The Problem With “Measure”


One of the biggest blessings in my life is my marriage; I love my wife.

When I dislocated my knee (twice!) I experienced pain.

I can react with anger when personally confronted with injustice.

Joy warms my entire being when one of my daughters suddenly slips her hand into mine as we walk.

With some thought and effort I believe I could describe my love, pain, anger, and joy to you. Perhaps I could even express some degree of the intensity of those feelings, but I can’t measure them. My wife is pretty good at assessing my frustration, and my doctor does her best to assess my pain as she seeks to alleviate it and diagnose its cause, but neither of them are engaging in measurement.

Measurement requires a standard unit of measurement, a recognized standard that can be objectively applied in proper context. I can measure my bike ride to school in units of length (centimetres or kilometres). If I share that measurement with my colleague who also pedals to school, we can objectively compare that element of our commutes and determine who travels the greatest distance each day. What isn’t measurable or objectively comparable is the peace that the twenty minute ride brings to my day.

When it comes to measurement, learning fits into the same category as love, pain, anger, joy, and peace of mind. Learning can’t be objectively measured. There is no standard unit of measurement to apply to “Learning.” A skill can be demonstrated, progress can be noted, understanding can be communicated and shared, but technically this evidence of learning isn’t measurable.

As a teacher I have been moving away from traditional grading because I have recognized the limitations of grades in motivating, communicating, and promoting learning. Part of that journey has included using standards based learning and grading and prioritizing meaningful learning over the measurement of learning. However, I’ve been hanging out with the TG2 crew, and they have me reflecting on the power and importance of the language that we use in our conversations about education.

I wrote the post (linked above) about measurement and learning less than a year ago, but now I feel the word “measure” is fatally flawed when applied to learning. I moved to SBL/SBG to shift attention from grades to learning, and I think it is arguably an  improvement over traditional grades because it can help more clearly communicate learning. However, I hadn’t used SBG long before I realized words like “measure” and “accurate” were popping up in my conversations with colleagues and parents about standards-based learning. The problem with words like “measure” and “accurate” is that they aren’t about learning, they are about grades.

I am not working hard to reimagine my classroom and structures and practices to produce more accurate grades! I want to better nurture learning. The danger of using “measurement” language when we discuss learning is that we will mistakenly believe that we are talking about learning when we are actually perpetuating the very system we are seeking to reform. I have no desire to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic or improve the aesthetics of our scoreboards.

So, what language should we use instead? Any thoughts? For now I’m using “communication” language to help me share learning with students and parents. Also, and forgive the cheesiness, what might happen if we replaced the word “measure” in our conversation with “treasure?” Imagine a world where learning wasn’t measured, but rather, like love and joy and peace, treasured.


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The Power to Choose Nothing

“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”

The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.

After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.

I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.

So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.

As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.

If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.

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Attentiveness and Participation Assessed! Sort Of.

In an attempt to reframe effort in the classroom I’m trying to sift through the more traditional elements of effort (attentiveness, participation, compliance, focus, organization) and save the learning kernels after the chaff has drifted away. In my SBL and TTOG classroom I’m finding the learning outcomes that help students see the reason we tried to value effort by awarding points.

My less-than-effective way to encourage and grade classroom conversation: Track how often students participated in class activities. Award points to frequent talkers, hand-raisers, and question-askers. Remind infrequent participators that class participation is part of their grade.

My less-than-effective way to assess attentiveness: Observe the body language of 20+ students while I lecture. See who can answer the occasional pop question. Prod the inattentive or slumbering with a walk down the aisle and/or a reminder of the importance of attentiveness to their participation grade.

Even though it has been a long time since I practiced those methods, it’s pretty embarrassing to see them in print. What specifically did I think I was teaching those students? And while I stopped using such methods (which were far more about filling up a grade book than about learning) I didn’t find alternative ways to help teach the skills that I was ineffectively trying to value with my participation grade, skills such as speaking and listening.

Speaking and Listening are two of the language arts that appear in my curriculum, and they are a big part of what I was trying to encourage when I stressed the value of participation. They are valuable tools for learning and everyday skills that can improve quality of life in and out of school.

Here is my more effective way to teach and develop attentiveness and participation in class:

The beginning of the year includes mini lessons on speaking and listening. For example, I try to simplify speaking to the intentional use of face, body, and voice in order to enhance meaning. A good speaker will use a gesture to emphasize an important point or feeling; they will use a pause or change in volume to draw attention to a key idea. Other teachers use other methods (PVLEGS for example), but once the basic instruction for speaking and listening is in place, the classroom is ready for some practice.

Next I will ask the students to listen for moments of quality speaking in class. Perhaps, Jason shrugged emphatically when he replied, “I’m not entirely sure,” to a question. Maybe Sherise paused effectively when challenging Greg’s line of reasoning. I will also point out a few quality moments as a model.

Once a few examples have clarified the type of observations that I’m after, I will more formally assign a minimum number of positive observations to be made in a set time period; something like five observations in the month. I’ll have students post their observations using Google Keep notes. If you haven’t used Google Keep, it is basically a Sticky note app with variety of helpful functions like tags, sharing, and colour-coding. I will have students tag their observation notes with tags signifying standards/skills (eg. speaking, voice) and then share the note with me and the observed student speaker. When it is time for me to track or assess progress, I can search and filter my Keep notes by standard or by student.

There are many benefits to this assignment:

  • It creates artifacts of learning that can be tracked over time for both individuals and the entire class.
  • It creates teachable moments for speaking and listening.
  • It offers insight into further instruction based on which standards/skills are underrepresented or observed without adequate sophistication.
  • It values attentive listening and quality speaking in everyday classroom conversation.
  • It builds community and reflection through the encouraging, positive observations of peers.

That’s my rough draft idea, one way to reconcile “effort” and standards-based assessment. Already I can see the potential to teach responsible social media use by having the observations shared class-wide, but at this moment I haven’t imagined how to make the tech happen (a Padlet wall? A class social media account? Any ideas out there?). I’m excited to try it out in class, and I will report on field testing during the semester.


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Effort in the Classroom

Like many educators, I’m trying to develop a more student-centred classroom that focuses on learning, skills, and mindset more than grades. One of the struggles that I see shared among teachers making such changes is how to handle effort. The quick response to questions of effort in outcome or standard focused classrooms is that the outcome is what matters and that effort will show in the outcome. The Olympic athlete is evaluated based on result (speed, distance, etc.) and in some instances form or technique (gymnastics, diving) but never do the judges tally the hours of practice involved nor do they measure the kilojoules of energy burned during competition and factor such analytics into the medal standings.

In theory this perspective on effort makes senses, but in practice I’m finding it lacking. Certainly the Olympic judges and officials do not concern themselves with the hours of practice and other forms of effort the athletes invest, but as a teacher I feel the analogy breaks down because I’m uncomfortable being placed in the role of judge. I feel much more connection to the role of coach, and you can bet the Olympic coaches are very much concerned with the effort of the athletes. On the field or in the classroom, effort is an essential component of growth and development.

I’m beginning to think my struggle with effort in the classroom stems from lugging an older definition of effort into the context of a changing classroom environment. This older definition of effort includes items like participation (talks or raises hand often), attentiveness (listens to lecture, eyes on teacher), focus (compliantly completes in class activities) and organization (work is neat and completed on time). When I started teaching I handled effort like my former teachers handled effort: award marks for plenty of talking/hand raising and deduct marks for work that wasn’t neat or handed in on time. There is no room for that type of sub-par motivation or cloudy grading in my class today, but when I jettisoned those practices, I was left with a vacuum which is the source of my struggle with student effort.

As an instructional coach, I know the importance of effort in the classroom, but my old coaching techniques weren’t effectively developing learners. At the same time, I was left with the feeling that I somehow threw out the baby with the bath water. I believe there are many teachers in the SBL and TTOG movement who are feeling the same way. I want to join the larger conversation about reframing effort in the classroom and finding new ways to effectively communicate its importance and effect in school/life to students and parents.

During the beginning of the school year, I plan to post some specific methods I’m trying in order to reorient effort in school, but here is the general game plan. Instead of dismissing effort, I’m searching my curricular outcomes for connections to the skills and behaviours that I formerly lumped into “effort”. For example, listening is one of the language arts, so rather than arbitrarily awarding a mark based on how attentive each student appears to me, how will I teach, assess, and communicate progress when it comes to listening? Informal and impromptu speaking is an essential skill that we each use every day, and it deserves more attention than a simple tally of how many times a student volunteered an answer. Which speaking outcomes and assessments might help all students develop conversational skills that are part of day to day classroom practice?

Shifting to classrooms that help students take greater ownership of their learning is crucial, but as we make the shift, let’s not inadvertently unmoor learning from effort, but rather, more clearly (and fairly!) define and communicate how they are connected. As I plan my next posts, I’d love to hear how you handle effort in your class. How do you define effort? Are there manageable ways to teach, evaluate, and communicate progress when it comes to effort? Do you think it is advisable or commendable or even worthwhile to do so?  Of course, you can leave a comment below or add to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #sblchat and #ttog.


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Meaningful Learning Over the Measurement of Learning

Note: This post is one in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

Have you ever had one of those moments? The bell rings to end class and every person in the room jumps with surprise because the engagement level was too high for a trivial detail like the time/space continuum to distract anyone. As everyone begins to transition to the next class period as if waking from a really great dream, you steal a brief moment to revel in the joy of learning as it should be–filled with collaborative curiosity and exploration.

What price would you put on that class period? What would you pay (or how much prep would you be willing to do) in order to guarantee that every class period resulted in the same level of learning as that class period?

Here is a different set of questions: What grade would everyone get for the learning during that class? How would you fit that class into your grade book or share it on the parent portal?

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I’m afraid that too often in school meaningful learning is subordinated by our over-emphasis on measuring learning. I know that the dream class as described above (they do happen!) involved quality learning, but I don’t have to think long about a string of those classes in a row before I start getting this nagging sense of guilt from the empty columns of my PowerSchool grade book (see my post on individuals over tools). Even though I know that great learning took place during that dream class, the difficulty of measuring and reporting it in the context of a typical school system actually makes me question myself and the planning that led to the highly engaged class.

“But if I can’t measure the learning, how do I know there was any learning at all?” Agile education and I are not saying that measurement of learning is unimportant, but rather that the learning is a higher aim and priority than our ability to measure it. And, when it comes to learning, measurement isn’t the exact science we attempt to make out to be. It can be falsely comforting to stick with easy to measure assessments that are “straightforward” and “airtight” on PowerSchool or during Parent/Teacher conferences, but that tendency helps perpetuate a culture of chasing after grades instead of focusing on learning.

We can assess the learning of that dream class, but it won’t be communicated by a 7.5 out of 10 on a quiz. No, the dream class learning will be revealed by observation and conversation, reflection and anecdote. This type of evidence is no less valid or important than neat and tidy columns of quiz scores. Formative assessments and professional observations are vital components of practice that prioritizes meaningful learning over the measurement of learning.

Of course, let’s measure learning, but let’s find ways for our measurements to support meaningful learning. Collect anecdotal evidence and video feedback from students. Paste urls for Padlet walls or Google Shared folders into columns/comments in your digital grade book or parent portal. Pack portfolios full of formal and informal artifacts of learning. As the new school year begins, let’s commit to finding and sharing practical new assessments that better support a long string of dream classes and that communicate all the dreamy and essential learning to parents, students, colleagues, and ourselves.



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Google Forms for Record Keeping and Formative Assessment

I should probably take my own advice more often. Today I’ll try.

Every time I use Google Forms, I wonder why I don’t use them more often. Ten years ago when I first tried reading workshop (inspired by Nancie Atwell‘s In the Middle) I had clipboards and several trees worth of paper charts to keep track of student reading. Looking for trends and growth was a time consuming process. Now I use a very simple form (see photo) that has several key improvements on my paper charts:

  1. Instead of me writing 20-30 entries on a chart, which takes 15 minutes at least, now students fill out the Form each week, and it takes a few minutes.
  2. The Form doubles as an open invitation for students to communicate with me.
  3. The data the students send through the Form are stored in a spreadsheet.


Number three may not seem like a big deal at first, but it is the most important improvement. It means I can sort the data to measure growth and trends over time. Viola! Formative assessment that requires very little time and effort in class, but provides a wealth of information about the reading habits of the class and individual students. Sort first by date and then by student name, and you have a list of each student’s reading progress. Find out which books or genres students enjoy or quit. It is a simple form, so the sorting options are limited, but the concept can be scaled up.

Recently I developed a Form to help a number of teachers and Educational Assistants support a student with an individualized education program. The Form made use of Google Form question styles such as checkboxes, grids, dropdowns, and linear scales, in order make data entry easy and consistent. Teachers and EAs could all access the Form and someone filled it out each class period in the student’s schedule as they worked with him. Once the spreadsheet was populated it offered an impressive number of sorting options that helped better understand patterns of behaviour for the student and the support staff.

  • Is there a connection between optimum learning and the time of day? The subject? The teacher or EA?
  • Do behaviour incidents correlate with lunch? Days of the week? Medication administration?

We are still learning how to design Forms and interpret the data, but I think the potential is clear.

Recently on Twitter, Jenni vanRees asked,

and I immediately thought of Forms. I teach high school, so my experience with running records is limited to my role as parent. It seems that there is a huge variety of styles when it comes to running records, but in the right circumstances, a Form that uses linear scales, checkboxes, etc. could save time when working with students and really increase the usability of the data afterward. Certainly there would be time invested in the design and creation of a running record Form, but that investment would pay dividends all year. After creating the first Form, additional Forms could be created by making a copy of the original and tweaking some questions. If there are prompts that need to be changed, the original Form could be edited and the data would continue to compile.

I think it could be done with a little creativity. Anyone out there using Google Forms for Running Records? I’d love to see how you approach the task (Jenni, too).



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Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

Note: This post is the first in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

I do love my gadgets and tools. I rarely leave my local bike shop without another freewheel remover or cone wrench, and I’m always up for a conversation about which apps you are using. There is nothing inherently wrong with tools. I could not have prepared my bike for its daily ride to school without my bottom bracket adjustable cup wrench, and it would take a mighty big plan ‘B’ in my class if Google Drive went down.

It would be easy for this post to devolve into a rant about how smartphones in our classrooms distract us and that we get so hung up on the tools and learning how to use them that our focus drifts from the learning outcomes to the tools themselves. Certainly the tools could distract us; especially when they are new and we are learning how to use them. However, I generally believe practicing teachers quickly recognize distraction and do a pretty good job of owning their tools instead of letting the tools own them. No, the real potential danger of tools and processes are much deeper and more subtle than simple distraction.

Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly) in a conference keynote at the end of the 20th century said:

Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.

Beyond technology’s potential for distraction is the bigger question, “How are our tools shaping us?” What prejudices and values are inherent in the tools we use? The Agile Schools manifesto wants us to value people and their interactions more than tools and processes. I think many people would agree with that priority. However, it is my contention that prioritizing people is only possible if we are thoughtful and intentional about our tools. If we are unaware of the value-shaping tendency of tools, then it is entirely possible that any time and energy spent on relationship building will be undermined by our tools. I’ll give an educational example.

Several years ago, many schools began using digital grade books and parent portals in order to increase and improve the efficiency, transparency, and communication of assessment (For now I’ll avoid discussing the other, more pessimistic reasons for open grade books). The early digital tools only allowed for columns of numbers that averaged to a percentage. This encouraged and reinforced a task-based classroom structure, and while parents were potentially more knowledgeable about classroom assignments, communication didn’t necessarily improve. Parent/Teacher conferences focused more and more on the tasks and the marks rather than the student and his/her learning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the answer to avoiding an awkward conversation about the validity of my marks was…more tasks and marks to justify my marks! (Yes, I’m confessing here.)

The tool that was hailed as a way to improve communication actually inhibited it. Instead of discussing students and their learning with parents in a way that would allow us to build relationships and learn from each other, we were discussing marks. The tool’s bias in favour of tasks had me creating more tasks to satisfy administrative guidelines and justify marks which actually inhibited my relationships with parents, students, and administration! Yes, I was using the tool poorly, but the tool itself was biased toward process, not people.

Others, like George Couros has here, have already written about how technology can be used to build relationship. Teachers want to build relationship because we know it is an important way to set the stage for quality learning. In order to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we need to support each other in selecting tools that are biased in favour of relationship. For example, this semester I chose to use the tool, EduSight Notes (as I wrote about here) precisely because it would create a routine that would help build relationship. I think it will help infuse community-building into the very structure and processes of my practice. The tool will support, not undermine, what I value–the students I’m teaching and learning with.

That, paradoxically, is how I can write an entire post about valuing people over tools while focusing mainly on tools. Through collective reflective practice, let’s find the tools that best support our values.


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