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Student Well-Being Commentary

In Terms of Assessment, Teachers Know Best

By Jessica Potts & Skip Potts — June 07, 2016 6 min read

It seems as if no discussion of America’s educational climate is complete without the mention of Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindset” and Angela Duckworth’s notion of “grit.” Along with the fervor surrounding these buzzwords comes the inevitable calls for some sort of quantifiable measurement of these largely intangible characteristics. And although both Dweck and Duckworth largely disavow the notion of measuring these intangible skills, their respective websites offer a visitor the opportunity to test these soft skills. And in the past three years alone, hundreds of academic articles have been written about growth-mindset and grit skills, including in Education Week.

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Forgetting for a moment the larger debate about the validity or newness of some of these “innovations,” their measurement specifically should be looked at with a critical eye. Growth mindset and grit are understandably difficult to measure using standardized methods and instead often rely on Likert-style self-reporting. As some critics have noted, such surveys can be muddy and vulnerable to biases. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results place American schoolchildren 27th in math and 20th in science but far above average in confidence, suggesting that self-reporting as a method is inherently problematic, particularly in the United States. In fact, many of the psychological measures currently used are unreliable and subject to reference bias, confirmation bias, and social-desirability bias. Therefore, if we do want to find viable ways to evaluate grit or mindset, where do we look for our solutions?

In this age of educational accountability, the knee-jerk reaction is for policymakers to measure these delicate values through some type of box-checking scheme. Before we discuss the potential of this particular endeavor, it would be instructive to examine historical attempts to translate natural human behaviors into mechanical, quantifiable systems. Consider the famous walking robots of Boston Dynamics. Boston Dynamics, an MIT-spawned company that focuses on robotics and human-simulation software, attempted to create a robot that could effectively mimic the human gait. This company, which employed the brightest minds of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and later bought by Google. It had all the money, intelligence, and support it could possibly need, and it still took more than a decade to get its first real success with the BigDog robot in 2005.

But it has been considerably more difficult for Boston Dynamics and equivalent companies to create robots and software that can mimic basic cognitive and interpersonal tasks, such as reading emotional expressions or responding appropriately to conversational stimuli. These simple mental functions, which most humans perform effortlessly countless times a day, require the harmonious firing of millions of neurons in the brain in combinations that scientists have yet to crack.

Consider for a moment that arguably the smartest, richest, and best-educated people in the world have spent billions of dollars over more than half a century to get machines to do such basic tasks as walking or responding appropriately to a person in a conversation. Keeping that in mind, now think about the fact that we are asking policymakers to quickly and efficiently (not to mention cheaply) come up with a simple, quantifiable test for the complex, abstract human qualities of grit and mindset. Regardless of the talent or experience of our educational experts, the implications here should be clear.

We already have the most sophisticated and accurate evaluative tools at our disposal: human beings and, more specifically, teachers."

Thankfully, we already have the most sophisticated and accurate evaluative tools at our disposal: human beings and, more specifically, teachers. Experienced, well-trained teachers already possess the ability to differentiate grit from simple compliance, or identify students who need to be supported as they move toward growth mindsets.

While it is true that teachers can be influenced by reference bias and other factors, we should not favor imprecise rubrics or dubious self-reporting over the power of professional judgment. Simply put, human beings are capable of amazing feats. Most of us can walk, register the emotions of others, and easily have a conversation. We often do so simultaneously. These feats are entirely unmatched in the history of inventions, and to assume policymakers will be able to succeed where countless others have failed is both foolish and arrogant.

To support this argument, we need only turn to Sir Ken Robinson, who touts the power of human beings in education and argues against the standardized “factory line” style schools long favored in America. This factory model is not only ineffective and dehumanizing, it is also incredibly fragile. Consider an assembly line making automobiles: If something is moved out of sequence in a significant manner, the entire line shuts down. When any element of our fragile, dehumanized education system breaks down, as it inevitably does, our methods for accountability become imprecise and invalid.

Additionally, it is next to impossible to measure intangibles such as grit or mindset using the factory model, since measuring these characteristics relies on the web of relationships between each teacher, each student, and the curriculum adopted by each school—none of which can be adequately standardized.

If we are truly interested in measuring growth mindset, the operative word for improvement should be growth, not standardization or compliance. It would be unreasonable to compare students at failing schools, which have their own unique sets of relationships between students and teachers, with students at schools that are generally thought of as successful.

Each school must be considered its own case, with its own set of relationships. Every student within that school can be evaluated for growth mindset or grit by a cadre of expert teachers. Our goal as educators should not be to encourage children to be identical, with identical mindsets and identical measures of grittiness, but to do our best to meet students where they are and encourage intellectual, intrapersonal, and interpersonal growth within the scope of our unique relationships with each one of them.

Taking all this into account, it is clear why trying to artificially quantify what a teacher can determine naturally is failing on epic proportions.

Mechanized or standardized systems do indeed have their place, especially when it comes to complex computations or easily quantifiable measurements. In addition, we think the concepts of growth mindset and grit are indeed valuable to education, even if they are in no way new or innovative. However, it is only through appropriate training for teachers that we will come to a more accurate understanding of our students’ mindsets or grittiness. Further, it is noteworthy that these professional-development opportunities are conducted by humans for humans and are designed to increase the competence of complex, nonstandard, human systems of judgment and analysis.

The drive to incessantly measure and homogenize concepts such as growth mindset and grit only dehumanizes and, thus, curtails the power of these cognitive tools. If we must measure, let us use the most appropriate, precious, and powerful tool at our disposal: the combined wisdom, experience, and professionalism of our teachers.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Teachers Know Best


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