Assessment is First for the Individual

(not the institution)

It still amazes me how much de-conditioning I have to do with those doing our style of personal, small-group assessments, which are every week for 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning. There is no grade, no penalty, no shame, and no stigma. My rant usually goes something like this:

“Ok, let’s do a quick assessment to see where we are. Remember, this is for you. No need to look at your neighbor, your other code, the Internet, just own it if you don’t know it. Don’t cheat yourself. This is your assessment. Own it. ”

That is the short version. If the group is new I have to rant more:

“We are friends here. We are all going to fail checks. That’s good! Failure is good! Failures show us where our limiters are so we know them and can focus on them. Without pushing to failure we would never know. Your point of failure will be different than another’s for lots of reasons—least of which is your intelligence. Most failure is because of factors related to how much time you put in, how much practice, how much commitment. It does not mean you are a stupid person, a bad person. It might mean you have too many distractions going on to learn this week to week, in which case we can address that. On the other hand, if you get them right it does not mean you are a better person, or even smarter than the rest. It means you did the work to master it. Awesome! Now help the rest. No gloating. Don’t be a jerk. Ok?”

“So, after each check I will come around and look when you raise your hand if you think you have it. If you have it right I’ll let you know. If not I’ll let you know. No one is judging you. Give it your best shot. Go easy on yourself. Note what you still need to learn.”

“Yes this is timed, just to help you know how much you have mastered it. Combined we will figure out how much our entire group needs to focus on a thing and we’ll cover the solution immediately together. In a real way we are a team, except we aren’t competing against anyone but ourselves. I’ll show you all the wrong versions that I saw going around the room. Not to shame anyone, but to inform. We’ll laugh though ‘cuz some of them are funny. They are the most common errors for a reason. If we do not finish the whole assessment in 15 minutes that is fine! The point is to get all of us to the where we are learning what we have yet to master. If you guys want to continue discussing something about the assessment together (instead of project time or the rest of lab) that is totally up to you. Ok, let’s do this! Create a variable …”

Inevitably if the class struggles with something during the assessment they are happy giving up all the project or other remaining time covering it. It bothers them that they have a bit they have yet to master, and it should. They actually want to do more assessments this way until they get it. That is the goal of assessment.

When we have one or more individuals who ace the assessments every week I consider moving them to a group who is equally motivated and spending the same amount of time each week to move at a faster pace. It is not an advanced group but one with individuals who have equally committed nearly the same amount of work and study during the week. As soon as anyone calls such a group advanced you build a stigma. I do not even give the group an additional name, I just note it on the rolls. If I were to give a prefix it would be Accelerated but I really do not even like that, “Accelerated compared to what?”

Traditional Assessment, *Sigh*

I wanna be careful here. Stuff happens for different reasons and is largely no one’s fault, but things can still be horrible. Traditional, institutionalized assessment can be one of those things.

Traditional education has all but forgotten assessment is mostly for the individual in that context. Perhaps once upon a time it had the interests of the learner more in mind. Nowadays, from what I hear from students personally, school assessments practically pit the system and instructors against the students. Paying teachers based on the assessment scores of their students has got to be one of the worst ideas ever forced on these humble educators. It doubles-down on the fallacy that teachers are responsible—and in control— of their student’s learning. These unfortunate facts show that the institution has completely and utterly failed its mission of promoting individual learning and promoting personal responsibility for learning.

Worse yet is that the more students are pitted against their teachers the more animosity and division grows causing the student to further dismiss their desire and responsibility to learn. Years of this create students who are so calloused they check out when the natural desire for all humans is to learn hungrily, aggressively, and responsibly. As Sir Ken says, schools metaphorically beat the creativity and desire to learn out of students and then blame them for being “lazy” and incapable of taking responsibility for their own learning. John Holt agrees.

Other Reasons for Assessment

I agree the volume of individuals passing through the system mandates standardized assessments, but, to me, these are secondary to the assessments that give those learning direct, immediate feedback about where they stand and — when at all possible — an immediate solution and explanation.

Remember the agony of waiting for finals to be graded? For your GMAT or SAT scores to come in the mail? Even waiting until the end of a pop quiz when you know everyone will go over the answers when the quiz is done. Did you ever have to pass your pop quiz to your neighbor to have them grade it? The insanity!

Unfortunately this type of assessment has conditioned so many that walk through our doors that it takes a fair amount of convincing that each of them is the center of their learning, that assessment is for them, that is starts with them, and should be largely controlled by them to maximize its value toward immediate, lasting learning and mastery.

What about tech certifications?

“But Mr. Rob you are encouraging people to get Linux certified, isn’t that an assessment?”

I am open about how dubious I find technology certifications—especially for veteran technologists who should have a body of work or CV packed with projects and outcomes that demonstrate mastery much better than any standardized certification test.

However, for those who are young or breaking into the field, certifications make unfortunate sense because society has decided that such assessments are sufficient measures to prove knowledge and skill (even if they are woahfully out of date every time.)

Clearly society needs assessment for reasons beyond helping the individual learn and improve. But these reasons are secondary. Certifications fall into that category. I certainly do not want an un-certified EMT working on me in the ambulance, or a surgeon without a degree, or a lawyer who has not passed the Barr, or a cabby without a driver’s license.

How do we change?

I have no idea. One parent pointed out that the type of personalized assessments we do cannot be done in a school class of 40 people. She’s absolutely right. There is a much bigger problem blocking such personalized assessments on which it all depends. The answer is smaller—I mean really smaller—learning groups. Our society doesn’t like that. It will take radical revolution to get to a point where teachers become facilitators and parents take a more active, immediate role in education. Thankfully that revolution is already underway. Every day I see homeschoolers dominating. They are moving faster and in ways no institution could ever reproduce. Yes, I believe the future of education is home schooling and cafeteria education options that respond to both market demand and current skill bases. If it is in your power at all to do so, take your kids out of school and homeschool them. That’s how we change. Perhaps you disagree. If so, make your case in the comments. I would love an open dialog on this topic.