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Curriculum, Standards, Proxies, and the Response to AI

As higher education evolves its approach to teaching and learning, there remains a general disconnect between behavioral standards and assessment that needs to be addressed.

I completed my teacher training at McGill University, longer ago than I’d like to admit. Throughout my studies the term “curriculum” was used ubiquitously. Nearly halfway through my program, and after my first session of practice teaching, it donned on me that I had never seen a curriculum document.

Then, about two weeks before my program was at an end, one of our instructors said she had an advanced copy of the new mathematics curriculum for the province of Quebec. I was excited to finally get a glimpse of this elusive text. I voraciously consumed the document but like a menu at a four-star restaurant, I turned it over, looked at the back cover, and said, “this is it?”.

I didn’t realize that the written curriculum is simply a compendium of behavioral standards. “The student will be able to add fractions with unlike denominators”, etc. It’s not that I thought that was a bad idea, it’s just I had never considered the format before. I thought the curriculum was going to tell me what to teach, “start with a parabola, then a circle and finally mix in an ellipse or two”. But alas, with my newfound framework, off I went and my career in education began.

It became obvious to me in my early years of teaching that the assessment of learning, not the behavioral standards themselves, was the fundamental preoccupation of my new profession. But over time I had come to realize that there was an obvious disconnect between the grades I was giving and the behavioral standards—I was meant to be measuring against. On a test, I might ask a student to evaluate 1/4 + 1/3, and I would receive a range of responses, but correct or incorrect, what was it telling me? As testing became more standardized and the stakes rose higher, I realized that such assessments are simply proxy instruments for the standards. I am not measuring the standards directly; I am using this instrument to approximate. Most educators understand the nuance and realize that the tapestry of student assessment is both a science and an artform.

Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, various agencies have coopted standardized assessment with an imperfect understanding of the relationship between behavioral standards and their proxies. This led to a misguided and dangerous accountability movement of perpetual reformation, that has done far more harm than good.

Higher Education has evolved in its approach to teaching and learning to keep up with the modern trend to standards, learning outcomes, rubrics, and the implementation of tools such as UDL as online learning has flourished. Yet, what has not changed to date is the over reliance on high stakes exams and essays to assess learning. As platforms for learning have changed, the disconnect between behavioral standards and assessment, that I witnessed in primary and secondary education, has become magnified in the higher education sector. There have been several recent attempts to embrace “ungrading” and pass-fail options. These are exciting experiments to follow, but it begs the question, what problem are we trying to solve?

Marshall McLuhan once noted that mechanical technology detribalized the world, and he predicted that electric technology would one day retribalize humanity. How he predicted this shift in the 1960s is eerie in it’s foretelling, but perhaps McLuhan’s frame can be applied to our recent observations in education. It occurs to me that most of our educational processes were born during this transition to mechanical technology and in a way, we created assessment proxies to manage the objective nature of society. Working efficiently at scale made sense when there is no need to perpetuate an oral tradition in education that was a relic of a bygone era.  

The standardization of education into terms, semesters, credits, departments, lectures, midterms, finals, papers, and grades matched well with a society where all learners were 18 – 22 and diversity, equity and inclusion were observations rather than guiding principles. These structures provided a form of accountability and a rhythm that insulated the learning process from unnecessary change. Yet we have become so familiar with the archetypes of the academy we ceased to realize that these are artificial constructs that regulate the stocks, flows and feedback loops in the system. These structures slowly adapted their policies and practices so that innovations such as the calculator, spell check, google, YouTube and zoom could be judiciously introduced. Yet, through it all, the stalwarts that remain are testing and grading. Students are still typically given midterms, finals, and essays to demonstrate their understanding; the same inefficient proxies that have been used for generations.

But in today’s world when there are so many ways to connect (I have 10 apps on my phone that connect with my friends and family immediately) have we considered that we may not need these proxies at all. In this retribalized version of society, where we exist as sub-communities within a global learning common, can we now return to the oral tradition for the passage and assessing of knowledge? The initial pushback might be that there is no time, as an instructor, how would I ever find the time to add oral assessments into my already over regulated and over burdened day. This assumes that we hold onto many of the current processes and structures in which we invest significant time and energy to upkeep.

Perhaps we will only make that change when the situation becomes untenable. That moment may be approaching. With the proliferation of online learning and the problematic issues inherent in virtual proctoring, it is becoming more difficult to be in the same physical location as our students and trust that we have executed a fair and ethical test. Now with the advent of AI tools like ChatGPT – term papers are becoming impossible to trust as representations of authentic thought.

As before, there will be much handwringing as the education system tries to integrate these new technologies into its current operating system. The feedback loops will regulate the change as they usually do through an evolution marked by prohibition, then limitation and finally coexistence. But I am hopeful that this moment is the tipping point for change. For a starting point, replace widescale impersonal assessments with real time conversations. How did you find the intercepts of the function? What differences do you find between Tennyson and Keats? Which of the five exercises you tried elevated your heart rate the most, was it as you predicted? In your essay you argue for a new approach to economics, how does your supporting material relate to your thesis?  And record these conversations, with video, to create a portfolio of thoughtful artifacts that match course learning objectives and standards.

Engaging and relevant education; the kind that requires dialogue, research and inquiry has always been the objective. I would argue that our hyper focus on perpetuating outdated structures has gotten in the way of us reaching the mark. Today’s technology gives us hope, for a new and exciting age of teaching and learning, not only for the new opportunities it creates, but by allowing us to forego the many obsolete models that remain firmly in our way. Here’s hoping.

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