The students themselves must be the measure, not the results of measuring the students

Guernica - Pablo Picasse

Guernica – Pablo Picasse

Go to an art gallery and look at a painting. Walk down the street and look at some architecture. Listen to a piece of music. Use your phone, a coffee maker or a car. Is it good? Is it beautiful, emotional or effective?

Some things are not good in this sense. I have seen some terrible paintings, heard awful music and driven dreadful cars. Some things are absolutely wonderful. I have been transported to untold delight by seeing a Rothko or a Gehry, hearing Stravinsky or driving my old MGB.

Assessment as the measure?

Assessment has two significant difficulties. Let us look at an example outside the world of education to explain this. Let us take a work of art, say Picasso’s Guernica. In order to understand this work of art we need to see it, to be enveloped in its majesty and size. If you are lucky enough to go to the Raina Sofia museum in Madrid, when there are few people there, and can just stand quietly in front of the painting, you are absorbed by it completely. The painting shouts at you about the horrors of war.

The painting carries so much more than any description of it. To think of writing an assessment of this is ludicrous. Can we give it a grade, a place on a rubric, a formative comment? The same is true of a students work in that any assessment is reductive. It is so much smaller than the work we are trying to assess. How can we avoid this tendency to reduction?

In looking at Guernica, we also need to understand its context and its background. A full understanding of the picture requires knowledge of the Spanish Civil War as well as a grasp of the artistic imagery used by Picasso’s cultural antecedents such as Velazquez and Goya and the particular force of the imagery such as the bull. Student work is often like this too.  A good teacher understands what has brought his student to this piece of work and what its context is. Particularly with our students we need to understand what they are trying to convey as much as what they have conveyed. Where are the difficulties in their communication of the ideas or the solution of their problems?

As well as being reductive, assessment is also distant. Let us follow a typical route for an assessment. The student does a piece of work. The teacher gives an assessment as a grade. This may then be used by a counsellor to support a college application, or a form tutor to summarise progress to parents. It is then read by the college or the parents and is already three steps away from the piece of work. As we know from the game Chinese Whispers, the distance a communication travels creates distortion.

How can we assess, but reduce the effects of reduction and distortion? The answer is for the students to be the measure of the work, and for the teachers to be the validation of the measure. Many schools are getting students write journals and blogs on their progress in a course. If this contains the work itself then the reflection on it is an assessment that is not reductive, because the work is there, nor distant because it is the students immediate response to their work.  The teachers role is now to validate and discuss the students own view of the work. If this appears in the journal or on the blog then the assessment is complete. There is no need for a reduction to a grade or a rubric.

See the section on this site about designing an assessment system with these principles at its heart.

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