Some remarks on measurements and judgements in schools

The following are just notes…

  1. There are various purposes of measuring things in schools, but often, it comes down to holding people accountable- the teachers, the students. Another way of looking at it is to try to get people to be better, to improve, this presupposes that one knows what ‘improvement’ looks like. If we know what improvement looks like, then surely we need to simply tell people what to do and then get them to do it. However, clearly it is not so simple. The level of complication expands with the number of possible answers that could be judged passable. If the question was merely ‘2+2=?’ Then we can clearly state that 2 is a better answer than anything else. With, for example, an essay, there are more possible answers than there are people who answer it multiplied by the number of occasions on which each person answers it.
  2. Much accountability is teleological, that is it refers to ends, or aims that one wants to achieve: ‘this child should achieve an A’ etc… deriving judgements from ends is fraught with problems: the ends do not actually describe what we believe to be important; then the ends begin to drive the means etc… (In a sector like banking, for example, the measurements i.e. the money, are the same as the ends, and so it works fine. Education is not so simple.)
  3. The level of complication, combined with the teleological approach to education, then tempts people into creating generalised algorithms for marking and levels to make one’s job doable, but as one realises the poverty of one’s first attempts, such a positivist approach will soon get out of hand as one develops more and more strands to one’s algorithms; strands that flit in and out of the core levels in ever more complicated arrangements. These strands are often what are referred to as ‘skills’ but these are, at best, heuristics. There is nothing wrong with heuristics, and I am very much in favour of them. They are tools that can be taught but to view them as being mechanical elements of a working mind is probably fallacious; one must remember their status as heuristics/tools to be use and not confuse them with inviolable laws.
  4. I would suggest that the Law offers us an analogy much more appropriate than this mechanical, positive atomism. What we are providing the students with are ‘cases’. We teach the students their cases, and then they must learn to apply ‘judgements’, as must we: what are the precedents? Which cases and/or facts are material to the judgement here? Which are not? These cases might build up from very simple situations, to ever more complicated ones, but each one is  nonetheless a case relating to a particular kind of judgement. (Equally, when we use the actual words of writers, for example, we have, as near as we might be able to get to landmark cases.)
  5. The key issue, if one is to use these legal analogy, is that one has a clear idea of the complaint. People aren’t offered a remedy because someone has just been a bit bad, there is a specific complaint against which the judgement must be made. And this should be clear.
  6. Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most important skills for teachers and students to learn would be the difference between what, in law, are called material and immaterial facts. Effectively, this is about establishing what is relevant to the judgement and what isn’t…
  7. The legal analogy also allows room for changes in expectations and differences of opinions- or dissenting opinions, to maintain the analogy.
  8. With regards preparing students for exams, I would then concentrate more on the cases (I.e. The knowledge) and leave, as best we can, the messy business of applying generalisations to the examiners!
  9. One aspect of the legal analogy of which I am particularly fond, is that legal judgements are not made to achieve anything in particular, they are not teleological – other than expressing the law (as Hayek suggests, the law ought to be nomos, a reflection of expectations).
  10. Often, the aspect of a student to which we would like to pay most attention is not what they achieve, so much as the attention they pay to their work. Many schools still apply effort grades, and even though these grades are nearly always very fluffily defined, it is the effort (or I would prefer the virtue) demonstrated by the student which we would perceive as being of real or (as near as one can get to) ethical I would argue that the legal analogy would certainly be appropriate here also. But for this to be the case, a school would also have to refer to cases that would provide precedents of, and teach the students and teachers the correct application of, these ‘ethical’ terms accurately. Cases, in this sense, are simply ‘binding’ examples of admirable behaviour.
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