Assessment? Let’s get real. Bringing this word up with colleagues in community arts education is like dropping a tadpole into the lemonade. They start checking status updates on their phone or make an exit to “feed the meter.” If this is you, take 5 minutes to read this. It might help. If not, you are only out the time it takes for Facebook to refresh on your phone.
Assessment undoubtedly brings value to arts education, but in the context of community arts education I can never escape the feeling that I missed an important memo. I read, search the web, talk to colleagues go to workshops & conferences, read the AFTA / AEP / NAEA / NEA news, stay up to date on research, and think. A lot. I am familiar with the plethora of solid tools, good research, and logical standards out there, but they never seem to get to the heart of what is happening here. It is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Why is that?
It is because there are fundamental differences between out-of-school learning environments and schools. Learning in any environment covers the same basic quadrants: knowledge acquisition, skill building, practical application, and extended learning. There a few elephants in the room on this topic, but the one I am going to acknowledge is failure. To achieve in school, students cannot fail. To fail means you are not learning. Conversely, out of school, students fail, make mistakes and change course. Here, failure does not hinder your success. To the contrary, it is part of the process, because to fail means you are actively pursuing an idea. Schools and out-of-school learning environments complement each other, but have an opposing focus. They are two sides of the same coin.
In-school learning is focused on knowledge acquisition and skill building. This is where students concentrate on facts, pick up essential skills, experience the wide wealth of human knowledge, and discover where they fit into it. Practical application and extended learning does happen in school, but they are not the priority. To be successful in this environment, students must acquire, absorb and improve at a prescribed pace set by benchmarks and standards. It is a linear process where achievement is measured by a student’s progression along an orderly continuum. This valuable framework ensures that students are acquiring the nuts and bolts of what an educated person in this world is supposed to know.
Where schools stop, out-of-school learning environments begin. Out-of-school learning allows students to take knowledge to the next step through practical application and extended learning. Knowledge acquisition and skill development happens here, but we primarily expect students to be focused on this during the school day. Outside of school we give students the freedom to fail, appropriate an idea to improve it without consequences; time to pursue a single idea to exhaustion or perfect the exacting details of a particular technique. To be successful in this environment, students must engage, practice and persist. The nature of this process is uneven, messy, repetitive, and circuitous. It is the antithesis of linear learning. Standards and benchmarks are a valuable resource, but they are a small part of the picture here.
Why do most assessment models feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole here? Because most assessments originate in the linear learning of a school environment. This is understandable, since schools cut the widest path through the field. However, to assess out-of-school learning based on a linear achievement model ignores the essential purpose of learning outside of school, and overlooks the value of what happens there. Tying such asymmetric measures to funding, resources and support, reflects a misunderstanding of the role that out-of-school learning plays in art education, and ignores the overall complexity of how and where learning happens. As we move to a future where an educated workforce must be both knowledgeable and intellectually resilient, a clear understanding of the role schools and community programs play in education is critical. Accountability is important, but to overlook the complete picture of education by taking account of the wrong things in the wrong places leads us down the wrong path. I am not anti-assessment in community arts education. We just need to use tools that fit what we do.
Those of you who’ve lost 5 good minutes of your lunch break reading to this point will be disappointed to know that I am not sharing a panacea for assessment in community arts education. What I can share is where I have landed at this point, applying the tools and resources out there where there seems to be a natural fit:
- National Art Education Standards guide the content of lessons, provide connections with what students are learning or have learned.
- Design process provides the framework for class process and procedure
- Common Core ideas guide the quality of interaction between teachers and students
- Studio Thinking 8 Habits of Mind guide what students should be doing in class
- Student evaluations based on attendance (engagement), class participation (practice) and repeated enrollment (persistence).
- Teacher evaluations based on common core influenced interactions with students, connection of lesson plans to national standards, connection between class process and design process, and observation of students in class for the 8 habits of mind.
For the majority, art education happens mostly in schools. It is obvious that assessing the quality and impact of this experience is important. Less obvious is the critical role out-of-school programs play in the complete picture of art education. As a platform for deep, exploitative learning, we provide the context for students to develop intellectual flexibility, cognitive resilience and find their unique brand of genius. The nature of this work is different than in school, so the assessment should be different as well.