20th Century Expectations in the 21st Century?

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Jacques Cool (Twitter: @zecool, web site http://about.me/jacques_cool (in French, en français)) for prompting this post. It was sparked off by an exchange on Twitter about evaluating student learning in a digital age, with the key issue being identified (in Jacques’ words) as “Amount of learning, or quality of learning? 😉 I just want to avoid assessing 21st c learning with 20th c expectations and tools.”.

A View of a Metric of Learning

My own view of the value of learning is that it is something that finally rests on the judgment of the learner: “How useful or important is that piece of learning to me?”. It is a learner-centered viewpoint, and the learner’s answer is critically dependent on the learner’s own aspirations.

A Viewpoint From Assessment

There are really two strands in Jacques’ implied question: that of the human narrative (his “expectations”), and that of technology (his “tools”).

In terms of the human narrative, I feel that I cannot offer a proper answer, as it devolves to questions about the expectations of learners and educators, how those expectations evolve over time, and how that evolution is shaped by society’s wider expectations. Readers might like to consider Sir Ken Robinson in this context.

In terms of technology, I think that we come down to the strengths and weaknesses of educators. My current , and perhaps poorly informed assessment, is that it is very much like the Curate’s Egg: excellent in parts. In terms of my own practice, I will use any tool that is available to both me and my students, even if that tool is 3,000 years old (astrolabe). My preferred tools depends very much of the subject being assessed: numeracy skills very much lend themselves to being assessed using computer technology. Having said that, I am aware of other educators who, despite recognising the power of such 21st century tools, really struggle to harness them to good effect.

Quantity, or Quality

I must draw upon my own experience of learning mathematical skills when it comes to addressing this point, and perhaps the more difficult question of what is meant by the quality of learning, this last being perhaps influenced by the learner’s own capabilities. I know that there are some people who are capable of learning vast amounts of what seem to me to be apparently unrelated facts. From that viewpoint, being able to recite all Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory could be regarded as having depth. In another dimension, the learning that I had about basic numeracy at age 6 really came alive for me when I learned about polynomials 10 years later. Similarly, my learning about vectors and matrices at age 16 became fully internalised when I used it on behalf of my then employer 20 years later. We are now touching upon classification of knowledge: “Recall, Explain, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate and Create”. In this context, I see evaluation tools as being classifiable by relevance, not by age, while expectations again come down to societal values.

Finally, a Question

Ultimately, I feel that I must answer Jacques’ question with another question: Are we allowing ourselves as a group of educators to become bogged down in questions about technology and educational history when our prime focus should be on the learners who are asking questions of us right now?

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