary shower of meetings. She wonders how much better it would be for her students if the money spent on the consultants, the programs, the software and the administrators were spent to upgrade all the students’ residential bandwidth and, if needed, to lend them a cheap laptop.

In addition, J has to deal with a weird and troublesome practice called “challenge grading.” The way it works is that a teacher gives her students two grades: the actual grades they earned and “challenge grades,” which are estimates of the best grades they could be earning. 

J’s school is also buying an expensive program of “adaptive baseline assessment” that will independently “help you understand what your students know”, i.e., will, for a price, help second-guess “challenge” grades.

How helpful! Let me see how it would help me. I teach the IB course in theory of knowledge, as I have done for twenty-five years. In it I assist students to achieve second-order thinking about knowledge in the arts, ethics, history, human sciences, math, and natural sciences. While doing so, I devise “formative assessments” that teach while examining how they have done and prepare them for their culminating assessments. I get to know each student and his intellect. I talk to him. I question him. I watch him at work, encouraging and reproving at need. From this mass of material, I form a grade to summarize how he has done and to offer an estimate of how he will do. But under challenge grading this exercise in “perpetual discretion” is not enough. I must also divine how each student would perform in imaginary ideal circumstances with imaginary ideal preparation. That seems to be impossible, but the “program of adaptive baseline assessment” claims to come to the rescue with multiple-choice tests on doing sums, understanding  vocabulary, and telling which two doodles of five have a family resemblance. Some rescue.

Actually, what I would need is to find another school—let’s say the school where I actually work. Fortunately, that school, unlike my former colleague’s, does not require “challenge” grades and manages with a light touch. I say that very gratefully, not smugly. 

(Another former colleague wrote very recently, “There is so much planning at this place that nobody is ready for anything.” That summarises the trouble both these capable teachers face at their schools.)

The man who founded the IB program at my school explained how he managed it: “Hire excellent teachers and then let them do their job.” Imagine that! My former colleague remembers him with fondness and respect, as do I. Maybe we should have raised our teacups to him before we finished.

Postscript: PISA Results

Not long after teatime, I ran across the recent release of the results on their triennial tests in 2018 by PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment). Here are a few items from a quick reading:

•  No Child Left Behind and the Common Core have had no impact at all on the US’s results since 2000, of which the graphical linear representation is a trend-line as flat as the horizon.

•  Almost all schools in the ambit of Chinese culture (Beijing/Shanghai/Jiangsu/Zhejiang, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore) do a remarkable job of keeping their students from being low achievers even among ‘disadvantaged’ groups. For example, Hong Kong, 37% of whose students are the children of immigrants, left only 5% of its students behind as low achievers.

•  Students attending schools with more computers per student scored significantly lower in the PISA assessment than their peers in schools with fewer computers per student. On average across OECD countries, one additional computer per student in a school was associated with a 12-point decline in reading scores before accounting for other factors, and with a 6-point decline after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile. (In 47 out of 77 participating countries/economies, the proportion of portable computers, such as laptops, in school was unrelated to students’ reading scores.)


[1] Orwell, in his essay ‘Marrakech’, describes colonial natives from the perspective of their masters as an ‘undifferentiated brown stuff’. The image is precisely analogous to mine of the talking postage stamps on my class screen. One thing that carried both of us along the Zoom road was the memory we had of the whole human beings we had taught before the school closures. Orwell achieved his satirical dehumanization by using a mass noun to describe people. Many people in education practice such dehumanization with no satirical intent.

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