Measuring the Harvest: Is assessment at odds with human flourishing?
~ by Alison Haley ~
Isn’t the harvest season just lovely? There’s something remarkable about this time of year when seeds and food are gathered and the deciduous trees remind us that seasons of rest must follow much growth. When it comes to the harvest, the toil of the summer tending, the labor of the spring planting, and the care taken in preparing the soil in those late days of winter somehow fade from view to be replaced by fall festivities. This cycle of preparing, planting, and picking is a truth that can be seen in the seasons of learning as well.
As friends of the classical, Christian tradition, we understand that learning is holistic. We embrace the idea that we are actively transmitting culture from one generation to the next, and simultaneously, we are helping students to rightly order their affections. The liberal arts education is freeing students to be curious stewards of the doors the Lord opens for them. Contrastingly, when it comes time for the end of quarter grades this time of year, these lofty goals can sometimes feel out of focus with other sometimes necessary definitions of success vying for our prioritizing. The beauty of harvest can feel lost in the quantification of that which we gather in.
This dichotomy can sometimes feel at odds. How do you attach a quantity or assess these things rightly? I’m a parent and a teacher, and I’ve been there too. With each grade in a grading period being just a snapshot, do these parts really sum to represent the whole of the
growth that is happening? Oddly, isn’t this sense of seemingly opposing ideals also true about much of life? The tyranny of the urgent over the important. Living in step with the Lord Christ or living in step with the world. Having a light, healthy salad or a rich, satisfying cheeseburger… let’s go on lest we digress. I venture that assessment and cultivating human flourishing are indeed not at odds with one another.
If we have named virtues and identified what would be praiseworthy come the
season of harvest, how do we prepare the soil, plant seeds not weeds, and ensure we will have the fruits we desire when this toil is done? How do we course correct along the way? How do we cultivate rich opportunities for our students to grow? Indeed, not all seeds do grow as well as others. Consider the final part of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13: 8 reminding us that only, “Some seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Likewise, students need scaffolded ways to ‘ready their soil’ to allow virtue and mastery to take root.
High quality classical instruction does indeed offer ways to prepare the soil. In preparing our students with scholarship skills that bolster their learning about the world through literature, math, or science they are enriched with nutrient dense skills to support them in the growing season. As the student is growing those first seeds of the season, instructors and parents must attend to their progress. Especially when plants are tender or a tree is young, we must attend to that early growth to ensure solid roots progressing in the right direction.
Assessment has the primary aim of communication with the goal of measuring progress. This three-way communication between students, teachers, and parents gives each timely
information about growth. Teachers use diverse forms of assessment to see how students are forming mastery along the road of learning as well as looking at major landmarks along the way. Parents need assessments to understand areas where their student is currently growing, and students need assessments to be accountable as active owners of their learning.
Communicating a student’s relationship towards mastery in a hope-filled, growth-oriented direction, assessments provide individualized feedback on progress. Within classical education, we acknowledge that these chief ends are tied back to the love of truth, goodness, and beauty. Assessments ideally reflect these values in ways that promote restful, contemplative response and put off anxiety filled high-stakes quantification. Measurement of growth, though, is indeed both good and necessary. In the spirit of human flourishing, I know I grow the most when I have the chance to compare my current position with my end goal under the light of meaningful feedback.
Within every assignment, there are both content and scholarship objectives at work.
With homework submissions, for example, I am less interested in my students getting the answer right the first time but way more concerned with skills like orderly thought, persuasive presentation clearly using math laws, checking and correcting problems, and managing one’s time well.
Assessing student work does vary based on the skills being considered and the type of
work the student might be performing. When assessing things that are more subjective like written pieces, a rhetorical presentation, project-based learning, persuasion, or scholarship skills, a rubric is one tool that allows the student to see expectations ahead of time and grow towards excellence. This tool is especially helpful in guiding more holistic growth and awareness of virtues like diligence, patience, constancy, and temperance. A rubric is a communication tool that organizes objectives and qualifiers rated at various scoring levels. Communicating clearly to the student what exemplary work looks like, there are tiered levels describing where the student may be growing in a skill as well as what mastery looks like. An instructor will compare these
descriptors of work quality with the student’s demonstration of mastery. While the scoring scales vary, each objective will allow the student to earn from something like 0 to 5 points. Rubrics offer hope to the student by clearly communicating expectations and next steps to move in that direction in the next season of planting. By showing students what mastery will look like, they have a clear path forward toward excellence. This feedback helps to prepare the soil and ready the student.
So when reflecting on the end of quarter grades and considering how your students are
progressing in this season of harvest, remember the measures are indicators of progress. They are snapshots of a much bigger picture. They are the fruits of one growing season. As you plan the next season, consider building a rubric to point your student(s) on the path to excellence. Look at these seeds you’ve gathered this season, and as you prepare the soil for the next opportunity to plant, consider the best ways to keep an eye on progress.
Alison Haley earned a M.S. in Mathematics and Reading in 2011 and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Mathematics in 2020. She is well equipped as a student of the classical tradition and emphasizes the importance of a liberal arts foundation in a STEM culture. Growing up in a rural area, she has a heart for making dynamic, classical education accessible to those who desire its fruit regardless of geographic or socioeconomic hurdles. Alison has homeschooled her four children and worked extensively in serving the homeschooling community. Beyond school and work, her family enjoys running, athletics, music, and a competitive game of Euchre.
She believes cultivating educational virtue is a foundation for student success. As a math instructor, her desire is to promote wonder that leads to worship while students connect abstract concepts with tangible representations. Restful diligence is necessary for students to reap the fruit of the art of number, and seeing God’s nature through mathematics gives students a more complete understanding of our Creator. She believes that all students can be successful and offers classroom environments of engagement, participation, and growth. Alison is serving Scholé Academy in the math department and as a private tutor in many disciplines.