The Problem With “Measure”

One of the biggest blessings in my life is my marriage. I love my wife.

When I dislocated my knee (twice!), I experienced pain.

I react with anger when confronted with injustice.

Joy warms my entire being when my daughter slips her hand into mine as we walk.

With some thought and effort, I could describe my love, pain, anger, and joy. I could even express the intensity of those feelings, but I can’t measure them. My wife is pretty good at assessing my frustration, and my doctor does her best to assess my pain as she seeks to alleviate it and diagnose its cause.

But neither of them are engaging in measurement.

Measurement requires a standard unit, a recognized standard that can be objectively applied in a context. I can measure my bike ride to school in units of length. If I share that measurement with my colleague who also bikes to school, we can objectively determine who travels the greatest distance each day. What isn’t measurable is the peace that twenty minute ride brings to my day.

When it comes to measurement, learning fits into the same category as love, pain, anger, joy, and peace of mind. Learning can’t be objectively measured. There is no standard unit of measurement to apply to learning. A skill can be demonstrated, progress can be noted, understanding can be communicated and shared, but technically this evidence of learning isn’t measurable.

As a teacher I have been moving away from traditional grading because I recognized the limitations of grades in motivating, communicating, and promoting learning. Part of that journey has included using standards-based learning and grading and prioritizing meaningful learning over the measurement of learning. Since I’ve been hanging out with the TG² crew, however, I have been reflecting on the power and importance of the language that we use in our conversations about education.

I wrote the post linked above less than a year ago, but now I feel the word “measure” is fatally flawed when applied to learning. I moved to SBL/SBG to shift attention from grades to learning. I think it is arguably an improvement over traditional grades because it can more clearly communicate learning. However, I hadn’t used SBG long before I realized words like “measure” and “accurate” were popping up in conversations with colleagues and parents. The problem with words like “measure” and “accurate” is that they aren’t about learning; they are about grades.

I am not reimagining my classroom, structures, and practices in order to produce more accurate grades! I want to better nurture learning. The danger of using measurement language when discussing learning is that we are perpetuating the very system we seek to reform. I have no desire to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic or improve the aesthetics of our scoreboards.

So, what language should we use instead? For now I’m using “communication” language to share learning with students and parents. What might happen if we replaced the word “measure” in our conversations with “treasure?” Imagine a world where learning wasn’t measured, but rather, like love and joy and peace, treasured.

Scott Hazeu teaches and learns with Grade 12 students in the center of Canada. They spend their days exploring literature and writing. Discover more of his writing on Medium and Re-Vision: The Continuing Education of a Teacher.

Care to join us? Find us on Facebook and leave a comment below about your own experiences — with or without grades!

4 thoughts on “The Problem With “Measure”

  1. Scott,
    I like the opening here. It presages the insights I knew you’d present. It also reminds me that teaching is an art. Art, too, is beyond measurement, for the most part. It reminds me, too, of a visual art exhibit (drawings, paintings mostly) I once saw in Chicago: All works done by people who suffered from migraine headaches. The work was an attempt to express the pain of a migraine. I used to use that story to discuss why we defer to figurative language/metaphor for so much in our life. You can’t measure the pain of a migraine in any way that would allow you to meaningfully communicate it to another human who has never experienced one. To say it is a 10 (or an 11, Spinal Tap fans) on a scale of 1-10 is meaningless (hence the Spinal Tap reference). But the artwork…? That’s visceral and brings the pain home.

    I know there are differences, obviously, but I’m glad to have read this. The challenge, to find a new language for what we do, is one I’ll gladly keep in play in my own work.


    • Certainly there are useful techniques to master and evolving practices that prove helpful, but I agree that teaching is more art than science. I think the word “craft” has some potential as well in describing the work of teaching, but it too, has some drawbacks if students are to be seen as passive products of the craft.

      The exhibition of work by artists who suffer from migraines sounds fascinating. I’ve been looking at such works online, but I would really like to spend some time with them up close and in person.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and for your continued work in developing the language and practice of teaching.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Scott, I completely understand what you are saying. The problem is the system is made to resist change. The students have been trained to accept a certain norm of classroom function. For many, the language of communication is a foreign language they do not value. As the outlier, getting kids to buy in is very difficult.


    • I share this frustration and challenge, Kevin. On the Diffusion of Innovation Curve, I think we are early adopters when it comes to decentralising grades in education. Early adopters must put up with some cost and inconvenience. I do believe that the early and late majority are on their way, but in the interim, we will have to endure the temporary isolation and discomfort of the early adopter.

      Liked by 1 person

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