Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Staple-alignment sadists

Isabel Archer defends content-based grading. Her response summoned in me an avalanche of memories of the ridiculous things teachers demanded, and of the general sense that absolutely nothing is under your control that can accompany much of childhood. I'm torn between fundamentally agreeing that busy-work for busy-work's sake is wrong, and thinking that, at least in the K-8 context, "it builds character" kind of is enough of a justification for certain demands. My (messy) point-by-point-ish response below.

2. Re: staple-alignment. I remember the math teacher - calculus, even! 12th grade! - who needed homework folded in a special way, to the point that former students of this teacher living in NY recognize current ones on the subway on account of they're working on these assignments. These kind of requests bring out the libertarian impulses in students, but their usefulness shouldn't be discounted. There are a number of factors to look at, including the age of the students, the amount of time the request takes away from content-work, etc. Demanding that students in a language class hand in typed rather than handwritten assignments might seem arbitrary, and will indeed take extra time for students without their own computers and printers, but is a way of assuring the work is legible, and of answering once and for all whether the intentionally ambiguous smudge over a vowel is or is not the right accent mark. Demanding that students in any class hand in work on time - a request that requires giving higher grades to those who manage this - encourages students to learn the material, but will, alas, end up allotting higher grades to "good" students than to those good at the subject but indifferent or opposed to following rules.

1 and 3. But I'm not sure how much it matters whether these extra requirements are designed to teach Life Skills, or whether they are, as students invariably interpret them, evidence that the teacher is an uptight lunatic.* Whatever the reason behind these rules, they serve to mimic the grown-up world, in which bosses make seemingly arbitrary demands (if not the exact same ones as do schoolteachers, although I think it bears mentioning that super-intellectually-stimulating, "elite" workplaces care less about messy handwriting than do lower-level, lower-skilled jobs), in which even getting a job requires that one show capabilities other than raw talent (ability to "work in a team" and so forth). While I don't think parents should make the home an environment of arbitrary demands - I fail, for instance, to understand why children have to make their beds, what this is supposed to accomplish other than to show who's boss - I do think the difference with school (and, I suppose, an argument against homeschooling) is that it's meant to prepare children for dealing with a world in which most people they will have to deal with neither love them nor give them much thought.

5. Re: touchy-feely US education vs. the rest of the world. This comes back to the distinction I made between competence and attitude. The latter is subjective-to-unmeasurable, the former the bare minimum for letting talent reveal itself. While I don't doubt that "soft" factors - personality, etc. - are more highly valued in US classrooms than in ones in countries where students take linear algebra in utero and so forth, I'd also assume that the kind of incompetence the new method will be forgiving of - handing stuff in late, coming late to class, etc. - wouldn't even be options in many other countries. Students might be graded only on content, but it would be implied that they'd be on top of their work. I can't imagine, in a system where students are judged only on content, that a kid who had the potential to test well but was really stressed the day of the test and so showed up 15 minutes late would meet with leniency.

4. Which brings us back to where the change these schools are making goes wrong - it's one thing to crack down on overemphasis on insufficiently sharpened pencils, but another entirely to say late work is fine so long as the kid in question is inherently intelligent. It's one thing to stop grading on organization alone, but another to say that any assessment that even indirectly takes organizational skills into account fails to select for the true, underneath-it-all geniuses.

*The teachers I remember as having abused their power, as having obviously been in it for the captive audience, are the ones who used class time to hold forth on their personal life or political opinions, the teachers who sought to be the favorite by altogether ignoring the content they were ostensibly there to teach. Meanwhile, I tend to think students overestimate their teachers' sadism, particularly when it comes to the assigning of grades. A good teacher will explain, if it isn't obvious, or even if it ought to be, why the assignment needs to be typed, why an assignment only got a C. But even one who doesn't do this is unlikely to get some perverse thrill out of making students suffer. It can, however, be difficult to assess just what does and doesn't need explaining. Staple alignment is extreme, but should a teacher have to explain why a student needs to paperclip, staple, or otherwise affix all the pages of a single assignment to one another before turning it in? In elementary school perhaps, but in high school? College?

(Wrote this late last night, posted it now, have corrected for some typos. More probably remain.)


Miss Self-Important said...

This is a false dichotomy. Classroom management is very difficult, and no content learning can take place if one or a handful of students are persistently distracting everyone else. What is the problem with threatening such students with grade penalties? That doesn't mean that students aren't being graded for content mastery, only that bad behavior can cancel out rewards for content mastery, as is also true of adult life.

Moreover, in early grades, there is very little content that can actually be mastered, so you end up with grades for things like handwriting in addition to reading and math. Conveniently, one's second grade transcript doesn't typically carry much weight in future decisions like college admission or employment offers. When children's capacities increase, evaluations of such tangential skills fall away too. (Typically, there are no handwriting or "citizenship" grades are given in high school.)

Schools are not necessary for pure content mastery. The most efficient way to learn as much stuff as possible is to stay home and memorize books and formulas and then take an exam at the end. This is an acceptable approach, but not one that schools can take since they must accommodate the social fact and consequences of hordes of children in one building.

As for teachers with strange pecadillos, they detract so little from overall schooling that I find it hard to be indignant over strange stapling demands 15 years later. We can't standardize teachers unless we replace them with robots or computers, and I'm not sure that what we gain from that will compensate for what we lose in exposure to sometimes-crazy but often very entertaining humans. I'm pretty sure that Phoebe's boy-beating Italian teacher would agree.

Also, education in countries that heavily emphasize tests is NOT socially and behaviorally laissez-faire and full of students marching to the beat of their own drummers. On the contrary, it's highly regimented. In South Korea, average class size is above 40 students. If all of them turned in chicken-scratch piles of dog-chewed homework on whatever date they remembered to bring it to class with them, these classes would implode.

My parents, like Isabel Archer's husband's, went to Soviet schools where notebook organization was eschewed in favor of daily military exercises (no weapons, just marching) and being berated by teachers for insufficient patriotism. I'm fairly certain my mother was forced to spend a summer on a mosquito farm one year to perform her part in "building socialism." Pick your poison, people.

Isabel Archer said...


I think you and I are conceptualizing what most workplaces are like differently and so we're coming to different conclusions about what's really most valuable in terms of promoting work-readiness. If I'm understanding you correctly, you're imagining that the private sector's split between a few super-intellectually-stimulating corporations like Google or Facebook or what have you that are overbrimming with unshaven MIT grads in pajamas and on the other hand "regular" Dilbert-esque workplaces filled with people in grey flannel suits where conformity and teamwork are really important.

I guess I just... don't see the non-"elite" segment of the private sector that way. Perhaps it's because I grew up in a small town that was dominated by a few big, not particularly sexy or elite in the Google sense of the word industrial corporations where most of the white collar workers were engineers or some other type of tech people. Indeed, all four of my mother's brothers were engineers at one of these firms at some point. And... nobody there seemed particularly focused on teamwork and conformity. Generally, my uncles' biggest complaints weren't about "soft" stuff, but about their young co-workers' lack of competence at solving engineering problems. And for the skilled blue-collar jobs... again, "attitude" or teamwork or whatever seemed to count for very little. Having a particularly good understanding of your craft did.

I don't think there's any empirical way of resolving for sure what most workplaces are actually like and what most jobs actually value. But maybe this gives you some sense of why we see workplace readiness differently?

Maybe more to follow.

Isabel Archer said...


Oh, agreed absolutely that discipline is important. I'm skeptical that grade penalties are the best way to do that, though, especially for young children. Normally, grades go out quarterly. Wouldn't one usually want to sanction bad behavior more quickly, by sending malefactors out into the hallway or to the principal's office, etc. as appropriate?

To your second paragraph: I would strongly prefer that elementary schools try to teach more academic content early on. There's considerable research showing that young kids are better at learning foreign languages than older ones. Yet most elementary schools don't even try to teach them. There's also some research showing that young children are naturally better at memorizing than their older counterparts, yet many elementary schools seem to neglect that developmental sweet spot too. So solving one problem might change the other. That's a rant a bit removed from the subject of the original post, though.

"Indignant" is far too strong a word to describe my views on the stapling incident. Nor do I think it's possible (or desirable) to standardize teachers' behavior completely. But, inasmuch as anyone cares about how I think schools ought to be run, I think they would probably be better and more effective places if teachers did this sort of thing a little bit less often and focused elsewhere.

Finally, I should emphasize that I'm not against all manner of non-academic-based content standards. I'm fine with downgrading late assignments (to use Phoebe's example) and of course I understand grading down dog-chewed homework that's so tattered as to be entirely illegible (to use your S. Korean example). But there are plenty of senseless ones out there that could be minimized without education being made worse in the process.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Isabel Archer,

I agree that what workplaces in general are like is, if not unknowable, something that would require looking beyond either of our troves of anecdotal evidence. My own - what I was thinking of when writing this post - was a comparison between what's demanded of humanities PhD students (or, yes, the techie scenario you describe) and the various office environments (and one coffee-shop one) I encountered prior to my current paid-to-read-novels lifestyle. In ancient times, I had what was technically a "professional" office job but was day-to-day probably a few rungs below an administrative assistant. "Attention to detail" was the job's central requirement. The lower one's position in an office hierarchy, the less forgiving one's superiors will be on things like (how apt for this post!) typos. This is true, I'd think, in any field - a genius chef could be flaky, but if the person chopping the onions chops them wrong, job's over. In other words, I wasn't comparing super-brilliant-people jobs with those of people who are "only" engineers (or Dilbert, from what I vaguely know of Dilbert, or of "The Office"), but rather the jobs held by people who have hard-to-find qualities that make them necessary to an organization (qualities that could be anything from math skills to salesmanship), as versus the people who are, for example, in need of a salary and capable of organizing a filing cabinet.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This from MSI, whose comments appear in my email but not, for some reason, on this blog...

Sure, discipline should also be immediate. I just mean that, in considering what grade to assign to a child at the end of the course, I don't see the problem with marking down someone who persistently misbehaved after threatening the kid with this outcome. I just don't see how it's ever possible in a school setting to grade exclusively on content mastery as though presence in a classroom was no part of the equation, just as few hiring and promotion decisions in any kind of communal work setting can be made without considering whether the candidate is agreeable and cooperative in addition to technically qualified.

I'm not sure that these weird teacher quirks are actually system-wide "standards" though. Whatever the many failing of ed schools, I'm pretty sure they don't instruct would-be teachers to mark down for incorrect staple angles, nor do districts encourage teachers in such behavior.

Actually systemic non-academic standards that tend to be more ambivalent. For example, the standard grading rubric for "research papers" at my elementary school demanded multiple drafts of a paper as well as a stack of notecards with transcriptions of every individual fact we derived from our research. Clearly, this "process" is not strictly necessary to produce a research paper, and it's obviously not efficient. But, it does serve a pedagogical purpose by breaking down a big, scary thing into smaller, more manageable sub-components, and presumably, this is good for some students and not exceedingly burdensome to others. Those who are bullish on individualized education or think that schools out to teach at the pace of the most accelerated students might push to get rid of standards like these for students who demonstrate no need for them. But I wouldn't say that was an obvious conclusion, especially since, as I said, these kinds of standards tend to diminish as students get older.

One useless standard that pursues us into adulthood is correct citation format. At some point, everyone realizes that these formats are just arbitrary conventions to rescue us from bibliographical chaos rather than essential components of research. But I accept the value of an orderly bibliographical universe, and so quite willingly demand format compliance from the college students I tutor even appropriately formatted citations contribute nothing to the quality of their work or to their mastery of the course content.

Now, there are certain graded requirements in public schools that actually originated as explicit "life adjustment" courses in the postwar period, when enlightened, progressive educational specialists concluded that high schools should prepare one-third of American students to go to college, one-third should get pre-vocational training, and one-third would be barely employable and in need of "life adjustment" courses (and these were not the special ed students, who did not attend schools yet). Life adjustment courses were duly created, and then this elaborate plan got submerged in the comprehensive high school with academic tracking. The result is that everyone now has to take gym, health, home ec, etc. and be life-adjusted. If that's the non-academic standard that we're attacking, I am totally on board with this attack.

Miss Self-Important said...

I have no idea why this happens. Every time I post, I get some weird Google error and then my comment shows up for two minutes and disappears. Whevs. I'm glad you are there for second-line rescue of lost comments.

Britta said...

Hmm...I wrote a comment and had the same problem. If you did get it, I would appreciate if you could post it, since I'm not sure I'm up for writing it again.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Nope, nothing's appeared in my email.

PG said...

In defense of teachers who require that work be done in a very specific format -- particular font, type size, margins, and yes, even staple position -- that's excellent preparation for the level of detail that courts mandate for attorney-prepared documents. If these things get screwed up, people at both the top and the lower levels get in trouble: the partner in charge of the case is embarrassed; the associate who actually drafted the papers gets yelled at; and the paralegals and secretaries who do the stapling have their jobs threatened.

(There are of course lower standards for self-represented habeas petitions, but as a teacher I'd prefer to think I'm preparing my students for professional careers rather than for death row.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think that's true for most fields. Applying for grant apps, let alone a visa to do research abroad, let alone dealing with the bureaucracy necessary to use a research library once there, requires tolerance for and capabilities when it comes to paperwork. (The paperwork-phobic should not try to study in France!) Unless you're the editor of Vogue or something, these are things you will have to do yourself.

Britta said...

Ok, an abridged version of my earlier comment--basically similar to what PG said--ALL careers require some level of organizational ability (i.e. meeting deadlines, staying on top of things), punctuality, and conformance to professional norms. Even in academia, possibly the most friendly to disorganized geniuses, you still need to apply for grants and submit articles by deadlines, and they often require seemingly arbitrary formatting stuff. If you screw up, no one cares how brilliant you are, you're just not even on the map. (Unless maybe you are Paul Erdos.)
Secondly, even the prima donna hotshots who can outsource all that stuff STILL had to get there some how, so top surgeons had to successfully make it through med school (and premed--try telling a chem instructor that writing up your lab report in the right way isn't important), CEOs had to work their way up the ranks of corporate bureaucracy, actors had to show up at auditions and lear lines, etc. No one who is totally bad at the grunt work can get to the point of not having to do it any more.

Finally, all this "my son isn't organized" stuff seems to really be about (as I think you said), effort and aptitude. If someone is "bright" but failing at school either they are 1) lazy and/or incapable of dealing with a normal amount of life tedium (not successful traits), or 2) not really all that bright.

I think it goes back a bit to what you said about gender--people who engage in (generally antisocial) behavior associated with intelligence are generally assumed to be intelligent, whether or not they are. So a boy who likes sci fi and not talking to people and does poorly in school is a misunderstood genius, but a girl who is social and likes Justin Bieber and does poorly is just assumed to be not that bright.

Britta said...

Oh, uh...I see you already said about half of what I said in my rewrite comment (looks like I should have read more carefully). Well, I guess people now should really realize that academics can't all be absentminded professors all the time.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"So a boy who likes sci fi and not talking to people and does poorly in school is a misunderstood genius, but a girl who is social and likes Justin Bieber and does poorly is just assumed to be not that bright."


Miss Self-Important said...

Although girls who like scifi also get lumped in with geniuses, and boys who are social and like football and do poorly are assumed not to be very bright.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In my experience, there's very little assuming-weirdo-girls-are-geniuses going on, even in all-female environments (girls' school, university French classes). Social awkwardness - or liking scifi, or not caring how one's hair looks, etc. - is, in girls, not just social awkwardness, but straying from the expectations for one's gender. The gendered aspect ends up being more salient than the possible-genius one, and the girls in question are, if ignorant assumptions are being made, assumed to be lesbians. Same as a boy who's very social will set off the gaydar. (Typically, the popular-athlete boy isn't social-as-in-friendly, but as in gets invited to stuff because he's ranks high in the school social hierarchy.) Note: I'm not saying I think wearing shirts with dragons on them means anything particular about female sexuality, and lord knows after going to science high school I've met plenty of straight girls who fit that type. I'm saying that if any extraneous meaning is ascribed to female geekiness, it's not that the girl's the next Marie Curie.