Measuring What Really Matters

The editorial of Creative Teaching & Learning 8.1

In most advanced economies of the West, there is a broad and urgent need, amounting almost to a sense of panic, to revaluate and reform education as the advancing tide of robotics gets ever closer.

Quite why it has taken grip so strongly now, after years of warning that globalisation, the internet, automation and artificial intelligence would change everything, is hard to explain. Such trends, like global warming, seem to need a critical mass of revelatory instances to occur to prompt policy makers to stick their heads above the parapet.

Perhaps it’s because AI is so frightening, and because, for the first time, it is threatening white collar and professional jobs, that the middle class has decided to buck up its response.

But, with the notable exception of England, governments and education systems are beginning to grind into action and think about innovation and to ask whether our current education practice is really fit for purpose in preparing students for the economies of the future.

We have reported before on how one of the most conservative didactic and traditional approaches to teaching and learning – found in the US High School system – is under pressure to change. 

Colleges and industry have complained repeatedly that the students being churned out could not cope in work or higher education and that they lacked the capacity to think for themselves or apply any learning skills to new challenges.

The robust response was the Common Core Curriculum, which sought to create an innovative, more challenging and much more skills-based approach to learning, which stressed research skills, thinking skills, creativity and collaborative working. The educators behind these reforms argued that assessment always drives teaching and that new pedagogy requires new styles of assessment. Millions of dollars have been poured into pathfinder approaches to measure such intangibles as critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. We will be coming back to these efforts later in the year.

But perhaps there is a pathfinder we can all learn from much nearer to home!

The International Baccalaureate has a research and critical skills ethos running through it and has begun to begun to develop appropriate assessments to match the sort of learning they want to take place.

Take the Global Politics course, for example, which, in its later stages, is assessed by an extensive student-led research project. Students choose a subject and are supervised by a teacher as they pursue an in-depth investigation. They must use the political theory they have studied for their analysis. The project is specific and detailed, similar to a dissertation, however it is assessed through an oral presentation, so students must also develop their oral participation skills and be able to support their research approach and conclusions while under examination. 

All assessments are made against key objectives that define different thinking skills, including, knowledge and understanding, application and analysis, synthesis and evaluation, and use and application of appropriate skills.

As a result, the testing of higher order thinking skills is explicitly built into the assessments. Teachers then recognise that these skills need to be taught explicitly, because this is how the course is assessed.

Another way the that assessment drives the skills and attributes that are taught in the IB Programme, is by making it compulsory for all students to undertake an extended essay (thesis) and a CAS (creativity/action/service) project. These are assessed as part of their final grade to ensure students are developing enquiry, creativity and collaborative action skills, regardless of the subject.

Students also have to take a ‘Theory of Knowledge’ module, which is designed to give them the tools to reflect on the nature of knowledge, including how it is constructed and evaluated. It asks children to take nothing for granted, including academic subject knowledge. How revolutionary is that, compared to the English context, where the subject empires rule supreme and their content is considered sacrosanct and unimpeachable?

Understanding the theory of knowledge to the point where one can assess and validate, or indeed, invalidate, the way it has been generated is the ultimate critical thinking skill. It takes metacognition to another, applied, level. One very important area it challenges children to reflect on is their own personal knowledge, where it came from and how robust it is against other points of view.

Needless to say, this course is also assessed within the programme through essays and oral presentations – very much as one might do in the world of high-powered work.

Howard Sharron