ISSUE 124 JUNE 2009 BACK

STUDENTS

Assessing learning from the inside-out

Livingston Finch

Abstract: When an instructor attempts to model the partnership process with students of child and youth care, a conflict may arise when that instructor has to meet the institution's expectation that grades be assigned to performance. How can an instructor encourage students to “get in touch” with their inner self and use that as their most valuable asset in working with children, when they are preoccupied with A, B, C, and D? And what does the assigning of grades say about the modelling process of an instructor? This article explores such questions and the difficulty of resolving the conflict to the satisfaction of the student, the instructor, and the institution.

I entered the field of child and youth care in 1973 answering an ad in the Vancouver Sun requesting applications to “work with native teenage girls.” I held a B.A. in English and was wondering how I should go about making a living. I was drawn toward people who were experiencing difficulty in coping with their worlds. It took me only six months of working in the field to realize that my attraction to the field was truly fuelled by a desire to come to grips with my difficulties in coping with my own world. I understood that my fascination with people experiencing emotional turmoil and my sincere desire to assist them really stemmed from my wrestling with my own inner turmoil. This was my introduction to that phenomenon we call “projection” and to the beginning of my lifelong struggle with it in my relationships.

At the time, there were no degree programs in the province and I found that my colleagues in the field very seldom had any post-secondary education, let alone a degree in a related discipline like social work or psychology. What we often did have in common was an abiding interest in youth and a desire to be around them. We pursued and discovered ways of being with young people that enriched our lives and theirs. This was often difficult and painful but there seemed to be enough payoff in terms of our capacity for intimacy and the enjoyment of life that many of us stayed in the field.

Twenty-five years later, I now find myself on the faculty of the Child and Youth Care degree program at Malaspina University-College teaching my profession to others. In teaching others, the thing that strikes me most is how much I do and don’t know about this business. For example, it wasn’t until I taught a second-year course on the theoretical foundations of child and youth care that I heard about multicultural, developmental, and feminist perspectives or ways of viewing the world. The concept of “inclusiveness” was new to me, the practice of it was not. Being energetically in touch with myself and others was not new to me and seemed to still be on the cutting edge of our profession. How could something so old be still so fresh and new? Because it is? Because it always will be.

Learning about concepts that I had inadvertently practised or neglected to practise in my career as a child and youth care practitioner is fascinating to me: “Oh, so that’s what we were doing,” or “I wish I’d known about this before. It would have made work much easier.” These are thoughts that come up for me over and over as I present information to my students. At times I feel like a fraud when I am myself just learning about these things as I teach them to my students. At other times, there is no doubt that I am the real genuine article: it is when I’m coming from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

It is this coming from the inside-out that the faculty of child and youth care at Malaspina University-College have adopted as their approach to the teaching and learning processes. I think this stems from the fact that when we were in the field it was often a matter of survival that we knew how we were thinking and feeling in a given situation. Certainly our day-to-day wellbeing, as we worked with youth in emotional turmoil, depended on our ability to connect with the youth and our colleagues to form lasting, nurturing connections. Relationship was, and is, everything.

As a faculty we felt it was important to make a statement about the importance of relationship. Over a period of several months we developed a set of core beliefs that we feel reflect this. They are:

For the past five years, these beliefs have informed my approach to teaching my profession. They have become a rigorous task master as well as a welcome guide. One of the most challenging tasks has been to remain faithful to the notion that the starting point in relationship is the understanding, acknowledgement, and validation of my own and others” subjective experiences  “  or, “the inside.” At times the inside can be frightening, even terrifying. When it is, it often feels safer, indeed expedient, to run to “the outside.” And perhaps the most seductive aspect of “the outside” in the university setting is the grading system.

The grading system is an old friend or enemy, depending on how you look at it. I can ask anyone from the age of 8 or 9 onward if they are an A, B, C, or D student and they can usually give me an answer unhesitatingly. I find this dismaying. Dismaying because it indicates how thoroughly we–ve internalized this very artificial and limiting idea of intelligence. Each one of us can tell a story about his/her relationship with A, B, C, and D. By the end of my undergraduate work I “owned” my “mediocrity.” Somehow, after several years in the field and graduate school, I was, to use Salieri’s words in the movie Amadeus, absolved of my mediocrity. Perhaps some of you have been strong enough and fortunate enough to liberate yourself to some degree from the “D-grading” experience. But even if you have, I am quite certain that you remain enormously influenced by it. I need not tell you that the children and youth that we work with struggle with very damaging ideas of self that are fostered and maintained by this system. In the degree program at Malaspina, I wrestle with the ideas of self that my students and I have created in the midst of this system.

So here’s the dilemma. How do I encourage students to “get in touch” with their inner self and use that as their most valuable asset in working with children, when they are preoccupied with A, B, C, and D? And what does it say about the modeling process of an instructor who preaches the virtues of coming from the “inside-out,” when at year’s end I’m obliged to pay homage to A, B, C, and D?

Furthermore this whole hierarchical system of grading is part of the larger problem of authority and control. Throughout the degree program we stress the importance of developing one’s internal locus of control. We also suggest that the main way in which we can gauge clients” progress is by seeing whether or not they are able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. The children and youth we work with often display what we call “difficulty with authority figures.” Of course, the place we need to begin in the exploration of this dynamic is with ourselves as administrators, instructors, and practitioners.

What is our stance toward authority? The word authority comes from the Latin auctor, meaning to increase, originate, and promote. This is quite distant from the current primary meaning ascribed to the word: “the power or right to enforce obedience.” The word author also comes from the same root. Interestingly this word figures prominently in the new constructivist approaches to working with individuals and families which encourages clients to “re-author” old stories that have informed their ways of being in the world (White, 1995).

The re-authoring is performed in partnership with the therapist whose main function is to establish that the client is the expert on his/her life. In teaching child and youth care I assume this is my task as an instructor also. I should be in partnership with my students to provide the context in which they can explore and develop their ideas of self, their knowledge, and their skills in this profession. Ideally, I believe that instructor would become mentor: “an experienced and trusted adviser or guide.” This partnership is difficult to establish when labouring under old and shared notions about power, control, and authority that are thoroughly entrenched in most of our post secondary institutions. It is a worthwhile struggle, in my opinion.

Some might argue that it was ever thus and that it is up to each individual to wage this war for personal autonomy, that it is each person's responsibility to rise above the marginalizing and excluding practices that such a system imposes. Should that be our stance toward the young people we work with? Toward one another?

Now I’m not opposed to striving for excellence. But what is excellence? In our field, excellence is, for me, that inner feeling of wholeness, completeness, that I experience when I know that I have connected with some child or family member and have made a difference in our mutual search for meaning and purpose. As an instructor, I strive for this kind of excellence with my students. I challenge you, as instructors, students, practitioners, and administrators, to help turn the world “inside-out” and create the most loving and caring place in which we and our children can grow.

In the Fall 1999 issue of Learning Quarterly, Mark Battersby points out that there are three uses for assessment of students” learning. The first of these is to grade. The second is to justify the existence of the institution. The third is to use assessment as a learning tool. Unfortunately, it would appear that the last of these is often sacrificed for the expediency of the first two. It is this notion of assessment as a learning tool, however, that offers some hope of neutralizing the effects of the first two. It seems to me that the essence of this approach is to teach the students how to develop criteria with which they can assess their own learning. Of course, good teachers have been doing this all along. And it does not eliminate the impact that grading has on the ideas that we develop about ourselves. But it does go a long way to sending the learner back to the “inside” for recognition and answers rather than have them look to the “outside” for answers and validation.

Five years ago at Malaspina we developed a self-directed third-year practicum to replace a practicum curriculum that was externally driven. By externally driven, I mean that a series of competencies were listed and pre sented to the students and field supervisors as the structure for the students” activities at their practicum sites. The self-directed curriculum involved the students developing their own goals and developing their own criteria for measuring their progress toward those goals. The students were asked to identify the issues that emerged for them as they developed relationships with the people at their practicum sites. Of course they also had to recognize the job description of the practicum site, and most of their professional goals emerged as a result of their introduction to these descriptions. The main focus of attention in the first weeks of practicum, however, was to identify any personal relationship issues that emerged and to formulate their own goals addressing these issues. For example, a student might recognize that she was fearful when amongst a group of teens for whom she was to organize an activity. After identifying this issue, she would begin to formulate goals that would lead to a desired outcome of being able to conduct a group activity for teens without a high level of anxiety. More importantly, she would develop a set of criteria with which she could assess her progress toward her goals. Essentially the student is developing her own checklist from the “inside.” There are numerous advantages to this approach.

The student “owns” the criteria completely and takes responsibility for using them. The field supervisors are directed toward the student’s learning and are asked by the student to support them in reaching their goals. This process is a good vehicle for forming the student/supervisor relationship. As well, the field supervisor is not burdened with a lengthy and often unwieldy checklist that does not directly and immediately address the student’s main issues that emerge when attempting to do the job. This self-directed learning also seems to inspire the sharing of concerns and their solutions during the practicum seminar where students are able to consult with their colleagues.

Having students develop criteria for measuring their own progress greatly assists me as an instructor. I am not plagued by students demanding to know more and more specifically what the criteria are for an A, B, C, or D performance. We can focus our attention on the learning at hand. We can also develop a partnership relationship in which the power differential between student and instructor can be minimized. I am less preoccupied with grading and more focused on each individual’s learning process. I invite them to think critically about their learning process and in turn I’m invited by them to think critically about their and my learning processes.

You know, the real advantage of coming from the “inside-out” is that I really know where I’m coming from. Not only that, it’s exciting, challenging, and fun.

References

Battersby, M. (1999). Predicting people: Excerpts from a conversation with participants in the Learning Assessment Network by Alan Thomas. Learning Quarterly, 3, 3. pp. 2-5.

White, M. (1995). Re-authoring lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide, South Australia. Dulwich Centre Publications.

 

This feature: Finch, L. (2000). Assessing learning from the inside-out. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 14, 1. pp. 9-13. 

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