A dozen or so years ago I used to sit in ‘school improvement’ meetings discussing what it would take to lift school ‘scores’, usually measured in units of literacy and numeracy or high stakes summative exams. The conversation might go something like, “If we focus on these particular kids and lift them up, even one or two points, the impact overall will be significant”. Or perhaps, “Our last test results showed that the kids overall didn’t do so well in x, so let’s concentrate our time and resources on that in our next planning cycle”. And to prove we were indeed SMART, we’d put a percentage gain on the desired outcome – e.g. a 2% increase in the correct use of punctuation, or whatever.
Perhaps the passing of time has soured the memory a little and undeniably there was much high industry and good intention, but there was also much that was misguided. I’m not sure of the exact time we decided the weighing of the pig was the point, but the whole matter of measurement became the dominant discourse. Seems it may remain so today.
The particular mindset and the accompanying deficit-based school accountability and/or school improvement industries have had the effect of reinforcing the depersonalisation, directing the conversation away from what really matters, the student and his/her learning experience. And lest I be immediately rounded on, yes I do believe in improvement and working to change things for the better – but not on the basis of narrow measurements that result in narrowed knowledge and the narrowing of opportunities, especially for the least empowered, all in the name of improvement.
It seems to me that we’ve reached a point where we value what we measure. We can measure literacy and numeracy (sort of), so let’s value that (or the parts we can measure in one quick hit). Why, we can compare schools, and even countries, on that basis! We can measure how many students matriculate to university, so let’s value that. I guess it does make some twisted sense that we have to place high value because there’s been high investment.
But what if value were the first principle, that is, that we measure what we value? The discussion then moves to clarifying and agreeing what we value, and only then, how or if we might be able to measure these things. We say we value learning, for example, but what does that mean; what sort of learning; under what circumstances and for whom?
While I’d been uncomfortable with the prevailing commentary for some time, recently I had a moment of clarity when introduced to student learning dispositions and the work of Professor Ruth Deakin Crick. Here was an example of the valuing learning and then the application of an instrument that would help students recognise and build on the learning – to ‘measure’ but with the purpose of putting the instrument in the hands of students and empowering them to grow their power of learning.
There are excellent teachers and leaders the world over, committed to seeing their students achieve their learning potential. Our educators deserve to be equipped with the best possible means of supporting what makes the real difference for students. It’s time they were provided the autonomy and the wherewithal, that is, the space and meaningful tools, so that they are truly able to identify and value what most counts. The end result may well be students who are not only literate and numerate, but creative, inventive, curious, empathetic, articulate, resilient, independent and empowered.
Image from: http://www.carnegieknowledgenetwork.org/