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UK Colleges Adopt Grading Invented for 19th C Factory Workers (Timely? Not!)

 UK Colleges Adopt Grading Invented for 19th C Factory Workers (Timely? Not!)

Well, one step forward, two steps back.   Today six UK universities proudly announced they were modernizing higher ed by abandoning the old "honours" classification systems in favor of GPA's used throughout higher education elsewhere.  Really?  Really?    


Check out this little bit of history:  "[GPA] is calculated by finding the average of course grades, although sometimes weightings are used to place additional value on advanced modules. The system is credited to William Farish, an 18th-century professor of natural philosophy at the University of Cambridge.  It was based on a factory grading system used to determine whether goods could be sold and thus whether the workers who made them should be paid."


In doing the research for Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, August 18, Viking Press), i came across person after person, institution after institution, using all the fabulous modern computational and data-scraping technologies of our era to pioneer meaningful real-time, in-progress useful forms of assessment.    Some used actual learning feedback challenges, in the  manner of game mechanics while others developed elaborate "subjective/objective" point and badging systems to determine the contribution of web developers world wide in the most detailed, nuanced, and yet easily accessible way, with peers awarding points for knowledge, expertise, inventiveness, helpfulness.   TopCoder, for example, has turned "assessment"  into an art form. TopCoder is a 300,000 web developer institution, the best in the world, and they don't mess around.   


With all this creative rethinking of grades, why, now, would six UK universities step proudly into the future by adapting the grading system used for early 19th century factory works?  I'm not sure if this makes me angry or sad but it is certainly another indication that higher education is woefully out of step with the digital age for which we should be preparing the next generation of students.    If you want to read the whole, dismal even comical account, here's the url for the story in the excellent magazine Times Higher Ed:  )


Given the chance to reform the antiquated honors system why would you go back to a metric explicitly developed for the factory system of the industrial age?  Why would you go to a primitive point system now, when we have more interesting, complex, massive machine-calculable data analytics available than ever before?   Sigh.  What's wrong with this picture?  Let me ask that another way:   What's wrong with higher ed today?   Where should I begin?   To paraphrase, badly, another 19th century British figure . . . Let me count the ways . . .


Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come."

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.



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The reason why Duncan and, now it would seem, the Brits are retreating to the industrial metrics of scores and grades is obvious: they rely on an outmoded vision of "objectivity." Only an idiot, in this the age of Google, would presume there is but one answer to a well framed question. Google regularly gives us 52,405,379 or so.

Yet, what's much, much worse than such idiocy is the remarkable ignorance of the very technology we use in this blog. When Facebook can get kids to promote their baser qualities to a multi billion citizenry, why does not one offer a higher or more sophisticated forum? In fact, Google Sites does just that - as does Posterous and Wiki and a few others. I've seen teenagers produce astounding multimedia portfolios demonstrating skills, knowledge, and syntheses across a wide range of disciplines, guided by years of collaboration - with both peers, teachers, employers, and family - in case after case. They range from their view of the template itself, which was largely framed by beleagering a teacher into agreeing on some fairly rigorous vocabulary, to or or There are another 20 or so this year, and will be 300 more by this time next year. And, perhaps, 50,000 more by a year after that.

It's not so hard to get kids to tell you what they do best, and that's really what all those tests are ultimately asking anyway. So, just ask! You may note that these kids use a template and a system that helps clarify how the things they do best might work best in jobs, college, school, and life. That's a nuance that most of the more elaborate software misses. But, there's is free.


The grading system was invented to sort product, you say? I always knew it!

As a bright kid who studied hard and read a lot, I was always amazed at how I could get straight A's with some teachers and B's with others while doing the same amount of work. The only unifying theme in the few courses in which I didn't achieve the desired top grade was that in those classes I had clashes of philosophy with the teacher. There seemed to me nothing objective about grading at all, and I began to find around 6th grade (when PSATs were given) that original thinking was quite discouraged. I was a natural rebel, but not brave enough to sacrifice my peace at home with my difficult parents by bringing home less than straight A's. So I conformed. I got straight A's (Premium Product). And I started writing on my own to vent the frustration I felt at being treated like a prize potato.

Throughout my years of formal education, I felt like product, even into my career at one of the nation's top universities. It seemed to me that the "higher" into education one got, the more low vibration rigidity and lock step were needed to "get good grades". Never will I forget arguing the question "Was Mao Tse Tung an idealist or a realist?" with my history professor at Yale (my answer - both, her answer - idealist), until I became aware that a lively discussion was not what she wanted at all. After the class, she (with several hairs out of place from the liveliness of our conversation) asked me if I really thought that I had it in me to be a historian: In other words, "Exile, you are not a historian". And this simply because I had vigorously challenged her thesis in public. I got a mediocre grade in her class, and I gave up history as a formal pursuit. I was adjudged Bad Product. (Note: Urban Exile's sister and sharer of my genetic material, Tenured Radical, is now a tenured professor of American History at one of the nation's top univeristies.)

If we are going to accept our President's call for innovation as we try to frame a vision of a new American leadership in the world, we have got to eliminate these creaky old judgement systems that have the main effect of discouraging and weeding out all original thinkers and innovators. Otherwise, our education system will just keep cranking out minds that are mediocre, standardized, uncreative, and sorted neatly by product grade. And we'll continue to wonder why we're falling behind in the world.

Neat can be comforting, but messy is where the new ideas come from!

PS: Moving to Durham Monday! What excitement!




. ..  the HASTAC offices, in the FHI, Smith Warehouse, once you get settled, and introduce yourself!  


Thank you for the invite! I surely will stop by and say hello.