Assessment: the tail that wags the dog

chasing tail


All this talk about whether leaving cert results or aptitude tests are better for gaining information about a student’s ability to become a doctor reminds me of the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight.


A cop walking his beat one night finds a drunk on his knees, searching for something on the street. The cop asks the drunk, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my car keys,” says the drunk. The cop asks, “Where did you lose your keys?” “I don’t know,” the man answers. The cop, a bit perplexed, asks, “Then, why are you looking here if you don’t know where you lost your keys?” Responds the drunk, “Because the light is better here, under the streetlight.”


Why does our education have such a focus on assessment? Because that’s the only bit we can put a number on.

And we do love to put numbers on things.

The danger arises when this very dubious practice becomes ingrained in us to such an extent that all the stakeholders assume it is a ‘natural’ process.

Certainly students associate ‘points’ with intelligence, and identify ‘good’ teachers as those whose students get ‘A’s.

Of course there are very valid reasons for doing this; the point is that in so doing we are reinforcing the notion that this is right (and again that word ‘natural’).


Assessment then turns into the tail that wags the dog.


Look at the aims and objectives of any syllabus at senior or junior level – they are full of wonderful aspirations.

This particular one can be found at the beginning of every leaving cert subject syllabus:


The general aim of education is to contribute towards the development of all aspects of the individual, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure.


I wonder how much time authors spend reading this when they set out to write their textbooks.


Palaeontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould looked at the origin of the I.Q. test in his wonderful book ‘The mismeasure of man’.

He used the term ‘reification’ to describe the fallacy of putting a number on something that couldn’t be quantified (in this case intelligence) and with this very simple process an incredible transformation takes place. Because the concept has now got a number everybody assumes that the concept must be measureable and therefore the concept must be valid.


Wasn’t it Margaret Mead who said that she was taking her daughter out of school so that she could get an education?

What would Jesus do?


If Jesus was around today, would he use Powerpoint?

Would he have an Interactive WhiteBoard?

Would he twitter/blog/youtube/podcast/mindmap/moodle?

Would he give out about the syllabus?

What would be his homework policy?

Could he turn the other cheek to Batt?

The following does the rounds every now and again:

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and, gathering them around him, he taught them saying: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are the merciful; blessed are they that thirst for justice; blessed are you when persecuted; blessed are you when you suffer; be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.

Then Simon Peter said, ‘Are we supposed to know this?’
And Andrew said, “Do we have to write this down?’
And James said, ‘Will we have a test on this?’
And Phillip said, ‘I don’t have any paper.’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
And Matthew said, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’

Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’s lesson plan and inquired of Jesus, ‘Where is your statement of objectives?’

And Jesus wept.

I’m with you in spirit.

Ernst Mach: the problem with Science Education


1859 marks not only the 150th birthday of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but also a somewhat less well-known occasion; It was the year Ernst Mach published the first of his 500 publications (his last was published five years after his death, in 1921).

Most will know of this man through his association with the speed of planes;  Mach Number is the speed at which an object is moving divided by the speed of sound.

But Mach has offered much more to the world of Science; he lived in a time when Philosophy and Science went hand and hand, and he made many contributions not just in these areas, but also in Psychology and Educational Theory. He wrote a number of text-books for school science, but was very critical of the tendency of cramming as much as possible into the syllabus.
This quote sums up so much of what is wrong with our schooling: 

I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much . . . What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.

Mach was also an advocate of what are known as ‘thought experiments’, these later became famous through Albert Einstein and his idea of sitting on top of a light beam.  Indeed Einstein went on to give credit to Mach for his ‘philosophical writings’.  It’s probably no coincidence that Einstein’s views on education were not that dissimilar to Mach’s:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

Of course this was all over one hundred years ago. Obviously it’s all changed since then.
It would appear that we have some explaining to do.

Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.



The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

Our first podcast

I know I should be using podcasting more in my teaching, and part of the reason I stayed away from it is because I figure my voice is just not that interesting (not much of an excuse I know).
Anyway I figure students are much more interesting than I am, so I gave Maeve (Second Year) the dictaphone, and this is what she came up with. Not bad for a first attempt (I need to keep surnames out from now on).
See what you think. All constructive feedback welcome.
This particular clip may not be all that valuable from an educational point of view – it was just to give us all a feel of what could be done.
The nice thing about it is that now that we know we can do this, there is no end to what we can do with it.
I’d like to embed the player on this page, but havn’t been able to figure out that part yet.
Apparently you can subscribe to this in itunes (whatever that means).

Fractals and Dinosaurs

Continuing with the space and dinosaurs theme:
I get my transition years to do a project on absolutely any topic on Science which interests them, preferably something off the beaten track (i.e. not in the textbooks). fortunately this doesn’t seem to be a drawback in the slightest. Almost no aspect of science which interests them is on any science syllabus.
Because I am as likely to be interested in their topic as they are, I suggested I would look for resources also and post them here.

In relation to fractals, the classic video is called The Colours of Infinity. The original DVD and accompanying book is available in the school library.
The problem for anyone doing a project on dinosaurs is sifting through the vast information that is out there. This clip is pitched at about the right level.

The Colours of Infinity:

When Dinosaurs ruled America

Colours from black and white? Say it ain’t so!

We had half a class the other day so we just played around with some equipment left lying about.

One such piece was a cardboard disc with black circles and shapes on a white background. If you spin it quickly you get to see coloured circles! It’s mad I tell you.

Only thing is, because it’s got to be a psychological effect it doesn’t get picked up on the camera.

Hates that.

Free Telescopes for Schools – what a wonderful idea!


A colleague reminded me recently that when you think about it, there are really only two concepts that fascinate young kids; Space and Dinosaurs.
Okay, so this is a gross generalisation, but with work with me here.

Somebody in England has cottoned on to the first part of this.

The Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have teamed up to give free telescopes to 1000 secondary schools.

And in Ireland?
Don’t hold your breath.
But at least both of these topics are on the school syllabus right – especially seen as we seem to want to encourage more young un’s to take up Science?

Welllll . . . Umm . . . Ehhh . . .Hmmmm . . .

Too obvious I suppose.