Sunday, March 30, 2014

The red pen

Education is full of stereotyped symbols that are hard to erase. No matter how collaborative, open and innovative we make education, the standard metaphors in the media and everyday speech are still the classroom, the desk, the blackboard, chalk, homework and the exam hall. One particularly enduring symbol is the dreaded red pen. This simple writing tool has become forever type-cast as the villain, an instrument of criticism and correction and is seldom used for anything else. We can happily write in all other colours but the red pen seems forever damned.

This theme is discussed in a post (in Norwegian but try with Google translate and you'll get the gist) by a Norwegian colleague of mine, Torhild Slåtto . Comments written in red on a student's assignment (either by pen or red text in a digital document) are said to have such a demotivating effect that most teachers prefer to comment in pretty well any colour other than red. She gives an example of a student who got a high grade for an assignment but couldn't understand why since there were so many red comments on it. The comments could well have been very positive and constructive but the colour clouded that fact and the student interpreted the comments as negative. If the comments had been in blue or green the effect would've been completely different.

There are many other examples of educational stereotypes and preconceptions that can lead to misunderstanding. The traditional role of the teacher as arbitrator and corrector lies so deep that students often misinterpret efforts to encourage collaborative learning, teamwork and peer assessment as "lazy" teaching. If you expect everything to be teacher-centred then you may view a student-centred strategy as the teacher not doing her/his job. This can result in negative course evaluations, not because of bad teaching but due to very different preconceptions of the teacher's role. In such cases the student may even be disappointed that no red ink was used; "the teacher didn't even correct me."

We need to unlearn old truths before we can move on.

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