Assessment as Analogy

Photo by Dave Mullen on Unsplash

 

We teachers like to talk about teacher stuff, like assessment and curriculum. But shop talk can leave them yawning in the aisles, so sometimes I like to try using analogies. Analogies are great because, since they’re not exact, that can actually help shine more light on what your trying to understand.

Here’s an analogy: I walk into a theatre and sit down behind somebody. Seeing the back of his head, I now know what it looks like – his hairstyle, for instance, or the shape of his head. I have no idea what his face looks like since that I cannot see from behind. Something else I notice is his height – even sitting down, he’s obviously going to block my view of the screen and, since I’ve been waiting a long time to see this movie, I decide to change seats.

So I move ahead into his row. Now I sit almost beside this tall stranger, just a few seats away. Now, from the side, I can see the profile of his face – eyebrows, nose, chin. At one point, he turns to face me, looking out for his friend who went for popcorn, and I can fully take in his face. Now I know what he looks like from the front. Except it’s probably clearer to say, Now I’ve seen him from the front and remember what his face looks like – I make this distinction because it’s not like he turned to look for his friend, then stayed that way. He turned, briefly, then turned back toward the screen, facing forward again, and I’m left seeing his profile once more.

Sitting a few seats away, to say that I know what his profile looks like, side-on, or that I remember what his face looks like, just as I remember what the back of his head looks like – this is probably most accurate. In this theatre situation, nothing’s too hard to remember, anyway, since the whole experience only takes a minute or two and, besides, we’re sitting near enough to remind me of those other views, even though I can only see him from one of three perspectives at a time: either behind, or beside, or facing.

An analogy, remember? This one’s kind of dumb, I guess, but I think it gets the point across. The point I’m comparing is assessment, how we test for stuff we’ve learned.

As I understand the shift from traditional education (positivist knowledge-based curricula, teacher-led instruction, transactional testing) to what’s being called “the New Education” (constructivist student-centred curricula, self-directed students, transformational learning), I’d liken traditional testing to trying to remember what the back of his head looked like after I switched seats. As I say, I might get some clues from his profile while sitting beside him. But once I’m no longer actually sitting behind him, then all I can really do is remember. “What can you remember?” = assessment-of-learning (AoL)

In the New Education, I wouldn’t need to remember the back of his head because that’s probably not what I’d be asked. Where I sit, now, is beside him, so an assessment would account for where I now sit, beside him, not where I used to sit, behind. That makes the assessment task no longer about remembering but more in line with something immediate, something now as I sit beside him, seeing his profile, or during that moment when he turns and I fully see his face. A test might ask me to illustrate what I was thinking or how I was feeling right at that moment. “What are you thinking?” = assessment-for-learning (AfL)

There’s also assessment-as-learning (AaL), which could be me and my friend assessing each other’s reactions, say, as we both watch this tall stranger beside us. In the New Education, AaL is the most valued assessment of all because it places students into a pseudo-teaching role by getting them thinking about how and why assessment is helpful.

When proponents of the New Education talk about authentic learning and real-life problems, what I think they mean – by analogy – are those things staring us in the face. Making something meaningful of my current perspective doesn’t necessarily require me to remember something specific. I might well remember something, but that’s not the test. The New Education is all about now for the future.

In fact, both traditional education and the New Education favour a perspective that gives us some direction, heading into the future: traditional education is about the past perspective, what we remember from where we were then, while the New Education is about the present perspective, what we see now from where we are now. It’s a worthy side note that, traditional and contemporary alike, education is about perspective – where we are and where we focus.

By favouring the past, assessing what we remember, the result is that traditional education implies continuation of the past into the future. Sure, it might pay lip service to the future, but that’s not as potent as what comes about from stressing remembrance of the past. Meanwhile, lying in between, the present is little more than a vehicle or conveyance for getting from back then to later on. You’re only “in the moment,” as it were, as you work to reach that next place. But this is ironic because, as we perceive living and life chronologically, we’re always in the moment, looking back to the past and ahead to the future. So it must seem like the future never arrives – pretty frustrating.

The New Education looks to the future, too, asking us to speculate or imagine from someplace we might later be. But, by favouring the present, assessing what we think and feel, and what we imagine might be, the New Education trades away the frustration of awaiting the future for a more satisfying “living in the moment.” We seem to live in a cultural era right now that really values living in the moment, living for now – whether that’s cause or effect of the New Education, I don’t know. In any case, says the New Education, the future is where we’re headed, and the present is how we’re getting there, so sit back and let’s enjoy the ride.

As it regards the past, the New Education seems to pose at least two different attitudes. First, the New Education seems to embrace the past if that past meets the criterion that it was oppressive and is now in need of restoration. Maybe this is a coincidental occurrence of cultural change and curricular change that happen to suit each other. Or maybe this is what comes of living in the moment, focusing on the here-and-now: we’re able to take stock, assess for the future, and identify things, which have long been one way, that now we feel compelled to change. Second, the New Education seems dismissive of the past. Maybe this is also because of that past oppression, or maybe it’s leftover ill will for traditional education, which is kind of the same thing. What often swings a pendulum is vilification.

Whatever it is, we ought to remember that dismissing the past dismisses our plurality – we are all always only from the past, being ever-present as we are. We can’t time-travel. We are inescapably constrained by the past from the instant we’re born. What has happened is unalterable. The future arrives, and we take it each moment by moment. To dismiss the past is delusory because the past did happen – we exist as living proof.

For all its fondness and all its regret, the past is as undeniable as the future is unavoidable, for all its expectancy and all its anxiety. As we occupy the place we are, here, with the perspective it affords us, now, we need the courage to face the future along with the discipline to contextualise the past. As we live in the moment, we are bound and beholden to all three perspectives – past, present, future. Incidentally, that happens to be where my analogy broke down. In a theatre, we can only sit in one seat at a time. Let’s count our blessings that living and learning offer so much more.

That’s Your Opinion In My Opinion…

Playing soccer recently, my team grew more and more frustrated by what we felt was poor refereeing, as in calls that favoured the other team or else faulted us incorrectly, which amounted to the same thing. Granted, we’re none of us professional, so the only thing at stake was the satisfaction of winning. But, as the saying goes, that’s why we play the gamenobody plays to lose. So, on that basis, our team was frustrated, and it mattered.

Players on both teams knew each other fairly well, so there was plenty of on-field bickering and sharing of opinions. Finally, someone from their team – let’s call him Michel – said, “Instead of complaining about it, why not just try your best to help the team?” It’s a pretty common attitude, on account of being positive and constructive. How many coaches have encouraged their teams to take up the responsibility of controlling what’s in their control? I know I have – more on that below.

As soon as Michel said this, one of our more heated players – let’s call him Roy – aimed an outstretched finger towards the referee and shouted back, “What’s the point!” What he meant, of course, was that when the rules aren’t being enforced, striving to help the team is futile since any gains are ultimately clawed back or nullified. “It’s easy,” Roy added, “to say ‘Don’t complain’ when you have the advantage!” Michel said nothing, and this actually became the end of all the back-and-forth. As it happened, the game ended shortly after that, with one team – ours – and one referee each leaving the field feeling hard done by.

vs Wesburn at Pt Grey Secondary (11-0 W) - 17

People often say that sport teaches great lessons about life, and again, as a coach, I know I’ve said this to teams that I’ve coached. Yet we say such things under the assumption that the referee’s interpretation of players’ actions, when held up against the Laws of the Game, will match our own interpretation and, indeed, will match everybody else’s interpretations as well. The further we depart from this assumption, the heavier Roy’s outburst weighs upon us because, sure enough, the more futile it becomes trying to play a game by what amounts to a fluctuating set of rules.

As I say, I coached my teams to take up responsibility for what’s under their control, but I was always careful to elaborate my reason why: be responsible to control what you can control because the rest is out of your control. The other team, the field conditions, the ball, the weather, the referee – because any of these variables could work against us, we need to focus on playing well, score a lot, and put the game out of reach. That means beat the opponent, beat the field conditions, beat the equipment, beat the sideline supporters, beat the weather, and beat the referee.

How all that translates to ‘real life’ lessons could be construed as anarchy, beating everything under the sun, at any cost, which is not where I’m going with this. So I’ll reiterate: the way to beat all these things is to play well according to the rules as we understand them and put the game out of reach on the basis of our skill and teamwork. That goes for the ref, too: put criticism to rest by beating all questions of integrity with skill and teamwork. (For often having referees working alone, it’s a wonder that youth & amateur sport have any refs at all.)

And, I realise, this does assume that everyone else involved, besides us, shares – to some degree – our understanding of the rules. And I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that we all generally know the rules, even if we don’t precisely share their exact meaning. For that reason, I think it’s fair to assume that usually players will see the same things when they apply the rules to game play. There’s even one further consideration here, put so well by Spokesman-Review columnist, Norman Chad: “If you’re watching the games for the officiating, you’re not watching the games anymore.” There are always debates and such, but we don’t usually get a referee as poor as my team (thought we) did this last time. And on those rare days when all seems to work out, we’re as like to say, “Geez, I hardly even noticed the referee today.” Win or lose, that’s nearly always a good day.

But that’s sport, and sport is a self-contained world of rules, bounded by a playing field – in that respect, all is stable and predictable. Leaving aside physical fitness and training, the constraints posed in sport are rule-based, i.e. arbitrary, and out of fairness, we agree as players to abide by them – otherwise, we’d not be players but cheaters. To be clear, none of us in this recent game felt our opponents were cheating; this was strictly a case of feeling the referee was misinterpreting game play.

Matchday #2: INTER (5) vs New Westminster (0) (Warren Pitch, UBC)
“One more eye and he’d be a cyclops…”

For all this, how can sport possibly teach us about life? Maybe we can infer the law of the land as the Laws of the Game, but in life, who’s the referee, by analogy?

At soccer practice, you might argue that the referee is the coach although I can say, for me, when I’m coaching I prefer to be coaching. That leaves the players to collectively referee themselves, which boils down past 1v1 to each sole player bearing their share of the burden. Especially during some small-sided training game with modified rules, the players must each become a partial referee or else the arguments begin. This becomes a responsibility to the team by the players for the Game, which rings something akin to that statement about government “of the people by the people for the people.” Curious that we live for the Game in the one instance and the people in the other – makes you wonder about analogies as much as analogies make you wonder.

So how about in day-to-day living? Is the government our referee? Are the police a referee? In certain aspects of life, we’ve built a playing field with specified boundaries – out in traffic, for instance, are red and green lights, and “Stop” and “Yield” signs. Are these referees, of a sort? For me, they’re actually not. In these instances, while driving a car, we might feel the need to stay safe and not injure ourselves or anyone else. Or maybe we just want to keep our insurance rates as low as possible. But where the lights and signs are mere reminders of the law, we might say the referee is you, the driver, making decisions that have your vehicle propelling and halting down every street.

But traffic is hardly the only example, and those kinds of boundaries are more pragmatic, anyway, for safety. Other aspects of life and living are more, well, open to debate. How about your boss, your teacher, or your parents? How about a total stranger? There are lots of examples, but I’m reminded of that adult on the playground who takes it upon themselves to be parent, guardian, and disciplinarian to every child in sight. For some kids, somebody they’ve never met can still be a very effective referee. For some adults, too. So just who is in charge of enforcing as compared to laying down the law?

One might argue that the best candidate for referee as you make your way through life is you. Hmm… right, well, if the referee in life is our own self-conscience, then just how free do we feel to make our own decisions? Some would say we remain entirely free, which I think explains Michel’s esteem for striving to help the team against the odds: work hard and live up to your responsibility to others, as well as to yourself. Make society a better place. But not everyone is either so bold or else so enabled.

Buried in there, though, is one more subtle layer beneath this so-called esteem, and it’s this subtlety that I would characterise as the referee, this weight of social expectation to live up to your responsibilities – and here comes the unspoken part – just like everyone else. There’s a collective demand upon us, one we all feel but that is neither felt nor heeded equally by all. It’s the concept captured by the word conscience, a sense not simply of what you or I believe is correct and right but of what others believe is correct and right. It’s peer pressure and the source of contention in Roy’s retort to Michel: it’s a lot easier to say ‘Do what I do’ when you have an advantage of some kind. That said, you don’t always find someone like Roy on the other end of things, so maybe not everyone is as prone as their neighbour to the pressure of peer referees. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, Roy would simply be a little more lonely.

For different people under similar circumstances, rules might be interpreted differently or applied unevenly. Unlike sport, though, where the referee is a third party who might still get things right or wrong, the various arbiters we encounter in day-to-day living – just as prone to error – might not be parties of the third order but the first order, i.e. our own self. That might at least be reconcilable. But when they’re a party of the second order, i.e. someone else, perhaps face-to-face, we might more likely face dispute, especially if there’s advantage to be gained, one party over the other, which is why sport needs referees in the first place. In life, if we’re all soccer players, we all share the burden to be the referee. But surely some bear more of that share than others.

Well done to those people. Without the referee, there’s no game for players to play.

Goal!

What it Was is What it Is: I Don’t Know What Else to Say

At the same school, in the same department, for so long… eventually I found what seemed to be some effective teaching strategies and stuck with those, but boy it took a while. There’s been more than one teacher to have offered something like an apology, half-joking, half rueful, to all those early students, who were basically guinea pigs while we figured ourselves out in the classroom. I mentioned this in a paper for a graduate course and earned the critique of “triumphalism” – feedback from the professor, which I took as a suggestion to go ahead and “problematize my assumptions,” to use the lingo. In the moment, I bristled, the new kid in town learning how to be part of the academy, wondering what exactly had prompted my professor to claim with such certainty the question of my certainty.

Maybe I’ll just mention, since I’ve brought it up… I’ve since found the academy has an endemic logical pitfall all its own, an oddly hypocritical veneer of uncertainty: “All knowledge is provisional.” Post-modernism at its finest? Indeed, who can really say.

In all seriousness, though, and fairness, I grant the aim of the sceptical outlook. Heck, I try to possess one – healthy scepticism, to guard against arrogance and narrow thinking (… and innovation too, come to think of it, although that one maybe for another time). I value Socratic humility, which I ultimately decided not to call Socratic ignorance, and try to model it although how successfully I can’t say – especially not *joking-slash-rueful* back in those early days. So when someone with expertise in curriculum and teaching theory lay triumphalism at my feet, I thought to myself, Well, at least I ought to consider it. And I did.

And I do, and I still am. That reflective side of critique, the side you get from being on the receiving end, it can help us spot our assumptions and our shortcomings. I suspect the whole point was simply to light a fire within me. And hey, I’ve gone and written this, haven’t I? And hey, if settling into some effective teaching strategies weren’t triumphalist and undesirable, that would probably encourage complacency among teachers, or possibly even stagnation. On the other hand, after so long teaching in the same department at the same school, I suspect there’s more than one teacher who’s ended up feeling like part of the woodwork. Certainly, for me, as I’m sure for the students, there was a marked difference between me, the new guy, and me five, ten, fifteen years later. Then again–

Looking back, now, at what I called “effective”… it rounds out as, well, effective because what happened happened that way – nothing’s perfect, but all considered, my students seemed broadly to have learned what they felt were some useful things. The classroom years I spent, developing as I did to reach the point I reached, came about from the feedback I received each day, each term, as students and I came together lesson upon lesson, class after class. Details along the way, course evaluations I asked students to complete each June, reports back from post-secondary adventuring… there are always issues to address along with encouragements to appreciate, and I admit: no grand theory did I have in mind, as though I were contributing to the historical record. I just wanted to make things better for kids the following year, which eventually I think I was able to do.

Where I gave thought to improving my teaching was (a) relative to myself, (b) on behalf of my students, (c) in the context of my school. At least, that was what I thought when I was teaching. In that respect, what can I possibly say now, looking back, as to what might have been apart from what did be? I had to do something. And my life was never going to be any less full or busy or complicated than it turned out to be, so in all sincerity I did what I could. Eventually, it seemed to work out pretty well. Effectively.

Look, if somebody did celebrate triumphantly, in the classroom, facing the students, day in day out… ? What an ass! As it was, for those students who did find my teaching effective in this way or that, or worse, for those who didn’t – did I leave them with some suggestion that I basked in triumphant glow? I hope not. Like I said, I eventually found and stuck with what I thought worked, and that took years. Meanwhile, that’s the job. Isn’t it?

For me, the professor’s criticism, in whatever light it was offered, reflects more upon her embrace of uncertainty (presumably the academic embrace I described above) than it does upon my curricular relationships when I was teaching. And I heed the lesson, not for the first time in my career, that sitting in judgment of others can be a difficult perch.