Saturday, August 29, 2009

Complexity & Standard-based Assessment

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Complexity The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education – Albert Einstein

Last year, I attended a seminar on Complexity and Education given by Brent Davis and Denis Sumara. In my attempt to pass on to my respected colleagues what I’d learnt, I wrote a report that’s still available on our work-place Intranet.

Immediate reaction to it was mixed. The responses that most interested me were those expressing some concern:
    Perhaps the subject is a bit academic?

    Who bothers with this stuff anyway?

    Had I gone clean out of my mind?

Coming from educators, I thought that these were odd points of view.
I began to think of how we think of education as educators.

Education is adaptive and emergent


Education has the ability to adapt and evolve. A system with this attribute is like a living system rather than a mechanical one.

The adaptive nature of Darwinian evolution resembles education more than does the dynamic nature of Newtonian mechanics.
Education can change its structure and is said to be adaptive because of this.


What arises within education is a synergy from the activity between and within its individual structural components. The effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the single effects from any of its parts.

Education should be forever striving to embrace emergent technologies, innovative knowledge, developing social issues and world opinion.

By keeping a focus on these goals, it is extremely reliant on situations that constantly arise in life. It is emergent.


The word complex, and all its derivatives, is finding its way into the routine language of educators. Rather than taking the position as an adjective to other context-related things, its occurrence and use, in referring to complexity, is becoming a more common inclusion in educational discussion.

I think it is significant that there has been recent discourse in the blogosphere on the distinction between what is complicated and what is complex. Some of the similarities and differences between complicated and complex are listed here:

Complex and Complicated
Education versus standard-based assessment

Process standards and technical regulations find their way into standard assessment for trades qualifications and certificates of competence. The stepwise introduction of standard-based assessment in New Zealand secondary education, 2002 to 2004, meant that senior secondary education is now geared to complicated training routines.

To achieve their required level of qualification according to NCEA, learners are coached in delivering subject oriented responses. These preparative measures are selected and delivered to address narrow strips of the curriculum. They use constraints of vocabulary dictated by prescriptions found within each standard.

Practice in the application of rigorous protocol is needed when giving answers to questions that lead to a level of achievement. While these techniques might well be considered good ways to train people for trade qualifications, they are certainly not so efficient in providing education.

Recursively elaborate

Education is complex, yet it embraces things that are not complex
things that are often routine and habitual. In this respect and in others, education tends to be recursively elaborate. A unit of learning that occurs in one place may appear in many other places in different forms, described by a different vocabulary or situational relevance.

Generic Mathematical expressionAreas of learning appropriate to Mathematics, for instance, find their use in other subjects. These inclusions may all adhere to the same fundamental set of laws. Conventions for their use may differ from subject to subject or even within a subject, however, so much that at first sight, they may be almost unrecognisable to teacher and learner.Recursive Fractal

Mathematics as a discipline is just one of many common parts of knowledge that contribute to the
recursively elaborate nature of education.

Education is transdisciplinary

In the mid 60s a friend announced to me that he had enrolled in Ecology, a new degree course at Edinburgh University.

I’d never heard of Ecology, but I was delighted to learn that it involved many disciplines.

Other areas of education that encompass multiple disciplines are information science, biology and economics. They are examples of the many parts that form an all embracing transdisciplinary entity.

Education is transphenomenal

In his recent address to staff at TCS, Scott Flansburg demonstrated and spoke of the different ways people use to perform multiplication.
He reminded me that everyone has their own personal understanding of this complex process. It is not limited to computational routines. Here are just a few of the ways how multiplication can be considered:

The list is not exhaustive. A study of the above operations shows how parts of education may seem multi-faceted, almost ubiquitous in the way they call on different conceptual representation. To make complete sense of the idea of multiplication, however, requires investigation of personal experiences. Unfortunately, these are not commonly explored when learning about multiplication or how to apply it.

Personal appreciation of multiplication can be:

    embedded in hereditary structure – biological

    supported by one's own activity – personal experience

    structured within social interactions – symbolic tools

    made possible by cultural tools – societal usage

    part of an emerging discourse between people.

The items in the above list embrace characteristics of different phenomena. Moving from one idea to the next involves jumping between thoughts to do with each phenomenon – transphenomenal hopping.

To embrace the many facets of ideas around a topic, a teacher and learner may be forced to engage in transphenomenal hopping. This cognitive aspect is what makes education transphenomenal.

Subject relevance
versus standard-based assessment

Subject-specific vocabulary of particular learning is important to learner understanding in a subject. It is also particularly appropriate that the learner has opportunity to embrace the situational relevance of what is learnt.

Part or all of a unit of learning may reside in several different standards. So it is with NCEA. It permits a degree of subject relevance to be included in the teaching of a generic standard. However, such NCEA standards tend to be listed as exclusions. This means that qualification credits are only counted once if a learner achieves two or more credited standards where the same exclusion occurs.

Some standards have been adjusted so that part or all of a relevant unit of learning has been removed to a standard in a specific subject area. In presenting such standard-based units of learning in another subject area, teaching relevant content becomes compromised by the constraints of the standard itself.

Just one of many instances of this happened in New Zealand in 2006 when the unit of learning on Radio-chemistry, incorporated in a standard relevant to Level 2 Physics, was removed from a Level 3 Chemistry standard.

Education should be enlightenment

At present, learners pay a fee to receive the results of their educational achievement (NCEA) determined by standard-based assessment.

It is my contention that standard-based assessment that drives learning, degrades the potential quality of education that could be made available in school. For as much as it is argued that the curriculum should drive the learning and that it should not be driven by assessment, this is not what happens in practice. It never has.

The compartmental character of standard-based assessment, and the narrow focus that this brings to learning, throws the spotlight on complicated assessment routines and the preparations leading up to them. It leaves the rich complexity of education in the shade.

To argue that studying towards standard-based assessment provides an education is a contradiction.

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Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Howard said...

Hey Ken;
I've always thought that there was nothing wrong with Standards-based Assessments except for the standards and the assessment part.
(1) The standards are filled up with facts (what's google for!) and other thing chosen more for their ability to be objectively measured than for their value to be an educated person (as opposed to a font of trivial facts).
(2) Assessments are just like research, (a) the more you are able to control for potential confounding variables (read objective) (b) the more sure you are of your results and (c) the less likely that your results will ever mean anything in the real world.
I would love to see any a decent correlation between standards-based assessment and real world success controlled for IQ.
Anyway, I love the education as organism metaphor.
Ka kite ano to you my good man!!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Howard!

The education 'organism' metaphor is really Brent Davis' though I don't mind taking credit for perpetuating it. :-)

I'm skeptical of most (educational) assessments that put people into categories. IQ is such a category. I have been skeptical ever since I met a professor of Chemistry who had a double masters degree in Chemistry and English and who had an IQ way below the common-or-garden 100 deemed necessary for average cognitive skill.

He was a gem, who knew a thing or two about English, let alone his acumen in Chemistry!

Catchya later

Michael J said...

I got to your blog through a twitter post from ChangeForge. I'm very glad I did. Nice and very necessary kind of thinking.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Michael!

Welcome to Middle-earth. I'm glad you found some things of interest here.

Catchya later