No Penalty

Every year at about this time I spend days and days preparing a week long course for international principals on assessment leadership, scouring the latest research, reading, reviewing all my notes and experiences from recent visits to dozens of international schools.  Gives me plenty of opportunity to get riled up about it once again.

Here’s the problem.  Whose decision was it to make learning punitive and use assessment as the weapon?

Human beings are born to learn- that’s the design.  From the moment a child is born, its all about learning.  There’s no written curriculum, rather a whole bunch of benchmarks so the people who are shepherding that learning have sense of when strategies or environment might need to change.  And when a child is struggling to reach one of those benchmarks – like walking by a certain age, what do we?  We certainly don’t give him one chance, mark him down if he’s ‘late’, spend most of our energy figuring out what’s fair compared to other kids and how we will ‘report’ it to whoever might need to know. We don’t load him up with threats and potential consequences, say to him   ‘This is your last chance. Tomorrow we are moving on to talking and if you don’t show us you can walk I’m afraid you will not be allowed to go to that class.’

The purpose of assessment is so well established now – anyone in any facet of the education business cannot have missed this conversation that has been going on for decades; the Black and William ‘Inside the Black Box’  seminal research gave it the impetus to leap forward…and that was in 1998!

We know that assessment is essentially a feedback loop.  We work on helping kids to learn something, give them specific, corrective feedback along the way, WITH NO PENALTY, ever.  There is simply no place for penalty in this learning process in schools.  We are not talking here about no consequences for behaviors that are harmful to others, or simply ethically wrong.  We are talking about schools, places of ‘learning’ for people who have not yet learned.  That’s why they come to school – not to prove that they have learned but to actually learn.

There are so many practices in our schools- especially secondary, but primary as well- that are driven by the notion that penalty and learning can and should cohabitate.  Any educator reading this fill the list – from restricting access to courses of study to falsely assuming no learning has occurred because the particular  work the teacher wanted produced  was not and so on  Attaching penalty to the natural human condition of learning, as my 10 year old grandson would say is just ‘wrong’.

Letting go of that premise will free us to truly explore that nature of assessment and hopefully design many more helpful and compatible strategies.

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