Six Things to Beware of, Grasshopper…

A lot of such talk as there is about innovation and change in higher education these days shows up in the general orbit of assessment. Having recently listened to or read a lot of material from assessment experts, I jotted down a few cautions.

Beware the tyranny of software. I like software. I write computer programs. But, at the risk of sounding Asimovian, software has to serve education, not the other way round. For the last ten years we have repeatedly adjusted the way we educate to the needs of the software (“Banner won’t let you do that…”). Banner and its ilk are just hammers. No right-thinking carpenter changes the way she builds a house because of hammer limitations.

Beware the fetishization of uniformity. Healthy ecosystems, organizations, relationships, families, and individuals entertain a healthy dialectical tension between sameness and difference, uniformity and irregularity, standardization and improvisation. Whether you are trying to be a virus that can outwit immune systems (or an immune system that can shut down a virus), or building a firm that can weather economic ups and downs, or running a college that produces excellent graduates from a stunning variation of inputs, the key is to cultivate order and chaos simultaneously.

Beware projection and other forms of X-o-centrism. We are all subject to our own version of Saul Steinberg’s classic “New Yorker’s view of the World.” What works for me, or in one course, or in my department, or in our division, or in one school I know about, is surely good for you. Whether it’s a analogy or metaphor, an algorithm, a social form, or a paradigm, or a homeomorphism, context and local history matter.

Beware foolish numberers and their arrogant misquotations of Lord Kelvin — if you can’t measure it, it does not exist — and mindless adherence to quantification as an end in itself.

Beware saviors, those who in the face of skepticism and critique fancy themselves the new Galileo or who too readily imagine they are members of a new Vienna Secession or Salon des Refusés.

Beware assurances that complex things can be done with little effort or in far less time than you think. Most things that are easy and simple and beneficial have already been done. Things like the valid measurement of educational outcomes are not simple. Getting it right takes time and effort.

Most of all, beware a movement that cannot apply its own techniques to itself.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: