Beware of Proxies

As we work through our busy lives, I’m intrigued by how readily we seem to accept so many of the assumptions that impact on that work. I don’t think for a minute that this is something we do consciously, but when you have so much going on in your life, you simply don’t have the time or inclination to reflect or test the veracity of what we assume to be correct.

Take our use of proxies. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame outlined recently in his annual newsletter, a common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can be more effective or efficient in what you are seeking to achieve. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. It’s the sort of language and double-speak that clumsy bureaucracies thrive on, and the education sector is certainly no exception.

It can happen very easily in large companies, public sector organizations or schools. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Great ideas are too often lost in poor process, and buried in summative reviews instead of iterating and seeking continuous improvement to achieve the desired outcomes.

It’s not that rare to hear middle management in our schools defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?

Whether you like Bezos of not, he has a point, and if you think about it, I think we do the same with assessment which is too often used as a proxy for how well we know our students.

We have all been guilty of describing our students by their test results, and in discussions with their parents, assessment is usually the main topic. But how much do test results really tell us about our students?

I was in another one of those great discussions in a Change School roundtable last week with a principal who was telling us that the major part of her staff reviews were based on her teachers’ knowledge of the students they were teaching; not of their performance on tests, but rather of them as young people. What were their interests, their hobbies and their passions? What talents were they showing and how could they be better developed, and where did they need more support?

This was about how well they really knew the kids they would spend hundreds of hours with over the course of a school year. Yes, at some point scores, test results were in the mix, but that wasn’t what really counted.

So to what extent do you think we use assessment as a proxy for how well we know our students? Is it possible, that year on year, student after student, we’ve become so accustomed to this crude substitutes as a  measure of the abilities and potential of the young people who we work with, that we just take for granted that it is the way it should be done?

At the same time, there is a much wider conversation finally happening around ‘assessment alternatives’; not just in the collection of work/digital portfolio space, but one which hopefully will yield a deeper and more worthwhile understanding of each child, their talents and their potential.

Oh, and while you’re at it. Have a think about the extent to which curriculum compliance is used as a proxy for identifying and developing an individual student’s potential. But, that’s another topic for another time.

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