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My Way or the Highway

"Formative assessment encompasses all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged."  -  Dylan William

Last week, my old pickup truck started acting funny - loping, inconsistent idle, delayed erratic transmission shifts. Through years of experience, I know how most repair shops work, and I'm not in favor of spending money diagnosing an issue I can research myself. 
It took roughly twenty minutes with Google and YouTube for me to pinpoint the problem. Luckily, I didn't need a new transmission, but I didn't have space or tools to do the repair myself. Several online forums and auto repair sites told me what I likely needed was an input speed sensor replaced on the transmission; a thirty dollar part, cool!

I called a local repair shop, booked an appointment, and limped my truck to the shop. It's incredible how patient other drivers are when you can't drive more than thirty miles per hour. (sarcasm) At the shop, I was promptly greeted by the manager who sent the repair technician out with my keys to evaluate my truck. I sat and checked the email messages on my phone while I waited. Ten minutes later, the manager called me over to his desk.

He said, "Two codes are coming from the truck's computer, but we can't be sure addressing these codes will fix your problems. We'll need to do some more diagnostic work to make sure we're on the right track. We charge $110 per hour while performing our diagnostics."

I asked him for the codes. "Are either of these codes related to an input speed sensor?"

He made a few clicks on his computer, "No, one is for a TPS issue and one for a MAP sensor."

"Hmmm, I see. I've driven this truck for a few years, so I've grown to understand how it sounds and feels. I got online last night researching the specific issues I've observed. Dozens of forums and videos suggest the input speed sensor is the culprit in this case."

The manager, growing defensive, snapped back, "Are you telling me your ten minutes of Google searching is better than my $6000 computer?"

"It was more like twenty minutes. Internet searches and troubleshooting is a big part of my job. I am constantly researching stuff on the web. I'm not interested in paying $110 an hour for research I've already done. I'm not discounting your computer, but I also trust my experience, observations, and research."

Shaking his head, he was about to hand back my keys when I asked for a few minutes to think about what I wanted to do. My truck was practically undrivable, and the manager knew this. It provided him some leverage in this debate. Once again, I sat with my phone and plunked his codes into an advanced Google search. I researched symptoms associated with faulty TPS and MAP sensors, and I checked prices for these parts. FIve minutes later, satisfied with the additional knowledge, I waved the shop manager back to the waiting room.

"I've thought about what you said, and I think we could both be correct. Please draft a quote based on replacing all three sensors, including the labor."

He sat and clicked some more on his computer, took a phone call, and then got up to check on the parts. A few minutes later, he said, "I only have the TPS sensor in stock, the others I can get by tomorrow. I won't have exact pricing until I confirm which supplier has these parts. My estimate is about $300 total, but I will call you with an exact amount later today."

My quick research had already confirmed the price range of the sensors, and I was satisfied with his fair estimate. It was 11:30 AM, we shook hands, and I decided to walk next door and eat a burger next door while waiting for my ride. Two days later, my wife picked up my old truck from the transmission repair shop. It ran like new, and we were pleased with the results. The shop manager was much nicer to her than me, maybe because she was paying the invoice. Hmmm?!?

What does this story have to do with teaching and learning? You knew the analogy would be revealed, right? 

As professional educators evaluating learner progress, if we put all of our eggs in the testing basket, we are discounting the experience, research, and observations necessary to make sound judgments and take prudent actions. The assessments themselves could be faulty, lacking the validity and reliability needed to prescribe modifications and solutions to learning issues. Of course, there are also individual characteristics and circumstances of the learners involved, factors that can't be determined by a computer.

Professional judgment, not unlike visiting your doctor, dentist, or mechanic, should undoubtedly be included in the decision-making processes. Recently, my wife, a second-grade teacher of nearly thirty years, was part of a second-grade staffing meeting where special programming and services were requested by the parent. To her dismay, her colleagues relied upon grades and test scores, discounting her observations, to make their case. As you would guess, the meeting was uncomfortable, and my wife was left to wonder about the necessity of interrupting her classroom instruction for this futile and frustrating exercise. Her professional judgment was discounted by both her colleagues and the student's parents. Naturally, she took this experience personally.

Just as with the auto repair shop, there are costs associated with ignoring research, experience, and observations. In an age of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, how much value should we, do we, place on professional judgment?

References and Resources

"Embedded Formative Assessment," Tia M. Dawson. July 2013.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk Speed via photopin (license)


Aaron Davis said…
Robert, I enjoyed your reflection on the balance between professional judgement and the use of technology. The world of algorithms and artificial intelligence is posing a lot of challenges for education at the moment. I like Simon Buckingham Shum's challenge to define the education we want and go from there (

Also post on Read Write Collect (
Thank you, Aaron. I can always count on you to add a layer of substance to my musings. Education and school, school and education - important conversations at our doorsteps.

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