Week 2 – The Graded Deceit

Polymaths are dead.

One person cannot be an expert in many fields – knowledge and terminology have become too specific. We don’t have enough time to study multiple fields deeply.

Since we cannot fully understand the world around us, we put faith in things we don’t understand: we use cellphones without understanding coding; we drive cars without understanding engines; we bank online without understanding cryptology; we watch Netflix without understanding ISPs and streaming routes.

We place faith in mathematics too. We trust that an 89% is better than a 65%.  We believe that a bell curve actually represents our world. And, despite mountains of evidence, most of us believe that school grades actually measure something intrinsic to a student.

Because we cannot all understand everything, we have faith in a contradiction. We believe that all humans are equal and we believe that all students can be ranked, perfectly, by intelligence.

We can be very specific in our ranking. We can say, “Johnny got an 83.3% this semester.” We can also be very unspecific. We can say, “Johnny passed this semester.” The first option ranks Johnny on a 1000 point scale – we give a grade and say it is within one one thousandth of Johnny’s ability. He’s an 83.3% – not 83.4%, not 83.2%. The second option ranks Johnny on a two point scale – he either passed or failed.

Let me put it mathematically – grades are an optimization problem. Society demands a ranking of their children. The more specific the ranking, the less accurately it reflects that child’s ability. As you get less specific, the ranking becomes more accurate (a one point scale says that Johnny is a child. That’s it. Not pass or fail, he just is.) As teachers, we need to find the optimization point for our students, for  our communities, for our students.

The rate of change (steepness of curve) is not fixed. Thus, there are no labels on the horizontal-axis.

The rate of change (steepness of curve) is not fixed. Thus, there are no labels on the horizontal-axis.

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