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#rhizo15 week 2: Learning is uncountable, so what do we count?

4 min read

This isn't one of my scheduled posts for thematic tweets, and has nothing to do with as such. It's a little something for me to get my feet wet with . I've been hesitant to get started with because I doubted my ability to contribute something. Given my issues with the much easier , though, I thought I should try harder with , and balance my first real xMOOC experience with a cMOOC one.

As I type this, week 3 has already started, but I'll post my week 2 contribution anyway -- it was hard enough to come up with! Here's Dave's week 2 prompt. You'll note that it's conveniently right up my assessment alley. I don't know if I can respond to week 3's the same way!

Warning: my response is a rough, incomplete thing but maybe this is par for the course for rhizo learning. (I should confess here that I am ambivalent about rhizomatic learning as a theory, and hope that this experience helps to sort out my ideas about it.)

Okay. So we can't count learning. But I've always accepted this. Psychometricians working with Item Response Theory talk about latent traits: 'latent is used to emphasize that discrete item responses are taken to be observable manifestations of hypothesized traits, constructs, or attributes, not directly observed, but which must be inferred from the manifest responses' (Wikipedia). 

So when we assess, we are not measuring actual traits (or abilities) but the quality of evidence of such. It's all inferred and indirect, so we can't measure learning in the sense of holding a ruler up to it ('let's look at how much you've grown!').

Also learning happens continuously -- we can't start and stop at will. We can't measure it, even indirectly, as you might temperature, in real time. By the time the test finishes and is marked or feedback given, learning has already moved on.

So we never measure learning per se. As Lisa says, it's only symbolic. It's just a useful fiction.

But perhaps Dave's question is not about measuring quality of such tangible evidence? At least the conventional kind?

If it isn't about product, is it about process, as some teachers already do assess?

Are we talking about measuring 21st century 'skills' like CPS (see previous post)? has very cleverly broken down CPS into more easily measurable bits, but when a construct is broken down like that, its integrity tends to suffer (something I forgot to include in my previous post). Is it about measuring literacies (situated social practices), as I'm attempting to tackle in my study? Learning dispositions?

But tangible evidence is also required to 'see' all the above. Are we talking of true 'unmeasurables', if psychometricians admit to any? What might they be?

Maybe it's about assessment that isn't externally imposed -- self assessment? How do we activate learners as owners of their own learning, as per Wiliam's framework of formative assessment? How do we make reflective learning second nature?

How can we give self assessment currency, given stakeholders' obsession with reliability of measurement and 'fairness'? How can we give it validity? And have people understand and accept that validity?

Which leads to heutagogy. We have to be good at it to cultivate it in others; our education ministry says teachers should cultivate Self-directed Learning capabilities in our learners, but how do they cultivate it in themselves? How can we be self directed about SDL?

How about we throw out quantitative measures? No counting! Maybe that's how we throw out the comparing and ranking of norm-referenced assessment that people tend to default to (I'm not sure how many participants really got criterion-referencing.)

How about we become ethnographers of learning? Help learners become autoethnographers of their own learning? The kind that's mostly, if not 100%, qualitative. (Before you say that the average teacher has too much to do, recall that she has an entire class of potential research assistants.) I'm sure this is (as usual) not an original idea. Do you know anyone who's tried it?

'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.' - William Bruce Cameron