intelligence

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?