Plug and Chug and Crank…

From middle schools through world-class MBA programs, the more we talk and listen, the more the plug and chug and crank approach to learning clearly doesn’t work.

That line is a famous quote from a professor I had years ago. He still teaches Physics, and is supremely dedicated to his job and his students. A great entertainer, I remember enjoying his lectures for his good-natured teasing, funny stories, and huge energy. But he was teaching engineers basic physics and the math that goes with it. We were not an overly talented bunch, and he just hammered through the problems. At the crucial moment, when the incline plane or pulley system had been sufficiently analyzed and the only step remaining was the calculations, he would command “PLUG AND CHUG AND CRANK!” Generations of students have loved him for that, have imitated him endlessly with great affection. I learned physics – at least enough to be a successful engineer as judged by my GPA (magna cum laude:)

But did I understand anything? Not really. Labs were performed by rote memorization, with a TA laying out the steps to get the students out as quickly as possible. Exams were all about studying ‘back exams.’ If a professor was lazy and didn’t change the problems from year to year then that was their luck out and we breezed through the exam.

There were three seminal moments for me as an engineer: the moment I realized that I might really fail and have to switch majors, the Valentine’s Day massacre when I scored the second-highest grade on a math exam covering non-Cartesian coordinate systems, and the statistics course I took as a junior with Dr. Banu Onaral.

The first two moments are subjects for another conversation, but after a term or two of surviving, then a few years of thriving because of my abilities to plug and chug and crank, I finally hit a professor who wanted more and had designed assessments to actually measure the ‘more.’

The class was called Non-Deterministic System – statistics for engineers, I suppose to prepare us for the insane probabilities involved in the physics of semiconductors. But the class was very theoretical. Basically, the problems posed a statistical problem and you had to solve for the probability of a given event. The events were simple but abstract, and revolved around packs of cards and dice, flung into the air with specific parameters.

My roommate at the time was brilliant at these problems. He would glance over the description, avoid the distractions and intended confusions, and pronounce “7/32.” He was always right. I struggled – with the math, with the abstractions, but mostly with the ambiguity of the questions.

Dr. Onaral didn’t give math exams. She gave writing exams. You had to write out your interpretation of the problem and the logic you used to solve it. So all term I don’t think I got anything “right,” at least in the intended manner, but I got excellent grades and an ‘A’ for the course. The exams would come back with notes written in the margins of the problems – little personalized questions and exclamations. And I ‘got’ that the professor had taken the time to engage with my point of view and to look beyond the expected answer. Just that single class, amidst a sea of plugging and chugging, was hugely encouraging to me. That summer, when I interned for a steel mill and was sent to North Carolina to work alongside displaced furniture makers for twice their hourly pay, I was well prepared for the ambiguities of it all. And a more confident engineer.

So as we’ve talked to business professors who run MBA programs where every exam is a written exam, middle-school teachers who have ended the bell system, and therefore don’t just drop everything after 40 minutes to switch from ‘English’ to ‘History,’ and English professors who have rethought how first-year English should be taught, we’ve been humbled and overjoyed to find like-minded educators. And they’re happy to find us: to streamline the response process, to create exceptional feedback for their students, and to develop rich data (based on the criteria they value) for accreditation and internal discussions. There is always a place for plug and chug and crank – at some points in life you just have to take things on faith – and my physics professor proved that he could make up for the mechanical nature of his approach through charm and sheer entertainment. But for thirty or forty thousand bucks a year (private education in the US) and the demands of a 21st century information economy, students and parents should demand more.

At one of Grant Wiggins workshops over the summer I saw him present this quote, and it is one I always use in presentations and training:

“At both ends of the school career, we deemphasize one-shot, uniform testing in favor of a careful assessment, from different perspectives, of the student’s own projects. We focus more on the student’s ability to extend or play with ideas than on the correctness of answers to generic questions. Each piece of work, be it a drawing or a dissertation, is examined – often through dialogue – for what it reveals about the learner’s habits of mind and ability to create meaning, not his or her ‘knowledge’ of ‘facts.’

At the beginning and end of formal education, we understand that intellectual accomplishment is best judged through a ‘subjective’ but rigorous interaction of mind and mind.”

Just one or two experiences built on this model can be extremely memorable and inspiring for students – and for schools that care about their students’ life after graduation, care about retention rates, and care about alumni involvement, it should be a no-brainer to consciously work more authentic assessment into the curriculum.

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