The il­lu­sion of suc­cess

What is sac­ri­ficed in ed­u­ca­tion when the em­pha­sis is on per­form­ing and test­ing?


What is sac­ri­ficed in ed­u­ca­tion when the em­pha­sis is on per­form­ing and test­ing?

If we con­sider cre­ativ­ity as a form of pro­duc­tive dis­obe­di­ence, we are pre­sented with ques­tions about the world in which we might grow it.

Tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion has shied away from the in­sta­bil­ity nec­es­sary to de­velop deep creative think­ing. Ac­cord­ingly, where we en­counter fer­tile en­vi­ron­ments for grow­ing cre­ativ­ity in schools, they are gen­er­ally the re­sult of the per­sis­tence, in­ge­nu­ity and strength of in­di­vid­u­als (or some­times small clus­ters of teach­ers). How­ever, these peo­ple are forced to op­er­ate in a largely an­ti­thet­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, heav­ily shaped by val­ues based upon ex­plic­it­ness, data-driven as­sess­ment and ac­count­abil­ity. Given this sit­u­a­tion, per­haps it is use­ful to take a look at what we have come to call as­sess­ment. Let’s start with some­thing his­tor­i­cal. At Pukea­tua Pri­mary, where I went to school, the in­cin­er­a­tor was over by the fence. It was an old iron con­trap­tion with a chim­ney, and a lit­tle door that opened for feed­ing in the rub­bish. It was repli­cated in a hun­dred schools in a hun­dred dis­tricts all around this coun­try. Back in 1962, at Pukea­tua Pri­mary there were also lions, chee­tahs and rhinoceroses. They lived in Room 3 and sat at desks in lace-up shoes. The lions and chee­tahs, who made up most of the class, didn’t have much to do with the in­cin­er­a­tor, but Nigel Terp­stra and I, who were rhinoceroses, did. As the only mem­bers of the bot­tom group, we were del­e­gated the du­bi­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing rub­bish mon­i­tors. We learned how to cook our ap­ples on the hot plate, how to smoke the teach­ers’ cig­a­rette butts and, in times of cri­sis, when Nigel Terp­stra got an asthma at­tack from in­hal­ing too much cig­a­rette smoke, we learned that hold­ing him un­der the macro­carpas to breathe in the ex­cess oxy­gen didn’t work.

We were a re­sult of the 60s, a decade in New Zealand schools that saw a clear push to­wards re­assess­ing the highly streamed na­ture of ed­u­ca­tion. J.C. Daniel’s es­says on the ef­fects of stream­ing in the pri­mary school were widely cited in the ar­gu­ment for con­tin­ued so­cial pro­mo­tion and mixed-abil­ity group­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, at Pukea­tua Pri­mary and in many other schools up and down the coun­try, what hap­pened was that groups one, two and three were sim­ply re-

placed by lions, chee­tahs and rhinoceroses (or their equiv­a­lent), and even­tu­ally most of the rhinoceroses woke up to the fact that a fancy name still equated with be­ing at the bot­tom of the pile.

Be­ing at the bot­tom of the pile isn’t much fun. It’s the place where many of us have found our­selves at some time in our school­ing, and it’s the place where we are most un­mo­ti­vated to learn. Nearly all of us have come through school sys­tems that use com­par­a­tive meth­ods of as­sess­ment, and most of us have learned that they do one thing very well: they teach us that we are not as good as other peo­ple. They teach us that in the race for learn­ing, there are win­ners and losers and, as in most races, the losers out­weigh the win­ners. To il­lus­trate this, one has only to stop for a mo­ment and think: What did I learn at school that I was no good at? Was it math­e­mat­ics, or English, or chem­istry? And if it wasn’t, did a be­lief in my in­com­pe­tence come from one of those com­pet­i­tive, pe­riph­eral obli­ga­tions, the cross-coun­try race or the school speech con­test? These were the an­nual in­sti­tu­tions that sent gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion stag­ger­ing from the stage or the play­ing field, lowly ranked and firmly con­vinced that they were in­nately in­com­pe­tent. Ev­ery year the few were lauded and the ma­jor­ity de­feated.

But, you know, if we could go back to Room One, on any week­day morn­ing, we would prob­a­bly see our­selves in front of the class, giv­ing morn­ing talks or run­ning fran­ti­cally around the play­ground. It would never have en­tered our heads that by the other end of this ed­u­ca­tion con­veyor belt we would have come to be­lieve that we were fail­ures. Back then, we were all or­a­tors and en­durance run­ners, all chee­tahs in the wind, and nowhere was there a rhi­noc­eros on the hori­zon.

So why do we cre­ate rhinoceroses? Well, there is a lot of pres­sure in teach­ing to mark peo­ple and di­vide them into cat­e­gories. It comes from schools with their need to meet Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ments, from par­ents who be­lieve that learn­ing is com­pet­i­tive, and from kids who have be­come con­vinced that a B+ or a Merit means they are bet­ter math­e­ma­ti­cians or writ­ers than their peers. Ev­ery year, we fill up reg­is­ters with class lists and test re­sults. We set ex­ams and de­sign teach­ing plans around gen­er­at­ing these marks, and in the end we hand them over to stu­dents and our­selves as an in­di­ca­tion of their com­pe­tence. By the same to­ken (de­spite the rhetoric of politi­cians), these num­bers are of­ten used by par­ents as a method of as­sess­ing a teacher’s abil­ity and a school’s po­ten­tial.

The in­sti­tu­tion of mark­ing is so in­grained in ed­u­ca­tion that most New Zealan­ders be­lieve that these grades are in­di­ca­tions of their true abil­ity. De­spite the decades of ed­u­ca­tional stud­ies and work­ing al­ter­na­tives, we still con­tinue to place an in­or­di­nate amount of em­pha­sis on com­par­a­tive mark­ing (ei­ther com­par­ing stu­dents to other stu­dents or to pre-es­tab­lished cri­te­ria). We change by chang­ing the lan­guage. Scaled per­cent­ages are re­placed by raw marks, that are re­placed by grades, that are re­placed by lev­els of merit … but the fun­da­men­tal premise re­mains the same: we pre­oc­cupy our­selves with mea­sur­ing the per­for­mance of learn­ing. We as­sume that what is demon­strated is what is known. As a con­se­quence we el­e­vate what can be made ex­plicit and what can be nar­rated, and some­where in there we miss the point that learn­ing is not a per­for­mance. It is a process.

Re­port­ing us­ing marks ac­tu­ally tells us very lit­tle. We learn noth­ing about the na­ture of an in­di­vid­ual’s learn­ing, noth­ing about “how” they think and lit­tle about their ap­proaches to prob- lem solv­ing. Marks be­come a sub­sti­tute for in­sight­ful de­scrip­tion. They re­place ed­u­ca­tional anal­y­sis with com­pa­ra­bil­ity, pro­vid­ing us with data that we can rank, equate and con­trast.

Where the in­her­ent value of learn­ing be­comes neg­li­gi­ble, marks be­come a sub­sti­tute mo­ti­va­tion. De­spite be­ing an ab­strac­tion, they are ex­pe­ri­enced as con­crete, be­cause in the end they are what is re­warded. Stu­dents work for them. They want to know what con­tent will be in a test. If what they study is di­rectly re­lated to the mark­ing, they will un­der­stand its value and con­cen­trate on it. They make as­sess­ments about what will be “worth” learn­ing based not on its in­trin­sic value but on its ca­pac­ity to earn them marks. Ac­cord­ingly, they end up demon­strat­ing se­lected pieces of learn­ing and be­ing re­warded for a dumb­ing-down of their ed­u­ca­tional po­ten­tial. In this sys­tem, the value of what is learned doesn’t re­ally mat­ter any­more be­cause re­ward is not re­lated to what is in­trin­sic, only to what is per­formed.

Un­for­tu­nately, “get­ting good marks” has be­come a ma­jor pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of politi­cians, of low-level ed­u­ca­tional re­form­ers and, trag­i­cally, of stu­dents them­selves. But if we think deeply we are left with a nag­ging ques­tion: with this em­pha­sis on per­form­ing and test­ing, what is sac­ri­ficed? What at the heart of ed­u­ca­tion pays the price for this tra­di­tion of com­par­i­son?

Well, it is learn­ing. It is learn­ing with its multi-lay­ered, idio­syn­cratic re­la­tion­ships, with its messy edges and com­plex tra­jec­to­ries. It is learn­ing that is not stan­dard­ised, never ex­pe­ri­enced the same way by two in­di­vid­u­als, never timed the same way, and is al­ways most in­sight­fully un­der­stood in the con­text of the learner. It is learn­ing as a process, not a prod­uct.

The overuse and mis­use of stan­dard­ised com­par­a­tive test­ing has many crit­ics. In New Zealand, es­pe­cially since the 1990s, much has been done to mod­er­ate its use (in con­trast to coun­tries such as the US, Eng­land and Wales). How­ever, it still wields sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence. Be­yond its ca­pac­ity to be mis­han­dled in de­ci­sions of ac­count­abil­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness, in­clud­ing ill-con­sid­ered pro­pos­als by politi­cians that teacher qual­ity in New Zealand should be mea­sured by marks pro­duced in test­ing, it can also lead to a nar­row­ing of the cur­ricu­lum and the breadth of think­ing we pro­vide for learn­ers. This is be­cause teach­ers, in an ef­fort to be seen as ef­fec­tive, find them­selves caught in eth­i­cal

and pro­fes­sional dilem­mas. They en­counter ex­plicit or tacit in­struc­tions and in­cen­tives to “teach to the test” be­cause that is what will be re­warded. De­spite as­ser­tions that stan­dard­ised test­ing can be used with­out it dis­tort­ing cur­ricu­lum and teach­ing, the truth is that of­ten what is not tested is not taught. More­over, train­ing in the rit­u­als and de­vices of test­ing be­comes a silent but val­ued part of the cur­ricu­lum.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, such nar­row­ness is not a given. If one con­sid­ers the 25 years of ed­u­ca­tional re­form ini­tia­tives in Fin­land, we see a coun­try that has pro­duced an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that achieves among the high­est rank­ings for equal­ity and ex­cel­lence in the world. In this sys­tem there is no track­ing of stu­dents dur­ing their com­mon ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion. Chil­dren are not mea­sured at all for the first six years, and the only manda­tory stan­dard­ised test is taken when they are 16. Classes are not streamed, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween the weak­est and strong­est stu­dents is one of the small­est in the world.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, there is no merit pay for teach­ers’ per­for­mance. Fin­nish ed­u­ca­tors are not mon­i­tored or rated ac­cord­ing to test re­sults, and al­though they fol­low a ba­sic na­tional cur­ricu­lum, they have a great deal of au­ton­omy over how they de­velop meth­ods for learn­ing and eval­u­a­tion.

If free­dom from high lev­els of test­ing and re­port­ing can have such a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem like Fin­land’s, we might be left ask­ing why we con­tinue to hold so rigidly to a be­lief in the mer­its of stan­dard­ised ex­am­i­na­tion in this coun­try. We know that it nar­rows what is val­ued and taught, and we know that it has a pro­found im­pact on higher-or­der learn­ing. [US ed­u­ca­tion the­o­rist] Wil­liam Ay­ers notes that such tests “can’t mea­sure ini­tia­tive, cre­ativ­ity, imag­i­na­tion, con­cep­tual think­ing, cu­rios­ity, ef­fort, irony, judg­ment, com­mit­ment, nu­ance, good­will, eth­i­cal re­flec­tion, or a host of other valu­able dis­po­si­tions and at­tributes. What they can mea­sure and count are iso­lated skills, spe­cific facts and func­tion, con­tent knowl­edge, the least in­ter­est­ing and least sig­nif­i­cant as­pects of learn­ing.”

The dif­fi­culty is that stan­dard­i­s­a­tion as­sumes a high level of con­ver­gence. The di­ver­gent, deep-ques­tion­ing and in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­obe­di­ent thinker ei­ther per­forms within the realm of the ex­pected or pays a sub­stan­tial price. The stu­dent is forced to trade in­side the lim­i­ta­tions of what has been pre-imag­ined and pre­de­ter­mined. Many gifted chil­dren pres­sured by the overuse of such test­ing get bored and an­gry. Some be­come cyn­i­cal, some dis­heart­ened. More per­ni­ciously, some be­gin to con­ceive of them­selves as flawed. A sys­tem pred­i­cated on pre­de­fined cri­te­ria, lev­els and ex­em­plars lacks the flex­i­bil­ity for ge­nius. The very in­no­va­tion and ex­cel­lence it pur­ports to value, it also con­strains and pun­ishes. This lim­it­ing of dis­obe­di­ent think­ing is toxic to any sys­tem that seeks to grow highly in­tel­li­gent, creative be­ings.

How­ever, stan­dard­ised tests and the rank­ings they pro­vide can make peo­ple feel very se­cure. When we do well (ei­ther as an in­di­vid­ual, school or na­tion), we feel val­ued — and New Zealand does quite well in­ter­na­tion­ally. We like marks when they sug­gest that we are bet­ter than other peo­ple. So long as we don’t ask awk­ward ques­tions about whether these marks ad­e­quately de­scribe learn­ing, the rank­ings they gen­er­ate are easy to un­der­stand, easy to re­port, and there­fore easy to use po­lit­i­cally.

An ob­ses­sion with marks pro­duces an­other, ar­guably deeper, prob­lem. Be­cause we place such high em­pha­sis on re­ward­ing out­comes over the process of think­ing, most of us leave the school sys­tem ill-pre­pared to be life-long learn­ers (de­spite as­pi­ra­tional rhetoric to the con­trary). In­stead, we are trained in the for­mu­las and rit­u­als of test­ing. We learn what is be­ing asked for and what we need to do to dis­play the re­quired abil­ity. Through an in­sis­tent em­pha­sis on per­form­ing for marks we be­come de­pen­dent. Deeply de­pen­dent. We wait anx­iously to hear how good we are be­cause our sense of ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment has be­come re­liant on out­side ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

This is a prob­lem, be­cause de­spite the fact that the av­er­age New Zealan­der spends 12.6 years in school, at the end of that time they ac­tu­ally know very lit­tle about them­selves as learn­ers. Think about this for a mo­ment. It is a fright­en­ing thing. Ask your­self how much you ac­tu­ally know about the way you learn:

Do you know what causes you to re­tain cer­tain in­for­ma­tion?

Do you know how you in­crease chances for dis­cov­ery in what you do?

Do you know your most ef­fec­tive strate­gies for learn­ing from fail­ure?

Do you know how you push your­self be­yond com­pe­tence?

These ques­tions prob­a­bly feel like very un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. Af­ter all of your years in­side the in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence of your own learn­ing, in a sys­tem that as­sures you of your “learner cen­tred­ness”, these ques­tions are tough for you to an­swer. You prob­a­bly don’t know the an­swers. What you prob­a­bly do know, how­ever, is how well you did when mark­ing came around.

So herein lies a prob­lem. If we don’t know how we learn, we re­main re­liant on some­body else to di­rect us. We de­pend on ver­i­fi­ca­tion. We need di­rec­tion and ap­proval. Our in­tel­lect and its growth — ar­guably the great­est gifts we pos­sess — are sold out to some­body else’s value sys­tem, and we are sys­tem­at­i­cally mas­saged into com­pli­ance.

In con­sid­er­ing the im­pli­ca­tions of an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that has be­come overly fo­cused on as­sess­ing per­for­mance we are faced with one other prob­lem. This is the awk­ward is­sue of cor­rup­tion. While most ed­u­ca­tors pre­fer to pre­tend that mas­sag­ing mark­ing doesn’t hap­pen, in truth it does, and be­hav­iour associated with it is wide­spread. Some of us have ex­pe­ri­enced it as stu­dents, and some of us en­counter it in the schools in which we work. The rea­son such cor­rup­tion oc­curs is per­haps best ex­plained by Camp­bell’s Law. Don­ald Camp­bell was an Amer­i­can so­cial psy­chol­o­gist, method­ol­o­gist and philoso­pher who in 1975 de­vel­oped a law. Put very sim­ply, [it says] if you set up fixed mea­sure­ments for a so­cial agent such as ed­u­ca­tion, peo­ple within the sys­tem will be­gin to cor­rupt it so that it works in their favour.

Pub­lic school­ing in New Zealand was de­vel­oped as a hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture. Salaries and priv­i­lege were locked into the de­sign of this sys­tem, and value was mea­sured by what could be made ex­plicit. Within this struc­ture peo­ple learned to com­pete for

While most ed­u­ca­tors pre­fer to pre­tend that mas­sag­ing mark­ing doesn’t hap­pen, in truth it does.

at­ten­tion and pro­mo­tion. As schools mor­phed across sub­se­quent decades, teach­ers were for­mally and in­for­mally as­sessed on the qual­ity of stu­dent grades. Good teach­ers, it was as­sumed, taught stu­dents who per­formed well in tests. Be­cause pro­fes­sion­al­ism was associated with the at­tain­ment of good grades, when things be­came dif­fi­cult, teach­ers and schools learned to “work” the sys­tem.

At its most trans­par­ent, this in­volved the de­lib­er­ate train­ing of stu­dents in ex­am­i­na­tion strat­egy and the pri­ori­tis­ing of ma­te­rial that teach­ers knew would be tested. These be­came ex­plicit un­der­tak­ings that trou­bled few peo­ple, even though we know that such ini­tia­tives skew the re­li­a­bil­ity of re­sults against stu­dents who are not sim­i­larly en­gi­neered. These be­hav­iours con­tinue to be in­sti­tuted as a way of dis­tort­ing re­sults in­side stan­dard­ised sys­tems of mea­sure­ment and re­ward. They be­come deeply em­bed­ded and even­tu­ally as­sim­i­lated into the prac­tice of ed­u­ca­tion. As a con­se­quence, teach­ers of­ten feel obliged to adopt such prac­tices be­cause they care about the op­por­tu­ni­ties high per­for­mance will pro­vide for stu­dents in their care. They also care about their own pro­fes­sional pro­files. How­ever, there are ar­guably more dam­ag­ing in­stances of ex­clu­sion and marginal­i­sa­tion that teach­ers and schools use more covertly to ad­van­tage their per­for­mances.

Iwould like to give you an ex­am­ple. Be­fore I do, though, I would like to make it clear that I worked with Mr Shif­fol and he was an hon­ourable man. In the small town where I taught in the 1980s, he was val­ued as a car­ing and re­spon­si­ble per­son. He was the head of a de­part­ment in which some of my col­leagues worked. Ev­ery year, his stu­dents gained the top grades in his sub­ject in the school and ranked well above the na­tional av­er­age. On a graph of per­for­mance his re­sults were con­stantly tap­ping against the top line.

Mr Shif­fol seemed to have found a magic for­mula — and per­haps he had. Be­cause of his po­si­tion he set the timetable and an­nu­ally pop­u­lated his classes with “high-per­form­ing” stu­dents se­lected from the pre­ced­ing year (with one or two ex­cep­tions promi­nently dis­trib­uted across the classes of other teach­ers in his de­part­ment). Where he ended up with an un­ex­pected or to­ken un­der­achiever, he talked them into the benev­o­lent op­tion of a non-ex­am­ined, al­ter­na­tive path­way. This was al­ways pre­sented as a car­ing and ped­a­gog­i­cally com­pas­sion­ate ges­ture, be­cause he wanted them to get the most out of their ed­u­ca­tion and he was wor­ried about the stress that ex­am­i­na­tion might place on them. In the rare case where a stu­dent or par­ents re­sisted his of­fer, he ex­plained that their child’s per­for­mance was too low to qual­ify for sit­ting the endof-year ex­am­i­na­tion. If that didn’t work, he even­tu­ally moved them to an­other class so they were not made to feel po­larised by the high per­for­mance of their peers op­er­at­ing in his class. In one worst-case sce­nario, when even these strate­gies failed, he sim­ply wore a de­fi­ant stu­dent down with ex­pres­sions of ex­as­per­a­tion and sub­tle ridicule. The girl packed up and left by mid-year.

Mr Shif­fol hated to see peo­ple fail.

The in­ter­est­ing thing was that, in the com­mu­nity, par­ents thought Mr Shif­fol was an ex­cel­lent teacher, the school hi­er­ar­chy ad­mired him, and so did the stu­dents (even those he mas­saged away from his class­room). The marks were ev­i­dence of a great ed­u­ca­tor, and stu­dents scram­bled to be se­lected for his class.

In an eth­i­cally con­flicted way many of his col­leagues also ad­mired him, be­cause his tech­niques for sur­vival and dis­tor­tion were so con­vinc­ingly masked. He was very gen­er­ous with ad­vice. He gave work­shops to other schools on “pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment” and he was in­vited to be a mem­ber of nu­mer­ous cur­ricu­lum work­ing com­mit­tees. Mr Shif­fol mod­elled strate­gic self-pro­mo­tion, and edited sto­ries of class­room ex­pe­ri­ence and cur­rent ed­u­ca­tional vi­sion. But he wasn’t a bad man. He had sim­ply learned to sur­vive in a sys­tem that wasn’t pre­pared to look deeply into what con­sti­tuted qual­ity learn­ing. In a po­si­tion of power he was able to make im­por­tant de­ci­sions that pre­served his po­ten­tial for high per­for­mance.

This may be why no one un­der­stood when one year, on the morn­ing af­ter Guy Fawkes cel­e­bra­tions, he awoke to find on his lawn a half-burned ef­figy. It had been re­trieved from a fire the night be­fore. The polyester jacket was charred and twisted into a melted mem­ory of it­self. In the painted mouth, in recog­ni­tion of his fond­ness for cigars, there was an un­lighted fire­cracker. But the most distress­ing de­tail was that some­body had scrawled in an­gry crayon on a sign around his neck, “Shif­fol-Shit­hole”.

Fif­teen years later, I re­turned to the high school for a re­union. Many stu­dents I had

known had done won­der­ful things with their lives, but what struck me was the sig­nif­i­cant shift in their think­ing. Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion they re­ferred to Mr Shif­fol in dis­parag­ing terms. The scrawled name on the card around the ef­figy’s neck had be­come his moniker. The re­spect of these young men and women now fo­cused on other teach­ers: those who had spent time with them, who had sup­ported them through fail­ure and who cared about them as peo­ple. Across the in­evitable shake-down that time pro­vides, Mr Shif­fol’s pedestal had col­lapsed.

The un­der­per­form­ers Mr Shif­fol weeded out each year come in many guises, but the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem en­sures they are iden­ti­fi­able with up­dated marks that des­ig­nate their value. These stu­dents are the prod­uct of an un­der-cri­tiqued regime of mark­ing and they con­sti­tute a kind of ed­u­ca­tional “fall-out”. The phe­nom­e­non has been much doc­u­mented and is of­ten associated with sto­ries of dam­age to stu­dents who early in the sys­tem are rel­e­gated to the bot­tom of the pile. But the de­struc­tion is more per­va­sive and sub­tle than this.

Of course, test­ing has a place (es­pe­cially when it is used as a di­ag­nos­tic tool), but great teach­ing is con­cerned with ef­fec­tive­ness, and its pri­mary em­pha­sis is on in­for­mal watch­ing, ques­tion­ing and as­sess­ing in­side the prac­tice of learn­ing. Teach­ers know that learn­ing is nu­anced, cu­mu­la­tive and highly in­te­grated. They know that its com­plex­ity can­not be re­li­ably as­sessed against stan­dards, in­di­ca­tors of pro­gres­sion, or the pro­vi­sion of na­tion­ally nom­i­nated ex­em­plars. Ed­u­ca­tion is about more than reach­ing tar­gets. Ac­cord­ingly we seek some­thing richer, and in achiev­ing this we are forced to dis­obey.

If a whole sys­tem can’t be re­formed, in­fect what you can with pos­i­tive ini­tia­tives. We are em­pow­ered to do this be­cause we are ed­u­cated, think­ing pro­fes­sion­als, ca­pa­ble of de­sign­ing some­thing bet­ter. Even at a mi­cro-level our in­ter­ven­tion still counts.

The vi­ral in­fec­tions I dis­cuss here are drawn from my time in dif­fer­ent parts of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, and all of them hap­pened be­cause I sensed there was some­thing bet­ter than what ex­isted. They are not tales of won­der and revo­lu­tion. I don’t walk on wa­ter. How­ever, each of them sig­nif­i­cantly changed some­thing. They are based on three ideas about as­sess­ment. These are: the im­por­tance of self-eval­u­a­tion, re­duc­ing the im­pact of mark­ing, and the need for qual­ity re­port­ing.

Let’s have a look at them.

Some teach­ers don’t re­ally be­lieve in mark­ing. It has never made sense to them that you can re­place the com­plex­ity of learn­ing with an ab­stract grade. As a con­se­quence, over time they de­sign sys­tems where learn­ers ap­praise their own work and the work of oth­ers. We might un­der­stand this as a form of self-con­trol. This is be­cause if stu­dents can gain in­creas­ing in­sight into their learn­ing, they can break the de­pen­dence on ex­ter­nal, author­ity-based as­sess­ment. In any ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in which I work, if I can’t con­vince peo­ple that there might be some­thing more ef­fec­tive than ex­am­i­na­tion, I strate­gi­cally dis­obey. I as­cer­tain the min­i­mal amount of test­ing re­quired by those in “author­ity”, re­luc­tantly tick those boxes and then set about in­fect­ing ev­ery­thing else with more ef­fec­tive ap­proaches. Many teach­ers do this, in lots of dif­fer­ent ways. [Here] are a few strate­gies stu­dents have shown me that I have found use­ful:

Broadly, with the as­sis­tance of my classes, I de­sign as­sess­ment for­mats that pro­vide two lay­ers of re­flec­tion. The first in­volves a per­sonal cri­tique by the learner. This is some­times writ­ten but of­ten it oc­curs in fo­cused dis­cus­sion. I ask stu­dents to out­line per­ceived strengths and lim­i­ta­tions in their work and sug­gest ways that any weak­nesses might be ad­dressed.

The sec­ond in­volves peer group cri­tiques of work. These give an out­sider view­point and also in­volve other learn­ers in ob­jec­tive con­sid­er­a­tions of al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tions to an as­sign­ment their fel­low stu­dents are also com­plet­ing. Nor­mally, small pan­els of peer re­view­ers are asked to cri­tique three sub­mis­sions that are not their own. They write a col­lec­tive re­view. In re­turn, each stu­dent re­ceives a panel as­sess­ment of their work.

It sounds very laud­able, but of course it can be chal­leng­ing to han­dle. Of­ten stu­dents have be­come deeply de­pen­dent on marks. They go through a kind of with­drawal when they are asked to gen­er­ate as­sess­ments that re­ally count. They of­ten pre­fer some­body else to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. They want re­wards. It also takes a lot of work to get the sys­tem run­ning smoothly, be­cause you need very clear bot­tom lines about re­spect and ex­pec­ta­tions. You also have to ne­go­ti­ate with col­leagues who may see you as not sup­port­ing a sys­tem that works com­fort­ably for them and is the dom­i­nant ap­proach of

the in­sti­tu­tion in­side which you are work­ing.

When I taught at sec­ondary school, I tried wher­ever pos­si­ble to ap­ply as­sess­ment in­no­va­tions de­vel­oped in dis­ci­plines like art, de­sign and tech­nol­ogy, which have his­tor­i­cally used cu­mu­la­tive port­fo­lios. I adapted the ap­proach to a di­verse range of sub­jects in­clud­ing English, so­cial stud­ies, bi­ol­ogy and history. Where a school in­sisted on mid-year as­sess­ments, I asked that these be framed as for­ma­tive and any mark “re­quired” for re­port­ing pur­poses was de­liv­ered as a grade range. This some­times took some ne­go­ti­at­ing. Where a school in­sisted on ex­am­i­na­tions or stan­dard­ised test­ing and I couldn’t ne­go­ti­ate any­thing else, I ac­qui­esced but wrote a let­ter to the stu­dent and par­ents that of­fered a full con­text and de­scrip­tion of what was re­ally hap­pen­ing with the learn­ing.

At the end of each year, I give gifts. This prac­tice has a long tra­di­tion in ed­u­ca­tion: his­tor­i­cally many teach­ers have given and re­ceived small to­kens of ap­pre­ci­a­tion at the end of a year spent with their stu­dents. At the univer­sity where I work the gifts I give are small pot­ted herbs ac­com­pa­nied by a hand­writ­ten let­ter. This let­ter tries to de­scribe the kind of learner I have ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing our time to­gether. Each stu­dent’s learn­ing is linked metaphor­i­cally to lore sur­round­ing the plant, or to some­thing spe­cific about the way it grows. In giv­ing such a gift I try to negate the author­ity of a mark that will even­tu­ally ar­rive from some ex­ter­nal party. In some cases I know these plants won’t make it through the sum­mer hol­i­days; they will die on the win­dowsill of an un­kempt flat, or they will be planted in con­di­tions that would threaten the sur­vival of a ra­dioac­tive cock­roach. But in other cases they grow and years later I hear back from peo­ple. I go to their wed­dings and at­tend the births of their ba­bies and they re­mem­ber these small things.

This is a form of “re­port­ing” that sur­faces as a con­se­quence of learn­ing to­gether. It does not ex­plain a mark. It accepts that we are not learn­ing in­for­ma­tion and skills but us­ing these things to de­velop as hu­man be­ings. I try to make any feed­back per­sonal, and con­nected not just to the submitted work but also to the learner and the unique­ness of their jour­ney. I take a lot of time to lis­ten, write to and talk with stu­dents. They know I think about them — not just about what they pro­duce but also about them as peo­ple. It has taken many years for me to learn how im­por­tant it is to do such things.

The ori­gin of this ap­proach sur­faced 30 years ago when I was teach­ing in a small King Coun­try col­lege where I was try­ing to work out a way of re­port­ing on learn­ing more ef­fec­tively. This was be­cause the school re­port tem­plate only had space for a mark, a class rank­ing and a small rec­tan­gle for en­ter­ing a few words like “Could do bet­ter”. When I ex­plained that I would like to write more fully on the stu­dents’ learn­ing, I was asked not to con­tinue my com­ments on to the back of the re­port sheet be­cause it was felt that in so do­ing, I was pres­sur­ing my col­leagues into do­ing the same. I was not be­ing a good team player.

But, you know, it is very dif­fi­cult to sum up the com­plex­ity of some­body’s learn­ing in a 10mm x 30mm rec­tan­gle. I didn’t want to up­set my col­leagues, so I took to writ­ing dis­crete let­ters. These were given out on the same day as the re­port, in class, qui­etly, one to each stu­dent. The let­ters talked about how I thought they were learn­ing, how they ap­peared to solve prob­lems, and the unique na­ture of their progress and as­pi­ra­tions. Some­times the let­ters were po­etic, some­times ten­der, some­times crit­i­cal, but al­ways ap­pre­cia­tive.

In­ter­est­ingly, when the rit­ual of the re­port evening ar­rived, it was these pieces of pa­per that par­ents brought with them. They were proud that some­body com­mented on their child’s acer­bic wit or creative ex­cuse mak­ing, or their abil­ity to sense anx­i­ety in oth­ers and help be­fore any­one else no­ticed. Marks and grade point av­er­ages do not en­gen­der such things. What mat­ters is the care one hu­man be­ing takes to talk about an­other.

I still write in such depth, be it for a class of 30 stu­dents or for the su­per­vi­sion of a sin­gle post­grad­u­ate can­di­date. Be­cause my teach­ing is strate­gi­cally cleared of frag­mented as­sess­ment tasks and un­nec­es­sary mark­ing, I have more time to lis­ten to and talk with the stu­dents with whom I work. Such ap­proaches are bet­ter than a B+ or “achieved”. They tell peo­ple that they mat­ter.

I do not claim that these ap­proaches to as­sess­ment are trans­fer­able. They are not a tem­plate for a work­ing al­ter­na­tive. They are idio­syn­cratic, but also in­dica­tive of things I see all around me when I watch tal­ented teach­ers make space for more hu­mane and in­sight­ful ap­proaches to as­sess­ment. They are dis­obe­di­ent in­ter­ven­tions in a sys­tem that has lost its sense of pri­or­ity.

I do not be­lieve that test­ing has no place in schools, but its cur­rent, dis­pro­por­tion­ate promi­nence is dam­ag­ing. It has filled too many spa­ces and pri­or­i­ties, so that teach­ers, in a scram­ble to meet test­ing re­quire­ments, have lit­tle time to de­velop deeply re­flec­tive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments. A friend of mine teach­ing in a small ru­ral school once summed up her predica­ment this way: “We spend so much time weigh­ing the sheep that we have no time to feed it.”

While the im­age may cause us to smile, the re­al­ity doesn’t. Yet de­spite the cramp­ing na­ture of too much test­ing and the pro­saic teach­ing mod­els it re­in­forces, cer­tain teach­ers con­tinue to sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­obey dom­i­nant prac­tice in or­der to trans­form learn­ing by us­ing as­sess­ment as an in­for­mal, di­ag­nos­tic tool that is em­bed­ded in a process of ob­serv­ing, dis­cussing, co-cre­at­ing and lis­ten­ing. They can de­scribe what is emerg­ing, con­sider what they en­counter against a range of so­cial and per­sonal con­texts, and then edge their way in­tu­itively for­ward. This kind of as­sess­ment is not a ruler. It is not ab­so­lute and is rarely record­able. But it is the foun­da­tion of eval­u­a­tion, and cer­tainly the most ac­tive agent in un­der­stand­ing stu­dent progress.

The prob­lem is that such im­mer­sive forms of as­sess­ment are rarely re­warded out­side of the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship es­tab­lished be­tween the learner and the teacher. In our mis­taken as­sump­tion that learn­ing pro­duces a valid, mea­sur­able prod­uct we end up re­ward­ing only that which can be turned into per­for­mance. This is a sense­less and toxic sit­u­a­tion. It el­e­vates mea­sure­ment above know­ing, and no ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem can de­velop from such a po­si­tion.

It is very dif­fi­cult to sum up the com­plex­ity of some­body’s learn­ing in a 10mm x 30mm rec­tan­gle.

An edited ex­tract from Dis­obe­di­ent Teach­ing by Welby Ings (Otago Univer­sity Press, $35). Ings is pro­fes­sor of graphic de­sign at AUT Univer­sity, Auck­land.

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