What Do Our Students “Produce”?

PapersWhen I teach Shakespeare, the final assessment is always a set design project.

I designed the project seven years ago, while thinking about “authentic assessments.”  Educators and, especially, administrators love that term, but it is too often used without meaning.  Most of the time, the term simply marks an assessment as “nontraditional.”  In fact, some ed-school professors treat “authentic” as an antonym of “traditional.”

Everyone has his or her own definition of “authentic assessment,” so here’s mine: An assessment that mirrors, in design and form, a task performed by professionals in the assessment’s field.  According to my definition, an essay in English or History is “authentic,” in that students, in the process of writing the paper, mirror the work of scholars and historians.  That’s not what the “experts” mean.

What edu-speak gurus mean by “professional” is “business-oriented.”  This has become trendy at all levels of schooling, but especially in high school.  The most galling linguistic development in edu-speak has been the rush to describe student work as a “product.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the word.  It comes from Latin and means, simply, “that which has been put forth.”  I use the word myself from time to time, especially when describing the false equivalence between “input” (usually time) and “product.”  I mean the time/effort/energy “put in” to an assignment does not always equal the quality of work “put forth.”  Students often conflate the two ideas.  We’ve all heard someone complain about poor marks, saying “But, I worked so hard!”

“Product,” today, refers primarily to something “made to be sold.”  The proliferation of this term comes as the U.S. Department of Education wants to treat schools as training-grounds for the “changing American workplace.”  The arts are gutted.  Reading books becomes a quaint pastime.  Truth and beauty need not apply.

Now, I am clearly making the slippery-slope argument here.  Simply using the word “product” isn’t going to hurt anyone.  I get it.  But it bespeaks the the creeping commodification of education.  As I have described before, the goal of my English class is not to make my students richer or more ready for the apparently changing American workplace.  I want them to write clearly, think hard before they take a position, and approach easy answers with skepticism.

I can make a case for my set design project as an “authentic assessment.”  The idea came to me when I asked myself, “Who, other than scholars, interprets literature for a living?”  The answer was simple: actors, directors, and theatre designers.

Throw me a definition of “authentic,” and I will show you how this assessment is that.  I refuse, however, to saddle it with that moniker.  The project is not a gimmick.  It is a learning experience.

It’s what we used to call–in the edu-speak of old–“good teaching.”

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