Give Thanks for Little Knowledge

Back in college, we had a visiting professor for one of the final courses I took as a music major. He didn’t think much of us, and we viewed him as the epitome of the adage those who can’t but want others to think they can, sit comfortably within the university pointing out what everyone else is doing wrong. (A little is lost in translation.)   I got very little from the class at the time other than a lesson on how not to teach or how not to be a good human being. He did, however, share one piece of wisdom, perhaps inadvertently, that I have found to be invaluable.

In the midst of one of his weekly belittling diatribes, he offered this gem about listening to, enjoying, and appreciating a piece of music. It went something like this, but with a much more bitter and condescending tone.

There are those, like him, who appreciate a piece of music because while listening to it they fully understand everything that the composer has done. They get the references to previous works and composers. They are in on every little melodic or harmonic joke. They see where convention has been adhered to, where it has been flaunted, or where it has been stretched to new and beautiful heights.

Then there are those with no musical knowledge or background at all who simply let the music wash over them and marvel in its beauty.

Finally, there are those in between, like us, people with just enough knowledge to know that they composer did something unusual but not enough to recognize what it was. Those people spend the rest of the piece trying to figure out what the composer did. In doing so, they don’t really listen to the music and leave the concert hall feeling frustrated.

He then condemned us to the purgatory, or was it hell, that was that middle category, living out the rest of our lives among those with just too much knowledge to ever be able to truly enjoy and appreciate a piece of music.

I have no doubt that many of my classmates were actually members of that elite group who fully understood and appreciated the music and perhaps even discovered something new every time they listened to it. His description, however, was probably fairly accurate for some of us, like me.

As I said, I found that little exercise in analysis to be invaluable and have found it applicable to many situations over the past forty years. Sitting here today, I find it particularly relevant to both the pandemic and the current state of educational assessment, particularly large-scale testing – perhaps even to society, in general.

Few of us are epidemiologists, experts in infectious disease or data models, or fully understand clinical trials and how vaccines work. In this day and age, however, none of us are immune from receiving just enough knowledge to put us squarely into that middle category of utterly confused people. Most of us try to filter the data, to draw on the little knowledge that we do have along with past experience, and perhaps most importantly, we seek someone in whom to place our trust, for example, the state CDC director.

We make our decisions based on incomplete information and move forward. Or we make our decision, move forward, and “wait for COVID to come and get us” anyway.

But some of us (or all of us some of the time) are simply paralyzed into inaction by all of the information, or by all of the factors that seemingly must be considered. Should I get the booster now or wait? How much protection do I really have? What are the risks? I can’t really afford to be sidelined for two or three days now with side effects from the vaccine. Should I wait a couple of weeks? There is a trip that I really want to take next spring. If I get the booster now, will my protection level be too low in five months to feel safe on the trip? Would it be better to wait another month?

So, stress-filled days and then weeks roll by.

Today, it feels like many of us involved in educational assessment are in the same boat with regard to large-scale testing – whether we are assessment developers, educators, policymakers, or see ourselves as self-proclaimed or preordained assessment experts. How many of us have enough wisdom to grasp that the true beauty and power of educational measurement lies in its limitations? Not many. Rather, most of us understand just enough about comparability and linking and bias and fairness and reliability and errors of measurement and Campbell’s Law and Angoff’s flaws and validity (no strike validity) to be paralyzed into inaction. We find ourselves with too much knowledge about what can go wrong to be able to think clearly about what can go well. We cannot step outside of the inner turmoil to weigh the benefits and risks.

So, we legislate moratoriums and eliminate testing programs.

But the thing that my music professor didn’t tell us all those years ago was that unlike the real Purgatory, or Hell, the choice of whether to remain stuck in that middle category is ours. No, most people cannot simply choose to become experts in music. We can, however, choose to take a step back and enjoy a piece of music. We don’t have to remain trapped by too much, but not enough, knowledge. We can let it go.

In dealing with the pandemic, we can find a trusted source, and well, trust them. My trusted source may not give the same advice as yours, but that’s probably OK.

With regard to large-scale testing, we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by all that large-scale testing cannot do – and there are lots of important things it cannot do – and focus on those things that a well-designed large-scale assessment program can do.  Trust the process.

The takeaway here is not that ignorance is bliss. My argument is not that you should trust anyone and everyone – far from it.

But we don’t need to understand everything about music to appreciate Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington, or Taylor Swift.

We don’t need to know why the trees change in the fall to enjoy their beauty.

We know enough about the virus to make safe choices based on the current context and conditions.

We know enough about large-scale testing to administer tests, report results, and use them wisely.

Let’s be thankful for that.

Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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