Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Assessment as sabateurs of learning

When I share with other teachers some of the elaborate performance type projects that my students end up doing, one of the first questions people ask me is:

That's a neat idea, but how do you assess it?
This is a dangerous, knee-jerk reaction that teachers need to resist, and here's why.

If we are to design authentic learning enviornments for students, we must resists the urge to alter our focus from the learner to the teacher too quickly. Asking how something might be properly assessed is not a bad question, but if it dominates our thinking, we may justify not providing students with projects that they would love to do and love to learn from, but hard on us to assess.

If a tree falls in the woods, it still makes a sound regardless of whether anyone is there to hear it. Similarily, if a student does a project, he will still learn regardless of whether the teacher is there to assess it.

We can not allow our misguided obsession with counting and measuring to narrow the kinds of learning opportunities we provide children, especially when it is easily arguable that the best kinds of learning are in fact immeasurable.


  1. In the crowded curriculum that usually assessment driven its difficult to find space for individual pursuits. I think encouraging students to ask questions in an inquiry focused curriculum and allowing them time to answer these using if possible first hand sources is a way get both rich assessment for learning as well as allowing students time to get their own questions answered.

  2. Whenever I'm in a meeting and I hear the mantra that all educational goals must me "measurable", I worry a bit. This kind of thinking can get reductionistic very quickly. BUT we can also re-think (reclaim?) the word assessment a bit in this context? What if we think about the question "That's a neat idea, but how do you assess it?" not as "how do you measure it?" but instead in the context of assessment as feedback. Sue Brookhart (great assessment writer) says: "Everything students do in the classroom should be assessed - very little of it should be graded." So I'd like to change the question from: "That's a neat idea, but how do you assess it?" to "That's a neat idea - what kinds of feedback would be involved in that idea for students and the teacher, and how would the feedback be used?"

  3. I agree with Rob. My division and province formally assess math, reading and writing in my grades. All other subjects are left to the classroom teacher. Science and social studies have been reduced to second class status. I know this because they will be the quickly triaged if time is needed to do the other subjects. We accept something terrible if we insist that each activity's merits be measured by a SMART goal. Some things defy careful measurement and the reality is there is not enough time to measure and react to everything in the classroom.

  4. You guys are on to something. I really like how you rephrase the question from "How do we summatively assess this?" to "What kind of formative feedback can we offer?"

    Brilliant way to rethink the assessment trap!

    I will make this a future blog post. Thanks guys.

  5. Great points---formative and summative assessment are distinctly different animals whose purposes cannot be confused. Formative assessment, in my opinion, is an incredibly powerful process that serves learners well.
    I find that when learners work with teachers to define what quality will look like in specific terms, they are that much more engaged and that much more successful at what they do.

    Not sure if your main criticism is really of our over-reliance on summative/graded assessments--if so, I support you there. But your title makes me a bit uncomfortable, I'll be honest. : ) I witness an awful lot of 'assigning' and 'prescribing' out there in the field (even with project-based learning), and sometimes, teachers engage far less during critical formative assessment moments. This is a disservice to learners who need us to pay attention, notice where they struggle, and provide guidance.

    I guess I don't agree with the notion that assessment is a saboteur of anything. I think teachers can be, though--particularly when they are misinformed. It is easy to confuse assessment purposes and even rely on the wrong tools for what we feel are the right reasons unless we take the time to learn what we need to. Teaching is an art, but I also think it's a science. That's not a bad thing, necessarily--understanding the science helps us nurture and protect the art, in my opinion.

  6. I accept the caution that our means of assessment can manipulate student learning. If I begin with an established rubric I think encompasses student learning then I definitely run the risk of keeping learning within the box of my own imagination.Our method of assessment needs to be flexible, elastic, ephemeral, and collaborative so that student learning is not constrained. Does that sound like I am discarding the required curriculum? Perhaps, but I think there is room for that and in all honesty we should acknowledge the curriculum outcomes are unattainable.

  7. Maybe some of the concern about assessment - and the pushback toward the lack of it - is because many teacher-created projects in the past have had much to do with entertainment and little to do with actual learning?

  8. Perhaps.

    I think our obsession with data driven decisions as an attack on teacher autonomy and judgement. I see it as an extension of mistrust for teachers and humans.


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