I just finished giving an opening keynote on mission-minded approaches to assessment in schools. This was to an audience of educators and administrators in Christian schools, so my charge was to invite them to use a distinct (perhaps unique) lens for thinking about the role of assessment as it relates to their mission. I was the philosophical introduction to a two-day event that would be otherwise applied. My session seemed to go okay, but following a presentation like this, I usually find myself flooded with new thoughts, questions, analogies and illustrations. This time was no different.
In this case, I find myself reflecting on the state of assessment and evaluation in many learning organizations, whether we are talking about assessment and academic performance or evaluation and planning on the organizational level. It brings me back to a study several years back. Years ago when I conducted a study of highly innovative schools. I concluded with a list of ten traits that were consistent among the leaders that I interviewed. My results were not intended to offer any truly generalizable set of traits that lead toward being a leader of an innovative school I was content providing a rich description of the sample that I studied with the hope that there might be inspiration or some potentially transferable insights.
One trait consistent among those interviewed was that these leaders were “addicted to effectiveness data” but I’m beginning to think that I need to adjust that wording. “Data” leads too many to think that I am talking about quantifiable data, but that was actually less common among many of the leaders in these schools. Most of the schools that I examined were charter schools with smaller enrollment numbers and this is certainly an important factor, but the leaders of these schools were not necessarily as interested in data as they were in feedback on how they were doing. In other words, they were addicted to finding out how they were doing and how to make the school even better….a commitment to continuous improvement. This is an important distinction because leading a high-impact and innovative learning organization doesn’t require being a statistician or quantifying everything. It is more about being interested in how well you are doing, facing the “facts”, and doing something about them.
In fact, the leaders of the most innovative schools or learning organizations that I’ve examined over the years seemed just as inclined toward rich stories and narratives; in-depth feedback through conversations, observations and qualitative survey questions. Similarly, if we look at amazing and inspirational educators around the world, we will find many of them are not addicted to numeric benchmarks for students as much as they are interested in mentoring students, helping them to grasp and apply increasingly complex skills and/or concepts as they progress toward excellence. We see this in the classroom, among private tutors, with great athletic coaches, as well as teachers and tutors of those in the performing arts. It is their deep sense of excellence and what progress toward excellence looks like that empowers them to help others achieve great things. How true is this for leaders in our learning organizations as well?
As such, it doesn’t take the quantification of everything to make for a high-impact learning organization or community. It does usually take people (learners, teachers, sometimes both) who have a goal or vision, work toward that goal or vision, crave and use feedback, and adjust accordingly. Sometimes numbers can help with this, but they are rarely essential. In fact, insisting upon the superiority or necessity of quantitative measures is often more about embracing a certain positivistic philosophical stance on education than it is about excellence, growth, or achievement.