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 While now outdated, it transformed how I viewed evaluation.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