Is learning more important than credential granting?

(…) At a cocktail party in Boston, I was asked by a Harvard dean what one change I would make to improve the American school system. I suggested that I would get teachers out of the credential granting business, break down the adversarial relationship between teachers and students, and get them on the same team. He was horrified. “Without the authority of the teacher to grant credentials, the classroom would degenerate into chaos,” he said. (…)

William Hugh Murray offers a must-read short commentary in the ACM journal of commentary Ubiquity:

(…) At some level or another students suspect all of this. If school is more about grades and grading than about learning, then “code re-use” is the right strategy. If the simulation has only “no-win scenarios,” then change the simulation.

I used to teach programming by teaching a language, vocabulary and grammar, and then saying to the student, write a program that does this, that, or some other thing. I expected the student to compose and required originality. I expected the student to respond to a specification so incomplete that one would never tolerate it outside academia.

I no longer teach programming by teaching the features of the language and asking the students for original compositions in the language. Instead I give them programs that work and ask them to change their behavior. I give them programs that do not work and ask them to repair them. I give them programs and ask them to decompose them. I give them executables and ask them for source, un-commented source and ask for the comments, description, or specification. I let them learn the language the same way that they learned their first language. All tools, tactics and strategies are legitimate.

As a teacher, my job is to help students learn, not create artificial barriers to learning in the name of equitable grading. Nice people do not put others in difficult ethical dilemmas. Grading should be a strategy for making learning more satisfying by demonstrating accomplishment. Many students demand grading so that they can measure themselves against their competitors. I cannot remedy the fact that society has turned grades and grading into something else, but I do not have to get so caught up in that agenda that I lose sight of my goals.

It is my job to satisfy the student, the paying customer, not the other way around. Perhaps cheating is a strategy that students bring to an artificial problem that I have created. Perhaps it is a symptom of my failure to teach. I may not be able to compensate for the culture and life experience that might predispose them to cheat but I should not make it worse. If one of my students responds to conditions that I have set by behavior that violates the code of honor, then I am guilty of a grave offense. If there is a contest between us, then we both just lost the game.

Ubiquity is now a peer-reviewed, online publication of ACM dedicated to the future of computing and the people who are creating it.