Feb 02

EvaluateThat “thickly”

A Tale of Two Tweets

Two Tweets that seem at first glance to take somewhat differing positions on evaluating teachers led to these thoughts on exactly where testing fits into learning, what it looks like when it’s of benefit, and who should benefit. The first Tweet does not say what some might take it to mean at face value. If you think about it—or if you learned it at teachers’ college while preparing for a career as an educator—you’ll probably agree there’s a difference between evaluation and assessment. You may even agree with me that opportunity, ongoing assessment, reflection, peer review, coaching, scaffolding are all needed to transform practice, while standardized tests often prove absolutely nothing beyond one’s ability to take standardized tests.

Evaluation is what you do to demonstrate you’ve arrived, or how far you’ve left to go. Getting there is an iterative process requiring frequent stops—you may want to check the map, ask directions, refuel along the way. If learning is truly to become learner centred, why do reformers like “race” metaphors? Perhaps I’d like to choose my learning situation more as I’d choose a vacation spot—I might be inspired to take a side trip, seek out a long lost relative… and why not? Children are at the beginning of a learning journey. A guide on the side who knows the terrain can help reel in an overly ambitious itinerary or suggest hidden gems to the lethargic and less imaginative traveller, and in a pinch get them to the train station on time.

Where we have arrived today is due to the corporate reform movement’s itinerary, and itself begs evaluation. It has failed. Charter schools seldom do better than traditional public schools, and often do worse. They do considerably worse when it comes to equity and inclusion. Resorting to fiat and coercion are telltale signs of failure—leaders do the hard work of building consensus. Public Enemy #1, logic and an objective assessment of the current situation would conclude, is the anti-public: privatization.

The second Tweet implicitly highlights the valued added by what Clifford Geertz might have called a “thick description” of what teachers do. Geertz did not understand the subjects of his ethnographic assessments separately from the context of their situations—which is also defined more thickly than the simple question, “Where?” Thickness demands we ask also, “Who ?” “What?” “How?” “When?” and the one perhaps most critical to critical thinking—“Why?”

7 million “whys”

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest …
… I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, Two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

—Rudyard Kipling

Humans, especially young ones, are naturally inquisitive. But we’re not infallible. Seven million questions beg seven million answers, and intuition can be wrong. Jean Lave does not understand teaching and learning as separate and distinct—her thick ethnographic descriptions of classical apprenticeships have been tapped for adaption to technology-enhanced learning “environments” for nearly 40 years, at first in great part due to the corporate backing of John Seely Brown of Xerox. Xerox in the 80s didn’t write curriculum or tell educators what to do with it. Just as SMART and a host of others today, they put educators together in collaborative, project-based learning situations and asked, “How can we facilitate this learning situation?” They designed thicker learning situations because they had described them more thickly. Then they stood back and allowed learning to happen.

“do it yourself” becomes “do it together”

Corporate money is not the problem, unfettered profit seeking is. All parents have a right to expect quality publicly funded education, all teachers have a right to fulfill their passion in 21st century classrooms of all kinds, and all students have the right to feel intrinsically motivated and grow the dignity and self respect that comes from taking charge of their own destinies.

But that means students, parents and teachers also have responsibilities, to forge thicker understandings of the (wicked) problems (e.g., things we know fail, like VAM) and take proactive charge of solutions (e.g., things we know work, like parent engagement). Looking to smaller local businesses—parents who own businesses, older siblings with work experience—for local expertise, creating and executing project-based learning “situations” might bring the community back into schools. The do it yourself approach becomes do it together.



Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2, 141-178.

Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator, [PDF].

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, advance release of pending publication [HTML]

Haertel, Edward H. (2013), Reliability and Validity of Inferences About Teachers Based on Student Test Scores, the 14th William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture, presented at The National Press Club, Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2013. [PDF]

Seemann, K 2002, ‘Holistic technology education’, in H Middleton, M Pavlova & D Roebuck, Learning in technology education, challenges for the 21st century, Nathan, Qld, Centre for Learning Research, Griffith University, vol. 2, pp. 164 – 173.

Warren, Mark R.; Hong, Soo; Leung Rubin, Carolyn; Sychitkokhong Uy, Phitsamay (2009) Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community- Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, Teachers College Record, Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254 [PDF]