Assessment and Objectivity.

Objectively Speaking.

Before writing this blog, I googled the phrase “objectively speaking”. As expected, Google returned searches related to ‘observable facts’ and something-or-other related to being independent of emotion and perception. 

Before I go on, I’ll ask you to pause to recall the last time you encountered something that didn’t make you feel. Once you’ve done this, know this – ‘I don’t feel anything about [ ]’ is solely an inherent feeling. 

It is not possible for emotions and biases to not become involved.

I thought long and hard about a relatable example to use for the rest of this blog. Luckily, the indefatigable Pran Patel was on hand. Let’s take something we recognise as objective and break it down.

If you’re a driver, learning to drive, or use public highways anywhere within the UK – you’ll be aware of national speed limits. These range up to the national maximum of 70 miles per hour. We can objectively ‘measure’ 70mph. What is a mile was and how did it come to be? First, at the very least, we’d have to agree on the distance of a mile before this measurement of speed could take place. 

“But Sarif, we all know that a mile is” 

“Wait, what is a mile? Where did it come from?”

A mile was initially conceived as a Roman mille passus (thousand paces). But which Romans? As you may realise, Romans were not all the same height and thus could not stride the same length. 

The mille passus itself was relative to the Romans that took the said paces. Several centuries and some conversions later (furlongs, yards, feet, kilometres, etc.), we have a number for miles – relative to other measurements (5280 feet, 1760 yards, 8 furlongs, or approx 1.6km). So, we have a standardised measure rather than a measure free from perception and bias. And standardised is not a synonym for ‘objective’.

Think about the different measurements you make on a day-to-day basis. Let me make this more meaningful for you. Think about the various assessments in your classrooms. For those of you who are Key-Stage-4 teachers, you’ll arguably be making the most significant assessments for a group of adolescents in their lives. For psychologists you’ll commonly use ‘objective’ and ‘standardised’, but what is being understood by those you serve?

Moreover, how well do you understand the standardisation process of the given assessments? My point here is that there still needs to be a series of agreed principles for’ objectivity’ to exist. These agreements need (and are) to be socially constructed; Which means that compromises, interpretations, perceptions, and biases are present; Thus undermining the very notion of objectivity.

“Sarif, if objectivity isn’t objective, what does that mean for the way that we assess and measure progress?”

I fear if you’re asking this question, you may have misunderstood the point I was making. For many of us, we are so caught in the assessment and measurement process that we’re not in tune with the nature of the purpose that we initially set out to measure. 

Take the time to think about how we developed the tools to do the measurement. And, during the standardisation process, who are the groups with whom we are making comparisons? Primarily, I am encouraging you to think about the social contracts that are in place that allow us to feel contained by terms like objective. 

Suppose we accept that a lack of objectivity is the norm (because objectivity doesn’t exist). In that case, our assessments and measures are free to be more holistic by recognising features and characteristics that are otherwise are overlooked. I believe because of the assessment process and the need to measure everything; we lose some of the meaning of the ‘why’. 

So, In the main, because there is no space to account for it on the forms that we need to submit, no box to check, marked – don’t forget X is from a single-parent home. Or Y witnessed his whole village being razed to the ground.

Ask yourself, what’s stopping if you from recording the development and progress of the learners you work with within a narrative process? I’d propose that the chances are that you’ll soon understand the system’s relative parameters that stop you from doing this.

This is a guest piece from Dr Sarif Alrai

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