Any new assessment system needs to be rigorous, empowering and creative

We must ensure that children from all backgrounds achieve their highest creative potential

Daniel Shindler He was a teacher of drama, wellbeing, oracy and project–based learning within inner cities and internationally, for over 33 years. Author of In Search: Reimagining What it Means to be a Teacher

We can’t say we weren’t warned. The champion of a liberal arts curriculum, Richard Livingstone, way back in 1941,  advised:

‘The test of successful education is not the amount of knowledge that a pupil takes away from school, but his appetite to know and his capacity to learn.’

The educator Seymour Papert, brings us to the challenges of today:

‘The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn.’

Adolescents capacity to learn is supported by neuroscientists, such as Sarah–Jayne Blakemore, whose research demonstrates the adolescent brain continues to develop: ‘it is plastic, but in a heightened way, right throughout the teenage years.’

Dorothy Heathcote, the pioneer of drama in education, was in no doubt, An active, urgent, purposeful view of learning’ means ‘knowledge is to be operated on, not merely taken in’ . 

The four circles

Whatever system of assessment we choose is wholly dependent on school design. Claxton and Lucas throw out the challenge, ‘to design a school so that the espoused values gradually become enacted values’. For those looking for quick fixes, they rightly point out, ‘it takes thought, solidarity and determination’.

So, I offer a model in which to place systems of assessment. The four circles come from the American approach where they’re familiar with the idea of distinct academic, sporting, and arts circles that rarely cross over. In this model, the circles richly impact each other.

o   One-to-one conversations: Creating meaningful one-to one conversations using a common language

o   The wider school culture: Building a broader culture that champions and enacts its virtues and values

o   The wraparound services of pastoral care: Establishing a framework that envelops and nurtures the school culture

o   The inquiring classroom: Creating an environment in which the craft of teaching and learning can flourish

In my setting, with my students, these circles were developed and woven into a common thread, giving students and teachers a coherence into which they could lean. 

Assessment: a process of realisation

To view new systems of assessment through this lens is to open up the box we’ve been placed in. It has the potential to offer infinite possibilities. It empowers both student and teacher in ways now being advocated by those demanding a reimagining of education. Who would now disagree with the American educationalist, Ron Berger’s, assertion:

‘If schools assumed they were going to be assessed by the quality of student behaviour and work evident in the hallways and classrooms – rather than on test scores – the enormous energy poured into test preparation would be directed instead toward improving student work, understanding, and behaviour. Instead of working to build clever test-takers, schools would feel compelled to spend time building thoughtful students and good citizens.’

The challenge

The National Curriculum in the Eighties omitted drama. In spite of this, the resilience of the drama community, supported by the exam boards, meant generations of my students, over 25 years, were offered the deepest experience, socially and academically, that was rigorous, empowering and creative. I embraced the exam. There was nothing ‘soft’ about it. It was as mighty a challenge for adults taking a Community Drama GCSE in Norfolk as it was for 16-year-olds, from different backgrounds and abilities, taking a Drama GCSE in East London. I know; I was there. Tragically, those in power, with no experience or understanding of drama pedagogy, saw it as no more than ‘idle chatter’. Using their privilege, they reduced the art form to a 70 percent written exam, depriving future generations of what one of my students captures with her whole self here:

‘The journey that I have been on for the past 5 years has not only made me question the world but it has been the reason that I have taught myself never to diminish what I have and can do. I will forever hold it in my heart’

We know the most important assessments that take place in any school take place inside students’ heads. If young people are to care about learning, there has to be something at stake.

The challenge for new models of assessment is that they enable countless students, of all backgrounds and abilities, to achieve at the highest level, year after year – just as the drama assessment did before it was reduced to mostly written exams.

  • It gave young people the belief in their creative potential, offering them a new notion of self by achieving more than they ever thought possible; in the words of the French philosopher, Foucault, to become ‘someone else that you were not in the beginning’. The assessment was the climax of a 5 year search to liberate, what Loris Malagauzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilio, an inspirational, child centred arts based primary school in Italy, beautifully calls, ‘the hundred languages of children’. How many of those languages does our current system assess?
  • For the students, the public life of school and their private self became indistinguishable. Encouraged to step out of the ‘corner of their room’, they discovered something bigger than themselves making connections that are personal, local and global.
  • Students were offered the widest range of texts that would offer an ‘encounter’ in order to give, what the theatre director, Jatinder Verma describes as, ‘a voice to what is being done by the act of living’. If such an ‘encounter’ is to be meaningful, then there has to be a three-way relationship between text, student, and adult. Within this triangulation, the student will show up so we know them and they will know themselves. It’s a holistic approach offering infinite possibilities. New assessment systems must offer nothing less.
  • It acknowledged that resilience is a social process. The everyday classroom experience is not simply a vessel in which lives are lived; rather it’s the milieu in which the social processes of resilience are enacted daily. Any form of assessment must acknowledge there has to be struggle if there’s to be progress. It’s the difference between a classroom that’s alive and a classroom that’s dead. It’s a place where young people learn to listen, to debate, to reason, to theorise, to bear witness as human beings.
  •  It placed an emphasis on a rigorous drafting process over an extended period of time. It put young people on the road to understanding what it’s going to take in life to find satisfaction, depth, a sense of achieving things that are worthwhile. Importantly, it showed them what it would take to make people treat them seriously. The current overcrowded system doesn’t allow for this kind of process to breathe.

The list is longer than space will allow here. However, in the new world of social distancing, I’ll end with a plea that any form of assessment must create a space where a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices can all come together so we can once again experience, ‘the marvel of being one’.

Discuss this post