Summary of presentation of Jannette Elwood, Professor, Queen’s University Belfast

Summary of presentation of Jannette Elwood, Professor, Queen’s University Belfast

at Leading Lights of Learning, 26 April 2007.

Assessment, Learning and the Mind.

Prof. Elwood suggested that there are fundamental links between assessment, learning and the mind, and that these can be presented on a continuum.

There are many theories of learning – these may be grouped into families:

Behaviourism                            Constructivism              Socio-culturalism

Our teaching is influenced by our tacit views of learning, even if they remain unarticulated, however, teachers in their thinking about the learner are more likely to articulate their views than those involved purely in the development of assessment tools, as more often than not in the case of external assessment, they are separate from the learner.

Despite this, the theories of learning are fundamental to assessment design and the interpretation of responses to assessment, and therefore the separation of assessment design from teaching and learning is anathema.

In thinking about the learner, we must also consider where the mind resides. In doing this, we can consider two categories of theory:

1. Symbolic:

The mind is internal, and separate from the environment. It is considered a place where learning is stored and can be retrieved.

This is a LOCAL view – learning is intrinsic to the learner.

Characterised by works of Bruner, Artificial Intelligence theory, Connectionism

2. Situated:

Learning and the environment are inseparable – The learning can only be viewed in a relationship between the learner and the teacher/other.

Learner and teacher are entangled.

This is the NON-LOCAL view – learning resides between the learners.

Learning is not an individual activity.

Therefore the theories of learning and mind can be placed upon a continuum: as you move along the continuum, the particular views that are held influence how assessment is viewed and how the outcomes obtained from assessment are interpreted.


·          Linked to behaviourism – the body of thought characterised by psychometrics. ·          The student and what they ‘know’ is viewed in isolation – therefore the assessment can be removed from the classroom and the teacher. 

·          Assessment is ‘done to’ the student in order to ‘check up’ on the learning that is stored in the head. ·          A transmission model of teaching is evident. 

·          The mind is located and isolated STAGE 2:

·          Linked to constructivism –  teaching is an intervention in the knowledge construction process.  

·          Assessment is a social activity, done with and for the student. The social context influences and mediates the learning.   ·          The view of the mind is that learning is co-constructed, but stored by the individual – the mind remains located and isolated. STAGE 3:

·          Linked to socio-culturalism – learning can never be viewed in isolation from the cultural context in which it occurs.  ·          Learning takes account of the socially constructed nature of individuals.  ·          The view of mind is that it is not located, but situated between individuals within a specific contextual relationship.               

The ideas that Professor Elwood suggests are moving towards a fourth stage on this continuum, but at present reside at the third stage.

These ideas have to do with the relationship between assessment, learning and mind:

Quantum Theory – related in its dealings with the things we can’t see, in this case, learning, ‘knowledge’ and ‘the mind’.

Three concepts that relate: complementarity, uncertainty & entanglement.

With this perspective, is measurement of knowledge and learning possible, or does measurement merely create that which we think we are measuring? This is known as complementarity. The concept of Uncertainty finds that the more we measure, the less we know about what we haven’t measured, and the concept of Entanglement finds that when things are in a relationship (entangled) they can no longer be measured separately.

Can students and teachers be seen as quantum entities? Complementarity, uncertainty & entanglement ensure we can never say in definite terms what a child can do independently – we are unable to abstract away from the test – test performance is not descriptive of the ‘child’s learning or knowledge’ but is merely a descriptor of the relationship within the cultural context between the test taker and the assessor at the time.

2.      Wittgensteinian Philosophy – the is a rejection of the Cartesian theory – nothing is hidden inside – and the outside is influenced by the inner, therefore there is no way to store ‘knowledge’ ‘inside’ without it influencing the outside.

The implication of this is that we can only describe, and understand, and that our whole being and experience is always part of any response, and therefore the response cannot be extricated from our life experience.

Therefore assessment outcomes should be seen as the description of the relationship between the teacher, the learner and the assessment task.

Interesting stuff, huh? Definitely food for thought!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jigsaws
    Feb 06, 2011 @ 07:24:45

    Great post, very well written.


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