By Gary Chapin
Writer, Educating for Good
At the beginning, the folks leading ALP couldn’t answer the question, “Yeah, but what is ALP all about??” This was because, until the participants of ALP got in there and lived it, there was no way of knowing. This didn’t keep us from trying, of course. We had our intentions, values, and techniques, but we knew that what-ALP-is-all-about would emerge from the people who inhabited it.
We gained clarity over time. There’s a definition of ALP. For the phenomenologists out there, you can know us by our works. There’s a graphic that nicely lays out the principles that work with ALP. You can see it here, in detail, along with annotation. These ideas are becoming the center of conversation again as ALP 2.0 does its own emerging and updates its theory of change (more on that next week), but they aren’t the essence of ALP.
Working with the ALP community, especially with the folks leading Hawai’i’s HĀ project, I encountered the idea that a genuinely human vision of assessment, encompassing learning and joy, is rooted in two concepts: ecosystem and storytelling.
Assessment as ecosystem is a recognition of the profound complexity of relationships that make up schools, learning, our kids, and the system of learning. Every element moves continuously and impacts every other element. Biologists refer to this phenomenon as mutuality. Things are not only more interdependent than we imagine; they are more interdependent than we can imagine.
On complexity, Neil Postman once wrote that “If you add a caterpillar to an ecosystem, you don’t get the old ecosystem with an additional caterpillar. You get a new ecosystem.” The ecosystem changes—new qualities emerge—to accommodate the new addition. Postman wasn’t simply pointing out the hubris of folks who add computers to a school and expect that the only impact will be that we are “more efficient.” He was pointing to the amazing, uncanny creative power of an ecosystem. He was saying that by trying to control for the environment, we turn our backs on and deny a vibrant, abundant, and joyful source of creative power. At ALP, we think you shouldn’t do that.
Assessment as storytelling is understanding that assessment is storytelling, and this has important implications. We can treat assessment as a source of data that is open to analysis, but the only reason to do so is to develop a story—acknowledged or not—about the kid and their learning. An assessment system that results in a single number grade for a kid is telling a story, but it’s a shallow story. How do we tell better stories, i.e., truthful, supportive stories that are good for the kid and their learning? You start out by trying to. Instead of setting out to tell the story of did-this-kid-learn-enough, you tell the-story-of-the-kid-and-their-learning-over-time-and-in-this-place.
Storytelling is an essential component of all learning. When John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from experience plus reflection,” he was talking about taking our experience and constructing a story to figure out the meaning of the experience, and how it fits into our lives – what we’ve learned before and what we’re going to learn after.
At the Assessment for Learning Project, we not only advocate for these mind/heartsets, we live by them. For the February convening in Tucson, there will be a crew – maybe even a horde? – of storytellers and story catchers helping us make sense of things. If you want to tell your story, or help someone else tell theirs, let us know. The core of ALP is still emerging from the people who inhabit it.