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Our Blunt-Object Epistemology

At the QPA Summer Institute, I found myself falling into a conversation about…get this…epistemology. This doesn’t happen that often, and when it does, I cherish it. Traditionally, education does not tend to explore or enact the subtle, rich, body of epistemological thought. Education has an epistemology, but it is a blunt-object affair,the product of a vulgar, limiting devotion to accountability.

Let’s look at assessment. Traditionally, as a teacher, you’re expected to assess the knowledge of the kid in front of you continuously through the learning process. What does the kid know when he or she comes to you? What do they come to know from your lessons? What do they know at the end of the unit? What do they know at the end of the year? What do they know while walking the stage in their cap and gown? This should all sound familiar. These reflect basic questions of epistemology. What is it possible to know? How do you know? How do you know what they know? How do they know what they know?

Every teacher knows you can’t directly access a kid’s knowledge. We recognize that typical school tests are a proxy for such direct access. We recognize that with our assessments we are constructing epistemological “if-then” statements. We are setting up a condition with an outcome: if the kid can do this, then you can say they know that. For instance, if the student can answer questions about the French Revolution on a test, then, it is supposed, they know about the French Revolution.

But, OMG! We've all crammed for a test, and then forgotten it all in the moments following. Or even prepared diligently, passed the test, then spent months away from the subject, and needed a complete review in order to get up to speed. In either case, can we be said to know the material? The honest teacher will concede that, even assuming it's a good test, the test elicits knowledge of what the kid knew at the moment they were taking the test. What does it mean to know something? And gosh darn it, what does it mean to know something more deeply?

Call this a straw man. “No educator,” you say, “would argue that knowledge, once achieved, is permanent and immutable.” But the structures of traditional education do exactly that, and many educators accept these structures because…well…what’re ya' gonna do? Credits are gathered marking the supposedly steady accumulation of knowledge over the course of years. This asserts an epistemological stability that is illusory. If you learn something in class, this structure says, then you can add it to your accumulation of knowledge. You own it forever. Traditionally, decisions about promotion, graduation, and dispersal of resources are made based on exactly this model. The argument against the Carnegie Unit is an old one, but a shockingly small number of schools do without it.

More importantly, the traditional assessment suffers from the problem of the false negative. The proxy/test may be constructed as such: if the kid answers this question, then that is evidence that the kid knows what I want them to know. But the inverse of that – if they don’t answer this question, then that is evidence that they don’t know – doesn't scan. Kids don’t answer questions correctly...because they’re hungry. They’re pissed off. They’re indifferent to the material. They’re indifferent to you. They've fallen in love. They've fallen out of love. They’re sleepy. They’re wired. They’re about to be arrested for posession. Attendance is compulsory and the duty of every prisoner is to attempt escape!


Artist Unknown

There are many reasons a student might choose not to engage in a compelled behavior (in this case, answering a question on a test), and only one of those reasons is that they don’t have the knowledge required. To assert that such a wrong answer provides sufficient evidence of lack of knowledge is an error, and a patently unethical one. Yet educational structures urge us to do that all the time. Kids’ grades are averagedtogether, and the wrong answer is not only taken as evidence of momentary wrong knowledge, but that wrong answer contributes to the kid-algorithm as the measure of their knowledge. It becomes a grade, entered into their “permanent record,” the ultimate epistemological reification!

This, of course, is why the Quality Performance Assessment team and all of us at the Summer Institute – feel so passionately about our work. Performance assessment – cannily referred to as “authentic assessment” – asserts and demonstrates that assessments can be structured with genuine transfer and application. You won’t only know that the student knows something. You will know that they know how to use that knowledge or skill.

The problem of the false negative remains. Watching a kid not throw a baseball, or throw a ball badly, doesn't tell how well they are able to throw a ball – only how well they did throw that ball in that instance. Assessment doesn't measure knowledge or skills. It measures our ability to persuade students to behave in a way that can persuade us that they have demonstrated knowledge. Which is why engagement and relationships with students are the core of our Quality Performance Assessment work.

Does a careful study of epistemology provide a path towards assessing knowledge better, or more accurately? Maybe. Is it a good time? You betcha’! Or is it true that the only thing epistemology has to offer is solace in the form of epistemic humility? The Socratic mark of wisdom – I’m wise because I know I’m not wise – might prompt us to be more thoughtful and compassionate in the construction of our assessments. And in the construction of our relationships with kids. Many, many educators already evince this. Many are pushing to incorporate such humility in the structures of public education. This would be far more valuable than the illusion of certainty our structures currently pretend to.

This article originally ran in the Partially Examined Life. It has been updated with reflections from the 2017 QPA Summer Institute.


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