Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Can Learning Be Assessed?

"The only source of knowledge is experience."
~Albert Einstein


n other articles, we've explored a number of ideas related to the topic of assessment, as well as why the standardized tests used in education today are theoretically flawed, based on false premises, and, to the extent that they have any value at all, measure only the lowest forms of learning. So what are the options?

Let's assume that the purpose of assessment in education is to evaluate or estimate the nature, quality, or ability of learning. We've largely determined that there is no universally accepted, or adequately comprehensive, definition of learning. But we can certainly broaden the idea of the "acquisition of knowledge" by recognizing that there are many different kinds of knowledge. Only by recognizing and identifying what, specifically, we want to "assess" can we begin to explore valid methods of assessment.

Kinds of Knowledge


earning a skill requires a different thought process than learning the formula for salt or the definition of alliteration. Using alliteration in writing requires a different thought process than simply defining the word. There is, however, a tendency to group these processes under two headings—declarative and procedural knowledge. Simplistically, knowing the rules of volleyball is declarative knowledge and being able to spike a ball is procedural.

Similarly, educators often divide knowledge into content and process. Content is the information that learners are expected to acquire. "Process is all the cognitive skills that the curriculum activities are intended to develop that are supposed to enable the student to do something with the content."(1) Although arguments abound over whether content or process is more important (another limiting dichotomy), theorists are fairly careless about distinguishing between them. For example, many so-called "content" standards are stated as processes—something a student must do to demonstrate "possession" of the content.

The knowledge categories of content and process are too broad to be particularly useful. Dr. Carl Bereiter suggests a potentially more useful breakdown of knowledge.

Bereiter points out that schools place the greatest emphasis on statable knowledge and the "knowing how" portion of skills—the only two forms of knowledge that can be "explained" and directly conveyed from one person to another. Neglect of the others comes partly from their variability from person to person. When educators are caught in the trap of group-think, there is no place for "knowledge" that varies among students, can't be easily transmitted to an entire group, and can't be objectively assessed. Yet knowing what we now know about the jaggedness profile of individuals, as well as how people's behavior changes from one context to another, ignoring variability becomes equivalent to throwing out any type of fruit that doesn't looking like an apple, or ignoring any word that doesn't have six letters and begin with the letter m!

Beyond statable knowledge and "knowing how," the other types of knowledge and/or understanding have not been adequately explored or even recognized as critical components of learning in public education. However, they are all present in what most of us recognize as intelligent behavior. "Competence in any domain will likely involve all six kinds of knowledge."(5)

Breaking knowledge down into its components is useful to educators to the extent that it helps to identify areas neglected in the teaching/learning environment. It is not useful if each component is broken off into a domain of its own and addressed as a separate part of instruction, as is often done with so-called thinking skills. In real life—in authentic learning—these forms of knowledge develop and function in parallel. They are interrelated parts of the system that encompasses the knower and the known. Dealing with the parts in isolation is likely to result in even more inert knowledge that is useful only in the context in which it is learned. Even now, with greater recognition of the importance of social and emotional learning, many are obsessed with finding ways to standardize and measure achievement in these areas.

One need only look at programs such as the "seven domains" approach used at Rainbow Community School in Asheville, NC, to see a learning environment in which all of these types of learning are not only recognized, but fully incorporated in an integrated way and with equal emphasis. This is holistic education.

Assessment: What Doesn't Work


ere's what we know:

Using scores on standards tests to predict "success" is just digging deeper into the rabbit hole of error.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Assessment

Recall that the word assessment means "the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something." And then notice that the word "quantitative" related to the quanity, not the quality of something.

Many people, particularly in the United States, have become obsessed with numbers. They have come to believe that attaching numerical data to any statement make it "more true." Any statement without such data is questionable. Thus the current attachment to quantitative assessment. For some reason, the ability to reduce a person to a number is given credence far beyond its actual value.

A qualitative evaluation, such as "The man is tall" is fuzzy. And worse, it's subjective. Your idea of "tall" may differ from mine. In this case, it certainly appears that the quantitative measurement is "more true," not to mention more useful, than the qualitative assessment/evaluation. But is that always the case?

Here's another comparison of a decision based on objective and subjective factors.

Comparison of a decision based on objective and subjective factors

Is the decision made based on objective probability any more "true" than the one made on the basis of subjective probability? And let's face it…how many people (other than meteorological statisticians) would take the time to base everyday decisions such as this on quantitative data.

Quantitative measurement is valuable when assessing discrete, observable objects. If, for example, you are choosing furniture for a room, it can certainly be useful. But given a more complex situation, such as the probability of rain, which depends on a number of largely unpredictable (or unobservable) factors, quantitative measurement loses any advantage.

Another way to define objective and subjective is that the objective refers to tangible things while subjective refers to intangible things. Tangible refers to things that have a physical presence that can be verified, generally by touch or other senses. Given those definitions, the question becomes "Are tangible things necessarily more important or valuable than intangible things?"

From the descriptions of knowledge earlier in this article, almost all forms of learning are intangible. Even the possession of specific knowledge objects is only indirectly observable. I can tell you what I know. I can show you what I know by selecting a correct answer on a test. In neither of these cases is the knowledge itself tangible. You may also observe my behavior and infer that I know something, although this is certainly subjective because it is based on your own knowledge and beliefs.

We saw in an earlier article how the ability to collect and store data about people rose exponentially in the early 19th century. The problem was that no one knew what to do with the numbers. Enter Quetelet and Francis Galton, who introduced the use of probability and statistics to the social sciences. While the manipulation of the numbers…the data itself…may be tangible, any conclusions based on that manipulation must be subjective. We saw this in the errors Quetelet and Galton made in their own interpretations of average.

Assuming that we can't measure learning, but still want to assess it, let's begin by discussing the elements of authentic assessment.

  1. Bereiter, C. (2000). Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age, Taylor and Francis, Inc. 2. In addition, the entire book can be read and downloaded at URL: http://www.cocon.com/observetory/carlbereiter/ [Note: the spelling of "observetory" is the way it is spelled in the URL]
  2. Ibid.
  3. Edelman, G. (1992) Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Damasio, A R. (1995) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 43-45.
  5. Bereiter, Education and Mind…, p 19.
  6. Tienken, Christopher, et al (Dec. 2016)Predicting Middle Level State Standardized Test Results Using Family and Community. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19404476.2016.1252304

Share This

Do you like what you find here? Are you intrigued? Please take the opportunity to share this page on your favorite social media site. It helps raise awareness and starts or adds to dialogue. Take a moment to share this page.