What should assessment mean?

Looking at assessment differently!

So far today (and its not even yet midday) I have experienced two contrasting learning experiences.  I achieved the lowest mark I’ve yet had on one of my MSc assignments and I also achieved Clown Pose and headstand in my yoga lesson.  It’s my regular day off from work today so later on I will have my piano lesson and we’ll see what that brings with it.

I was pretty upset about my assignment grade (although it’s a pass so no worries there).  I cheered myself up by thinking about what I would expect one of my own students to do in a similar situation.  I would want them to take some time to unpick what the problems were with the assignment.  I would expect them to come back to me if there were parts of my feedback that they didn’t understand.  Making this about someone else was a helpful way of giving me a little distance and to help me think about what I need to do in reaction to the immediate situation of the assignment grade.

I also gained a little perspective and cheered up a bit by thinking about what lessons I could take from this experience into my own teaching practice.  As a quick win I think I will try and make clear to my students that they need to approach me if they are unclear about any of my feedback.  I already try and give them tools for evaluating their own performance when they have attempted questions and I try and stress the importance of this part of the process for their overall learning.

I teach on “test prep” courses and for my students there is a clear split between the assessments that are part of the learning experience and the final testing that will give them the qualification they are working for.  Yesterday a tweet linking through to this blog posting by Seth Roberts caught my eye.  He argues for broader criteria for assessing students.  In the context of my assignment grade I think there are a couple of problems.  The learning aspect of assessment has been combined with the final quality assurance aspect of assessment and I think that it impedes the process of learning from assignments when they have the added jeopardy of contributing to the overall course grading.  I also think that the assessment has taken a snap shot only part way through the learning cycle.

If I get a chance to influence the design of assessment I would change things so that there was a two part process when formative and summative assessment is combined.  First the traditional submission and grading of an assignment, then a chance for the student to reflect and improve the piece, then review and grading by their peers.  All three stages, including the students own reflection on the initial feedback could feed into the final grading.

What does any of this have to do with my yoga lesson?  In yoga I am constantly assessing myself and being assessed by my teacher (who is demonstrating Headstand in the video).  It’s assessment that helps move my practice along, because it’s not about me doing some fancy yoga pose perfectly, its about my understanding and awareness in the pose improving.  In yoga my performance is partly assessed against the ideal that I am working towards, but more importantly it is assessed in the context of were I have come from and where I am today.  It is an understanding assessment and as such it is one that is more useful in helping me attain my potential.


Seth Roberts blog is at http://blog.sethroberts.net/2011/12/01/bryan-caplan-disses-college/

You can see Joss Guin teaching headstand on a windy day at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXTk6_ibVH0


Pedagogy: a word that really annoys me

Definition (from wiktionary):

1. The profession of teaching.

2. The activities of educating, teaching or instructing.

3. The strategies of instruction.

The first reason that the word pedagogy really annoys me is that it’s spelt wrong. If you are in the UK writing for a UK audience then I think you should use UK spellings unless you are quoting an author who is applying their own native spelling. So why can’t we stick to paedagogy? (My spell checker is really annoying me now by viciously putting a red squiggle under paedagogy). This might sound like the trivial rant of an aging pedant. Actually it’s the desperate cry of a weak speller trying to meet the standards expected by her tutors. The vagaries of UK versus US spelling have been one of the main stumbling blocks I have contended with studying for an MSc. I have never been a strong speller but I try and employ strategies to overcome this. But are what are you meant to do when academic articles are inconsistent in the spelling that they employ. I know English is a constantly changing language and I would not want to see it ossify, but if you’ve got a word whose spelling (in UK English at least) shows its Greek roots then that’s one of the strategies us poor spellers can use to get it right. But “pedagogies” and “paediatricians” in the same spelling system – its just confusing.

What is “pedagogy”? Some awful mash-up of Latin and Greek meaning a strategy for leading feet?

Paedagog on the other hand makes sense. Child leader, teacher.

The main thing that really annoys me about the word “pedagogy” (or more often “pedagogies”) is that it’s a word that is most often used by people who are not leading children at all. It has currency in the world of higher education where it is bandied about all over the place. 18 year olds may have many child-like qualities but they are not actually children. So the teachers going on about “pedagogies” are often teaching adults, which presents its own challenges. Those challenges are not the same as the challenges of teaching children whose ability to learn difficult concepts is developing as they grow cognitively.

So why use the word “pedagogy” at all? Arguably it captures the “strategies of instruction” element of the definition. But so does “teaching strategies”. I would argue that what you lose in having to type two words instead of one you gain in clarity. I am sure I am not the only teacher who hears the word “pedagogies” and has to mentally translate it. That, I think, is the nubbins of why it gets used so widely in particular circles. It is to make the user look clever and specifically cleverer than all us poor saps having to make a mental translation. In some circumstances I am all for using long words to look clever. I have been known to use the “epistemological” without a safety net. “Epistemological” is a groovy word for something that would be quite long winded in simpler English. “Pedagogies” is just…annoying.

Its annoying because of the disconnect between what it is describing and what it does in use. It is describing a process of helping learners but it actively impedes understanding.

Can’t we stick to “teaching”?