Measurement, Magic, and Balance

Measurement, Magic, and Balance

Earlier today there were five school children riding unicycles in the park across from where I live. Two of them had joined hands and were spinning round and round, going faster and faster. Another two were slowly circling the park’s perimeter clearly enjoying what they were doing. The other one kept falling and looked close to tears. I mentally assessed them: superb, pass, fail. I was wrong.

Before long, the older man who used to be a social worker and who now has taken it upon himself to be responsible for what happens with the school children in the park was scolding the spinning ones for doing something dangerous, encouraging the slow circlers to go a little faster, and had the falling one hanging onto his arm while he whispered something in her ear for awhile before letting her go, drift off by herself, and not fall.

Learn Italian with Free Podcasts
Learn Portuguese with Free Podcasts
Learn German with Free Podcasts
Learn Chinese with Free Podcasts
Click here to learn Japanese with
Learn French with Free Daily Podcasts!
Learn Vietnamese with
Learn Thai with
Learn Spanish with Free Podcasts!
Click Here to Learn Korean with

I see this same thing every spring: Learning to ride a unicycle is an encouraged part of the curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders in the local elementary school here in my corner of rural Japan, meant to develop balance, encourage perseverance, and build confidence. Learning how to do it is the assessment. No outside evaluation is necessary, but help and instruction from outside the school is always welcome.

Tomorrow all these children will go to school and learn the usual things elementary school children learn with their teachers. Like in all schools, some of those teachers will be wonderful, some less so, some terrible. Some of what the children learn will be important. Some of it will not be important. The retired social worker will be out in the park grooming the baseball field as he waits for the children to get out of school. What he contributes is also important. Not only does he help kids learn to ride unicycles, encourage everyone to be safe and play well together, he also helps with homework, bandages up bruised knees, tells stories about values, shares his experiences, and makes sure no one forgets anything at the end of the day.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the move to implement adaptive learning technologies into school systems, the nefarious uses of big data in system-wide curriculum management and national curriculum development, the corporatization of school systems, the rise of standardized testing, the dehumanization of education, and the struggles both teachers and learners face in light of all this. I’ve also been reading a lot about magical solutions and dreamy ideas that some feel could change education forever. It’s all quite frightening. And from my position down the street from the elementary school and across the street from the park, I can’t help but think that neither of those two directions is right and that both are darkly wrong.

Learning and teaching cannot be confined, tied-down, given a test, and assigned a score.  Nor can it be passed off as magic thatjust happens. What happens when it does happen is too complex, too human, too grounded in hard work, and much too wrapped around the relationships that learners and teachers and caregivers and neighborhood helpers have with each other and whatever they’re learning and teaching to be called magic. It much too complex to be reduced to data points. We are more than a score. We are also worth more than magic can ever add up to.

Yet, there are those who would have us believe that it’s either one or the other – magic or measurement  – when it fact it’s neither — and those who want us to believe education is so deeply flawed that there are no solutions. So would you please just please quietly accept this, submit, and give up.  We will not.

Night is coming on. The unicyclists have ridden off for home. The retired social worker stands at the edge of the park talking with a couple of teachers from the elementary school.  They are in this together. We are all in this together.

That’s the only solution I can think of, and maybe the only one there’s ever been.


Get weekly articles and resources straight to your inbox


  • In a formal education context, assessment depends a lot on the written and taught curriculum. The syllabus should state what declarative and tacit knowledge is to be expected and how learners will be assessed. The balance between formative and summative assessment (heavier on the former than the latter) will determine how learners transform as they close the gap between where they currently are and the expectations articulated in the syllabus as to where they need to be. The educator and the learner work together to help close this gap by assuming different roles and actions as the learner becomes more interdependent and the educator becomes less needed over time. There is nothing magical about this; the balance is knowing how to apply formative and summative assessment in terms of learning what, how, why, when, where, and with whom about both declarative and tacit knowledge based on how they are presented in the syllabus.

  • Dave Beech

    I agree whole-heartedly with these sentiments; education should not, cannot and will not ever be about the corporate ideas of ticking boxes on a balance sheet.
    In ESOL particularly, the rapport between teacher and student is vital. We are people, not ‘units’ and the constant drive to de-humanise us is not only morally and ethically repugnant, it is doomed to failure.