Saturday, 11 May 2013



First published in The Backbencher May 5th 2013


The madness of measuring learning

John Issitt



It might be an inherent need to control. It might be an artifact of modern management systems. It might be the legacies of the Enlightenment. Whatever its causal origins we have ended up being dominated by measurement.

Weighed and tested we arrive at preschool where we are put on a learning programme in which our progress is closely measured against ‘standards’. Whoa betide us if at the precious age of 5 we show no inclination to associate the ink stains in those things called books, with particular sounds. If we don’t progress according to the mysterious rules written by the experts we are quickly labeled with ‘special needs’ and given extra ‘help’.

With luck we guess the game according to expectation and move into our first 12 years of constant measurement. Weekly tests, termly reports, average scores all build to an estimation of performance delivered by means of A stars or Cs. The abundance of numerical values measures our personal worth and supports the expectations of what we should be and do and think. Crucially the business of learning anything is given only in terms of assessing it. It is not possible to just learn stuff, to think about it, to explore it or challenge its foundations  - what would be the point of that???

Beaten into submission we come to believe that the whole point of the learning enterprise is to say the right things in the right way and thereby establish that we have the right learning. The numbers which certify our learning cannot lie. Drilled with the instrumentalist discourse that establishes that the only point of doing anything is doing it right where doing it right equates to getting the right score, learning dissolves into assessment according to criteria with a numerical value. Learning effectively is assessment which is measurement. The means really has become the end.

Escaping the performance league tables we buy a place at University where we might hope to really learn. We expect to move from ‘schooling’ to expansive creative cutting edge thinking and rich exploration of our world. Sadly though we find the same instrumentalist carry-on. Feedback given exclusively in the interests of securing success in the next assessment. Yet more criterion given in mark bands. The deep fear that if you score anything less than a 2.1 the whole business has been an expensive waste of time and it has been true all along – you really are not that bright!

The measurement game twists and turns and entwines us in its formulas and outputs. As student-customers we measure the quality of our student experience, the quality of the teaching, the speed and relevance of the feedback in helping us to achieve guess what – the right score.

The constant requirement to measure everything – every feature of our lives and particularly our learning – strangles our thinking. Nothing is legitimate if it is not measured. But now we are in strange times in which it is difficult if not impossible to see the way forwards. Surely it is time to rethink what this business of learning really is about.  The relentless pursuit of top scores by the best who can compete the most effectively may have been the right guiding principle in the evolution of our culture in the past. But now we face new challenges and a new reality – the oil is running out. Measuring ourselves and making that measurement the statement of our worth doesn’t seem to offer the solutions we need.

What about releasing ourselves from the validation procedure of measurement? Maybe we should trust ourselves and each other and most importantly, our young people, a little more?

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