I have been developing the Dimensions of Observable Growth in collaboration with other educators for more than fifteen years, starting when my own two children were in school in Colorado in the early 2000’s. The 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 young people in their communities. It’s not that we don’t use data, to guide our decision making. It’s just that we gather different kinds of data.
Good teachers take continuous, intuitive readings, always seeking evidence of their students’ states of mind. That’s what enables them to connect individual students meaningfully to both the learning environment and the larger environment beyond. Montessori teachers, in particular, are trained to make deliberate observation central to their classroom practice. Their pedagogical decision making is rooted in observational data, which inform practice to enhance optimal natural development. In this type of environment, the teacher is a gardener – the student, a plant. The flourishing of the student is evidenced by diverse “metrics,” of which academic acquisition is only one.
SHARED, CONTEXTUALLY RELEVANT LEXICON
Crucially, in developmental and self-directed learning environments, the focus is on data that are qualitative, rather than quantitative. Teachers are called to observe, discern, evaluate, and document continuously. But in my experience, even within a single learning community, faculty often lack a common language for the characteristics of the growth they hope to cultivate. They may even profess to be very well aligned in what they value. But if you ask them what it looks like in behavioral terms, they still tend to make broad generalizations: “Our students will be lifelong happy learners” and “Our students will have agency.” If educators could establish a shared and contextually relevant lexicon of the non-academic attributes they aim to nurture, they could more readily make the rigor of their human data use explicit. Likewise, they could make the work of their learning communities coherent across diverse groups and environments. And most importantly, by engaging in this assessment through a dialogue with the young people, they are fostering the capacity for self-assessment and self-cultivation: perhaps the highest goals of education.
SITUATIONALLY MEANINGFUL ATTRIBUTES
Often the attributes we wish to help young persons cultivate are unique to local situations – particular and temporary, but critical to long term success. It’s not unusual for an attribute to bubble into our 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, their purposes, and their commitments to the community. These are the roots of accountability.
Sometimes a student or teacher or group will “discover” and name a valued attribute through a one-off trip or undertaking.
Sometimes an attribute comes to the adult’s attention because a particular individual’s idiosyncratic gift has been brought into high relief through a unique or unusual situation. The DOG allows teachers to recognize and name unique gifts as dimensions of growth that merit observation and reflection. 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 … ” This tool adds rigor to that conversation.
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-assessment (How did I do?), self-cultivation (In what way/s would I like to grow?), and relational accountability (How well did I do what I committed to?).
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 engagement in the work of the learning community. The attributes and the behavioral descriptors are editable so that they reflect locally relevant descriptions of situationally meaningful kinds 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 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 shapes or clouds that encompass parts of more than one level. The assessment is not intended to be shared as a “score.” The flexibility of the reporting deliberately weakens comparability among students. Rather, the tool offers touchstones for relational accountability.
What are the attributes I need or admire or wish I had? Which attributes will best help me achieve my purposes? How can I develop them?
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 SEL goals collaboratively and recognize growth that is meaningful within 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: celebrating the “negative” delta value
We generally think of growth as movement toward a higher level of acquisition of an attribute, in keeping with individually or collaboratively established goals. Sometimes, though, we can understand negative delta values as expressions of positive growth – when they represent movement away from inflated self-assessment … toward humility. Though the change in the assessed expression of an attribute reflects movement toward a lower level of actualization, growth shows up in the increased congruence of the young person’s self-assessment with how the teacher or 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. Before spilling out into more diverse learning environments, the DOG originated in Montessori environments, and therefore reflects a horticultural view of the role of the adult.
Some communities have expressed concern that the playfulness of “The DOG” doesn’t sound earnest. 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:
• a shared lexicon and a process for self-cultivation
• the tools to make explicit agreements about shared values and goals, and hold ourselves to relational accountability
• coherent dialogue about the non-academic growth that we wish to foster. (identify shared commitments and actualize those commitments through an iterative process of creating and assessing the learning environment.
• relational forms of accountability: evaluation is not determined by an outside entity. Rather, all participants or stakeholders 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?”).
SELF-REFLECTION and SELF-CULTIVATION
Developed in collaboration with classroom teachers in various parts of 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. Its purpose is to promote cultures of self-cultivation and relational accountability.
DATA & RESEARCH
There is a significant movement in the field of education, 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.
Behavior Proxy Assessment
Data collection in the social and behavioral sciences is often done by proxy measures. Physical attributes may be measured directly (temperature, pressure, length, weight, velocity). However, when we want to assess a character attribute (such as “curiosity” or “diligence”), dialogue is required. We must first define which observable characteristics or behaviors we will regard as legitimate expressions of the attributes we wish to cultivate. Those expressions become proxies for the attribute. The community might agree, for example, that “helping 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 local validity of the assessments.
The assessment of “self in environment” can and should be very unique and personal to the individual and the community. That’s why the tool sacrifices comparability for editability. It is essentially a collection of suggestions – of attributes that have been agreed upon and successfully used in other contexts. The goal is to use this tools as a set of training wheels – a scaffolding. There are myriad contextually relevant attributes of a human being that can be recognized and cultivated. I envision the DOG as a temporary support and guide for a process of self-cultivation – a trait that I consider a fundamental element of Autonomy.
The language of the individual attributes and corresponding observable behaviors is like a soup base out of which each distinct learning community makes its own distinct stew. Every text field in the DOG can be edited to align with the values and practices of your home community. No expectations are imposed from outside.
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 a framework of dimensions and attributes – a language of discernment, goal setting, and accountability. It enables us to help young people focus their attention on characteristics that will support their successful participation in events, activities, and types of work that they find meaningful.