I Want an Educational System…

“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”                                                                                                    — The Wave in the Mind by Ursula Le Guin (2004, p. 220)



What would a world without oppression look like? What would a world with out gender look like? How about a world without governments, anarchism? How about a world in which women hold positions of power and political rule?

These questions, and more, have been addressed historically, and sometimes only, within the realm of science fiction. Repeatedly, we see questions of dominance, subordination, and alternative possibilities created, destroyed, worked, and rewritten in a genre that isn’t just fiction, but a fiction far removed from the realities and constraints of this world and universe. A fiction in which time travel is possible, dragons fly in space, and tribbles spell trouble.

In science fiction, we find impossibilities and, sometimes, those impossibilities eventually become tangible realities. Some of the notions below will, like science fiction, be engaging in a conversation that may at times be unimaginable for at least some of us. As such, I want to extend an invitation: if the concepts I present, the questions I ask, and the customs I question seem too absurd, then imagine that this too is a piece of science fiction. Start there, and then at the end we can try to re-imagine it once more.

When we think about grading and assessment within the US a common narrative may emerge for many folks educated within this system. As Alfie Kohn points out in “The Case Against Grades” we have a system of assessment that does a very good job at one thing; testing your ability to take a test. I frame Kohn’s paper in this manner as to gesture at the complexity of what is, and is not, tested for within this system and what is, or is not, encouraged among peers.

Pertaining to the testing, it historically is claimed to serve as a fair means of evaluation among and between different individuals; a way to figure out who is the best and most likely to be successful at x, y, or z. It tests, in other ways, how well you have learned the script that is expected of you and compares you to how well other folks have learned the script. Concerning what it encourages, with stakes on the line cheating increases, students truncate their time as to do the work required, and within this framework they are encouraged to memorize what they need to know. They are, more problematically to my thinking, encouraged to be individualistic competitors fighting over a scare resource of jobs, school, and access.

What then doesn’t it test for or encourage? Is doesn’t test resilience in applying what has been learned across disciplines or with respect to problems not included in the curricula. It doesn’t encourage collaboration, to work with and learn from one another, as the norm but rather as the exception.

When we look at goals illustrated, for example, by Donna M. Riley’s piece “We Assess What We Value: “Evidence-based” Logic and the Abandonment of “Non-assessable” Learning Outcomes” (Feb. 2016), it is clear that the assessment based system is not setting people up for success even within the system. Rather, it is setting them up for eventual failure. If, as in engineering and the sciences, elements of collaboration are important for working and living in the “post-schooling” world, what happens when a person who has been raised in an “it’s me against everyone else” world has to suddenly work with people as opposed to against them? What happens when this person is asked to be creative and work outside of the constraints in which they have been taught?

Yes, folks are forced to do group work every once in a while and, as such, may receive some education in collaboration. But note what happens when we step back and look at the interactions inter-group as opposed to intra-group: competition to be the best group. Up additional levels: competition to be the best class, cohort, college, or university. The problem I am gesturing at here is not just with individual lessons, inclusions, or exclusions. It is with the entire system.

Now, by now some readers are wondering “when is it going to go back to the science fiction stuff…that was more entertaining”. Well, I’m getting there, but I had to paint the picture of the world we are about to destroy first.

With the previous (current) world in mind: what would a world without grades and traditional assessments look like?

In keeping with what Marilyn Lombardi says in “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning,” let us imagine a world of the following sort as a first step:

  • Instructors use rubrics created in tandem with those they instruct to evaluate progress and improvement concerning problems, questions, or issues as opposed to self-created (or externally dictated) metrics.
  • Students work in groups on assignments and in addition to being evaluated by their instructor they evaluate one another.
  • Students compile portfolios that serve as a space for reflection on the intersections, changes, and improvements in their work for a project.


Now, let’s add a few other points from Kohn:

  • Rather than receiving grades, students receive feedback and comments on their work.
  • If needed, grades are determined collaboratively with the instructor and the student.


This world is probably still imaginable so let’s get a little more heretical:

  • Get rid of the instructors and replace them with facilitators whose are trained to work with and guide students in the process of investigating various problems, questions, or issues.
  • Most work is now done as group work and peers are responsible for giving feedback to one another about not only their participation in the process but also the outcomes of the process.
  • Facilitators give both group and individual feedback and are on hand to facilitate conversations should tensions arise within the groups.
  • Progress is “evaluated” collaboratively with facilitators and students using continuously revised goals, and hopes, that the student proposed to guide their own improvement.
  • The school day, for at least non-secondary education, includes portions in which older students are responsible for facilitating groups of younger students and in which students of like ages/peer groups are responsible for facilitating conversations and lessons with one another. [1]

Imagine that this is another world: Is it a possibility?

Imagine that it is this world: Is it no longer possible?

If your answer to the second question is “no” then what is it about this world that seems so unimaginable? Is it the lack of explicit authority? Is it the lack of seemingly “assessable” (and comparable) outcomes?

If it’s hard to figure out the “what” underlying the apprehension then let’s approach it through a different, and, political lens. Consider the following poem:

“I Want A President” by Zoe Leonard

In the above poem Leonard asks us to imagine imagine a person, a president, who is very different than any president we have ever seen or, plausibly, imagined before. What is it about our current world that makes imagining a president with the above histories and experiences nay impossible? Might the limitation on *that* imaginatory possibility be similar to the one that whispers “that educational system would never work”?

My reason for this roundabout approach is two fold. On the one hand, as Riley pointed out there are political elements that we cannot forget in these conversations and this is a political poem just as the question of education is a political one. On the other hand,  it can leave us with a starting point:

I want an educational system…

In writing the rest of this poem, let’s imagine the currently unfathomable and attain it.

[1] This approach was proposed by Dr. Naomi Zack (University of Oregon) in conversation with Dr.Matheis.

7 thoughts on “I Want an Educational System…”

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    What a wonderful post, it makes me want an educational system too. I really agree with everything you say. Furthermore, I think I have faith that if more people like you keep raising their voices, and entering academic to create a change that ideal world is not only imaginable but possible.

    To give you an example (and a little bit of faith) last semester I was co-teaching a big design class (240+students) in Civil Engineering. This is the last class students take as part of their professional career, and needless to say the most important course in the curriculum. I was invited to join the team because I made a proposal based on engineering education research to “shake things up,” somehow what I needed was someone with a position of power to believe in me. The head of school accepted my proposal with strong criticism by the traditional teaching team (4 faculty members that have been teaching the course for 15+ years).

    I don’t plan to get into details but some of the overall changes I proposed:

    1. The final project is a real project, and was evaluated buy two academics and two industry representatives (that were actually working int he real project).
    2. Teams where from 4 students to 13, they had teamwork training and the most important thing was to be able to communicate and actually collaborate with each other, it was the only way they could be able to finish the project.
    3. Peer assessment inside the teams was eliminated, instead, students had individual interviews with the teaching team to show their progress (with evidence) therefore their peers were not their competitors but their supporters
    4. Mid-term was eliminated, rather the teams will present in a real life situation to the company and sell the ideas they had, no structure so they could be creative on how to do it.
    5. For the final exam students will individually propose test questions.
    6. Rubrics were eliminated, they had only references of what it was 7 (maximum grade) work, what it was 5 work and what it was failing work.

    There was more attached to the experience, but again not going into details. I felt a lot of push-backs and criticism to my model, however the deal was that the traditional teaching team was going to be grading the final reports and the final exam.

    1. First time in a decade that the course doesn’t have any issues between students (conflict in teams)
    2. Higher grade average ever, and students were evaluated to harder standards than before (since the teaching evaluating team really wanted us to fail)
    3. 28 students were directly hired by the industry experts that were evaluating their design proposals, since their proposals made huge influence in how they were developing the actual project.

    I don’t know if the fact that the project was difficult made the students to focus on working together in a real-life setting and take their minds away from the fact that assessment was not the most important thing in the course (students didn’t get any grade during the semester).

    It wasn’t easy at all but the outcome was really rewarding. I’m conducting focus group with the students to learn about the experience and they agree is the best educational experience they have received even when at the beginning they hated me 🙂

    Again thanks so much for sharing.



    1. This is fabulous and I’m glad to hear that, even with the pushback and skepticism by the evaluating team, it was a successful venture! Hopefully the fact that it not only possible but, in this instance, exceedingly successful will allow for folks to see different models, such as this, as legitimate approaches to various subjects 🙂

  2. Lindsay, you would have had me at “sci-fi” if your Ursula Le Guin quote didn’t catch me first! I appreciate you bringing the practical element of sci-fi into this conversation of assessment and grades because though we might see a future without grades as some unattainable utopian fantasy, people thought similarly about the technology in science fiction not very long ago.


    I can agree that the assessment climate as it stands right now does not encourage collaboration and some people have a very difficult time breaking the mindset of “me against the world” and going back into the “group work mode”. I really love your ideas for what a world without assessments would look like, especially the peer facilitation and collaborative progress evaluations.

  3. The article points out that alternative worlds are imaginable – some of them seem more pleasing so that people want them -, but what is imaginable may not be realizable. Social structures can be small to big institutionalized ones. So it is about what many people want and what some people can impose to others. Anyway, we get to have an educational system to imagine how to change it! So “…” that disrupts me.

    1. I agree that what is imaginable may not always be (metaphysically) realizable, and I always wonder whether or not too many things get dismissed due to us not being able to think of *how* they could be realizable or being willing to stay in an area of uncertainty with respect to their attainability even while recreating, and uncreating, systems, structures, and the like. I shall have to keep pondering this.

  4. I really like this post and the education system you described. Although we are not sure how to achieve it, such as training the facilitators and developing the portfolio. I think Homero provides a good example about how to turn the imaginary world into real world within one’s ability. Well done!

    1. Agreed. Homero’s experience sounds fabulous (and plausibly frustrating in other respects) and hopefully calls into question overarching hesitancy with respect to trying now models!

Leave a Reply