This picture is the actual view I was confronted with, walking into our local community college gym, aged 16. A place where we had played volleyball, netball and cricket was now being used to measure how much we knew about the things we had spent our school lives practically doing inside this hall, to see if I could pass GCSE PE. It is now clearly ironic the amount of time that we spent actively exerting ourselves and demonstrating competency in the ‘doing’ of the skill was now going to be measured by writing down everything we knew about it in 2hrs to double check we knew what we were supposed to know. The previous 24hrs before this vista had seen me cramming the information written on tiny ‘flash cards’ into my short term memory, even up to the walk down the corridor to find my seat I was memorising the diagrams I had drawn about things I don’t remember now, and haven’t really thought about since. It was probably erased from my memory as I already had spent the previous 48hrs remembering everything I needed to know that might come up in the test about Alfred Hitchcock and the film ‘Psycho’ for a media studies exam (sadly the copy of the film I had was recorded from the TV on VHS and missed the opening sequence, unfortunately the main question in the exam was ‘In the opening sequence of the film, describe the symbolism used to depict the narrative texts used in the film’), I’m not sure how I even managed to pass media studies with a B+, but the whole experience traumatised me enough to never want to watch any Hitchcock again and also forget most of the things I crammed into my brain over those intense stress ridden 2 weeks. (By the way I took the picture at my old school, Pilton Community College while I was relieving at the school years later if anyone is thinking, ‘how did Tim sneak a camera into the exam hall in 1998, they were hard to conceal in your clearfile pencil case?!)
Anyway beyond nostalgia I’d like to think that education and also assessment has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, however, I’m not confident that it has - you could probably go into your school hall at the start of this summer and you’d be confronted with a similar scene? Even now you might even be thinking about how you are going to train your senior students to be able to ‘endurance hand-write’ for 3hrs in their English Lit exam, as all they do now is prod at phones with their thumbs or tap away at their keyboards and they don’t have the stamina for it?! As we know the NZQA triumphantly announced that they would be digitising all exams by 2020, which sounds like an excellent step in the right direction, however is this a just ‘substitution effort’ (like putting a maths worksheet on a google slide presentation), or is it the beginning of bigger and better things?
In this blog post I want to project past the digitising of exams and look at a longer term vision of where assessment could go?
Society has changed in the last 20 years, and so have the skills we are expected to have to fit into and contribute to this society - particularly the key competencies that are at the front part of our NZC. Many people involved in education, and many outside of education would argue that these competencies and a wider range of 21stC or future focussed skills should be integrated into external assessment, and especially digital assessment. However this overwhelming area is extremely challenging to unpack and discuss how subjective and intangible things can be measured or quantified. From looking at several models from around the world the short answer is that there is no definitive way to accurately and rigorously measure future focussed (21stC) skills, what it will require is accepting that there will be a range of approaches, and accompanying this it is paramount that a mindset is developed that is prepared to try out new methodologies, and also acknowledge that not everything will be successful. (the long answer is below!)
Why external assessment?
‘Who is external assessment for?' You may have different opinions to this but it very much seems to me that external assessment is for the benefit of others, and not the learner, it is to prove that the learner has acquired something on a nationally comparable scale, either for tertiary, UE or employers - external assessment doesn’t really make too much difference to the learner apart from causing huge stress and anxiety, and perhaps that is the problem - we are assessing in a way that is ‘just in case’ and not authentically applied in any sense. This was cramming and it worked to scrape me through, but I don’t remember any of it now, is that the intention?...
I feel the pressure of externalisation has de-professionalised educators to make a judgement. Do we not trust the most valuable asset in our education system to make the assessments they are qualified to carry out - or do we not trust the appraisal system and ITE of our educators to enable them to be professional enough to do this, as well as understand where 21stC skills fit in? For that reason I strongly believe that whatever system or platform we create for our students in the future of assessment must be mirrored in our own personal and professional assessment of skills and pedagogy, in doing this we will also understand and acknowledge what it is to be a learner again. If we are asking our learners to explicitly demonstrate these future focussed skills how are we as educators doing it?
What could exist that would be more learner centric?
Perhaps the most effective way to enable a future focussed assessment system will be to create an online ‘learning portfolio’, I would veer away from calling it an assessment portfolio as the intention is to capture the learning as it happens, rather than the summative effect of assessment - it is also intended to be a living reflection of the person that owns it, that travels with them on their journey. The skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test are now also the skills that are easiest to automate, digitise, and outsource - therefore there will be some complexity to this but through thoughtful and effective use of technology I believe that this concept is achievable. Portfolios are certainly not a new idea (I have one that I started making at my primary school in a old cardboard box in the loft!), but we have not had the tools to make them fully integrated and reflective of the whole person, they have been made with either outdated slow and clunky interfaces (eg. MyPortfolio), or in clear files and folders which get stored under the bed or in the garage! This future focussed portfolio will be built on the following things and will give a better idea of the whole learner;
As I mentioned I believe an underpinning factor of making this work will be if educators are also using this online learning portfolio to record their self, peer and student reflections. This will not only ensure that this is a tool that has longevity, but our educators will also understand the importance of making these interactions rigorous and in depth. Our educators should now move away from ‘this is how I will assess you at the end of the term’, with a system like this it should be ‘how will we assess each other?’, how will you let me know that I am doing my job in assisting you to learn, and this will also be reflected in the teacher ‘learning portfolio’.
Imagine if every learner in New Zealand had a unique and individualised portfolio that was exportable to the rest of the world, we have some extraordinary young people here, we only have to help them prove this to the world - I think that this could be a mechanism that will enable us to celebrate the unique individuals that we have in our education system - a one sized approach will not enable this to flourish.