Trying to measure learning is absurd because there is no dualism between the student and the world

“When we measure something we are forcing an undetermined, undefined world to assume an experimental value. We are not ‘measuring’ the world, we are creating it.” —Niels Bohr, recipient of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics and contributor to our understanding of quantum theory.

Last week, I led a staff workshop to launch a new initiative. Like many people, I always feel trepidation when I endeavor to lead a group of people who aren’t quite sure what to expect: all the reading, thinking, preparation, discussions, re-thinking, organization, anticipation, reflection, reevaluation… everything that goes into the (bouncing and) communication of an idea or plan and its implementation unfolds in a small amount of time and success and failure of the entire project hinge on a few factors, often unforeseeable, always context-dependent and group- and individual-specific. How staff receive the initiative or how much it makes a difference to their practice, the school, learning or whatever the intent, all of this will be largely out of my control. The dialectic between me (that is, my actions) and the infinite externalities will lead to a result, and this result takes form because of this dialectic. It is important to remember that my actions do not exist in isolation, exclusively in themselves; there is always a reaction (more likely a probability than a cleansed Newtonian certainty). There is no separating my actions from a reaction and this creates a dynamic that becomes independent. That does not mean that there is a dualism, on the contrary, the dynamic ensures that there is one system, one whole*. When we assess students and give them marks, we are imagining a dualism, and this is unrealistic and absurd. Stick with me as I unpack this.

When I presented last week, I didn’t have a rubric. No one marked me on my performance: organization, diction, use of terminology, critical thinking, or anything else. I didn’t even get any formal feedback—which is the case in many of our experiences in the workplace. In fact, my performance in itself doesn’t even matter. What does matter is how much of a positive difference, how much impact, the initiative will have, how well it will meet its goals, and (eventually) how much of a ripple effect it will have on the community to shift their thinking and actions, which will carry over onto new initiatives. As the initiative unfolds and other factors come into play, success of the initiative depends on variables that are farther and farther in time and space from the idea’s conception, and as this distance increases, more external factors come into play over which I have no control. It is a confluence of factors that will determine the outcome and spillover of any action and this confluence begins before the action itself. We can influence this flow to some extent, but we can’t direct it completely. The workshop set the tone, but then it takes on a life of its own.

It’s the same thing with having children. It’s the same thing coaching a sports team. It’s the same thing playing poo sticks. The result is largely out of your control, no matter how well you think you did on reflection; your actions only exist as part of a dynamic within a whole that is greater than yourself. So why do we pretend that we can assess students as if they existed independently of the whole, as if their skills could be measured independently?

Even if we don’t go beyond that day I led the workshop, or even that hour, any value the experience had will be subsumed within the lifespan of the initiative, which exists outside of my performance (how well I led the workshop in terms of skills) and my control. Yes, I had to be organized, confident, clear, engaging, logical, realistic, challenging and all the other qualities that make an effective communicator, nay, influencer. Yet what matters is not so much me and what I did, but what I did as part of a dynamic with the staff and the impact I (and so many other variables) had on them: how would they receive the idea, how would they internalize it, how would it fit their views, their needs, their aspirations? My presentation to launch the initiative only exists insofar as the experience the participants had and on what they take from that experience. The presentation doesn’t exist if there isn’t an audience and it is the impact on the audience that matters, not my presentation in itself. Think of the last time you heard someone speak. Did you assess them on their skills as a presenter or did you think about how their skills as a presenter affected you and what you got out of the experience? Think of the last time you read a book. Did you assess the pilot or the style in itself or as factors of how the book made you feel?

In fact, more that the presentation, workshop, or book, it’s the memories created and later retrieved that matter. Even these memories are beyond my actions and control: they will be shaped by the participants’ or readers’ interactions not only with me, but with their colleagues and the spaces they through which they move and exit afterward. As soon as I deliver the workshop (in that micro-moment) my performance is out of my hands. Already what matters entirely is not what I did, what I said, how I said it, but how each individual in the room perceived the experience, understood the message, fit it into their schemata. Furthermore, what take away from the experience and how memories are created and survive in themselves are shaped by the banter around the water cooler. Someone volunteers an opinion and that will influence your memory of the experience.

That’s assuming that all went as I planned. Anyone who has presented more than once knows that things always happen to throw you off your game: technology falters, the room is too hot, people show up late… for me it was that someone forgot to order snacks; the remnant murmurings of an announcement about contracts and salaries; and a text received right before the hour informing me of a problem in another part of the school that I needed to tend to right away (buy couldn’t because I was here). None of these were in my control, yet these affected my performance, that is, my workshop leadership. 

Nothing we do exists in isolation, independent of outside variables. Our reality is the result of our dynamic interaction with external factors and the unique perspective(s) we have that make(s) sense of these interactions in that micro-moment. There is no dualism. As such, why are we assessing students on skills knowledge, holding them accountable when their performance—on a writing task, a speech, a video, a whatever—does not exist outside of the context in which these were created and occurred? Charlotte learned that her grandfather passed away the morning of her A levels. My son Nico had not missed a single day of school due to illness in nine years yet the day of his math final he had a fever and should have stayed home, but he still wanted to sit the exam (guess how well he performed). You, reader, certainly have a tale to tell about how something happened on your way to work one day… 

The idea that outside factors distort assessment data is not new, yet somehow we continue to gratify, reify, and sanctify assessment, we continue to tell ourselves and each other that it matters. Assessment of any kind is subjective and can only measure what exists in the context and structure of the assessment-creator and the assessment conditions. Assessment inherently constrains how the person assessed can demonstrate their understanding, which can’t be demonstrated completely anyway since learning mostly happens at sub-conscious levels. More to the point, the assessor is looking to measure factors created outside the person being assessed, even if the criteria are co-created (let’s think about he power relationships here).

This is old news and not the real point I want to make. There is nothing wrong with assessment for learning, so long as we acknowledge that we can neither control learning nor its outcomes. Learning is when experience changes our behaviors in a future experience. It is future-focused. If new behaviors do not take hold, there is no learning and the experience is conceptually non-existent , which underscores further the absurdity of high stakes assessment that are supposed to be the summation of learning, that is, backward-looking.

From Buddhism to string theory, if we accept that we are nothing more than vibrations, then we are not permanent and if we are not permanent, then how can we measure learning? The learner is not the same person the moment after the assessment takes place. If we don’t know where the word “cat” is stored in our brain**, how can we pretend to understand how deeply learning occurs? If we are trying to measure learning to hold schools accountable, then we are building castles in the sky. We exist as part of a dynamic interaction and not outside the whole. There is no dualism. Hence it is absurd to try to measure learning as if it existed in itself, independent of the whole.

Going back to my workshop, which marked the launch of an initiative, I cannot control the contextual variations and surprises. I cannot control the mood with which the participants entered the room or what happened at work that day. I can barely control the temperature or lighting of the room, if I’m lucky. Why should I be assessed on my “presentation” the way students are assessed if what really matters is whether the initiative, over the longer term, is successful, however we conceptualize that today and however that conceptualization changes, if so it must.

It is our legacy that matters, our impact through the totality of our work. There are too many factors that come into play to isolate my actions individually and anyway to try to do so is absurd.  

All I can do is contribute to maximizing the positive impact I have on the initiative, of which my workshop is only one factor, one piece of the puzzle. What matters is how I help my own cause by influencing those directly and indirectly involved in the initiative. I can be held accountable, and that is in a large way how I am assessed (the word is appraised when we use it in professional contexts), but it is at a macro-level, not a micro-level. Specifically and crucially, I am not assessed directly on how I perform in isolation, but on how my performance impacts (positively, negatively, at all) others or a project. I am assessed based on the results of my actions, whose quality is partially dependent on my skills.

I am assessed on how I use my skills to achieve my objectives, not on my skills themselves.

If we turn the mirror around, ask yourself: is your appraisal at work based directly on your skills for writing, multiplying, public speech, keeping a journal in order, recalling facts, or designing an experiment? Or even, throwing in the popular “21st century skills” of collaboration, critical thinking, or creativity? Your appraisal most likely does not hinge on any of these skills. Whether you get a high or low set of marks at work probably depends on your ability to use these skills appropriately and when needed to meet certain objectives that (hopefully) have been set in advance. You are required to go into your toolkit of skills and make things happen, have impact. Not many people out there will get a promotion if they’re fantastic writers but no one reads what they produce or if what they write has no impact or relevance. No one will excel on the job if they have strong critical thinking skills but never say a word in meetings, never collaborate, or are never able to influence others. You may struggle to maintain nurturing relationships if you can recall facts and have creative ideas but put people down and praise your own intelligence. Sure, you will tell me that it’s the use of all these skills that matter, but that makes my point. Everything is connected and part of the whole so by deconstruct it. 

There is no metric to measure kindness.

Maybe we should stop pretending that students’ output exists in isolation of context do, but every time we assess skills and knowledge we play into the system. Maybe we should focus only on feedforward—just useful, pertinent, individualized, caring feedforward—given as close to the moment of action as possible. Michal Bunce considers learning a dynamic, oscillating process and illustrates this by considering the violinist, who makes micro-adjustments as and when needed, in the moment to improve (part of the process of learning) the quality of the sound she is outputting. 

Much like a laptop is outdated as soon as you purchase it, marks are irrelevant as soon as the teacher records them because the micro-moment after the assessment, new experiences have contributed to the student’s learning and the marks are no longer accurate. The learner has moved on. Add to this that the marks have questionable value since they are reductive symbols for achievement based on synthetic criteria that are distinct from the learner or the learner’s potential and they do not take into account context, which is indissociable from performance.

The solution is to abandon assessment of skills and knowledge and focus on the impact of thoughts and actions on the self, the community, and others. No assessment does not mean no feedforward, but it does mean looking at impact over a longer term. The solution is to think of skills not as ends in themselves, but as tools that help us achieve our goals, which should systematically take into account context and what cannot be controlled. This is what will give learners purpose. This is what will nurture intrinsic motivation. This is what will create cultures of action as we transform the potential energy (skills) into kinetic energy (action that has impact).

I believe we should focus exclusively on thought and action that contribute to the welfare of the bio-collective. This means we move beyond student-centric mindsets and work together toward a common purpose (the healthfulness of the planet and all living beings), requiring us to abandon the concept of the individual (and the dualism it entails). This is the only way we will overcome the threat of the Anthropocene. This means that assessing skills and knowledge will be thing of the past.

I don’t know if I did a good job leading the workshop last week. I did get informal feedback from colleagues (we want this), but ultimately, I will be appraised (assessed) on a result that is largely out of my control. I can only do my best to anticipate, channel, and react to the factors that will lead toward or away from success.  Hopefully the initiative will work out and I will do my best make it successful. But it’s out of my hands. It’s in the staff’s hands. If my fate is somewhat out of my control, why should we accept a system that does any differently for our students?

* I reject dualism as I embrace the praxis of post-humanism. Anthropocentrism, which post-humanism overcomes, rigidly defines identity based on closed notions of “us/them,” “me/you,” “friend/foe,” and “human/animal/plant.” Accepting that there are a infinite number of equally valuable perspectives, I believe, takes us closer to resolving the Big Three issues (climate disruption, socio-economic injustice, and the precariousness of relations among beings) than perpetuating divides.

**See my conversation with Thom Markham.

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