Teachers as Trust Agents: Time to Re-Assess Assessment

I wonder if social media and social networking will make it possible to chuck out grading altogether.

The only reason letter grades or percentages or any other scale for that matter exist, so far as I can tell, is to act as a sort of handy shorthand for passing around information on enormous numbers of students. Let’s save a critique of Western education for another time (in the meantime you might want to read Hilda Neatby’s So Little For the Mind) so I can say without getting sidetracked that it is essentially an industrial or commercial enterprise; that is it is designed to move large numbers of inputs through the box. We all have to admit that it’s done rather well at this–just compare literacy rates from 150 years ago to tday. But one of the tings it had to do to make this success possible was to create a simple way of passing information about all these students from one teacher to the next, and from one school to the next as students matriculate through the system–hence grades.

As a teacher and administrator, I for one have never found grades, whether letters, percentages or any other scale, to be very useful information. Sure, I can assume some correlation between the grade and the student’s understanding of our Ministry’s prescribed learning outcomes. But what does an “A” or “B” mean when a student comes from another jurisdiction? Or, for that matter, what do they mean coming from different schools or different teachers who will all teach differently, apply standards differently and assess differently? An “A” doesn’t tell me anything specific about a student’s strengths and weakness.

One response here has been to adopt national standardized tests, even though these, as we know, are frought with problems. The standardized test was the only possible solution in a system that had to matriculate large numbers of students from an increasingly mobile population and do so in a world where communication was slow and restrictive–the pipeline was narrow, let’s say. When I was going to grade school, information went by mail or telephone.

But social media and networking dramatically change the situation. The internet pipeline is enormous and getting fatter by the day. Not only is it possible to get in touch with large numbers of people all over the world directly, it’s increasingly easy to check their reputations. Anyone who has asked for information on a product on Twitter understand what I mean here.

So, it seems to me that we ought to be able to leverage this in education. I imagine a world where teachers earn a digital reputation for doing their jobs well and so when they say a student is ready to move on in math, for example, we can trust them. If I have specific questions, I should be able to contact the teacher directly. I should also be able to bring the student into the conversation.

This makes for another fundamental shift. Over the last century or two of modern Western education’s life, we’ve tried to make assessment objective in the belief that this was better. (See C.S. Lewis’ lovely little Meditations in a Toolshed ) But, speaking as a parent of two kids who’ve now put K12 behind them and are now in university, I never wanted objective reporting; I want intensely subjective reporting from someone I trust and whose opinion I value highly. Social media & networking might just makes this possible on a large scale.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    mreakin February 9, 2012

    I absolutely agree that subjective assessment is more valuable than any number or letter can provide. For it to be valuable though it requires not just a trust in the teacher but for the teacher to trust in their abilities as well.I remember the transition from giving a percentage (completely objective) to a level on the MYP rubrics (much more subjective) on a math test to be a matter of confidence as a teacher. When giving a percentage and a student or parent questions the mark a teacher can just respond that’s what it adds up to. In the words of the under-appreciated philosopher Todd Bertuzzi, “it is what it is” and the teacher can be absolved of real justification. In the subjective world, you have to be ready and willing to justify every judgement you make as a teacher and that requires a certain level of confidence in your abilities as a teacher. This can take time to build but the results are a much more authentic assessment of a student which is, of course, our goal.

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