Friday, December 23, 2011

What on Earth are We Testing?

For the last few days, I've been consolidating the myriad reflections of one facet of my life in education. I've been thinking and rethinking my views on assessment and evaluation, simply because there is so much stuff in my head.

What kind of jobs do people want to do? You don't study math so that you can become a mathematician, mostly — you study it because it is foundational material for many other possible careers. You can't do many things without basic math, and the interesting jobs normally need intermediate math or the equivalent in some aspect of it (geometry, data structures, topology etc). You can't be an art historian without knowing some math.

Likewise, unless you can understand physics and chemistry, you can't earn a diploma in gemology. And without understanding of chemistry and some biology, you'll never be a Master of Wine. The good life is closed to those without the sciences and mathematics. Or so it seems.

See, the problem is that we have made people think that you need qualifications in math and science to understand math and science. But every child has the seeds of this understanding, and the paper compost of secondary-school qualifications does not necessarily provide the impetus for them to sprout and bloom into the garden of a wonderful career.

No, no. I have a brother who has long claimed mathematical and scientific illiteracy. But he breeds orchids. He is a gemologist. He could have done neither without studying some math and science. But he has a paucity of such qualifications; his academic highlights are in the arts and humanities! You could have bowled me over with a feather when he started discussing circular dichroism the other day — and I have long taken his encyclopaedic knowledge of gardening for granted.

You see, testing one thing does not guarantee that you are testing capacity, only ability at the point of testing. And that is so poor, so pathetic, so weak! In this world, though, it is seen as necessary, by social convention.

What on earth are we testing? We are testing our capacity for constructive self-delusion as the edifice (what an interesting word) of education is educted from around us. End of rant.

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