Thursday, September 23, 2010

Freeing the Frozen Flow: Thawing our Thinking on Assessment

Mike Copes is an elementary counsellor for school district #71 in Courtenay. His circuitous path to involvement with the school system has included work in Community Corrections and in psychiatric care at Riverview Hospital as well as ten years in residential youth care at the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre where he worked as as team leader, unit supervisor, staffing coordinator and complex supervisor. He has also worked as a Conduct Disorder Specialist and as a Therapist for Child and Youth
Mental Health. His brief flirtations with working as a election campaign manager and as a bouncer at a biker bar were outlying sortees at finding employment self-actualization and should in no way be construed as foreshadowings of his eventual enlistment in the public education system

Drafting a brief response to the August 27-28 session on Assessment for Learning has been a very challenging exercise. The range and depth of information, research results, pinions and ideas presented and discussed gives rise to such a vast array of further thoughts, questions and connections as to render succinct summarization a dauntingly difficult task.

If there was a single overarching theme to the session it would have to be that assessment as it is commonly practiced within the current educational paradigm does not accomplish the goal of accurately depicting the learning that is taking place. Even less does it assist in directing learning toward optimal conditions in either process or outcome.

Of the range of ideas for developing a new direction in assessment which emerged, the two that stood out for me the most were the notion of continuous or instantaneous assessment and the work of Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi on "Flow".

Assessment, to properly reflect and assist in the learning process, needs to take place in a continuous fashion that is intimately integrated with the minute to minute enterprise of learning rather than in discrete, widely spaced intervals. Establishing what students already know at any given point in the learning process is not only important so as to be able to proceed from the appropriate point, it is also essential as a way of building confidence in every learner that there is a pay-off in making effort and taking risks. It is a start in the conversation with students that says to them "you can learn this and here is proof that you have already begun to do so".

One promising example of continuous assessment is described by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi in his research on the subjective internal state he calls "Flow". Csikzentmihalyi identifies a range of mental states which relate to the affective content of the person's experience and the level or quality of engagement or focus on the activity. The emotional states he identifies are apathy, boredom, worry, anxiety, relaxation, arousal, control and "Flow". Which of these states a person engaged in an activity (ie, a learner) will experience depends upon the intersection of the level of skill being called forth and the level of challenge involved. In order to reach a state of Flow, the task must present a challenge that stretches a person to the ordinary limits of his skill level and beyond. Bringing about this mental state while engaging with curricular material in the classroom could be used as a means of creating conditions optimal for learning within a process in which a continual feedback loop - a form of self-assessment - exists for the
learner. The alignment of the idea of "Flow" with the process of assessment has provoked for me a great deal of reflection that will likely percolate through my thinking about learning for a long time to come.

As I write this, I am drawn to consider, for instance, the implications of "Flow" versus non-Flow states for the creative exercise of writing in which I am now engaged. How is it that I so often begin the process of writing so haltingly and painfully, attempting to pull forth ideas and express them intelligibly in an agonizingly slow process fraught with long periods of numb empty-mindedness, only to inexplicably reach at some point a break-through to an effortless flight of prose? Is there a way I can draw upon the much easier and more reliable attainment of Flow in the area of piano improvisation to assist in the too infrequent and hard to reach attainment of Flow in my experience of writing? What happens that occasionally puts me there as I seem to be now? How can I translate any personal insights I may arrive at on entering "Flow" to benefit the students with whom I am working? Questions such as these will need to be reflected upon for some time for answers to emerge. Will they arrive effortlessly when some piece has dropped into place during a rare interval of "Flow", or need to be wrenched forth in the grinding hours of non-Flow states which make up the majority of my waking moments? I can't predict with certainty, but if ever forced to wager on it, I think I'll go with the Flow.

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