To Measure or to Learn: Unraveling the Assessment Discourses
Is it possible to see beyond the cult of quantification, and rethink the pattern of evaluation and examination? A teacher with deep pedagogic sensibilities raises critical questions
By Dr. Rajeev Dubey
It is widely believed that we have entered in much sought after ‘learning age’ and ‘knowledge society’. The dawn of such society necessitates fundamental changes in the educational institutions— schools, colleges and universities— which have evolved to provide the ethos of learning in the modern age. But though we argue that we have entered the new age where learning and knowledge is pivotal, we are still entrenched, as Broadfoot would argue, ‘in the discourse rooted in a rationalist vocabulary of scientific measurement- of standards and scales; of objective judgments and comparisons’ (2000: 2213). Examinations in such a scenario, Foucault would argue, are ‘ceremonies of power’ through which schools observe, monitor, document and hierarchize children (Foucault 1982).
The prevalent examination and evaluation system, as this paper argues, aims at quantifying everything and therefore devalues the uniqueness of each student. Exams, as we are made to believe, are neutral instruments based on a standardized/universal scale through which all students are judged. A set of questions prepared by the so called ‘experts’ are administered in a regimented examination hall to provide legitimacy to the examination ritual and to project it as free and fair. Therefore, examinations tend to acquire great significance and a degree of trust which belies their fundamentally social origin and bias. The students are made to believe that since the exams were free and fair, the result truly displays their merit. It conveniently or deliberately ignores to answer how and in what ways the evaluations were carried out and how certain skills got priority over others, or whose interest is being served through this sort of instrumental learning and mechanical evaluation. This paper attempts to map the current educational scenario and highlight the façade of examination, and in the process of looking through the assessment discourses it resists instrumental approach to learning, and argues in favour of recognizing other categories of knowing and evaluation.
The Facade of Examination and the Current Educational Scenario
In India, irrespective of the ideological leaning of the government, seldom do we question the status quo- the accepted orthodoxy of pedagogy, curriculum and, above all, the mechanism of summative assessment. For example, we have been following division system of evaluation which puts emphasis only on scholastic aspects— knowledge and understanding of subjects like science, math, history, civics, English etc. It ignores co-scholastic aspects which include social skills (communication and interpersonal skills), emotional skills (dealing with stress, emotions and self-awareness), values, interest, attitude, aptitude and thinking skills (creative thinking, problem solving, critical thinking and decision making) and co-curricular activities (painting, scouting and guiding, drama and dance) etc. In the obsession with the market and eagerness to fulfill the need of global capitalism which emphasizes on instrumental learning, the co-scholastic aspects are ignored or are given least priority in comparison to the scholastic aspects in learning and evaluation. As a result, the deeper ideals of learning are overlooked, thereby negating the scope to assess and evaluate creative, critical and reflexive thinking.
Let me illustrate through an example the limitations in our evaluation system. In recent times Delhi University cut offs inching closer to 100%, raised some pertinent questions at our teaching and assessment system. After the declaration of CBSE board results we noticed a sense of frustration among students, teachers and parents alike that despite securing more than 90%, many students could not get subjects or colleges of their choice. In a talk show organized by the NDTV many leading educationists spoke of a serious flaw in our assessment system. With the experience of hosting many of these high scorer students in Hindu college, the Principal acknowledged that some of these students were more informed but not necessarily knowledgeable. And students also shared their narratives— how their learning is geared towards mastering newer tricks to maximize marks in the examination. To quote Holmes:
The child who is being crammed for an examination, and who is being practised at the various tricks and dodges that will, it is hoped, enable him to throw dust in the examiner’s eyes, may not consciously realise that he and his teacher are trying to perpetrate a fraud, but will probably have an instinctive feeling that he is being led into crooked ways. If he has not that feeling, if the crooked ways seem straight in his eyes, we may know that his sense of reality is being poisoned by the vitiated atmosphere which he has been compelled to breathe (Holmes 1911: 25).
Let me share the painful aspect of such an instrumental approach to learning and evaluation. I still remember a news report in The Times of India about a student in Delhi scoring more than 90% in board examination committing suicide, reportedly because she stood second in her class. As a teacher my heart goes with the young child. However, it should not be forgotten that such events turn the mirror to us and ask: Can we really say with all certainty that the education system imparted her meaningful education and evaluated her holistically? Certainly they trained her well by providing her with vast array of information, and of course evaluated her on the same parameters; but there seemed to be no essential lesson of life which, as Rudyard Kipling’s poetic vision would characterize, is inner strength:
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Unfortunately in today’s information age and network society we are flooded with instant information but not wisdom. Because wisdom comes with patience, contemplation and reflection, there is no crash course to provide it. Education in such a modernist discourse becomes merely a means to an end. It is utilitarian.
Beyond Quantification: Accepting Other Categories of Knowing
Modernist assessment discourse is based on the assumption that it is possible to ‘measure’ quality by applying criteria to the available evidence and, on the basis of this evidence, to form a judgment. It is further typically assumed that it is both appropriate and desirable to express such judgment in the form of grades and marks; ranks, percentages or levels; that is in some quantitative, or ‘categoric’ rather than descriptive form, in order to provide a common basis for comparison. This denotes the arrogance of modernity and forces us to rethink the misplaced optimism of science that all forms of learning can be quantified and measured.
The prevalent assessment pattern in the current education system promotes instrumental thinking and education is equated to acquiring a marketable skill which can be of a certain use-value in the market. Anything which can’t be quantified and doesn’t fulfill the market need— for example, the aesthetics of learning, or the joy of constructive intervention based on classroom dialogue— has no formal assessment value. Civics or moral education is a subject in school which focuses on developing the moral well-being of the students by helping them acquire and live by the values that guide them to make appropriate choices and determine their behaviour and attitudes towards themselves, others and the environment. Let us imagine a situation where a child in a school while going to appear for final exams of civics and moral education happens to see a road accident, and being immensely sensitive, he decides to help the patient, and in doing so he misses the three hour paper and fails. But, to me, the child is an example par excellence of one who has embodied those lessons of civics and moral education both in thought and action; yet the irony is that he fails in the subject because he fails to appear in the three hour written exam.
I would argue that a good/summative/holistic evaluation is one which assesses mansa, vacha and karma of an individual. There needs to be coherence in what one thinks, speaks and acts. Unfortunately instrumental learning and evaluation only emphasizes on certain aspects, ignoring other aspects of personality. Education is not merely to meet an utilitarian end; it is life- affirming; it can transform our consciousness; it can widen our horizon and reveal us the essential unity of beings. But it has been reduced to the logic of money and market. The market is guided by an incessant desire to quantify everything. It is essentially guided by the logic of maximizing profit; profit is desirable and loss is pathological. Whereas a meaningful education will make us understand that even a setback provides us an opportunity to learn. For example, while going through an ethnographer’s diary one reads his/her trials and tribulations, and all are equally fascinating and insightful.
Another unfortunate impact of market forces can be seen in terms of hierarchisation of disciplines. Techno-scientific knowledge has acquired a ‘high status’ (Apple 1979: 38) in contemporary times because of its close relationship with the corporate economy. The humanities and social science suffer a step motherly treatment. Due to the hegemony of techno-scientific disciplines the idioms and practices of natural science have percolated to the humanities and social sciences. There is no doubt a methodological debate between positivists and non-positivists; but now a time has come to examine whether the dominant evaluation patterns of natural sciences can be applied to evaluate students in the humanities and social sciences whose subject matter is qualitatively different. For example, through multiple choice questions (MCQ)/ short questions one can test the ability of a student to grasp information and produce it instantly; but can we judge his creative, analytical and critical faculties? Such pattern of examination, argues Pathak, ‘constrains the learner, forces her to remain limited to ‘four main points’ or ‘fifty words’, and deprives her of thinking, imagining, reflecting, expressing and going deeper’(2009:120). Long back Edward Holmes in 1911 lamented the effects of instrumental learning and assessment, and attempted to show that ‘the externalism of the West, the prevalent tendency to pay undue regard to outward and visible “results” and to neglect what is inward and vital, is the source of most of the defects that vitiate Education ’(Holmes1911:3). Holmes taking a sarcastic view of present examination pattern goes on to say:
In a school which is ridden by the examination incubus, the whole atmosphere is charged with deceit. In the atmosphere of the examination system, deceit and hypocrisy are ever changing into self-deception; and all who become acclimatised to the influence of the system—pupils, teachers, examiners, parents, …, and the rest—fall victims, sooner or later, to the poison that infects it, and are well content to cheat themselves with outward and visible results, accepting “class−lists” and “orders of merit” as of quasi−divine authority, mistaking official regulations for laws of Nature (1911:25).
More than a century after his profound reminder, unfortunately the divide between what is and what ought to be in our education today has widened as never before. It is time to arise and awake before it is too late.