I’ve heard the word “indefensible” used in regard to school programs that resist the call to focus on quantifiable, standardized outcomes. The Dimensions of Observable Growth is just one tool that a learning community can use to focus attention on some of the myriad non-academic attributes of development that are observed and cultivated inside the schoolhouse walls. In many learning communities, areas of non-academic growth are left largely implicit , entrusted to the unique preferences of the classroom teacher. Using a tool like The DOG can make non-academic growth objectives a matter of collective intention. Perhaps most importantly, observing and talking about the character of their own engagement with environment and culture can help students develop skills of self-cultivation.
Grades and various kinds of quiz and test scores have enormous practical utility. They lend a comforting and sometimes illuminating precision to educative processes. They can offer gratifying and useful feedback to eager learners and conscientious teachers. They offer intellectual landmarks that can be highly motivating for some young people. They offer the possibility of apples-to-apples comparisons between and among students, teachers, and schools.
The scoresheets and tables that we offer to legitimize our hard work in the Great Annual Student vs. Content Tournament inadvertently also deflate the educative value of the powerful but fuzzy-edged intangibles that, in fact, let us know how each individual young person is doing. In the absence of equally rigorous and intentional observation and reporting of qualitative and relational attributes of development, we lose the child in the service of the curriculum du jour.
Absolutely any academic content can offer the potential for personal growth. It’s the quality of the student’s discourse with the content and the context that’s decisive in development. The growth resulting from ANY experience you can name is not strictly (is sometimes not at all) academic; yet we all know it matters, and it has to be made to count in education.
What Maria Montessori understood was that if we can look at children as the naturalist looks at the bee, flourishing young people can be the goal of education.
By learning to recognize and talk about the observable evidence that lets us know what children need and whether they’re okay or not, we can develop learning environments whose simple objective is to promote thriving young people in thriving communities.
If we want to cultivate whole and thriving human beings, we have to notice what a flourishing child looks like in our context and through various lenses. We have to name attributes that are desirable within our context and from diverse perspectives. We have to help one another see these attributes and publicly discuss them. We have to agree as a community which attributes are desirable for all.
We can deliberately offer the conditions that make self-cultivation possible if we recognize and name the ways in which children by use their unique powers to adapt to the opportunities and challenges of their particular environment and culture.
When we reduce our student reporting to quantifiable data points that demonstrate measurable outputs along the way to a fixed destination (content “covered” … follow-up work completed … skills and concepts apparently mastered … ), we are describing the vehicle, rather than the journey. Of course, the vehicle can be quite interesting. But no paragraph of freeform anecdotal prose will override the impression that the scores are the real report and the narrative is the fluff. Due to the compulsory and competitive nature of the annual student outcomes tournament, our attention and resources are drawn away from the quality, consistency, and relationality of children’s daily experience.
If we don’t offer rigorous observation of non-quantifiable attributes of development, we lend force to the widely-held misconception that school accountability is principally about producing measurable student gains against approved and universally recognized yardsticks. But universal, compulsory, competitive, standardized outcome metrics smother human culture. How can we make ourselves actually accountable for fostering individual efficacy and agency within a broader culture?