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I think, therefore I mark.

Today I think we should talk about ‘assessment’.  There has been and is, a lot of it about.  And let’s throw ‘interpretation’ in too.  There’s always a lot of that about.  I suppose what I’m saying is along the lines of how there’s something fishy about how we assess things, primarily because of how we tend to interpret things.

On the outset of our journey, please  allow me to be clear that I have nothing to tell you at all. If I were to presume that I had something to tell you, I would be the person who stole your shoes and then tried to sell them back to you.

So you might ask, well why am I here writing to you right now?

Who knows?

Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus, that in many cases the way you choose to measure something, say the width of this screen, doesn’t affect the width of the screen.  However that’s not quite the case when we seek to measure more important things, like say, learning.

Less than an hour before writing these words I happened to be strolling purposefully between lessons and I caught a snippet of discourse between two students, as I passed along my way.  One of them was seemingly complaining about a recent piece of work.  “I just want to know the mark,” one of them grumbled.  When asked why by his sympathetic chum, he responded, ‘because I want to know how near the Grade boundary I am because, like if I’m two marks off I can appeal.”

“Ah!” I reflected, “I must work that into the Director’s column.”

It turns out that the business of assessing performance by giving marks is a relatively new invention. Harari further discusses how our hunter gatherer forebears for example, didn’t set out of a morning hoping to get 80 out of 90 for their day’s efforts. Or how, at the end of their apprenticeship, a  young medieval cobbler did not receive a piece of paper saying they’d been awarded an A* on shoelaces but a C minus on buckles. Any undergraduate in Shakespeare’s day left Oxford with one of only two possible results: with a degree, or without one.

Harari again: “It was the mass educational systems of the industrial age that began using precise marks on a regular basis. Factories and government ministries became accustomed to thinking in the language of numbers and schools followed suit. They started to gauge the worth of each student according to his or her average mark, and the worth of each teacher and headteacher was judged according to the school’s overall average. Once bureaucrats adopted this way of measuring, reality was transformed.”

Because, as I think I may have said before, reality is mediated and manifested to us by the way we attend to it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, marks have their place. They are a useful means of measuring some kind of success. But of course naturally enough, schools soon began focusing on getting high marks.  The potential problem here though is, as we all know, that the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as those needed for what I argue is a true appreciation of literature, biology or mathematics to name but three ‘subjects’ on your typical school curriculum.

I suggest that what we have here is a rather neat illustration of Campbell’s Law, which is “the observation that once a metric has been identified as a primary indicator for success, its ability to accurately measure success tends to be compromised.”

And so, the  damaging thing about so-called ‘success criteria’ is that of course they begin to utterly change the way we attend to what it is we want to be successful at.

Take poetry for example.  Most people don’t bother, but indulge me.  It just so happens that the Director has been teaching a lot of poetry recently as well marking to assess students’ abilities to respond to poetry.  I think I may have pointed out before that metaphor is the only way to understand anything.  Try having a conversation which doesn’t employ metaphor. They are so deeply engrained (see?) in our discourse that often we don’t actually notice we’re using them.  And I’m sure we all remember being taught about electricity by having it compared to the way water flows.

So, a poem then: a result of somebody taking great pains to write to communicate something.  And that something is absolutely unique; if it hadn’t existed you couldn’t have invented it any more than you could have thought of your closest friend if you’d never met them.  And a poem is embodied, embodied in the very words that it’s in. And of course it’s also utterly implicit. So if you were to try and unpack it like explaining a joke or say ‘well this is what this poem means then you really are losing a lot of the value as well as the meaning itself. To quote Morrissey, if you have to explain the joke, well that joke isn’t funny anymore.  Paraphrasing a poem turns it into nothing more than a handful of dust.  And what’s the point of trying to assess a pile of dust?

As I wade through my poetry assessments, I see a lot of evidence of students taking the embodied and attempting to make it thoroughly disembodied, taking the implicit and trying to make it thoroughly explicit and in the process rendering this entirely unique thing, this completely unique experience into something that is utterly general in nature and bereft of anything worth the candle.  Things which possess deep (see?) meaning can never be paraphrased.

The Director worries that in our striving to assess and to measure success, we are in danger of overlooking or indeed belittling the crucial stuff.  I worry that we are in danger of making a world where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are not valued precisely because things which really matter cannot be readily or simply measured and assessed.  It boils down to (see?) either valuing what we assess or assessing what we value.  One of these is easier but the other is crucial.

I would like to finish with a story which perhaps illustrates this idea.  And also because I think it’s a pleasant experience to be read to.  It appears in The Magus (1965) by John Fowles which I recommend as a great read.  Especially if you’re on a Greek island.

Once upon a time there was a young prince, who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, he did not believe in God. His father, the King, told him that such things did not exist. As there were no princesses or islands in his father’s domaines, and no sign of God, the young prince believed his father.

But then, one day, the prince ran away from his palace. He came to the next land. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw islands, and on these islands, strange and troubling creatures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore.

“Are those real islands?” asked the young prince.

“Of course they are real islands,” said the man in evening dress.

“And those strange and troubling creatures?”

“They are all genuine and authentic princesses.”

“Then God must also exist!” cried the prince.

“I am God,” replied the man in full evening dress, with a bow.

The young prince returned home as quickly as he could.

“So you are back,” said his father, the King.

“I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God,” said the prince reproachfully.

The king was unmoved.

“Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God, exist.”

“I saw them!”

“Tell me how God was dressed.”

“God was in full evening dress.”

“Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?”

The prince remembered that they had been. The king smiled.

“That is the uniform of a magician. You have been deceived.”

At this, the prince returned to the next land, and went to the same shore, where he once again came upon the man in full evening dress.

“My father the king has told me who you are,” said the young prince indignantly. “You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician.”

The man on the shore smiled.

“It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father’s kingdom there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father’s spell, so you cannot see them.”

The prince returned pensively home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eyes.

“Father, is it true that you are not a real king, but only a magician?” The king smiled, and rolled back his sleeves.

“Yes, my son, I am only a magician.”

“Then the man on the shore was God.”

“The man on the shore was another magician.”

“I must know the real truth, the truth beyond magic.”

“There is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.

The prince was full of sadness.

He said, “I will kill myself.”

The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. He remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses.

“Very well,” he said. “I can bear it.”

“You see, my son,” said the king, “you too now begin to become a magician.”

So until next time, Happy reading/ assessing!