By Sean Blenkinsop
Alrightie, here we are, last blog on Klafki, last day on trail tomorrow and that most challenging of questions for the ecologizing educator – What about assessment? That is what I see hiding underneath Klafki’s fifth question:
e) What is the body of knowledge which must be retained (‘minimum knowledge’) if the content determined by these questions is to be considered ‘acquired’, as a ‘vital’, ‘working’ human possession?
One way to read this is that Klafki is interested in the “central” ideas, or “core curriculum” … the “if they only take this away from the learning, what do you want them to take?” question. But his question also challenges us as educators to ask ourselves, how do we know what the learner knows? What is landing and staying? And how do we make sure that the stuff we really want to stick is sticking?
So today, as we turned away from the Atlantic and towards the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but wonder “how does nature assess?” This is tricky, in part because we often ascribe the human values we want onto nature and then claim those as “natural” values—which then justifies our choices. A kind of weird self-justificatory circle. So, if I come out of a competitive, hierarchical, individualist culture I look at nature and see a “red in tooth and claw”, “dog eat dog” world, and I then justify this competitive environment as being the way nature is. Then, unfortunately for more relationally interested, cooperative, and communal cultures, that competitive framework is applied to life, schooling, and in particular assessment and we end up with the kind of competitive, test-filled, individualistic, hierarchical system we use today. But as I wandered along today, I couldn’t help but be drawn to all those moments of cooperation, or places where I sense that the natural is assessed based on how well things are working together. How often there is an interdependence that requires all to function in concert with each other. The way the purple and yellow flowered plants come together to draw in pollinators for one another (look it up!), the way the needles of the sand pine I lounged under at lunch were spread to maximizes exposure to sunlight and ultimately food intake while never getting in the way of another, and the way the nitrogen fixers give way with nary a whine to the next group of plants in the succession. So maybe, at least in part, nature assesses based on how well each being, or each part of a being, supports the others to maximize the flourishing of all.
The question then is, what could this look like in the human practice of assessing learning? How do we involve myriad interrelated beings in the evaluation process? And how do we assess the larger group rather than just focus on any particular individual? How do we determine if what students are doing on a day-to-day basis is actually of benefit to the larger community (however defined)? And, what happens to the hierarchical, individualized, competitive forms of assessment that are so entrenched in education today? Are they actually helping us figure out whether students are getting the good stuff (or in Klafki’s translated terms the “vital” stuff)? And the answer is … I don’t know … but I think this word vital is very intriguing here. It has to do not only with being necessary and essential but also with living, and in the case of vitality, the continuance of living, and therein might be the nub of the eco-educator’s assessment discussion. Are the students learning, able to use, that which is important, necessary even, to the continuance of living? And can educators, including nature, evaluate these things in more relational ways, getting beyond the particular individual human?
Ultimately, and maybe unsurprisingly, this brings us right back, full circle, to the aims we were positing, messing about with, in the first blogs. To survive and thrive humans are going have to do things differently. To contribute to the continuance of living we are going to have to test ourselves and others differently in order to see if we are actually moving in a more eco-socially just direction where there is a genuine possibility for mutual flourishing.
So, there you have it. My first set of blog posts. As you can see clearly filled with incomplete thoughts and half-baked ponderings. But a worthwhile exercise, maybe, for some more of you to step into, in other biomes and on other trails, to see what answers come up for you. It’s going to take a whole crowd of us imagining, learning and working together to ecologize Klafki, and beyond him, maybe public education writ large.