Carefully calibrated details with no meaning – measuring learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about measurement lately. It feels like a key factor in distinguishing “making” that matters in the classroom. Student’s capacity to use measurement, and its little sisters, precision and accuracy, should get more refined and complex as they get older.

The flip side of teaching students to measure is to measure student learning. How does assessment work in a classroom where students are doing different and unexpected things?

I just ran across this article by Robert Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and the author of “World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement” – Measurement and Its Discontents.

It’s a nice exploration into the two meanings of the word “measurement” – something to keep in mind as we introduce measurement to children, or try to use it to shape our own view of the world. Standardized testing, masquerading as measurement of “a complex ideal” is not adequate to describe learning, an extremely complex concept. Adding more “carefully calibrated details” does not add meaning.

The problem is not that we don’t yet have precise enough tools for measuring such things; it’s that there are two wholly different ways of measuring.

In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this “ontic” measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties.

But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as “fitting.” This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t “measure up” to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a “measure,” because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this “ontological” measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.

The distinction between the two ways of measuring is often overlooked, sometimes with disastrous results. In his book “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould recounted the costs, both to society and to human knowledge, of the misguided attempt to measure human intelligence with a single quantity like I.Q. or brain size. Intelligence is fundamentally misapprehended when seen as an isolatable entity rather than a complex ideal. So too is teaching ability when measured solely by student test scores.

Confusing the two ways of measuring seems to be a characteristic of modern life. As the modern world has perfected its ontic measures, our ability to measure ourselves ontologically seems to have diminished. We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself. We are tempted to seek all meaning in ontic measuring — and it’s no surprise that this ultimately leaves us disappointed and frustrated, drowned in carefully calibrated details.

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