Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Students Should Be Able To Show What They Know

Students should be able to show what they know.

Many folks take this as a self-evident truth. Arne Duncan has said it more than a few times, and heads nod as if this is one of those reasonable-sounding things that Duncan says from time to time.

But I think it demands closer examination.

Because possessing a skill or piece of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to demonstrate it. This problem lies at the heart of public education; it is one of our largest, most fundamental, and yet most commonly unexamined issues.

Ask your students. This is why many smart young people hate school. Understanding, figuring out, getting a handle on a piece of knowledge is really exciting-- but having to prove to somebody else that you understand is a big fat pain in the ass.

Finding proof of student learning is a huge part of the teacher's job, and whether it is done poorly or not makes all the difference in that teacher's effectiveness. The challenge starts from the very moment you formulate the problem. There is a huge difference between "How do I figure out of this student understands" and "How do I make this student prove to me he gets it." The first is a valuable approach; the second is the first step on the road toward wasting everybody's time.

Consider a manager in a workplace. A figuring out manager finds ways to unobtrusively monitor a worker who is on the job to see how that worker is doing without interfering with the actual Doing. Meanwhile, the prove it manager calls the employee in for a hour-long meeting in the office every day to be grilled about job performance, leaving the employee acting as if one of his main jobs is to prepare for and sit in meetings, while the actual Doing now takes up far less of his day.

Or, since learning is far more internal and personal than job performance, consider the question of love, and the eternal question, "Does this person love me?" You could look at the person, pay attention , watch for signs, learn to interpret the person's behavior and words. Or you could demand that the person prove their love by passing some test you set. You might do this in the privacy of your own head, thinking, "Anybody who really loves another person will call that person every day." Or you could create an explicit test. "If you love me, you'll wear purple every day." Or, "If you love me, you'll say you love me."

And there's the problem. If I set the performance standard for love at an easy-to-perform task like saying "I love you," a woman who is just after my vast wealth can just perform that easily-faked task without actually caring about me at all.

The performance task is separate from the actual competence. The showing and the knowing are two different things.

The more we demand that students put on a show to prove to us that they Know Stuff, the more we will design artificial tasks that demand a set of skills and knowledge entirely different from the skills and knowledge we really want to measure.

If you want to find out if a student can write, you give her the opportunity to write and take a look at what she's done. You don't give her a multiple-choice test or a canned task for which she'll be judged on how close she comes to the ideal "correct" essay for the task.

Admittedly, emphasizing knowing over showing is hard on teachers. Much student learning happens inside their heads, where we cannot see. And our method of organizing students into groups means we tend to expect individuals to learn on our schedule, and not their own. Consequently, there will always be a slightly artificial element in even our most authentic assessments.

But if we start with the assumption that a student who knows must be able to demonstrate that knowledge to our satisfaction on whatever cockamamie assessment somebody whips up, we will be traveling down the wrong road. As a classroom teacher, I have to remember that the burden is on me to find a way to see what my students know; the burden is not on them to put on whatever trained monkey show I design for my own ease and convenience. This is one more reason the business of writing objectives on the board is silly; usually, we are not doing anything more than telling what trick the students have to perform in order to reinforce the fiction that they may have learned something.

Thomas Newkirk, in his exceptional essay about Common Core, tells the parable of the drunk and the car keys:

It all comes down to the parable of the drunk and his keys, an old joke that goes like this: A drunk is fumbling along under a streetlight when a policeman comes up and asks him what he doing. The drunk explains he is looking for his keys. “Do you think you lost them there?” the policeman asks.

“No. But the light is better here.”

We have here a parable of standardized assessment. There is the learning we hope to evaluate (the keys) and the instruments we have to assess that learning (the streetlight). The central question of assessment is whether our instruments help us see what we should be looking for—or are we like the drunk, simply looking where the light is better? 

It may not be the worst thing ever to say, "Students should be able to show what they know." But I think it's far more useful to say, "Teachers should be able to discover what students know."


  1. I like this! Thinking of it as figuring out or discovering if the student understands, as opposed to making them show or prove it. It does seem so much more authentic, and takes into account that each person is unique and may not be able to express their understanding in a prescribed way.

    " ...look at the person, pay attention, watch for signs, learn to interpret the person's behavior and words."

    You're so good at shining a light and giving me the perspective to see what's actually there, by looking at it from a different angle.

  2. Exactly. Thank you so much for saying this so well.