Do we need assessment to “drive learning”?

I came across a quote from John Cowan that read, “assessment is the engine which drives student learning”. I have heard iterations of this same idea many times before and they have always made me feel a little uneasy. To be honest, the idea that “assessment drives learning” seems a little coercive to me. Don’t get me wrong, the practice of helping a student improve in the areas in which they would like to improve by providing guidance and feedback is a valuable form of assessment. I just feel that, often, the form of assessment we are typically talking about in education is one designed to help us assign a grade to our students. What happens next is that “assessment” and “grading” become synonymous and this is where the problem lays. 

So, in a traditional school setting, when I hear “assessment drives student learning”, what this really sounds to me like is “assessment is a way for us to encourage young people to learn about things that they are not really interested in learning”. By holding grades over their heads and creating, what are essentially, systems of ranking students based on performance, we create the conditions for students to feel social pressure to “learn” what is going to be asssesed. 

In education we get caught up in this idea that we need assessment to measure learning, but in most cases what assessment does instead is measure the learning that we have planned to happen, making assessment the engine that drives students to learn what they are being told to learn. 

Real, authentic learning is not driven by assessment at all, but rather is driven by curiosity, by interest and by the need to solve a problem. 

Let’s expand on those three areas: 

Curiosity: 

As humans, we are naturally curious. Through the simple (and complex) act of experiencing life, our curiosity is provoked, which encourages us to inquire further into the object of our curiosity. With the immense reach that the internet has, curiosity can be provoked today in new and amazing ways. Whether via a sentence, quote, story, film, diagram, game, tweet or photograph, educators can provoke their students’ curiosity in order to stimulate authentic learning. 

Interest:

When our curiosities become more fully developed, we begin to command some level of expertise in a certain area. This becomes, for us, an interest. We are drawn to and are interested in the things that are connect to our interests. Whether it be music, sports, whales, skydiving or yoga, once our students have developed interests we can nurture their authentic learning by encouraging them to pursue new knowledge and skills that contribute to a deeper understanding of these interests. 

Problem Solving:

Sometimes related to our curiosities and interests and sometimes not, problems are the ultimate catalyst for learning. Have a flat tire? Better learn how to put on a spare. Lights not working? Better learn about how to repair a blown fuse. Feelings overly stressed? Time to inquire into mindfulness. By presenting our students with authentic problems and having the patience to allow them to work through the problem-solving process (which often is much messier and much more time consuming than traditional school encourages) we can engage their inner innovator and activate true, authentic and purposeful learning. Or, we can harness their interests and curiosity by asking them the question, “what are you going to do with all that you have learned?” then sit back and watch as their innate problem-solving brain goes to work figuring out ways to apply their learning in order to serve the world around them. 

Where does the role of assessment fit into all of this? I think what we, as educators, can do is continue to support our students along the path of developing their curiosities into interests and honing those interests to the point that they can use them to create solutions to real problems. Along this journey we can support our students by providing feedback, encouragement, modelling new skills, pointing them in the direction of new resources, helping them make social connections and empowing them to see themselves as competent, capable and contributing learners. 

In order to provoke curiosity, nurture interests and allow problem-solving to take place, we don’t need traditional assessment – let’s let the natural processes of being human be the engine that drives learning instead. 

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