Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2017/ Filtering vs Learning

Filtering vs Learning

News flash: I dislike marking. I am slow at it, bad at it, and uncomfortable with it philosophically. Marking serves two purposes. One is to give students feedback so they can learn valuable life lessons like "you should put two linebreaks between function examples and definitions" and "your solution does not conform to our expectations of a correct solution, so we will mark it harshly". As previously documented I did not always take these messages to heart.

The other purpose of marking is to put people into boxes, so we can distinguish between "the smart kids" vs "those we don't care about". It does not matter how hard an average student works. Unless that student can be as smart as the smart kids, that student will always be average. There is no objective goalpost of learning. If everybody in a class reaches a given standard of learning, we as markers will just shift the goalposts so the average kids stay average and the smart kids stand out.

Another way of phrasing this dichotomy is "learning" vs "filtering". Getting feedback so you can improve serves the god of learning; putting students in boxes serves the purpose of filtering.

The University of Waterloo excels at filtering. We have a competitive process to accept people into the Math faculty, and then we filter the best of those students to enter the Computer Science program, and then a subset of those students get prestigious co-op positions so they can ditch Canada and its subsidized education to enrich Silicon Valley. We brag about how well we do at international programming competitions, but I feel this has at least as much to do with filtering as with teaching. We put some effort into putting together good groups, and we spend some time training our competitors in programming contest norms. But the reason UW does well is because it attracts the smartest students. Nobody has the time or willingness to train average students to do moderately better at programming contests than they would otherwise.

Filtering is a mechanism that rewards "winner take all" thinking. Learning is a mechanism that promotes egalitarianism and personal improvement. If a 60% student learns a lot and becomes a 75% student, they have accomplished a great deal from a learning perspective. But from a filtering perspective, such an improvement may well not get them into the prestigious CS program, and thus they have failed.

Although it ought to be pretty clear that I favour learning over filtering, it is understandable why others have an opposite bias. Really bright students can be a joy to teach, and if you inspire them then maybe you can claim some credit for their inevitable succes later on. Also there is virtue in putting really smart kids together; they can drive each other to do better (also as previously documented).

Even supposedly democratic initiatives like open courseware and MOOCs (Massive open online courses) are couched in filtering, not learning. We always sell these initiatives as spreading education to the world, just in case the next Einstein had the misfortune of being born in a Third World country. We wouldn't want the intellect of the next Einstein to be wasted, would we? But we don't actually care that much about average people improving themselves. In fact we are completely willing to label these people useless, offering them pittances in the gig economy and/or condemning them to universal basic income schemes so we don't have to feel guilty about disrupting their livelihoods.

As somebody who is currently employed "teaching" first-year students, I am part of a system that prioritizes filtering over learning. It makes me deeply uncomfortable. I would like to believe that I am teaching something worthwhile, but I am not convinced I am doing anything more than setting up intellectual obstacle courses for the smartest kids to sail through.