Monday, February 20, 2012

Remarks about the responsibilities of educators and evaluators

In the Introduction to Innovations in instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill I introduced what I call the Educratic Oath (Spector, 2005):

(1) do nothing to impair learning and instruction; (2) do what you can to improve learning and instruction; (3) base your actions on evidence that you and others have gathered and analyzed; (4) share the principles of instruction that you have learned with others; and, (5) respect the individual rights of all those with whom you interact. (p, xxxvi)

While this educator’s version of the Hippocratic Oath may seem harmless or simple-minded, I believe it goes to the heart of an educational value system that is all too easily and all too often ignored. Yes, I am admitting that I have on occasion impaired learning and inhibited instruction, and I believe many others have as well. I have done so by expecting my students to see the relevance and value the importance of my subject matter just as I do. That expectation turns out not to be reasonable in all too many cases. Why expect an engineering major to fall in love with philosophy? Is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not in most cases. That unconscious expectation leads to a kind of instructional behavior that is often not conducive to nor supportive of learning. Of course someone who loves to study philosophy will read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus willingly, identify key points, explore alternative interpretations, elaborate assumptions, explain implications, reflect on central issues, and so on. After all, that is what I recall doing as a student, and so that is what I expect my students to do. As it happens, most of them do not do that, and so I become frustrated and silently regard them as lazy or ignorant or something much worse. I suspect such a pattern exists in how other professors engage with their students. The consequence of this is that I tend to become overly harsh in my feedback and grading, and I unwittingly discourage many students from pursuing further studies in philosophy. Is not this a kind of harm that I am inflicting on students? I believe it is. I believe I am not alone in inflicting such harm. It is quite easy and convenient to regard students as lazy or ignorant simply because they do not care as much about my academic subject as I do. My fundamental error was in having an inappropriate instructional goal. I really wanted my students to fall in love with philosophy when I should have more simply wanted to help them gain some familiarity with a few basic concepts that recur in many philosophical writings and which might prove useful in everyday life. If I had taken that more reasonable approach, I might even have succeeded in attracting a few of them to the dark side, so to speak – the side of philosophy (or thought in slow motion as I often characterize philosophy).

I am curious if others are guilty of such instructional miscues as this. While it is good to be enthusiastic about one’s subject, there is nothing of real value to gain by believing that those who do not share one’s enthusiasm are lazy or stupid. The interim conclusion is that education involves values regardless of the subject with which one is involved. Values are inescapable in education.

This is also true in evaluation. In these brief comments, I want to focus on program evaluation. Most reputable instructional design curricula require a course in program evaluation. Program evaluation in education is aimed at projects (funded or sponsored efforts that have a definite beginning and ending with a specific focus in response to a particular problem situation) as well as at programs (ongoing efforts developed to address problematic situations that are expected to recur or persist). Stakeholders, sponsors, and funding agencies like the concept of an  independent evaluator or evaluation team that will report the extent to which a project or program has or is achieving its intended purpose. This emphasis has led many program evaluators to focus almost exclusively on summative evaluation – the degree to which a project or program achieved its objectives.

While it is reasonable to expect program evaluators to provide that kind of summative report, there is a more fundamental obligation that evaluators have that is all too often and all too easily overlooked – namely the responsibility to inform project and program leaders during an effort when it appears that a bad decision or counterproductive action is about to occur. I am suggesting that the evaluator’s first priority is to help projects and programs succeed. In other words, formative evaluation is the first task of an evaluator.  Simply reporting the outcomes at the end of a project can result in wasted resources, especially when an evaluator is aware of a bad decision or counterproductive action and does nothing at the time to try to improve things. Formative evaluation is aimed at providing feedback that will improve a project or program, and my claim here is that this is an evaluator’s most important obligation. Certainly project and program leaders want such feedback, and certainly sponsors and funding agencies do not want resources to be wasted. Why, then, is there not more emphasis on formative evaluation?

This is analogous to an instructor’s primary responsibility – formative assessment – providing timely, informative constructive feedback to help individual learners improve their understanding and performance. The instructor’s primary task is not to assign grades at the end of the semester (summative assessment). Rather, the instructor’s primary task is to help learners succeed, just as the evaluator’s primary task is to help projects and programs succeed.

While this may all sound obvious, it is not very well aligned with the common practice of many evaluators and instructors. Values are inescapable in education and in evaluation. What we should value are actions that help, that inform, that improve, that are likely to result in success. Otherwise, we can harm learners and contribute to wasteful investments in projects and programs.

Spector, J. M. (2005). Innovations in instructional technology: An introduction to this volume. In J. M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. Van Schaack, & D. A. Wiley, (Eds.) (2005), Innovations in instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill (pp. xxxi-xxxvi). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Posted from Sabanc─▒ ├ťniversitesi, Istanbul, Turkey.

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