Monday, October 25, 2010

Steve Smith's Assessment Journey

I started teaching in a volunteer ESL Program for a local church that was next to the University of Washington which I was attending as an undergraduate. I spent the first week doing a lot of exercises I had found in an ESL instructional book of which many were written. I was working with a group of Hmong. It wasn't until the second week that I realized that many of the students were illiterate in their own language. Much of what I had been doing had been worthless. I realized there was more to this teaching and learning business then I had realized.

After graduating, I moved to Ecuador, South America. I taught English and eventually became the director of a language and cultural center. I was responsible for 30 Spanish and English instructors many of whom had no teaching experience. I began to research teaching and learning strategies. I started to wonder if there were a systematic way to approach teaching and learning.

After 5 years we returned to the US. I started teaching computers. I also started a master’s program in adult education. Instructional design, Knowles’ principles of Andragogy, Gagne’s 9 Instructional Events, Constructionist theories of teaching and learning opened my eyes to a whole new vision of teaching and learning. I also was introduced to assessment through Kilpatrick's 4 levels of evaluation. While now outdated, it transformed how I viewed evaluation. Can the student do the learning task in class was only the beginning. Can they perform it outside the class without classroom support and finally the most important and hardest to assess; did the learning solve the original problem? I realized that what I did inside the classroom needed to be assessed at least in part on what the student could do outside the classroom. This was a monumental shift in how I viewed teaching and learning. I started to believe that if it could be measured, it could be learned and that instead of a Bell curve of grading my expectations were that everyone could succeed if I applied the appropriate instructional design principles.

I taught off and on in various formats including distance learning for the next 10 years. Recently, I finished the coursework for a PhD in Community College Leadership. In this program I was introduced to the concepts of Chaos Theory, Freire’s Transformational and Social Critical theories of learning, Qualitative vs. Quantitative research, living systems and Wheatley’s application to organizations. I realized that I had become too reductionist in my teaching and learning. I needed a more holistic approach. Some things are hard to measure and when you try to measure them, they change.

These experiences have shaped my view of assessment. I believe in the concept of assessing learning based on what the students can do “out there”. I believe that we need to measure not only what goes on in our classroom but also the larger core outcomes. This process is messy and we may not always be able to cleanly assess some of the critical learning components which happen in our classrooms such as the student is more confident, more engaged in their own learning, open to new ideas, more excited about continuing with their education and more willing to take emotional and intellectual risks. These are the mana from heaven that we seek out as teachers but may not be able to necessarily assess. I believe we owe it to our students to keep struggling to find the right balance of assessing with realizing that learning is not necessarily the sum total of its parts. Assessment is not an either or but rather an and/and focus. We need to assess to continue to grow and improve as an institution while allowing room and time for those things which are difficult to assess to flourish.

Steve Smith is the director of Curriculum Support Services


  1. Steve--thanks for this snapshot of your wide-ranging "assessment journey." Whew--what a trip! You make several points worth elaboration and I hope you can go into more detail in some future posts. For now, let me ask just a few fast questions:

    1. You say that "Some things are hard to measure and when you try to measure them, they change." Indeed, I believe you would also be prepared to say that some things are impossible to measure--as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, some parts of Chaos Theory, and other sources confirm. Given the inter-subjective nature of teaching and learning, do you think that there is any necessary dimension of that enterprise that defies measurement?

    2. You say: "We need to assess to continue to grow and improve as an institution while allowing room and time for those things which are difficult to assess to flourish." Frankly, I am unclear what you mean to say in the latter half of that sentence. And the first part of that sentence appears to be a bit presumptuous given the long history of the development and advancement of teaching and learning--for about the past 3,000 years in both the Western and Eastern wisdom traditions. Have you read "The Idea of a University" by John H. Newman--or any similar account of the progress in higher education? Do you think this history of progressive development was due to an assessment program like the one you say we now need to continue to grow and improve? Is it possible that institutions of learning have progressed--for the greater part of recorded history--in large part because they fostered a culture of continuous learning, reflection and self-assessment, and open and candid communications?

    Steve, I look forward to learning your replies.

  2. Thank you for taking time to comment.

    I am not sure i completely understand the first question ie "Given the inter-subjective nature of teaching and learning, do you think that there is any necessary dimension of that enterprise that defies measurement?" However, i will give it a try.

    My understanding of the inter-subjective nature of teaching and learning is that it is about a hermeneutic process where meaning and value are constructed collaboratively often through dialog and not as a one way instructor as provider of the knowledge or correct way.

    I believe I talked about some of the things that would be hard to measure. All of these are part of the inter-subjective nature of teaching and learning. However, in a community college technical field there are content related outcomes that lend themselves to measurement. Whether the method/process is inter-subjective or drill. The nursing task is to be able to find the vein properly. The outcome is to provide appropriate healthcare.

    Measuring outcomes such as self reflection, problem solving and communication become messier. Manifestations of each of these can certainly be measured but whether that measures real progress/success or is simply a chimera is still debatable.

    As to your second point, I have not read "The idea of University". I believe that the reason we have developed and advanced in education is the willingness to challenge the status quo and explore new ideas. In my view it is too early to know whether outcomes and assessment will provide rich information and dialog or more busywork.


  3. Joseph.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to Steve's blog. ( I liked Steve 's response to your good questions.... I read Steve as saying it is too early in the outcomes-and-assessment era to tell if all this fluster is worth the trouble. I like that answer...Honest, open-minded, real....)

    But I want add a little something here. You mention the 3,000 year history of education. This takes our conversation in a different direction.
    You are asking us to reflect on this question:

    What does the history of education tell us?

    This is an important question, and I'd like to respond to i..

    I teach philosophy, and am grateful for the chance I had to get a liberal education -- the kind that Newman describes and extols in the book you mention. (I was also raised Catholic, including coming through Catholic schools, and so I am the beneficiary of the ideal of education kept alive through Catholic institutions.) But for me, entering academics in the 1970s, my sense of delight at the great thoughts of the great thinkers was continually challenged. Why?

    Because education was presumed by my teachers to be for men only.

    Many of the benefits of an education are hard to measure, but they habitual self-reflection, a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness, a propensity to revise settled beliefs on the basis of new evidence.

    If this is true, then how could people devoted to the cultivation of those traits ALSO be the ones churning out the justifications for slavery? for keeping women in the kitchens or fields (anywhere but the classrooms)? How can the the Catholic Church, with its long and distinguished history of creating scholars and the places for scholarship, still be working to keep women in a second class status?

    The work that led to undermining the myths supporting slavery and women's demeaned status in the West did not come from the heart of the Academy. The early voices were marginalized and made fun of...In my youth professors routinely poked fun at the few academic voices daring to call into question the incredible misogyny and racism of the greats, like Aristotle and Plato. I have heard women students complain that this goes on still....

    I love logic enough to teach it, but I am perpetually aware that the Logician Himself (Aristotle) was an especially articulate and educated racist and sexist. As a result I am enamored of the idea that we need to set up ways to monitor ourselves as scholars and educators. And we need to have ongoing communication channels between the community of scholars and the broader community lest we again fall into a kind of self-benefiting elitism characteristic of the best thinkers of the Universities in times past.

    I believe the University, like so many things created by humans, is both wondrous and horrific. It has parts that serve as shining beacons, calling us to our highest possibilities. And it has parts that are ugly and tragic. Academic complicity in exploitation of those outside the university walls is part of the longstanding tragedy.

    Each generation is responsible to maintain the best of what we have inherited, while working diligently to ensure what we leave for those who come next will be better. It is our turn now. We must do our parts.

    I believe assessment has the potential to help us be ever better. As one fan of institutional assessment puts it: We need to shorten our feedback loops.

    It may be simplistic, but I have a fantasy and I never get tired of playing it in my head.

    In my fantasy, Aristotle set up pre- and post- tests in logic classes, and included girls. He discovered (contrary to popular opinion and his own firm conviction) that girls could think. He filed his program review, and asked for additional resources for his department to do out reach to "the ladies."

    As a result of Aristotle's assessment plan, we saved ourselves a couple thousand years of sexist oppression.

    It was 2000+ years before Aristotle's mistake got corrected. Don't let your SAC make the same sort of mistake....