Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Inverted Rube Goldberg (IRG) Approach to Assessment


I received a flyer yesterday about an Assessment in Arts Education Conference coming up in Taiwan. Reading over the speaker’s proposed sessions, I came upon this:

“Assessment is a key issue in music education and is particularly perplexing in relation to evaluating creativity assessment in music. There are different views on what counts as ‘creativity’ in music… this has made it difficult to construct assessment rating processes that translate contemporary assessment theory into viable classroom practices, particularly when they are required to fit different contexts and purposes whilst maintaining internal consistency and coherence.  The continuing problem is the lack of understanding of formative assessment and the dominance of the summative assessment regime in schools. From this and other research, we see that in order to embed creativity assessments that make clear distinctions between product-process and formative- summative practices, we need to examine conceptions of current assessment practices with a view to developing common criteria, and an empirical framework for use in assessing this aspect of pupil learning. We also need to develop and test criteria that assess the creativity in product outcomes, as well as criteria that assess the process of creativity leading to these outcomes. With reference to research evidence, and the distinctiveness of Bourdieu’s sociology and the role of cultural capital, I will make the case for the sociocultural construction of a paradigm of creativity assessment in music that will lead naturally to self-regulated creativity and creative learning in music.”

Anybody need some extra-strength Tylenol? I’m not going to be nice here. What the hell is this crap? Who does the speaker think she’s talking to with these run-on sentences and $100 phrases like “summative assessment regime,” “product outcomes,” “cultural capital,” and “sociocultural construction of a paradigm of creativity assessment?” Have she taught a three-year old recently?

This invasion of pseudo-sociology and pseudo-science into the artistic realm of the human imagination is death to arts education. Nothing will kill a child’s natural creativity more quickly than adults observing with i-Pads poised with their “paradigm of creativity assessment” ready to pounce upon each sign of an imaginative moment with their assessment tools, eager to label, sort, judge, dissect, grade and fit into their pre-formatted “empirical frameworks.” What exactly are they trying to prove? Have they so little faith in the natural curiosity and prodigious imagination of young children that they have to straightjacket their behavior into some sardine-tin rubric? And all in the name of “creativity?”

The whole show reveals a cynical profound distrust of our capacity to respond to novel situations with intelligence and imagination, a fantasy that we can manufacture creativity in our micro-managed laboratory and prove with data that we have achieved our outcome. As if creativity a “thing” that we put on the check-list and go to sleep at night feeling better that we achieved our quota for the day. As if it’s a quality that stands alone as opposed to a team player with craft, technique, coherent structure and deep analysis. As if it were something we can assemble like a model airplane rather than simply a necessary and pleasurable way to live in this world.

This whole academic mindset is like those Rube Goldberg machines, those cartoons or devices designed to perform a very simple task in a very complex fashion. Minus the fun and creativity. Those machines are crazy contraptions that stretch the borders of our usual pedestrian thinking and thousands of dollars and hours can be spent for the simple pleasure of creating something absolutely insane. (For a taste of this, go see “This Too Shall Pass” on Youtube). These convoluted assessment models are deadly serious and all those hours spent produce absolutely nothing of value except increasing the profits of the Tylenol manufacturers.

I’m thinking I should apply to the Conference as a counter-keynote speaker. Here’s the summary of my assessment method:

“Watch the children.”

I give children countless opportunities to improvise, compose or choreograph responses to new situations, with unshakeable faith in their ability to come up with something. I watch them and note their ideas, their collaborative process, their habits of practice. After they perform, we discuss what happened as a group. They give a self-evaluation, the group gives feedback and in the process, all develop a firmer aesthetic criteria and ideas of how to edit, add, change, refine their improvisation, composition or choreography. My approach is an inverted Rube Goldberg image (should I make that a market soundbyte? the IRG approach?)— how to take the complex, non-capturable, elusive process of creativity and assess it with a simple process and simple language. One of my favorite criteria when it comes to composition is Duke Ellington’s own IRG idea:

“If it sounds good, it is good.”

So a word to my fellow teachers, University professors, administrators, policy makers, educational thinkers. Life is too short to even read sentences like the opening paragraph, never mind construct elaborate mazes to trap and quantify the creative impulse. Spend that time and energy learning how to do good work with children, leave some room for amazement at the working of their pre-formal mind and have yourself a little fun making stuff up with them. That’s enough.

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