Published on March 1st, 2016 | by ECSWE1
Report: Symposium on Pluralism in Assessment in Luxembourg
If the future of school education is discussed at the European level, most stakeholders quickly agree on the importance of learner-centred approaches, respecting individual learning needs. However, the established methods of assessment do not meet this criteria. On the contrary: since the PISA studies were introduced in 2000, the mantra of standardisation, equal opportunities and comparability dominate the educational discourse on assessment. In order to be ranked at the top of the league tables, many countries have introduced centralised and standardised tests. This trend coincides with growing levels of stress in the classroom and less time for creative and self-organised work.
Holistic educational approaches such as Waldorf education suffer from these developments. The promotion of social and personal skills is neglected, if exams focus on cognitive skills exclusively. Standardised tests may be cheap and correction friendly, but they leave little room to demonstrate creativity, critical thinking, or a general interest in society and the one’s personal environment.
How exactly do standardised tests affect the quality of teaching and how can we find alternative assessment methods that support students’ learning outcomes holistically? To explore these questions, the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE), together with the Universal Education Foundation, the Waldorf School Luxembourg and the Alliance for Childhood held a Symposium on “Pluralism in Assessment” at the University of Luxembourg on the 15th January 2016. Opening speeches were held by Professor Heinz-Dieter Meyer of the State University of New-York, who recently wrote an open letter to Andreas Schleicher (OECD) on the PISA studies and Jens Björnavold who is working with the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP).
Meyer expressed fundamental criticism of the educational system, which is characterised by unprecedented inequality, an uncritical and comprehensive use of information technology and an ever-increasing adaptation of education to the needs of the labour market. In schools, learning, creativity and community are more and more replaced by drill, fear and isolation, as teaching degenerates into a predefined routine. Standardised tests are just one of the many expressions of this development. Citing Pestalozzi, Meyer suggested redefining the art of teaching as seeking harmony between head, heart and hands and proposed to transform the current climate of competition into a climate of cooperative learning. Teaching and assessment should take the health of students into account and education should promote the ability to focus, reduce individual isolation, and teach pupils to handle ambiguity. When summing up his presentation Meyer called on politicians to exit PISA.
Jens Björnavold, senior expert at the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) spoke about the positive impact of learning outcomes in education and their implications for teaching and assessment. Using a learning outcomes approach rather than standardised tests allows for greater flexibility and autonomy of teachers and learners. Instead of ticking boxes of a predefined checklist, clearly defined learning outcomes encourage learners to demonstrate the reliable application of acquired knowledge and skills. Thanks to this increased flexibility, they allow focusing on the individuality of the learner, who can acquire competencies following different learning pathways. The achievement of a learning outcomes can be measured and documented in very different ways, e.g. through the use of portfolios.
The following panel discussions, featured Waldorf experts, parents and pupils’ representatives and dealt with the impact of standardised tests on the learning process and the welfare of students and teachers. The second half was dedicated to the search for practical alternatives that allow for real “Pluralism in Assessment” and thus correspond to the ideal of holistic education
Learning environments should promote creativity, the autonomous organization of the learning process and diverse forms of knowledge acquisition. This requires process oriented forms of assessment that actively involve the individual learner. Portfolio Work, the New Zealand based Steiner School Certificate or a tailored implementation of the International Baccalaureate to the needs of an individual school are ways to better meet these conditions.
It is now important to actively and courageously bring the vision of Pluralism in Assessment into the public debate and to question the growing tendency of measuring and standardising all aspects of education. This requires cooperation with strong partners and clarity with regards to our objectives. In 2016, ECSWE will therefore focus its efforts on this topic, both internally, and in dialogue with other stakeholders and educational policy.
Executive & Administrative Officer
European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education