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Measuring What Matters

By: Jonathan Dawson
Senior Lecturer, Economics For Transition
Schumacher College

I am just returning (my first-ever Eurostar outing!) from a very inspiring weekend in Brussels at the gathering/festival to mark the end of the 18-month CEAL (Community Enterprise Action Learning) project  This is one of the many splendid initiatives funded by the European Union to support trans-European network and learning.  I have had involvement in a good number of such projects over the years and see this kind of gathering as the European family at its very best, enabling people – often, as in the case of CEAL, primarily young people – to reach out and create friendships and partnerships across our beautiful continent. 

At the heart of CEAL’s raison d’être was the promotion of community-based social entrepreneurship, with a prominent role for participating universities getting students out of the classroom and into community contexts to work cheek-by-jowl  with neighbouring communities.   The excitement that characterised the reports from participating agencies – from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK – was contagious.  Students and community partners alike had clearly tapped into a rich vein of inspiration from the experience of collaboratively grappling with the complexities of real-life challenges.  The students loved the experience of getting out of the classroom and being of real service; the communities relished the opportunity to engage as equal partners.

However, from an academic perspective the question arises as to how this kind of activity is to be graded, something we continue to wrestle and experiment with here at the college.   Accreditation in conventional settings is generally pretty straightforward; students are marked competitively according to their individual ability to recall concepts and information transmitted to them by the teacher.  However, in the context of collaborative, creative work such as this involving multiple stakeholders, accreditation and marking becomes altogether more complicated.

One common – and understandable – response, apparent among some of the CEAL project participants, is to reject the notion of accreditation altogether….…to write off academia and all its works as irredeemably dysfunctional and to simply bypass it.  Another is to make assessment activity-based, with all students who complete a range of set tasks (attendance at sessions, keeping a learning journal, designing plans or prototypes, etc.) earning the same marks.

I think we can – and must – do better than this.  The critical shift in perspective, I suggest, is to see the assessment process not primarily as an instrument of judgment and classification by the authority of the university, but rather as a tool for empowerment of the student.  Seen through this lens, the response to the complexity of whole person, collaborative learning in real-life, hands-on contexts becomes an in-depth enquiry into how this should best be measured.  It raises questions of what is the purpose of the exercise?; what are the learners seeking to achieve?; how would they know if they were succeeding in doing so?

These are not simple questions.  What really valuable questions ever are?!  However, they are potentially very rich, and in working towards answers, the students may gain great clarity about both the value of their enquiries and the methods they develop to address them.  It also opens the door for a democratisation of academic practice.  For, under this regime, the students must be involved in helping co-create assessment criteria and determining how they are to be measured.  It also opens up space for multiple forms and levels of assessment, including self-assessment, peer-assessment and teacher-assessment, something we are also experimenting with here at the college.

There is a growing body of research and practice that challenges the core fundaments of conventional educational philosophy and practice.  This affirms that education is a community-based rather than individual pursuit, that knowledge is emergent rather than fixed, and that students have multiple learning faculties other than the intellect.  Assessment as currently practiced continues to reflect the assumptions of the currently dominant paradigm and thus to inhibit change.  For those of us seeking to revolutionise the practice of education, the challenge is not to reject measurement, but rather to embrace it as a potentially powerful tool in effecting that revolution.

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