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Marriage equality, the ‘Vote No’ case, and the teaching of ‘thinking well’ September 26, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education, Uncategorized.
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By Steve Wilson

I have been an educator and teacher, in many forms, working with people of all ages, for many years. I have often reflected on what my core values as a teacher are, because teaching often appears to be a complex and opaque activity, and one can lose sight of what lies at its heart.

Yet when you strip away the complexities: the technical and managerial aspects of teaching, the curriculum requirements and the many accountabilities the teacher has, and when you examine what lies at the core, it suddenly becomes very simple – at least, to me it does, much to my surprise.

And I think it comes down to this. I want the people whom I am teaching to firstly, respect and value themselves and others; and secondly, to think for themselves and while doing so, to think well.

What do I mean by, “to think well”?  Well, it is about the method and rigour they apply to their thinking, not about the views they ultimately adopt. I want my learners to be able to:

  • use evidence, logic and empathy to arrive at informed conclusions they can have confidence in;
  • self-reflect, and identify and correct any weak points, misconceptions or biases they find in their thinking;
  • take fair and careful account of the conclusions of others, and
  • explain their conclusions to, and test them with, other people, and modify their conclusions where they feel they should.

Children of school age, I have found over many years, are surprisingly good at developing and maintaining the habits and techniques which enable them to think well. We should, and do through our teaching in schools, continue to build the capacity of our young people to think well. And this brings me to my current concern, and to the point of writing this particular piece.

I have been thinking about this now, at this particular time, while observing the current discourse in Australia about marriage equality and the related postal survey voting process that has been promulgated by our government. This is because this discourse, and particularly many of the propositions mounted by the ‘Vote No’ (against marriage equality) case, are examples of thinking at its worst, not its best.

The demonstration of poor thinking underpinning the ‘Vote No’ campaign is essentially because, I have realised, the ‘No’ case is running a political campaign on the issue of marriage equality. Rather than engaging in thinking well, the ‘No’ case appears to be attempting to simply misinform or scare the public, mounting spurious or irrelevant propositions, rather than presenting an evidenced-based, logical and accountable case about why marriage equality should not be supported.

Unfortunately, political thinking is not usually an exemplar of thinking well. On most occasions political thinking, evidenced by what politicians say and the way they present arguments, is the opposite to thinking well. Political thinking is designed to highlight and privilege one case, to not present or consider alternative cases, and to obfuscate and misinform about relevant arguments, issues and facts. It is to win people over to your side by whatever means it takes, not by the reasonable and transparent means which underpin thinking well.

While much of the contemporary general discourse about social issues is politicised, the politicised thinking around them often goes unnoticed by school aged children because it is primarily confined to the parliament. The issue of marriage equality is now not confined to the parliament.

Because of the national postal survey and its related campaign, the matter of marriage equality is now public property. It is front and centre in all of our media, and on our devices, on a daily basis. It will continue to be this way for many weeks to come due to the length of the voting process. Our children are watching all of this. And I am appalled by what they might be learning, or un-learning, about thinking well as they observe the current, politicised ‘No’ campaign.

Back in the classroom we would call out and challenge the paucity of thinking evident in claims such as:  marriage equality should not be supported because it will limit religious freedom; it will lead to more radical forms of personal development curriculum in schools; families need two parents, and parents of different genders, if children are to be brought up well; marriage equality will impede freedom of speech; vote ‘No’ if you don’t like political correctness; vote ‘No’ if you don’t like the way the world is going.

These are some of the actual, key arguments currently being advanced by the ‘No’ case in the public domain in relation to marriage equality in Australia. None of these arguments addresses the substantive question being asked of the public. Each one is a red herring, designed to create fear and confusion, and distract from and obscure the simple nature of the substantive matter at hand. Each one is an example of poor argumentation and poor thinking.

We would challenge such approaches to thinking and argumentation in the classroom, and we should challenge them now in the public arena. The ‘No’ case, as currently contrived, represents quality of thinking at its very worst. It represents the worst type of role-modelling for our children about how to think well. And because of this, it only helps to undermine the very best of the teaching and learning that occurs in our schools.

 

Steve Wilson is Emeritus Professor at Western Sydney University and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at Western. With one short pause he has been editor of this blog,  21st Century Learning, since its creation in 2010, but will step down from this role at the end of 2017.

Teaching Empathy? It’s a Process: Drama in the Primary Classroom September 6, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Uncategorized.
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By Rachael Jacobs

Recently a lesson on the Stolen Generations, conducted at a Sydney school, went horribly wrong. Year 4 students were engaged in a day long ‘role-play’ in which they were told they would be removed from their families.

According to reports , a nun entered the classroom in the morning, with a letter from the Prime Minister, and told the class they would be taken away from their parents, as they weren’t being looked after properly. The exercise continued for five hours until the end of the school day when students were informed that this was a lesson on the Stolen Generations, and were asked how it made them feel.

While there was extreme concern expressed from the media and parents, Drama teachers all over watched this episode aghast, wondering how such a potentially powerful lesson had gone so wrong.

It seems an attempt was made to use the drama conventions of teacher-in-role and role play. These are two strategies found in the beautiful and transformative pedagogy of ‘Process Drama’.  Process Drama is a powerful teaching tool when used ethically, but it seems it wasn’t employed carefully in this instance. This lesson seemed much more like ‘invisible theatre’ where the participants did not know that they were in a fictional context or that the teacher was in role.

Invisible theatre is more commonly used with adults, whereas Process Drama has a pedagogy of care built in. In Process Drama, students know they are in the drama and in the fiction.  Students and the teacher move in and out of role; they don’t play themselves, rather they take on the roles of other people. At the end of a particular strategy or moment in the class, students may need to de-role (get out of role) and discuss and debrief the moments when they were in role. It’s a process students are familiar with. We see small children playing and going in and out of role all the time. When educators use drama in this way, they are protecting their students in role. Through role, we avoid the manipulation of ‘psycho-drama’ and can explore the space where the real world and the fictional world overlaps.

The teachers in the school concerned were acting with the best of intentions. They may have seen highly transformative learning experiences, such as Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment  and attempted to replicate these lessons.  It should be noted that the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes lesson sparked outrage at the time, but is now considered a watershed moment in addressing racism in schools.

However, there are limits to Process Drama’s reach. Process Drama has been critiqued for its attempt to replicate the experiences of disadvantaged people at critical times in history. Can we really ever understand what it’s like to be part of the Stolen Generations, and is it offensive to suggest that we can replicate those experiences?  Indigenous children’s writer, Trina Saffioti, whose books were used to inspire the school’s lessons, was deeply uncomfortable with the exercise, stating that it almost cheapens the experience .

While it’s true that we can never truly understand what it was like to be a part of the Stolen Generations, the ability to see life from another’s perspective may be the most important lessons that one can ever learn.

It is abundantly clear that those facilitating these lessons were ill prepared for the nuances of this delicate teaching strategy. The transformative power of drama is still largely misunderstood in schools. New teachers can have as little as two hours training in Drama in their teacher preparation courses and this is a failure of our system . Many teachers would like to use drama to enhance empathy, challenge students’ worldviews, and to facilitate deep and critical thinking, but often don’t know where to start. If teachers make a misguided attempt, or no attempt at all, we deny our students the opportunity for them to engage with complex issues through an incredibly powerful pedagogy.

Lessons that are uncomfortable are not always bad, in fact learning itself is a dangerous act. Students cloaked in safety and shielded from discomfort will not be able to reach their potential, both as learners and active citizens. The Stolen Generations are also a dark part of Australian history which must be recognised by all members of our community if reconciliation is to occur. Students and schools are not exempt from this. Far from being too young, these students are in a prime position to discern racism, prejudice and injustice.

The school and Catholic Diocese have bravely said that these lessons will continue, albeit in another form, emphasising that the intentions were sound, but the execution was flawed. We need educators who are risk-takers, willing to tackle big issues, particularly our shameful treatment of indigenous Australians.

It would be incredibly sad if this isolated incident prevented teachers from being creative and using drama effectively in their classrooms.

 

Dr Rachael Jacobs is an Arts Education lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

 

 

(Un)necessary teachers’ work? Lessons from England. July 17, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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by Susanne Gannon

Disembarking at Heathrow a few weeks ago, my first purchase in pounds as always was a copy of The Times to read on the train into the city. The second page headline, “CR (Creative Original): Grades on schoolwork replaced by codes” (Bennett, 2017) caught my eye. Skimming the article in my dazed jetlagged state was not ideal for a critical reading but I snapped a photo with my phone of the final paragraph:

“In 2014 the government asked teachers to tell them what created unnecessary work. Three big areas were marking, planning and data management.”

I recognise the data deluge in schooling is now overwhelming, may be driven by externally imposed system imperatives and is not always put to use to improve student learning. However, I’ve spent my professional life as a secondary English teacher, tertiary teacher educator and researcher. I could not see how “marking” and “planning” are seen as “unnecessary work” for teachers.

Planning is surely at the heart of teachers’ work. Otherwise how do we claim our status as professionals? Ideally we don’t just wing it in the classroom, nor do we follow prescriptive scripts. Systematic, responsive, syllabus-informed planning of purposeful sequences of learning and meaningful resources are what make the difference for individuals and groups of students. Well-selected and fine-grained data about student progress (not necessarily only the numerical data that is favoured by educational systems) should of course inform such planning as skilled teachers identify gaps and opportunities for extension and tailor their planning to their students’ needs and their potential.

Having high expectations and creating the conditions – through careful and ideally collaborative planning – for students to succeed and to excel are hallmarks of quality teachers. These features are characteristic of exemplary teaching in disadvantaged contexts (Lampert & Burnett, 2015; Munns, Sawyer & Cole, 2013). Careful planning need not preclude flexibility, creativity and authenticity in learning and assessment practices, but conversely may enable these qualities (Hayes, Mills & Christie, 2005; Reid, 2013). As many of these authors stress, good planning is often underpinned by a disposition of teachers to become researchers of learning within their own classrooms. Where teachers are provided some agency and capacity to gather and use data then problems are less likely to be at the low level of time consuming and potentially meaningless “data management” that is perceived as “unnecessary work” by teachers in England.

Marking is of course close to my heart as a secondary English teacher and I have spent countless hours of my life providing written feedback on student work. Whilst I have become adept at designing and using outcomes based rubrics / criteria sheets since their introduction in the mid-90s with outcomes based assessment and curriculum, I have always endeavoured to provide tailored and specific feedback to students on their texts.

This for me is “marking” as a process, and I think of it – in ideal circumstances – as sometimes like a sort of dialogue on the page between student, text and teacher, and an opening towards further dialogue. It features in formative as well as summative assessment contexts (apart from exams). Now it features in the texts in progress that are thesis chapters for my current doctoral students. In a perfect world it is diagnostic, supportive, explicit and critical in combination and students will take heed. Portfolios, peer and self-assessment processes and tools can be incorporated. As Munns et al (2013) describe, sharing assessment responsibility is an important component of the insider school. The volume and pressure of marking has always been problematic however, when short timelines for results and sheer numbers of students across multiple classes work against ideal scenarios. My research into creative writing in secondary schools (e.g. Gannon, 2014) suggests how English faculties were able to work collegially to support senior students as they developed major works in English. Marking, at best, can be rewarding, encouraging and useful for students and for teachers.

Where, then, does the aversion to marking come from for teachers in England? The article in The Times does not provide any pointers towards the government survey of 2014, but is rather an announcement of a large randomised control trial to be funded by the UK-based Education Endowment Foundation, based on a Report reviewing written feedback on student work that they commissioned and recently published (Elliot et al., 2016). The opening of the executive summary of the Report provides further detail:

[T]he 2014 Workload Challenge [UK] survey identified the frequency and extent of marking requirements as a key driver of large teaching workloads. The reform of marking policies was the highest workload-related priority for 53% of respondents. More recently, the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group [UK] noted that written marking had become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers and recommended that all marking should be driven by professional judgement and ‘be meaningful, manageable and motivating’. (2016, 4)

Well, of course! What has gone wrong in England that marking is not driven by these qualities. Are there lessons for us in Australia (yet again from England) of what not to do in educational reform? Although the report acknowledges that there is very little evidence or research into written marking, they nevertheless identify some inefficient and apparently widespread practices: triple-marking, awarding grades for every piece of student work (so that the grades distract students from the feedback), too many texts required from students, marking excessive numbers of student texts, provision of low level corrections rather than requiring students to take some responsibility for corrections/ improvements, and moving on without giving students time to process and respond to feedback.

Despite the caveat in the opening section, the report is worth reading in full (though it has been criticised by local critics e.g. Didau, 2016). Secondary teachers are much more inclined to put a grade on every piece of student work, they say (2016, 9). Unsurprisingly, offering clear advice on how a student may improve their work in a particular dimension seems to be more useful than broad comments (‘Good work!’) or excessively detailed and overwhelming commentary (2016, 13). Targets or personalised and specific “success criteria” may be effective, particularly where students are involved in establishing them (2016, 20; also see Munns et al., 2013).

It is in this part of the Report that the overall logic of the newspaper article becomes apparent. Buried well down into the subsection on “Targets” is the following comment:

Writing targets that are well-matched to each student’s needs could certainly make marking more time-consuming. One strategy that may reduce the time taken to use targets would be to use codes or printed targets on labels. Research suggests that there is no difference between the effectiveness of coded or uncoded feedback, providing that pupils understand what the codes mean. However the use of generic targets may make it harder to provide precise feedback. (2016, 20).

The Times headline is therefore not quite accurate. It seems that “Grades” will not be replaced by “codes” but rather that teachers’ written comments will be replaced by codes. In another article, “Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial” (Ward, 2017) this is called “FLASH Marking” and is an initiative developed in house by a secondary school in northwestern England that will be rolled out to 12,500 pupils in 100 schools (EEF, 2017). The school claims that teachers will now be able to mark a class of Yr 11 exam papers in an hour. Students will receive an arrow (at, above or below expected target), and codes such as CR = “creative original ideas”, and V= “ambitious vocabulary needed.”

It seems from these news stories (and presumably EEF will put up the design protocols on their website eventually) that two different factors are being measured – one is holding back grades and the other is using codes instead of written comments. I’m curious but ambivalent, after all at university it is now mandatory to use “Grademark” software for coursework students. This enables teachers to provide generic abbreviated feedback (“codes”) but also gives us the opportunity to personalize responses, and supplement these with an extended written comment, or even an audio-recorded comment. These are highly personalised and appreciated by students.

To turn back to the English example, I wonder whether the randomized control trial design (in this case an efficacy trial that will be evaluated by Durham University) means that participating schools will not be able to improvise around the conditions of the feedback? At least, if the reduction of feedback to codes proves not to improve student results, given the need for the control (or “business as usual”) group, the damage will be limited to only half the participating schools and students. The news articles are unclear about the purpose of the study – which is described as a way to reduce teacher workload more than to improve student learning. However the EEF project description also mentions, reassuringly, that the rationale is focused on student outcomes, as “specific, actionable, skills-based feedback is more useful to students than grades” (2017). The project will follow year 10 students in senior English classes through to the end of secondary school with a report to be published in 2021. Already, I can’t wait.

References

Bennett, R. (June 17, 2017). CR (Creative original idea): grades on schoolwork replaced with codes. The Times.

Didau, D. (May 18, 2016), The Learning Spy Blog.

http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/marked-decline-eefs-review-evidence-written-marking/

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Flash Marking. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/our-work/projects/flash-marking/

Elliot, V., Baird, J., Hopfenback, T., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M, Richardson, J., & Coleman, R. (2016). A Marked Improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/-on-marking/

Gannon, S. (2014). ‘Something mysterious that we don’t understand…the beat of the human heart, the rhythm of language’: Creative writing and imaginative response in English. In B. Doecke, G.Parr & W. Saywer (Eds), Language and creativity in contemporary English classrooms (pp. 131-140). Putney: Phoenix Education.

Hayes, D., Mills, M., & Christie, P. (2005). Teachers & schooling making a difference: productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Allen and Unwin.

Lampert, J. & Burnett, B. (Eds) (2015) Teacher Education for High Poverty Schools. Springer.

Munns, G., Sawyer, W. & Cole, B. (Eds). (2013). Exemplary Teachers of students in poverty. Routledge

Reid, J. (2013). Why Programming matters: Aporia and teacher learning in classroom practice. English in Australia. 48(3), 40-45.

Ward, H. (June 16, 2017). Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial. Times Education Supplement. https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-wanted-take-part-marking-without-grading-trial

 

Dr Susanne Gannon is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, Australia.

10,000 days of love: celebrating Phil Nanlohy, a dialogical educator June 21, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education, Uncategorized.
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By Jorge Knijnik

Educate is to immerse of meaning everything we do (Paulo Freire)

On the evening of the 19th June, teacher educators and primary teachers gathered in Parramatta, in the heart of Western Sydney, to celebrate the career achievements of a teacher educator legend: Phil Nanlohy, one of the most generous academics to have ever worked in the School of Education at Western Sydney University.phil

Phil had chosen that day for his retirement festivities because it marked his 10,000th working day at the University. He was happy and thankful that he could stay for more than 27 years in the same work place: happy as he made so many great friends; and thankful because over all these years he was able to make an intensive and in-depth commitment to his passion for education.

Both retirees and current teacher educators, along with other teachers who were present at that celebration, were unanimous in recognising that Phil’s positive impact in primary education in New South Wales goes far beyond the university’s lecture theatres. His legacy can be seen in the lives of thousands of university students, whom he has supported to achieve their goals and to become current teachers across Western Sydney. Phil has been the role model of so many teachers who learned with him to be better educators in their everyday teaching practices.

This is one of Phil’s important lessons: that teachers are never ‘ready to teach’; that we all learn while teaching, but this learning only comes if teachers have the chance to permanently self-reflect on their practices and their pedagogies. Paulo Freire, the greatest educator, philosopher and social activist, would say that “nobody starts to be an educator on Tuesday at 4 pm; nobody is born as an educator, or even defined as an educator. We become educators, permanently, in practice and reflecting on our practice”. Accordingly, Phil has fought so many good pedagogical fights to support students to create practical and insightful tools that would help them to increase their self-reflective skills, augmenting their capacity to implement their teaching philosophies with their own students, and becoming better teachers.

All testimonies on that festive night were about how Phil had always put his students’ needs in front of his own necessities: his mission was to help his students to find their ways through the sometimes daunting academic context. So many of his students were the first in their families to ever go to a university; many times they did not have either the cultural support or the knowledge about what the academic life requirements were. So, Phil was always there to help them to solve their problems.

Phil’s “proud sons of a teacher” gave evidence of the many evenings and numerous weekends that he spent on preparing materials for his students. This careful planning had the aim of delivering authentic learning experiences to his students, as Phil firmly believes that every lesson should be immersed with social and cultural meaning, so his passion for education would flow to students as they make their way to their emancipation as educators and citizens. For Phil, this passion was clearly a two-way route: as student-teachers embedded themselves with the hunger for teaching, they simultaneously nurtured Phil’s own desire to keep looking for ways to be a better teacher-educator himself.

Phil’s enthusiasm for his shared practices with his students was visible. More than visible, one could feel this enthusiasm rolling along the campus’ corridors and teaching spaces. Phil was relentlessly looking for better ways to improve his communication with his students.

This is another valuable lesson of Phil’s pedagogies. He was always in a dialogical relationship with the students; in a Freirean sense, that means to be in the students’ world AND with the students’ world. According to Freire, it is in the dialogical process that teachers develop their critical consciousness about the world they and their students inhabit. Dialogue is an essential tool for teachers to become educators.

In a historical period when neoliberalism and individualism pervade our daily lives, seemingly aiming to destroy the bonds that ties us as communal beings; in these precarious times when intolerant political ideas have strongly emerged within our societies, Phil’s unselfishness teaches us that dialogue is one of the most important tools that educators can use to increase their students’ social conscience towards a fairer society.

Phil’s lessons, though, go beyond that. His generosity towards his students and colleagues were a true lesson of love. Love that, according to Paulo Freire, it is both the foundation of the dialogical process as “the dialogical process itself”. Love for the world and for human beings. Love and dialogue, not manipulation or paternalism. Love as an act of freedom that generates new acts of freedom.

Phil’s lessons of love towards his work, his students and the world will remain with all of us, his colleagues and former students. The 10,000 days owe which he disseminated his love for the teaching profession will certainly generate many other thousands of days of dialogue and love for education.

However, we will miss him and his generosity on a daily basis. Phil’s words during his celebrations showed that he is a truly Freirean educator. Very humbly, he said that all “these years have been gift. The friendships and the support given to me have let me work as the teacher I wanted to be. Thank you all for what you have allowed me to do”.

Phil’s Educator shoes will be very hard to fill.

Readings

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Dr. Jorge Knijnik is a senior lecturer in  the School of Education at Western Sydney University. Jorge’s books on Gender, Sports and Education can be accessed here.

Objective or Subjective? Can the arts be assessed? June 13, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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By Rachael Jacobs

 As with any subject area arts education must conform to curriculum policies and procedures, including those related to assessment. In subjects such as Dance, Drama, Music and Visual Arts, students’ creative work is assessed formatively and summatively through a range of assessable instruments. However, the assessment of artistic work presents unique challenges, as the processes used are highly dependent on a wide range of interrelated contributions. This leads to wide speculation that the arts cannot be assessed, as all judgements are merely subjective.

 Arts learning is multifaceted in that it connects to the human experience, engages learners in imaginative and aesthetic growth, accesses technical skills and allows for vocationally orientated experiences. It is also creative and dynamic, using assessment tasks to gauge artistic responses upon the learning trajectory. It is arguable that ongoing and regular assessments are critical components of the arts classroom. Students’ creative work is assessed formatively and summatively through a range of assessable instruments, including individual and group performances, journals and logbooks, design portfolios, director folios, script development, improvisation tasks, video production, self-reflection, theatre reviews and interviews. Performance assessments in particular can be complex because of the variations between performance sites, the requirement for ensemble or group work, the nature of the ensemble or group, the access to technical equipment and the composition and reactions of any audience that might be in attendance (Oreck et al. 2003).

But these problems can be addressed through effective assessment task design. The larger issue is the perception that the formal and widespread assessment of artistic creations can result in a stifling of individual expression, imagination, creativity and originality, while not allowing for the fresh pursuit of ideas (Hanley 2003). A wide range of responses are also plausible to a particular task. Despite these challenges, system-wide assessment in the arts is achievable and necessary to establish the credibility of the field and to provide systems for identifying student achievement within the formal school curricula.

One of the biggest challenges identified by Harris (2008) is that ‘creativity’ is not easily defined and is therefore difficult to assess. Assessment in aesthetic domains also utilises personal responses to stimuli, which can be unfamiliar to those more accustomed to assessment tasks with previously defined answers. This is where the duality of objective and subjective constructs comes into play. Haynes (2008) and Ross (1993) describe traditional assessment methods, as identified by Hyde (2013), as being focussed on objectivity, whereby assessors are expected to discard their own feelings in favour of strictly set criteria in which interpretations are not required.

A focus on objective judgments is contrary to arts education, and indeed, the broader aims of education. O’Toole et al. (2009) remind us, “Knowledge and learning are of course never objective nor value-neutral, much though ultraconservative groups and politicians might wish them to be seen as such” (p. 108). Jackson (2006) justifies the validity of creative assessment tasks, arguing that “it should be possible to separate subjective judgments of creativity from judgments of technical goodness and from judgments of aesthetic appeal” (p. 169). Tomlinson (2001) argues for a healthy balance between subjective and objective judgments in order to create informed judgments on performance assessment that provide the most ‘individually sensitive, accurate and comprehensive evidence’ (p. 15) of student learning. Misson (1996) goes so far as to identify arts education as a site for the construction of subjectivity, which he argues operates at the nexus of intelligence and emotion: “thought is charged with feeling, while feeling is refined and strengthened by thought” (p. 11). In this respect, it has long been argued that subjects such as Drama teach empathy (Holland 2009; Trinder 1977). Similarly, Bolton (1984) describes Drama as a process of ‘unselfing’, which makes subjective and alternative responses a valid part of the dramatic response.

The assessor is concurrently an arts consumer, but is more active than other audience members. The ability of the assessor to capture their thoughts on the quality of work as it occurs is vital to the integrity of the assessment process. For example, during a performance, the assessor is required to make judgments about the quality of the work and physically notate their thoughts in relation to given criteria. The assessor makes cognitive links between student choices based on the assessment criteria, balancing their judgements with their own implicit criteria, which are necessarily based on their personal experiences (Baptiste 2008). While an audience member is permitted to make purely subjective judgments, the assessor aims to make informed judgments, which may result in marks or grades being recorded. Teachers in the arts develop expertise in assessing the outcome of the aesthetic process or the manifestation of the individual aesthetic experience. The product is therefore viewed from a number of perspectives and informed judgments are made by the assessor based on set criteria and personal discretionary judgements in relation to, and the quality of, what is produced (Ross 1993).

Leach et al. (2000) argue that assessors are consciously and unconsciously biased by their own values, preferences and dispositions. In this respect, personal responses from both the assessor and the student can widen the possibilities for interpretation (Ross 1993). Rather than command that assessors discard these personal responses, it is preferable for students to be taught to use individuals’ insights to reflect upon, and if necessary, make adjustments to their performances (Soep 2005). Students do not create art solely for the purpose of being assessed; rather they engage in arts education to pursue their own artistic expression. Therefore, students should be encouraged to assess feedback and apply their own artistic decisions to their work. Both students and teacher-assessors should be aware that subjective responses are natural, as they are rooted in “culturally authorised criteria” for judgment of the level of achievement (Ross 1993, p. 164). However, the assessor’s judgement is recorded in quantifiable terms such as grades or marks; therefore, the student has a heightened awareness of the assessor’s responses in the high-stakes assessment environment.

The literature suggests that subjective judgements are endemic in the arts assessment environment and can never be divorced from the process. At the same time, the ‘healthy balance’ (Tomlinson 2001, p. 15) between subjective and objective judgments are ideally what the teacher-assessor should deliver. Subjective and objective perspectives combine to create informed judgements that broaden interpretations on the students’ art. This can be somewhat challenging to those not accustomed to assessment in affective domains, using aesthetically charged mediums. Academic work is traditionally associated with rational and quantifiable modes of thinking, therefore arts educators should take care to make their language accessible and their assessment processes transparent. Arts educators’ challenge to traditional learning and assessment paradigms is also important because it broadens the educational community’s understanding of the nature of learning. Discussing the merits of creative assessment tasks is also important as it allows for the rigour and complexities of the tasks to become visible to those outside of artistic fields.

The challenges associated with arts assessment, like the arts themselves, are heavily nuanced. Teachers and students do not engage in arts assessment to have a complete and full understanding of all its nuances. They engage in the arts to experience the joy of creative expression and artistic creation, to play ‘pretend’ in a range of roles and to build a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience through an array of lenses. There is also joy within challenge; Arts performance assessment contains areas of ambiguity and subtleties that lack definitive answers. The subtleties add to the richness of the field, challenging educators to engage in meaningful discussions in order to find ways to enhance fairness and equity amid the ambiguity.

References:

Baptiste, L. (2007). Managing subjectivity in arts assessments. In: L. Quamina-Aiyejina, ed., Reconceptualising the Agenda for Education in the Caribbean, 1st ed. [online] St. Augustine: School of Education, UWI., pp.503-509. Available at: http://uwispace.sta.uwi.edu/dspace/bitstream/ handle/2139/6714/Cross-Campus%20Conference%20Proceedings%202007. pdf?sequence=1. [Accessed 17 Jul. 2012].

Bolton, G. (1984). Drama as education. Harlow, England: Longman.

Hanley, B. (2003). Policy issues in arts assessment in Canada: “Let’s get real”. Arts Education Policy Review, 105(1), pp.33-38.

Harris, J. (2008). Developing a language for assessing creativity: A taxonomy to support student learning and assessment. Investigations in University Teaching and Learning, 5(1), pp.http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/ fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/investigations/vol5/INV%205_013%20-%20Harris.pdf.

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Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in arts education in the School of Education at Western Sydney University.  She is a former secondary teacher (Dance, Drama and Music) and primary Arts specialist.

 

 

 

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