You can’t measure learning?

Dave Cormier says we live in a world obsessed with measurement. This is true, many have seen the potential for monetization in measurement, and that has led to a lot of meaningless measurement dressed as utility. But part of the reason why that has worked is that, in a world of uncertainty, many find measurements comforting. Rhizomatic thinking with its hefty dose of uncertainty is not exactly mainstream. Dave maintains that learning is a non-count noun (Speakers of other languages do speak of “learnings” might dispute that). But his key point is that you cant measure learning, even that you shouldn’t. I’ll take the bait.

You can measure learning, and we all do, and we need to. We are measurers, assessors. Not necessarily bean counters, but evaluators. You skim this post to gauge the reading time, and judge according to previous assessments you have made, perhaps unconsciously, of your capacity to engage with and process blogs in this space. You wonder to what extent you can engage with D and G to get under the skin of this rhizo thing. You quietly assess the different posts and messages to try to get a hold on what you should filter in or filter out. Managing participation in a cMOOC with the firehose full on requires continuous assessment of everything against your own subjective rubric, and not least your own progress: of course it is ipsative, we are all free to be subjective. But we do  assess our learning, and we do that competently, and regularly, making decisions on the basis of the results. Every fork in the path, every opening rabbit hole involves a micro-assessment, sometimes analytical, sometimes intuitive, sometimes the decision is to simply jump, but it is a decision. These are formative, sometimes transformative, assessments.

What is resisted is external measurement. We detest that. Because we feel that only we ourselves are capable of assessing our own learning meaningfully or legitimately. This is not negotiable from a rhizomatic perspective. Others cannot see the whole picture, lack the information to take those decisions for us. If they do, or when they do, it feels like an aggression, a judgement that fails to do justice to our learning, or our learning process. Summative assessment aims to encapsulate and package the learning, the transformation we have lived through, for external consumption. But in free range learning, the idea of an external summative decision is anathema.

At this point there comes a coyote moment.

Learning is rhizomatic. We can influence the growth of the plant, we can attempt to build channels and free spaces for it, and sometimes simplifications, potted rhizomes, will work (as Dave Cormier readily points out) but the kudzu keeps growing.

And in the end the rhizome takes us out beyond the edge of the cliff. Deep down in the warm earth we are free to muse and explore and root, we are even free to make privileged spaces in our classrooms and institutions for learning to take place, but at some point, the transmissionists ask as to prove it, to provide evidence. We have no framework for evidence, no structure, no scaffolding. The very notion of evidence is questionable. But we seem to be avoiding the question. Is there no possible framework for conversation about our rhizomes (not about the notion of the rhizome, but specific rhizomes, named rabbitholes)?

There are a whole load of things we can measure, ipsatively, formatively. We can develop rituals and conversations that enrich our growth, expand our curriculum, our community. The beacons we light, our campfire on the beach may attract others, and the idea may spread. But at some point we will have to address the fact that the notion of the rhizome is largely incompatible with formal learning. We can create privileged spaces. I have done what could be termed rhizomatic projects in formal education spaces and seen substantial transformation, but moving from the small success to widespread change is immensely challenging. There is a lot of inertia.

Some might say the idea of the rhizome is like kudzu grass, slowly undermining the foundations of formal learning. I would love to believe this, but I think that current conservative narratives, folk pedagogies around education, are extremely resilient. Models and examples will help, but formal funded education has to show evidences to parents, politicians and employers. We can’t avoid the need to measure “learning”, and as I have suggested I think we know how to measure, but we do need to reframe what kind of evidence is legitimate, and what kind of “learning” is valued.

Those are however political issues. But then learning, and education always have been political issues.

Post script:

Evidence is mostly understood as static, for the most part evidence is a dead letter from the past of the individual. Could new ways of providing evidence be structured around dialogue?


2 thoughts on “You can’t measure learning?

  1. Lots of good thinking in here, Nick. I especially like your concluding suggestion that assessment might be best structured around dialogue—with self, of course, but also with communities. Assessment is always context bound, and dialogic encourages awareness of context. What bothers me about our current assessment regime is the assumption that it is objective, valid outside of some context, and nearly complete—as if the school can see the entire person and judge them. Of course, dialogue is much more time, energy, and money intensive that standardized testing, so that is a strike against it.

    • It could be a strike against, though that extra time and energy perhaps assumes that the assessment would be only summative, an add-on at the end. What if it were an integrated part of the process, as it is naturally?

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