My two year and half year old son seems to be innately attuned to the degree to which I am fully present to him. Whether it is early in the morning while I’m making breakfast for the family, or later in the day when dinner prep is in full swing, if Liam senses that I’m too wrapped up in what I’m doing, he will invite me to come and sit beside him. “Come and see what I’m doing, Daddy” is a favourite line, emphasized by his little hand pointing to an empty chair next to him. When I insist that I can see what he’s doing from where I am working, he will press the point further, “No Daddy, sit here.”
When I first heard Liam invite me to sit beside him, I thought it was rather cute. When it became clear, however, that this was not a random suggestion, but a well-expressed desire, I started to think about it a little more deeply. In particular, I thought of what is entailed in the act of sitting beside someone. The relationship established by having someone next to you is one of interest and intimacy. (Think of your own growing up and your desire to sit next to a dinner guest instead of across the table from them.) Having someone sit right next to you ensures a type of shared perspective; they are able to look at the same object, for example, and see things in pretty much the same way as you see them.
The word assessment is derived from the Latin verb, assidere, which means, quite literally, to sit beside. In Roman times, the assessor was connected with the taxation process and always sat beside the judge. Despite its ancient origins, it is a term that has taken over a good deal of our thinking about modern schooling. It is difficult to imagine opening up any classroom resource, attend any professional learning conference, or attend any faculty meeting without there being some mention of either assessment practice or policy.
There has been a great deal written on the topic of assessment. There are books and articles on how to make it authentic, balanced and meaningful. There are workshops offered about the difference between assessment and evaluation. Software products have even been developed to make our job of assessing students more efficient. There are entire conferences devoted to assessment of and for learning. There are gurus!
Over the next couple of weeks, I would like to dig into the assessment movement a little more and pose some questions that might allow us to explore it from some different angles. But, perhaps the best place to begin is with the original meaning of the word assessment and the idea of sitting beside our students. And this brings me back to my original story.
If the purpose of assessment is to gather information about student understanding and proficiency, then it stands to reason that the closer we can get to the student in terms of their real understanding of an idea or concept, the better. My sense is, however, that many of our current approaches to assessment actually put a greater distance between student and teacher. In fact, it would seem that the higher the stakes on an assessment, the further we get from that idea of “sitting beside”.
It is certainly impractical to sit down and chat with students every time we need to assess understanding, but I think that, as educators, we have to admit that a gap exists between what our students actually understand and are able to do, and what we actually end up reporting. This is not a new phenomenon, is it? In fact, it is likely as old as schools, themselves. Ironically, it is a phenomenon that has really only come to light as we have tried to develop more accurate, more equitable and more responsive methods of assessment and evaluation.
So the questions I would like to leave you with are both simple and complex: What are the assessment strategies and tools that allow us to collect the most accurate picture of student understanding? Which methods of assessment actually widen the gap between student and teacher? Which come closest to allowing us to “sit beside” our students? Does any of this really matter when it comes to quality teaching and learning?
I’ll offer some of my own thoughts in my next post, but I would love to get some initial reaction from you!