Architecture Always Wins
Have you ever heard students ask the question, “Will this be on the test?” and wondered about any more profound implications and the students’ motivations for asking?
I have, and I believe we can learn something meaningful from thinking about it.
As teachers within an academic setting, our first response to a question like this one is likely that of familiarity. We remember asking the same question when we attended school. We recall having a primary motivation in recognizing the need to arm ourselves with as much information as possible so that we might achieve the best outcomes possible within the rules of the system upon which success was defined. Paying attention to details seems reasonable, and even prudent, where the student is concerned – particularly when “success” is determined and measured by specific evaluation tools, she. Students would be considered wise to pay close attention and be prepared for being evaluated by those measurement tools.
Where teachers implement a system which focuses on student achievement by measuring a defined collection of illustrations of learning, students’ attention is necessarily heightened toward those measurement events. Carless puts it this way,
“Assessment communicates to students what is valued and what they need to achieve to be successful in their studies; it captures their attention, and may act as a spur; its results inform them of their progress. This in turn impacts on how they view themselves as individuals; and, following from these results, it may provide satisfaction or discouragement. Assessment is a major factor in the exclusion and attrition of students, so the cost of unsophisticated practice can be high.” (p.9, 2015)
It is not surprising that teachers’ methods of assessing and evaluating captivates students’ attention.
Moreover, it stands to reason that measurement practices impact the manner and depth to which a student will engage in learning. In a previous article (Gerber, 2016), I referred to this unfortunate reality as what many students inevitably learn is the ‘game’ of schooling—focus your effort and attention on those areas which will yield grades and give only a nominal head-nod to those engagements proposed by the teacher as learning for the sake of learning events.
So, what is really going on? It seems to me that while assessment and evaluation are crucial elements in the craft of teaching and mentoring, the dominant methods used—or the system being employed—brings with it much detriment. While teachers intend to communicate the degrees to which a student has learned and improved, the architecture of the system of communication is skewed toward the measurement of achievement. Architecture always wins.
John Hattie (2012) discusses the tensions and shortcomings of current methods of communicating progress and achievement. Progress and achievement are very different things. Progress is an indication of personal growth within a curricular or competency-based context. Achievement measures demarcate one’s demonstrated ability against a standard. How might teachers better understand and communicate the difference between progress and achievement measures? Figure 1 (Hattie, n.d.) illustrates what a more holistic representation of visualizing learning from both perspectives might look like.
With higher achievement being noted along the Y-axis and increased levels of progress charted along the X-axis, we might recognize more quickly the impact of our teaching and the extent to which a student has learned. First, note Megan on the upper left of the graph. She is one of the top four achieving students but has not progressed in her learning. We also note that Jennifer is slightly below the average achievement indicator of the class but has shown tremendous growth. And, Lianne represents one of those learners teachers tell stories about, and also tend to believe is the reality for all students who achieve well—yet, it is not.
Philosophically, teachers recognize that the purpose of assessment and evaluation is to increase and promote continued progress and learning. To support each student on their journey toward becoming the best version of themself. Teachers recognize that the process of growing is ongoing and that each student’s path will be different, yet functionally, educators’ attention is captured by the way reporting has always been done and the perception of architectural reporting requirement.
If reporting is understood simplistically within the scope of achievement, the architecture implicitly misaligns philosophical intention from instructional action.
I do not think we should be surprised by a reality where an end product orientation informs the means engaged. Wiggins and McTighe (2006) are well known for their work in transforming educational praxis by focusing explicitly on having teachers first consider their goals and intended measurable learning outcomes and working backwards to design aligned learning plans. Suitably, this method of curriculum planning is called Backward Design. Why? Because Wiggins and McTighe recognized that if the structures we create do not implicitly support the end-goals, it is highly unlikely that our actions will align with our educational intentions.
In fact, working toward goals where the architectural elements are in opposition those goals will inevitably be misconstrued, misaligned, or simply, missed altogether.
Schools currently face the danger of misaligned action and intention where it comes to assessment and reporting practices. ‘Reporting’ has—historically and presently—been understood within a summative and weight-oriented construct, somehow missing clarity in communicating indicators and evidence of progress. The system of reporting runs the risk of misusing waypoints of progress as achievements by arithmetically combining report-period achievement standings as averages of achievement. However, in what world does this make sense?
Think of it this way. If you were a tree farmer with the goal of producing the highest yield of wood possible, you would invest your time, energy, and resources into promoting tree growth. From time to time you measure each tree noting height, diameter, health, stress levels, etc., recording each of the metrics. With measurements in hand, you observe growth trends and consider what actions you might take to further encourage growth because you want every tree to be as productive as possible. Maximum growth is your goal for each tree and is indicative of the fruit of your attention and investment.
Now, when it comes time to harvest the tree, would you sell it based on its final size, status, and quality or would you report its metrics as its average over the past year of growth basing your sale price on that average? I think that an unfortunate outcome of the architecture and requirements governing many of our assessment and reporting practices promote the latter. Educators must consider deeply whether some of our unquestioned architecturally induced practices have unintended consequences in selling our students short.
Perhaps, the next time we hear students utter the question “Will this be on the test?” we will pause to consider how our practices may be detracting from the learning and progress of our students.
Greg Gerber (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SCSBC Director of Learning
Carless, D. (2015). Excellence in University Assessment.
Gerber, G. C. (2017). Learning and Self-Assessment: Hoops or Authenticity? The Link, 39(4), 4-6.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximizing Impact On Learning. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. (n.d.). Progress vs Achievement Tool. Retrieved from: https://www.visiblelearningplus.com/groups/progress-vs-achievement-tool.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.