Assessment at the Edge 2: Clash of the Paradigms

(or Rumble in the Epistemological Jungle) 


We operate, on the whole, within education systems that are based on a traditional linear, positivist, computational paradigm that has been the dominant scientific paradigm since Newton et al back in the 17th century. It is a paradigm in which education is perceived as a form of industrial or mechanised process.

It is, essentially, a closed system, which is the sum of its parts (learners, teachers, curriculum, content, delivery, technology, etc.). By controlling these parts, we can regulate the performance of the whole system. Educational systems design is the process of regulating these closed systems. It is a system in which human behaviour and performance are assumed to be predictable within known circumstances, and in which knowledge is assumed to be an external, quantifiable object that can be transmitted to and acquired by learners. This enables patterns of behaviour to be analysed and used to make judgements about how learners are thinking or what they have learned.

It is a system in which a ‘line of determination’ is assumed between cause and effect: for example – teaching predictably causes learning. These assumptions over-simplify the world and tend to reduce human learning, performance and achievement to a repertoire of manipulable behaviours. But learning is far more complex and much less certain than these assumptions infer.

In one corner we have the dominant Positivist or Quantitative Paradigm which is based on the epistemological belief that all true knowledge is ‘scientific’ knowledge. In this paradigm there is a single objective reality ‘out there’ that is orderly, predictable, and can be studied, captured and understood by amassing data and triangulating it (I shall return to the triangle).

The overarching aim is to achieve explanation and control, which is possible because knowledge is objective, measurable, value-free and a quantifiable object that is transmitted by the ‘teacher as expert’ to, and acquired by, learners. Rigour is achieved via the ‘holy trinity’ of validity, reliability and generalisability.

In the other corner we have the Interpretive or Qualitative Paradigm in which subjectivity is inherent and should be acknowledged because complete or pure objectivity is impossible and should never be claimed. For those in this corner ‘truth’ is a matter of consensus amongst informed and sophisticated constructors, not of correspondence with an objective reality. Furthermore, because all measurement is fallible, there is great emphasis on multiple measures and observations in order to able to claim authenticity, and for that authenticity to be recognised.

Those who operate within this paradigm understand that there are multiple realities and that knowledge is subjective, contextualised and value-dependent. They aim for understanding in order to enhance learning, they are openly self-questioning and self-critical, and they welcome scrutiny and debate. Importantly, they view students as co-constructors of their learning, and perceive themselves to be partners and participants in learning as well as guides and mentors. (That position, by the way, does not prevent them from also being experts!).

In order to find a way to deal with all of this epistemological complexity in relation to how we approach assessment, I’m suggesting that one way – and of course there are and will be others – is to approach assessment as a form a qualitative research instead of a quasi-scientific investigation. If we choose to follow the interpretive paradigm in relation to assessment then we need adjust our thinking and our language. Essentially we need to do a form of ‘Find and Replace’.

We need to replace :

  • Validity with Credibility, Coherence, Consistency, Trustworthiness, Authenticity
  • Certainty with Relativity
  • Generalised Explanation with Local Understanding
  • Source Data with Empirical Materials
  • “Is it true?” with “Does it work?”
  • Single Point Perspective with Multiple Perspectives
  • the Triangle with the Crystal

To be continued……

Next instalment coming soon:  Assessment at the Edge 3: Triangles and Crystals

Back to Assessment at the Edge 1