Are we assessing what is easy or what matters the most for students?

Are assessing what really matters for future success of our students? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

“We know that we’re not assessing many of the things that really matter for future success.”

I’ve written about this many times and am almost finished with a new book on the subject of assessment. Yet, I have seen this happen countless times. We assess what is easy to assess instead of what matters most to us. Sometimes people object, noting that we will soon prioritize what is easy to assess over what we value the most. Each time, the advocates assure us that they (and we collectively) will not let that happen. The assessment is added and, over the next year or two, the priorities and values change, aligning with those items that are easy to assess. It happens all the time.

Or, there is the flip side. We argue that what matters most is not easily assessed. As such, we give up on assessment. We don’t measure much of anything. We probably still use grades or something similar, but we downplay it. Maybe there are required measures but again, we dismiss the numbers as not being about what matters to us the most.

The problem is that measurement matters. Or, more specifically, feedback matters. Feedback helps us learn and grow. When it is absent, our growth sometimes slows down or even comes to a halt. Simply documenting what is happening and measuring progress toward a goal can increase motivation for people. This is why I am not ready to give up on assessment. It is just that we want to commit ourselves to not going the easy route, not giving ourselves to that which is most easily measured, not letting the assessment tail wag the “what really matters in education” dog.

I’m convinced that this means embracing assessment as tool that serves greater goals, and giving greater attention to formative feedback and assessment than high stakes assessments. Assessment is most valuable when we use it to determine our progress toward goals that are important to us.

Start with the values an goals. Then you ask an important question. What is the absolute best evidence that someone is learning or growing in this area? Or, what is the best evidence that someone met this goal? Be completely unrealistic. Give your ideal answer even if you know that it is impossible. Once you have that answer, bring it a little closer to reality. What is the next best evidence? Keep doing this until you have something that will work, at least tentatively. Try it out, knowing that it is not perfect. Revisit it often. Critique. Hold on to it, but not too tightly. Be open to new and better ways.

Data scientists might protest. This doesn’t give us the rich and large data sets to analyze. This isn’t carefully analyzed for reliability and validity. This prevents us from generating valuable reports or looking at longitudinal data. It doesn’t let us compare across contexts as well. All of these are worthwhile critiques. Yet, we must respond with other questions. What is the purpose of assessment? Does assessment have inherent value or does its value depend upon how well is serves some other goal or agenda? If the assessment data does not help us measure what matters most for students, what is the point?

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & How They Work Together

There is an ongoing debate about knowledge versus skill acquisition. Knowledge is important. It always will be. I am not one of the people who argues that content and knowledge is no longer relevant in schools and that we should instead invest most of our energy in teaching skills. Skills are important, but I have never been convinced by arguments that one is more important than the other. Both are important and they work together. What would it mean to be a skilled accountant who knowns nothing about accounting. How about a skilled writer who had a vocabulary of 200 words? Or, what about a skilled doctor who knew nothing about the human body, illnesses or the latest research on treating illnesses? Even in non-academic areas, knowledge is important. How would a skilled basketball player do if she did not no the rules of the game or what offense or defense they were running? The skills versus content debate is and always has been flawed.

Some protest by arguing that content is less important today because you can search and find the content more quickly. That seems to miss the point. Facts and content are not just for knowing. They are for using. Every piece of content is a thinking tool. Every new bit of knowledge is a readily available resource for comparing, contrasting, analyzing, and creating something new. Do we really want doctors who have to consult WebMD in the middle of a surgery because they believe that knowledge and content are secondary to skills? Information literacy is clearly an important part of 21st century living but it does not negate the value of learning facts and information that we can mix and match in our minds to compete tasks, create, evaluate, and more.

I am creating a straw man, I realize. The arguments for skills over facts is largely a reaction to eras when people argued that content and rote memorization was almost the entire focus and there was little attention to skill acquisition. They are not arguing for skills alone as much as they are trying to address an imbalance between the two. My point is just that they go together.

Once we agree upon the fact that they go together, we still have some challenges to overcome. If we really do want to have learning organizations where skill acquisition is just as important as knowledge acquisition, then that calls for a different type of teaching, learning. It calls for different ways of thinking about assessment and monitoring progress. It also requires us to help teacher and learner both reframe goals and milestones.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Teaching and Learning

Simply presenting and illustrating facts and concepts is no longer adequate. When I describe the difference between modeling and coaching, I often use the example of teaching someone to throw a spiral. One way to do it is to stand on the field and have the person watch you throw a spiral. You explain the mechanics, things upon which to focus, etc. Yet, we all know that is not enough to teach someone to throw a spiral. They need the football in their hands and practice. This is where coaching comes into play. It can be helpful for a coach to be present, observing, giving feedback and guiding the person through deliberate practice.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Reframing Goals

We also want to make sure that our goals are written in a way that they focus upon both knowledge and skill acquisition. Sometimes we find learning organizations that talk about the importance of skill acquisition, but the goals are largely written in terms of facts and knowledge. With a little practice, you can usually write out goals that include both. Or, in instances where having the skill requires knowledge acquisition as well, they are naturally combined. You can’t do one without the other, so write the goal in a way that it is focused on the higher level element and include milestones or smaller goals that draw out the other elements.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Assessment, Feedback and Monitoring Progress

Staying with the football example, who would be satisfied with a person who could pass a multiple choice and true/false test on how to throw a spiral? We want to see someone do it. For that we need authentic assessment, and and ways of monitoring progress that do not just celebrate new knowledge acquisition, but also looks at people’s skill development in the areas. Developing the skills is often a more challenging and rigorous process, and it also tends to take more time, thought, and energy to set up. Yet, if we have a knowledge-based assessment plan and the goals of new skill acquisition, this disconnect will hinder progress. We need alignment between the two. Both teacher and learner must recognize that, while measuring and assessing progress in knowledge acquisition may seem easier, we must find ways to emphasize progress in skill acquisition.

In Summary

Knowledge matters. Skills matter. Balancing and blending the two matters as well. This is true whether you are a school administrator, teacher, or independent learner. Understanding how these two support one another becomes a valuable bit of knowledge to help people grow as skilled learners.

21st Century Teaching with a 20th Century Leader

The December 8, 2015 #EdChat on Twitter focused on how a teacher can go about promoting 21st century teaching when the building administrator still holds firmly to a 20th century vision of education. While participating in the chat, I also decided to share some of my ideas in further depth by writing this short article.

If you are an educator in such a context, it can be challenging, even painful to find yourself in such a situation. You might find that your ideas are ignored, disregarded, discouraged, even completely squashed by a leader who has a difference vision for the learning organization. As I look at it, you have a few options.

Find a New School

This might seem extreme but schools are never best when they are just generic institutions void of a compelling vision. A misalignment of vision and values between teachers and administrators is not a small problem. This is a major issue and the learners will suffer as a result of it. If you come to suspect that you have irreconcilable differences in educational vision and values with the school leader, it is perfectly appropriate to use this as a change to consider if that is the right school for you. Especially if you are mobile, there are other options and, in the long run, you are better off finding a place to work and teaching that resonates with who you are, what you believe, and what you value.

Test Your Assumptions

Maybe you do have irreconcilable differences in vision and values with the school leader, but maybe not. It might be that the leader is open, interested and wants to make progress; but he/she is balancing many factors, some of which are not visible to you. In this case, it is helpful to take the time and energy to get to know the learn, really work hard at this, and try to understand the factors at play. You may be delighted to discover that there is much more common ground than you expected. Plus, if you take the time to show genuine interest and support in his/her leadership, you may find that they are more supportive of your innovative and something whacky or risky teaching and learning experiments. I’ve seen this approach turn leaders into champions of teachers who previously seemed like adversaries.

Stay and Be A Change Agent

Perhaps you really do have differences with the school leader. However, people change. You can change and so can the school leaders. You need to decide if you are okay with the persistence and often long-term work of being supportive of the leader, professional, but also a champion for changing and innovation toward 21st century teaching and learning. If you are up for that, here are some ideas to get you started.

Don’t Just Close Your Door

It is tempting and some veteran teachers will give you this advice. Just close your door and do your own thing. That is about as far from the spirit of 21st century teaching and learning as you can get. This is the age of collaboration, cooperation, collective knowledge generation, openness and connectivity. Disconnecting and rejecting the spirit of openness in the 21st century might seem like a short-term gain, but you are using a 20th century approach to pursue a 21st century vision.

Do Things that Matter Beyond the School Walls

If you want to convince people about the value of 21st century teaching and learning, build learning experiences and activities where students are creating projects and products that have real-world value and are celebrated by people beyond the school. You want to do it in full disclosure with the school leaders, but if you can get their support, you and they will be delighted with the results.

Commit to Evidence

If you want to make a compelling case for the value of what you are doing, prove it. Collect evidence and real data about student interest, student engagement, student progress, improved student learning, meeting the needs of more or new learners, and the like. Then be ready to share that with people for “feedback.” Of course, you are also sharing a promising practice and school leaders will usually not turn away from measurably effective efforts. In addition, you can be a collector of illustrative stories. Be ready to share them.

Champion Conversation about Preparing Students for Life Beyond School

If there are conversations about this, join in often. If this is not being talked about, volunteer to help start the conversation. This is a great place to discover and highlight the importance of 21st century teaching and 21st century learning. How do we prepare students for jobs and contexts that don’t even exist? That is a great conversation to get things moving in the right direction. This can’t be a one time event. It needs to be a persistent, ongoing, increasingly deepening converastion that involves a variety of stakeholders including teachers, administrators, parents, community members, students, and alumni (an especially powerful group).

“Pilot” and Micro-Innovate

When you want to try something new, don’t just to an overhaul of the entire curriculum. Start by getting permission to “pilot” a new idea. Try it and report back on the results, asking for an opportunity to expand the pilot the next time. I’m talking about building trust and support through a series of smaller micro-innovations that will eventually lead to trust in you to try something grander and more unconventional.

Draw Attention to Promising Practices in Other Schools

Many school leaders, for better or worse, have a competitive streak in then when it comes to comparing their school with others. You can use this. Find, visit, learn from and share the best practices and stories of great 21st century teaching and learning in other schools. Also share the results, taking care to find out about how they worked through common concerns and pitfalls…including any that is a special concern for your school administrator. When possible, getting people to see these other schools in action (via video or an actual visit) is best, but save time to debrief and discuss what you saw. Another great option is bringing in a panel of parents and students from this other innovative school.

Consider setting aside the buzz words.

I use plenty of buzz words but they can seem strange and suspect. You can pursue a practice or innovation without using the buzz words and that can sometimes be to your advantage. Just try this new promising practice and tell people how it goes.

Stop Turning 21st Century and 20th Century into an Unavoidable Battle

There a clear differences but there are commonalities too. Start there and you see what you can build on common ground. You might be surprised where that can take you. You might be drawn to some practice that you disregarded as outdated but work really well and the other person might come around to some of the 21st century practices.

There are plenty of other things that you can do to be a 21st century teaching and learning change agent, but these are a good start. Also consider sharing some of your own ideas in the comment area.

Reflections on 5 Common Concerns About Self-Directed Learning

Amid my conversations with people about self-directed learning, I hear five common concerns or questions. I am grateful that people are willing to express these concerns because it provides an opportunity for discussion and to clarify common misconceptions about the SDL movement. With that in mind, following are those five concerns/questions along with reflections and response to each of them.

1) Isn’t self-directed learning selfish?

Given that the word “self” is in the phrase, I can so why people have this concern or question. Let me start by sharing a few definitions. One definition of self-directed learning:

“In selfdirected learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. In schools, teachers can work toward SDL a stage at a time.” –

Here is another definition from Malcolm Knowles 1975 text called Self-Directed Learning:

“…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or with out the help of other, to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes” (p. 18).

Here is yet one more from Gibbons’s 2002 Self-Directed Learning Handbook:

“SDL is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment, or personal development that an individual selects and brings about by his or her own efforts using any method in any circumstances at any time” (p. 2).

As you can see from these three definitions, what most of us mean by self-directed learning is that people own their learning, take responsibility for it, and be deeply invested in it. It is about learning how to learn; how to set goals; devise a plan of action to achieve the goal; establish feedback loops and check progress; and how to find the people, resources, and experiences needed to meet a learning goal. It is not about being selfish, but it is about helping people progress toward independence and personal responsibility.

Here is a comparison that might help. Think of learning like eating a meal. When people are first born, they depend upon someone else to feed them. As they grow and develop, they can take increasing responsibility for feeding themselves. First they learn to use the utensils themselves. They might progress toward selecting some food. Eventually the hope is that they can plan meals, prepare them, and eat them. In doing so, they are also better equipped to help others along the way. As I look at it, that is the value of self-directed learning.

2) Doesn’t self-directed learning ignore the important role of peer interaction? 

When you talk to proponents of even the most radical approaches to self-directed learning, you see lots of peer interaction. As people take more ownership for their learning, it doesn’t mean that they are learning alone. Instead, this ownership often drives them to even greater interaction with a myriad of people. They seek help from peers and offer help to others. They search out mentors, role models and resources. They try to identify teachers who can help them at different parts of their journey. In essence, they learn to develop, rely upon, and take fully advantage of a robust student personal learning network that often extends beyond a single class of students.

3) If we let students direct all their own learning, what about all the gaps that they will miss? They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t always know what is good for them.

This is an important question, and it is not nearly as easily answered as the first questions because there is indeed a philosophical difference that surfaces at this point. It is true that many proponents of self-directed learning (including myself) tend to be okay with an educational experience that has “gaps.” In other words, it is not an approach to or perspective on education that is focused upon universal standards or a set body of knowledge that must be mastered by all. As such, some in the SDL camp argue that it is okay to have gaps. People will learn something when they discover a need for it, and that will be on a different timeline for each person. The focus is more on helping people learn how to learn and perhaps nurturing a love of learning more broadly.

However, there are many perspectives on self-directed learning. There are plenty who seek to work within the existing system of education that tends to care about standards for math, language arts, science, and other key areas. Or, if it is not focused on standards, it might be a system focused on core knowledge considered important to be culturally literate, or perhaps a cannon of literature that is deemed necessary for a truly liberal education. Alongside meeting these typical expectations, there is also an intentional effort to provide the time, space and flexibility for students to engage in more self-directed learning. As such, you can see self-directed learning contexts along a spectrum ranging from entirely student-driven all the way to the other side of the spectrum that has a largely prescribed curriculum but leaves space for students to develop skill and confidence as self-directed learners.

4) This sounds nice for the well-equipped and motivated students, but how could this work for all young (or older) people. What about all the unmotivated and disadvantaged people?

I’ll start by pointing back to my response to the last question, noting that there is a spectrum of the extent to which learning environments are self-directed. Alongside that, I acknowledge that some people will more easily transition to a self-directed context than others. I’ve talked to leaders of some schools that say it may take a year or more in a deeply self-directed context before certain students start to own their learning. In more traditional school contexts with a self-directed learning element, the same is true. Some will transition more easily and readily. However, I do caution people to not assume that certain students or certain types of students are incapable of becoming self-directed learners in life. In fact, if we are truly committed to bridging achievement gaps and inequities in work and education, I contend nurturing competence and confidence as a self-directed learner is the very thing that we need.

The best advice I have for people with this concern is to do some solid, investigative work to test their underlying assumptions. Visit some schools and learning communities with a self-directed learning focus. Observe, talk to students, teachers/coaches/mentors, parents and other stakeholders. As one who has done this, I’ve seen a variety of students thriving in these contexts. In fact, one message that I’ve heard from students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds is how much it mattered for people to believe that they were indeed capable of such work and responsibility.

This doesn’t mean it is always an easy transition, and I’ve encountered plenty who didn’t have the patience and persistence to see the student shift to self-direction. It can be a painful and a fear-inducing journey for some, especially parents. Yet, proponents of self-directed learning will often tell you that it does or can indeed happen in time. Others acknowledge that, without the necessary support systems in place at home and/or the readiness of the learner to take ownership, it may be better to pursue a more traditional schooling option.

In the end, however, self-directed learning is not about a certain format of school. It is about a mindset, a disposition, and a type of agency that grows within a learner. For that reason, you can find highly competent and confident self-directed learners who attended traditional K-12 schools or colleges. They may have developed this above and beyond what they do in the regular school. In fact, I contend that this is why many people end up pursuing jobs (even callings) that were sparked by hobbies, modeling and experiences from family and others, and many other outside-of-school experiences. Interview a dozen computer programmers who love their jobs and see how many developed that love through formal classes alone, versus those who hacked and geeked out at home and elsewhere. Do the same for engineers, authors, mechanics, entrepreneurs, biologists, entertainers, and people in different helping professions. Quite often, the spark for their interest came beyond the classes and a standard school curriculum. It very often came in places where they had choice and/or took interest and ownership in something.

5) What is the role of the teacher in a self-directed context? Or, isn’t self-directed learning anti-teacher?

SLD isn’t anti-teacher. It is just heavily pro-learner in the sense that it is all about helping people become the leaders of their own learning journey now and throughout life. This doesn’t mean that they don’t know the value of learning from others, even sometimes submitting to the will of another in order to learn. However, SDL does tend to focus on helping people take responsibility for their own learning.

Self-directed learners use and benefit from teachers, mentors, models, and coaches. Teachers can be valuable resources for reaching one’s learning goals. The difference is that traditional perspectives on education start with the idea that the teacher is in charge, and SDL is about empowering the learner to be in charge. It is about setting people free more than keeping them under control. In most formal learning contexts focused on SDL, there is still a leader, teacher, coach, or mentor who helps people on their way. They might set up certain boundaries. They might set rules or requirements within which one is able to self-direct. They might coach and encourage. They might provide guidance through socratic questioning. These leaders might also help people develop the confidence and skills to be more self-directed. However, the goal is to help people progress toward greater levels of personal ownership, responsibility and independence.


Many of the questions above and responses are focused on the idea of a self-directed school or formal learning environment, and that is indeed a valuable part of the conversation. As more research points out the importance of developing non-cognitive skills to thrive in work and life, many practices among self-directed learning advocates will get new interest and attention. At the same time, I contend that growing as a self-directed learning is bigger than the type of school one does or does not attend. It is a fundamental literacy of life and learning in a connected world. It ultimately doesn’t matter where or how a person develops as a self-directed learner, but it is necessary to thrive in many modern contexts.