Saturday, November 06, 2010

Evaluating the Ocean

With the passing years, it seems more and more foolhardy of us teachers to believe we can accurately evaluate “the whole child”. I’ve sat in meeting after meeting where we assess not only the students’ academic work, but occasionally drift over to discussing their emotional and personal lives as well, and increasingly it makes very little sense to me. We say things like “He looks like a very angry boy” or “She doesn’t really care about the quality of her work” or “He’s sometimes dishonest” – statements that often have no demonstrable, provable basis, and that deal only with brief, passing behaviors. The comments are sincere but completely casual – and yet we seem to believe they actually help to evaluate “the whole child”. It seems as unrealistic as presuming we can evaluate the “whole ocean” by describing a few surface features at one particular beach. I don’t mean to be flippant about this, but I sometimes imagine a meeting in which teachers who live near a particular beach evaluate “the whole ocean.” They comment on things they noticed on the surface of the water at their beach – the way waves work on various days, the colors of the breakers, the kinds of birds that come and go – and then they proceed to evaluate the entire ocean. They make the gigantic jump from a few informal observations of one speck of the surface of the immense ocean to an evaluation of the entire ocean! Surely we can see how foolish this is, and yet is it any more foolish than assuming we can come to an understanding of a “whole teenager” by commenting on a few chance behaviors? To me – and I couldn’t be more serious – each of my students is as inscrutable as the ocean, as sphinx-like as the endless sky. With my training as an English teacher, I have reasonable assurance that I can appraise their abilities as writers and readers, but that’s like making passing observations about one aspect of the surface of the sea. Underneath all my English assessments – my grades, comments, reports, and recommendations – the immeasurable lives of the students remain, like the unfathomable ocean, an undisclosed mystery.

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