Confusions in the classroom: the conflicts between objectivity, aesthetics, usefulness, and fairness

There are four competing ideals that the English teacher has to balance in the classroom: objectivity, aesthetics, usefulness, and fairness. Emphasizing one will de-emphasize others. It’s not easy finding balance but it is important to identify the different values and their relative impacts within our assessment practices.

Objectivity

There’s a fair bit that can be objectively measured in the language classroom. An understanding of a grammar concept can be objectively assessed. Students can be asked to convert a sentence from the present continuous to the past continuous, for example. A spelling test is another example. The problem is that these types of objective assessments are neither particularly inspiring nor broadly useful. Although there are some increasingly powerful online platforms that use objective tools to teach and assess, such as IXL, Rosetta Stone, or Duolingo, these require a lot of self-motivation and are not sufficient for an entire classroom-based language program.

Aesthetics

To avoid this problem of soulless objectivity, a language teacher could engage students in more creative tasks, writing a creative short story, for example. This is an improvement on a grammar test, but if the students are given no other criteria, then it becomes very difficult for the teacher to articulate a grade value for the piece of work. Two very different stories could be very good in different ways, or not good in ways that are difficult to express. One story could be boring, but with good grammar. Another could have atrocious spelling and be filled with run-on sentences but conclude with a clever climax. In this case, the worse story from a grammatical point of view may actually be the better one.

A workaround is to not allow creative work to be formally assessed and instead to stick with more formal writing with more rigorous rules. Having students write a paragraph of 150 words that includes a topic sentence and three supporting points is a task that can be assessed with a checklist. The student has the elements, or they don’t.

But then, how could a teacher also assess whether it’s an effective paragraph? Does it use a formal style? But is a formal style necessary for an effective paragraph? How is that measured? Does it include counter-points? The teacher could create more checklists to tick off these further attributes. But the list gets longer. And then we may have painted ourselves in a corner because we must also accept that effective paragraphs may or may not have three points.

As you can see, this can continue to the point of absurdity where I’ve seen teachers count the numbers of active verbs, adverbs, and adjectives that must be included in a piece of writing. This problem of objectivity and subjectivity, i.e. creativity, is not easily resolved.

There are some outlier examples of students who refused to (or couldn’t) submit in school and eventually found outlets for their creative expression. Refer to Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk on “How schools kill creativity” or the story of Dav Pilkey and his Captain Underpants series of graphic novels for some further examples.

But most students are not radically creative, or they learn not to be. Successful students know to look at the assessment criteria, and are willing to deny any aesthetic qualms about submitting to it. Or, perhaps they understand that it’s better for them to learn the rules well first before having the freedom later on to break them.

Usefulness

Steve Jobs was in many ways a perfectionist, but he was also a pragmatist who famously said, “Real artists ship.” Apple has become famous for its marriage of function and form. Even if there are better-looking devices out there, or better-performing ones with better specs, few companies have been as successful in balancing form and function. And for capitalists, the proof’s in the pudding; Apple is ranked as one of the wealthiest companies.

Function and form are represented in different ways in the English classroom. The goal is for the student to use the right form and function for the right context. This is really what linguists and grammarians refer to as the language register. The ideal, fluent language student is able to write formally and informally, with a variety of stylistic elements for a variety of different audiences all while using the appropriate stylistic and grammatical conventions. As stated above, a student can accomplish much of this without great deals of creativity.

As the monolingual bastions of the West become increasingly multi-lingual, though, this insistence on “native” English is often unnecessary at best, and discriminatory at worst. Instant messaging between first language users of English has already shown us that we can sacrifice great amounts of form to achieve functional communication. Two traders speaking English as their second or third languages can often communicate more effectively than with an English as a first language speaker. Good enough is good enough, but it’s getting better. Google Translate and GPT-3 show us that the future of machine translation is already here.

In classroom practice, unfortunately, teachers often confuse function and form. What they think as incorrect form is in fact a question of style, or aesthetics. So much of the fluff of school is in the realm of form and conventional aesthetics. And while it’s understandable that we would like to produce and consume language that is familiar to us with few errors, or at least few errors of the kind we can accept, we must be careful that we aren’t discriminating, which brings us to the trickiest of the four ideals: fairness.

Fairness

In the English classroom, language learners can be further discriminated against based on their accent, style, and grammatical mistakes. It’s hard enough for any student to figure out the rules of grammar, the nuances of idiom, as well as the ability to master function and form for a variety of text types, but one misguided approach is to assume that it’s impossible for ELLs to acquire these skills and that a “dumbed down” curriculum must be offered instead. While this sentiment is understandable, it’s unfair. The frequently uncreative and useless conventions we are accustomed to teaching our students – that masquerade as objective forms, tasteful aesthetics, and correct style – do not suddenly become irrelevant when teaching ELLs. Worse, this impulse to simplify often gets applied to students who speak other varieties of English. I have even seen native-English speaking students from India placed in ESL programs!

ELLs often have unrealistic and unscientific expectations placed on them. Too many teachers jump to the conclusion that their ELLs have undiagnosed learning disabilities. They cannot understand why students are not speaking more and sooner, or they assume that the problem of communication lies mainly with the student. And too often the cleverness and creativity of ELLs’ work gets lost in superficial critiques of grammar or spelling or stylistic convention.

So what?

The first appropriate response to these competing ideals is simply acknowledging that it’s not possible to perfectly balance them. There is no perfect fairness. There is no perfect objectivity. There is no perfect efficiency or usefulness. And there is no perfect expression of aesthetic value.

A second might be, “Well, no duh. You’ve just described the competing values of the human condition, right? You really think you’ll resolve that in your English classroom?”

Of course not. However, it’s always helpful to shed more light on the processes that are happening in the classroom but that are veiled by our systems, ignorances, and pretensions. Teachers (and humans) ought to be more attentive to unbraiding the strands of our concepts and ideals. It makes it easier when communicating with colleagues and students. It’s also why peer-mediated assessment exercises can be so powerful in revealing our own assumptions. With some courage and creativity we might find that we can better balance these values or weave them into different, but still useful, beautiful tapestries.

We already have a sense that different school systems and assessment approaches have different biases. Exam-based systems lean into objectivity but often at the expense of usefulness or creativity. They can mitigate this with more subjective tasks, but these often require increasingly complex and sometimes unwieldy rubrics. Inquiry-based approaches, while aiming to be more authentic and lending themselves more to creativity, are not easily scalable or practical for all tasks. They too can threaten the fairness of assessment with hidden assumptions about style and form.

It has taken me much too long to realise that there is no perfect system or solution to finding harmony between objectivity, aesthetics, usefulness, and fairness in the English classroom. But it’s not hopeless. In my next blog post I’ll discuss part of the solution to this problem: the miracle worker who has to navigate through these competing values in the classroom, aka, the teacher.

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