How do you know what you know?

I love on image for more excellently thoughtful (and some not so appropriate) student responses to assessments

Why was I not this clever in elementary math?  Click on image for more excellently thoughtful (and some not so appropriate) student responses to assessments


I was a middle childhood education major in undergrad, and the first time I heard the word “epistemology” was at an honors conference when a brilliant upperclass student was presenting his senior thesis in nuclear engineering.  Upon learning and understanding the meaning of the word, I felt a little surprised that nuclear engineers were considering epistemology while future educators were not.

“Epistemology (noun): the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.”  -The Merriam-Webster dictionary

How do you know what you know?  It’s a simple question with no one specific, simple answer.  It could be considered biologically, socially, philosophically, pragmatically, phenomenologically, directly, abstractly, personally, or indirectly.  But, with all of these options, and many more, we spend most of our formative time as young learners in US schools knowing what we know because someone told us we know (or don’t know) it.  While that might not be completely terrible (external feedback isn’t a complete waste), and certainly we have some sense of what we know internally, what’s more concerning is that these “assessments” typically have limits to what is right and wrong and how knowing is viewed.

In Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning, Marilyn M. Lombardi discusses how our grade-based approach to providing learning feedback delays the development of independent thinking and creativity.  Students focused on specific achievement targets not only miss the opportunity to learn about the wide variety of ideas and interests that won’t be covered on the test, but they are also sapped of their intrinsic motivation in the process of learning that grades are what matter most.  Dan Pink, in discussing management philosophies in his TED and RSAnimate talks, explains the research regarding motivation.  He talks about how much more effective intrinsic motivation is in generating creativity, problem-solving, and productivity.  Alfie Kohn concurs in The Case Against Grades, where he paints a picture of interest, intrinsic motivation, and learning becoming completely lost amongst grade-focused, reductive quantification of learning.  Whether this springs from willing or defeated conformity to the standard system of assessment, nothing better illustrates the concept than the student quote that opens his piece:

“I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing…Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade – I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?” – Claire, a student

So, why do we keep grading the way we do?  The many answers to this question are too vast for this one little blog post (and probably too much of my own personal opinion for this purpose).  I think Lombardi really hits it, though, when she says that developing and measuring independent thinking and creativity is really difficult.  Kohn describes ways in which teachers have started to do this at the K-12 level, and, although challenging, they’re finding success.  But to me, to make this really work and not just become the new code for the grading of old, we have to be really careful that measuring doesn’t turn into judging.  Measuring has to be open-ended because independent thinking and creativity by definition defy boundaries.  Kohn describes how these rebellious teachers giving students a lot of opportunity for reflection and tinkering with their work have managed to do this inside the grading structure so that their students don’t get distracted by the grades.  They stop worrying about how they performed in relation to their peers and find themselves generally interested in their work and the work of others.  They get back what Claire was looking for in the quote above.  They get back what Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon describe in Imagination First as a “sense of possibility.”

As a young math learner, I was much more aware of how I failed than how I succeeded.  I felt helpless to know what I didn’t know – I wouldn’t have even known where to begin.  Even worse, these grades/assessments did nothing to improve my learning.  What and how it was being taught weren’t enough for me to get it, so I was left to my own devices to figure it out?  Why even assess?  Even as an adult, pursuing a terminal degree, I pretty much have dismissed my missed mathematical education as a sunk cost, one that I needn’t waste time going back to if I’m not using it now.  I had no sense of possibility in math, and I certainly had no intrinsic motivation.  The only thing I clung to was passing so I wouldn’t be seen amongst my honors student peers as less-than.  I kept up with them in English, French, history, and biology.  But math (and eventually physics) were my tells.  External motivation was enough to scare me, but never enough to ignite me.  I had never considered how I knew what I knew.  Even as a high-performing undergraduate having an inkling that it was meaningful that I’d never heard of epistemology, I still wasn’t quite to the point where I could confidently say that my education and the assessment of my knowing weren’t the limits of what there was to learn and understand in my field.  That sense of possibility has been a gift I rediscovered.  I hope we can find more ways to ignite it with all our students, regardless of the culture of assessment in which we live.


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