The Illusion of Objectivity in Schools & A Case For Letting ‘Gray’ Have a Say

“Objective” Assessment

I had the pleasure of hearing Jess Mitchell  deliver a keynote the other day (link coming soon) in which she discussed the illusion of objectivity in our educational practices; in the realm of assessment in particular.  Consider Jess’s notion:  We educators spend lots of time, energy, and resources calibrating, validating, aligning, and analyzing our assessment practices to give ourselves a comfortable illusion that our assessment practices are objective.  But are our educational systems – the systems we collectively create with each decision -truly fair?

Our students are unique people with different backgrounds, experiences, tolerance for risk, preferences, upbringings, supports, and personal definitions of success.  I’m realizing that these differences (that I discuss in more detail in The Open Mindset) are the very reason why a one-size-fits-all vision of success – and a clearly defined, rigid, “objective” measure of success can never be truly fair.   As we make educational decisisons (large & small), we must recognize that our innate (or acquired) bias and privilege influence our thought patterns.  When we don’t consciously include other voices in our design decisions, these biases have the power to make teaching & learning inherently ‘closed’ practices.


” We must realize that the systems we’ve designed in schools are, in fact, anything but objective and are far from fair

Not to mention . . . our quest for objectivity may actually undermine our goal.

Sometimes our ‘objective’ practices in schools are actually counterintuitive to our ultimate goal (see “You Just Can’t UnHear That – How Assigning Homework Shoots Ourselves in the Foot“).

  • We outline crystal clear parameters/expectations for student work, yet we tell students we want them to be creative.
  • We say that we want students to focus on continuous growth, self-reflection, and learning, yet we assign grades that distract students from this very premise.
  • We continually define ‘success’ for our students based on our own assumptions and backgrounds, then wonder why we can’t always bring all to ‘proficiency’.
  • We claim to value diversity in thought, variation in product, and flexibility in approach, but the systems we create often struggle to bring these sentiments to life, and worse – provide advantage to some over others.
  • We claim to value the skills & dispositions associated with life long learning and becoming great people, yet typically only assess and report on those that are quantifiable.



Andria Zafirakou, the 2018 winner of the Global Teacher Prize, says it well :

“With art it’s not about the end product, it’s the process, the journey, it’s the skills and knowledge children learn on the way to get to that final outcome. From that, they are able to identify who they are, what excites them, what triggers them and they can make their own mark in school and in society.”

“We need to take that same approach to the other subjects, because our children are leaving secondary school and all they’re able to do is regurgitate information. They find it hard to think in a creative way or to find solutions to problems because their brains haven’t been trained like that.”

Magic is Tough to Measure

Sometimes I walk into one of our student teacher’s classrooms or a collegue’s classroom and can’t help but think:  “Man – I’d love to be a student in this class”.  The way the teacher connects with students as people; the way he/she facilitates experiences in their lesson; the amount of SMILING going on – all make me think:  “He’s got it” – “She has the magic combination of ingredients whose solution changes lives”.  “They’ve got it. . . ”

What is ‘it’ that great teachers have?  (I’ve been thinking about it, and although I think ‘it’ is unique for each, I think it typically includes some combination of passion, grace, commitment, positivity, fun, and love).  How much do we value these intangible ingredients that are such difference makers in our classrooms?  Are these traits specifically taught, modelled, and reflected on?  Do our preservice & inservice experiences help folks develop, then tend to these traits throughout our careers?

Super Soft Skills

I don’t think anyone would argue that these ‘soft skills’ are crucial in every profession – no, in every person – and so needed in our broken world, so why do they often take a back seat to ‘hard’ quantitative data points (just calling these traits ‘soft’ has a connotation of ‘less important’, doesn’t it?) when it comes to determining “success”?   If these intangible traits (empathy, persistence, drive, creativity) are so important, why does our assessment system (grades, tests, rubrics, & scores)  boil students’ ‘abilities’ down to only those that can be captured numerically?

Many educators realize that our well calibrated, validated, reliable, analytic assessment tools can’t quite capture magic. George Couros calls ‘data-driven decision making’ “the stupidest term in education” noting that “when we always focus on numbers, we have kids learning about things they don’t care about in hopes that they will each a certain ‘grade’ to justify our work“.  Instead, he argues for “people-driven decision-making”, honoring the softer, difficult to measure, and oh-so-important people skills.

Jesse Stommel & Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab share similar sentiments in “Teaching the Students we Have, Not the Students we Wish We Had“, noting that “The work of all of education has to begin with a deep respect for students. They are not mere data points, not just rows in an online grade book”.  To me, seeing our students – seeing them for the people they are (not just our idea of who they should become) is a great first step to beginning to honor the magic skills in our classrooms.

Gray Should Have a Say

How can we collectively honor the beautiful diverse gray (variations in race, gender, skills, experience, goals)  that makes our students and collegues unique?  Gray allows for personalization.  For variation.  For mutliple definitions of ‘success’.  For diversity in style, preference, and need.  Embracing gray makes room for recognizing, teaching, and even measuring the life skills that are exactly what our marketplace – and world – needs:

“The marketplace isn’t seeking ‘best fit’ – it seeks to hire for diversity of thought” –

Divergent and flexible thinkers that embrace the gray, and “design decisions” that honor voices of those of diverse race, need, experience, background, viewpoints can help us move beyond the illusion of ‘fair’ and ‘objective’ and take steps toward true equity.


PS:  EVERY decision is a ‘design decision’ – 


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