A damaging divorce

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

During the years our kids were at school this was an all too familiar conversation…

Dad: How’s it going for you at school at the moment?

Daughter: Great! I just handed in my project for our Social Studies topic

Dad: That’s good to hear. How do you think you’ll go?

Daughter: I don’t know – I’ll have to wait until I get it back from the teacher!

Dad: But surely you have some idea of what to expect? Did you complete everything required?

Daughter: I’m pretty sure I did

Dad: Did you address all of the criteria?

Daughter: Criteria?

Dad: Yes. The things that you were expected to demonstrate. The things that your teacher (presumably) will be checking agains when it is marked.

Daughter: I don’t know. All we were told was that we had to choose a famous leader and do a project about them.

Dad: So what was the purpose of the project? What was it about the leader or their leadership you were supposed to be writing about?

Daughter: I don’t really know. Probably something to do with what we were studying in class – the actions and impact of different leaders around the world in times of crisis.

Dad: So it’s likely then that your teacher will be looking for how the leader you have chosen acted in a specific time of crisis?

Daughter: Possibly. We really don’t know until we get our projects back.

Whoever thought that separating learning from assessment was a good idea? How could we contemplate divorcing these two, such inter-twined dimensions of the learning process? But it has happened, and in the process we’ve negatively impacted on the entire learning process and the confidence of our learners to achieve what they aspire to do.

It is an unfortunate consequence of the industrial approach to education that we have separated out component parts of the teaching and learning process. We treat them as independent components to be administered and measured separately, assuming that if this is done with sufficient rigour, they will combine to create the perfect whole – like links in a chain.

Commenting on teaching, assessment and quality assurance in higher education, David Schejbal claims; “The process of assessment must be more structured and formal than the learning process if the purpose of the assessment process is the assurance that students have mastered a given discipline. After all, instructors [teachers] have no idea if their students are actually learning, regardless of how good their lectures [lessons] or other instructional materials might be.”

It’s easy to think that this is a view shared only in our tertiary sector, but I see evidence of this thinking so often in the planning approaches being used in schools also. Lesson or unit planning templates follow the pattern of defining the objectives/goals/purposes at the beginning, followed by a description of what will be taught – informed by all sorts of pedagogical approaches selected to fit the sort of learning activity or task. At the end of the plan there is usually some sort of statement about assessment, along the lines of either using some sort of test (internal or external) or marking a piece of work submitted at the conclusion of the set lesson/unit time.

It’s almost as thought the assessment is an after-thought, an add-on to the actual learning activity. Seldom do I see evidence of the assessment criteria being shared with learners at the beginning of the process (unless you count the achievement standards for NCEA that are available online anyway), and even less frequently do I see evidence of students co-creating the assessment indicators and using them through the learning process to inform their progress and decision making in the learning journey.

Separating assessment and instructional functions are the first step to adequately and successfully scaling higher education and setting students up to succeed in the modern environment.

David Schejbal | President, Excelsior College

Despite the growing support for an emphasis on assessment for learning, and even, assessment as learning, we continue to see the dominant role that external assessments and standardised testing has in our schools and classrooms. The separating out of the assessment of learning as something that is done after the teaching is completed is etched deep into the psyche of many educators.

For so many learners in our schools their learning simply involves following a set of instructions to complete a task (an essay, carry out some research, make a movie etc) that is set by the teacher. If they have a good teacher, the task will be presented in the form of a challenge or activity that provides a high level of intrinsic motivation, linked with things that genuinely interest and engage them. There’s certainly no shortage of examples of inspiring, engaging learning activities to find in schools at all levels. But engagement is only part of the story.

GWITTH vs DEEP learning

Meaningful learning, deep learning, occurs when we engage students directly in assessing their own progress, and in the process, helping then develop critical thinking and analysis skills. This approach also helps students internalize knowledge, turning what and how they learn into a well of resources they can use in the future.

So why is it that we persist in separating out the assessment from the learning? Why the reluctance to share the full details of the assessment process with our learners for them to use to guide them through the learning journey? Or even more challenging, why don’t we negotiate these things with the learner at the outset of the learning experience, providing them with the frameworks and sills they can use .

Unless we do these things the purpose of the learning task, no matter how engaging, remains something of a mystery to the learner, and the assessment itself a case of submitting what they’ve done to the teacher and waiting for a grade/mark/comment to be returned. (A process referred to in my family as GWITTH learning – “Guess What’s In The Teacher’s Head”).

This is unfortunate because that’s not the way human systems work. It’s definitely not the way learning systems work. Building on what we understand now about human and social development, how relationships are formed and sustained, and about innovation and creativity, the evidence is clear that we operate more as an ecosystem than as a production line. Indeed, the concept of ecosystems is now embraced by the technology world as they seek to understand how to build technology systems that are more aligned with human systems.

It’s also unfortunate because this sort of approach is completely inadequate in terms of equipping our young people to live, learn and work in an increasingly complex and uncertain future.

Parts to whole – or whole to parts?

In our drive to raise achievement, to ensure quality and to apply measurement to everything we do, we’ve implicitly embraced the deconstructionist legacy of Taylorism, robbing our learners of the joy of learning.

Look no further than what has happened when standards were introduced. Approaches to planning and teaching became focused on these, using them as the framework for programmes in schools. Students traded enjoying the delight of reading a mystery story or designing solutions to authentic problems for lessons focused on specific standards in literacy, numeracy etc.

Then there’s what we’ve done to NCEA. Most commonly I see term plans that look something like; weeks 1-4 achievement standard 2.4, weeks 5-8 achievement standards 2.7 and 2.10 and in weeks 9 -10 revision and assessments. i.e. the standards have become the de-facto syllabus.

I’ve only encountered a handful of schools where the focus at a senior level is on truly engaged, deep and meaningful learning – often cross-curricular and team taught – where the assessments are made based on the evidence learners produced. This sort of approach creates opportunities for all learners to experience meaningful success by matching the evidence they have to the requirements of different achievement standards – and those standards may be different and at different levels for the same group.

Of course, many will argue that there is heaps of engaged, deep learning happening in secondary schools – and I agree. But in countless interviews I have done over the years, the examples of this provided by students (and teachers) generally point to the extra-curricular activities carried out by students – the drama production, the robotics club and competitions, the debating team competition etc. The question then is, why can’t this sort of learning be the mainstream – the substance of what occurs regularly in our classrooms, providing the opportunity to demonstrate skills, knowledge and competencies in context and use these as evidence for assessment?

When posing such challenges I’m frequently reminded by principals and teachers of the reality in schools. That there are only so many hours in the day, there is a requirement to cover what is in the curriculum, the constraints of time and classroom space aren’t conducive to collaborative teaching, that external pressures (parents, ERO, MoE) demand success as measured by achievement results etc. etc. All of which is true – and all of which points even more to our unquestioning compliance with the principles of Taylorism and the mindset of the learning and assessment divorce we’ve bought into.


While making the case here for assessment as part of the learning process, I am not saying that there is never a place for some sort of summative assessment that occurs at the end of a learning cycle. The current Olympic games are an example of this in ‘real life’. Taking part in the final sprint, gymnastics performance or swimming race is an ‘all or nothing’ demonstration of the particular skill and ability of the athlete. But in training it’s likely that the link between the learning and the assessment will have involved iterative cycles of reflection and improvement throughout.

Similarly, as we work with young people to build their fundamental skills in literacy and numeracy, there is a place for being focused on the specific strategies that will give them success. But if these are divorced from the context of the things that interest them, the connections with their own culture and language, or the ways they understand the world, then we end up simply treating them as objects on the assembly line, seeking to bring them up to a ‘standard’ imposed by ‘the system’.

Summative assessments such as exams or final practicums have their place as a final demonstration of the skill/knowledge that has been learned, but not as the only approach to assessment, and certainly not the most effective approach of using assessment to nurture growth and improvement.

Let’s bring the passion, the joy and the rigour back into our classrooms for all of our learners – and teachers! Let’s re-connect assessment with the learning process and empower everyone with the tools and capabilities to use assessment as a part of the learning process. No more GWITTH learning please.

One thought on “A damaging divorce

  1. Absolutely. A wise mentor once said…rich teaching and learning cedes artifacts that are assessible. In my last teaching post, switching the focus to the exploration and critiquing of literature and choosing, in conversation with the student, which standard was the best one to show their understanding ceded far better results and gave students some confidence to tackle the standards and skills they were less confident with. ( inspired by a workshop presented by Wellington Girls’ College English teachers.)
    Now I am in the tertiary space, where I started as an assessment specialist. I have had the opportunity to explore current assessment approaches that are being developed(l am a fan of Boud et al at Deakin University) that have the potential to improve the student experience of assessment and to measure skills beyond the ability to write academic essays.

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