I have been developing the Dimensions of Observable Growth for more than ten years (at my own expense, and without compensation) starting when my own two children were in school in Colorado in the early 2000’s. The strong (and still intensifying) U.S. push for “data driven” decision making in classrooms prompted me to find a way to help teachers in developmental and self-directed learning environments make explicit the kind of data that they use to cultivate the thriving of the individuals in their communities.

Most good teachers take continuous, intuitive readings on the children in their care. That reading is what enables the teacher to connect. Montessori teachers in particular are trained to make this kind of observation central to their classroom practice. Pedagogical decision making is rooted in observation and data gathering, which has the purpose of informing practice to ensure and enhance optimal natural development.

Crucially, in developmental and self directed learning environments, the focus is on qualitative rather than quantitative data. Teachers observe, discern, and evaluate continuously … but they lack support to develop a common language for the nuances of the growth they hope to cultivate. I felt that if educators could establish a shared, contextually relevant lexicon, they could more readily make the rigor of their “data collection” explicit.

Sometimes the attributes a teacher or parent really wishes to help a young person cultivate are unique to a situation – very particular and temporary, but critical to success. It’s not unusual for an attribute to bubble into a teacher’s consciousness because something is “off” with students’ interactions or with the way some students are engaging with the environment. Rather than resorting to direct correction, The DOG allows us to draw students’ attention to the relationship between their behavior and the goals of the undertaking.

Sometimes a student or teacher or group will “discover” and name a valued attribute.

Sometimes an attribute comes to the adult’s attention because a particular individual’s idiosyncratic gift stands out. The DOG allows teachers to recognize and name unique gifts. In my experience, it’s not unusual for teachers to find themselves telling parents: “She’s developing proficiency in math and doing very well in reading and writing, but let me tell you how I think she’s REALLY growing … ”

Compared to test scores, the language of whole child development comes across as vague and arbitrary. The DOG changes that. The DOG helps us develop individual agency by fostering skills of self-cultivation.

A format that resists quantification

The DOG was developed to give adults and children ways to exercise and refine discernment of the various qualities of their own and one another’s engagement in the learning community. The attributes and the behavioral descriptors are editable so that they reflect a locally relevant description of a situationally meaningful kind of growth. No standards or expectations are imposed remotely or from the outside. If an attribute is not relevant to the circumstances, it either does not appear on the assessment or it is modified to suit the community’s (and the learners’) needs.

For ten years, I and my collaborators have resisted the use of numbers to signify the levels of actualization. We also encourage both young people and adults, when assessing the expression of an attribute, to 1) circle particularly meaningful language, 2) cross out inapplicable language, and 3) indicate “between” stages by drawing a shape or cloud that embraces parts of more than one level. The assessment is not intended to be shared as a “score”, and the flexibility of the reporting weakens comparability among students. Rather, it serves as a touchstone for reflection and discussion.

How can I develop the attributes I admire?

If the DOG is used as a “report card” (especially if the assessment is expected to become part of a student’s permanent file), it should be accompanied by explanatory narrative regarding who made the assessment and under what circumstances.


The DOG gives us language to set goals and recognize growth that is meaningful to the people in our learning community, in the here and now. Some of the most important conversations prompted by the DOG are not over “high levels” or “low levels,” but rather about the attributes where the young person’s self assessment differs markedly from the adults’ assessment of the same attribute. In such cases, there is often a beautiful realization that through collaborative engagement in the learning community and intentional conversation about the expressions of the attribute, the student’s and the adult’s assessments move toward congruence.

Direction of Growth

Growth may look like movement toward a higher level of expression of an attribute, in congruence with individually or collaboratively established goals. Sometimes, though, growth is movement away from inflated self-assessment … toward humility. On paper, though the change in the expression if that attribute appears to reflect movement toward a lower level, but the growth shows up in the congruence of the individual’s self-assessment with how the community experiences the individual.

The DOG is, by design, a “service animal,” developed in consultation with teachers and teacher educators in developmental and self directed learning environments. The DOG originated in Montessori environments, and reflects a horticultural view of the role of the adult.

Many communities express some concern about the playfulness of the name. “The DOG” doesn’t sound appropriately serious. In fact, the purposes of the tool are very serious. We have tried other names (for a while it was “Indicators of the Development of Self Discipline” or IDSD). But nothing stuck. “The DOG” just kept coming back. We’ve come to appreciate that it’s in some way friendly and non-threatening for both adults and young people.

What the DOG offers a learning community:

• The DOG gives learning communities a shared lexicon and a process for self-cultivation as well as the power to make explicit agreements about shared values.

• The DOG helps learning communities create regular, ongoing, coherent dialogue about the non-academic growth that they wish to foster. (It supports a community to identify shared commitments and actualize those commitments through an iterative process of creating and assessing the learning environment.)

• The DOG helps teachers, parents, and students engage in a relational accountability. That is, evaluation is not determined by an outside entity. Rather, all participants or stakeholders can agree on what kind of growth we are striving for, and how to know if that growth is happening (both at the school level: “what do we stand for?” and at the individual level “what kind of person do I want to be?”).

• The DOG fosters the intentional practice of self-reflection and self-cultivation.

• Developed in collaboration with Montessori classroom guides all over the world, the DOG promotes individualization and diversification of student outcomes at the same time that it allows a coherent process of self-cultivation to be developed and practiced throughout the learning community.


There is a significant movement in the United States, now, to bring Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) back into schools. A number of major cities have identified SEL as the crucial cutting edge of education reform, but the field is quite new. Many of its assumptions are built on the work of two American researchers, Deci and Ryan, who developed Self Determination Theory to explain the forces that influence human motivation. Since the turn of the 21st century, Deci and Ryan’s impressive body of work has fueled an emphasis on creating learning environments that meet three universal needs: Autonomy, Competence, and Relationship.

The DOG deliberately feeds all three of these needs by cultivating individual students’ capacity to assess their various proclivities with increasing independence, while also being able to communicate clearly about their goals and growth.

In regard to Behavior Proxy Assessment – All quantitative data collection in the social and behavioral sciences is done by proxy measures. Physical attributes are measured directly (temperature, pressure, length, weight, velocity). When we want to assess a character attribute, on the other hand (such as “curiosity” or  “diligence”), dialogue is required. The community must determine what observable characteristics or behaviors we will regard as expressions of any attribute we wish to cultivate. Those expressions become proxies for the attribute. The community might agree, for example, that “eagerness to help people who are hurt” is an expression of the attribute we call Empathy. A valid assessment  measures what it says it will measure. When an assessment uses proxies that the community doesn’t regard as legitimate evidence of the assessed attribute, the assessment is inherently invalid.  The fact that learning communities can alter the language of these rubrics enhances the validity of the assessments.

This kind of assessment – of “self in environment” – can and should be very unique and personal to the individual and the community. That’s why the tool is editable. It is just a collection of suggestions. There are myriad Contextually Relevant Attributes of a human being to be recognized and cultivated. The DOG is the temporary (and eventually invisible) guardian of a process of self-cultivation – a fundamental element of Autonomy.

There are currently 70+ attributes in the most comprehensive of the DOGS, the “Mother of All DOGs.” This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is an infinite number of attributes that a learning community may want to encourage one or more young persons to focus on. The DOG simply offers some sample dimensions and attributes, a language of discernment, goal setting, and accountability. It enables us to help young people focus their attention on attributes that will support their successful participation in various events, activities, and types of work.

The language of the individual attributes and corresponding observable behaviors is just like a soup base out of which each distinct learning community makes its own distinct stew. Every text field in the entire DOG can be edited to align with the values and practices of your home community. No expectations are imposed from outside.