We live in a world where the gap in time between having a thought and sharing it with the world has been all but eliminated.
Case in point, this is the 200th post I have published since launching my blog in 2015, with 141 of those (70%) coming in the three years since my retirement from the Center for Assessment at the end of 2019. Two hundred blog posts viewed by people (or bots) in 82 countries on six continents. My thoughts and words visiting places I will never see.
The ease with which anyone can share their thoughts via a blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any of the video platforms I have yet to explore has to be a net positive, in both the classic and contemporary use of the term.
But the unfettered ability to share what’s on your mind has not been without well-publicized drawbacks, growing pains, and what we in educational assessment might refer to as unintended consequences.
To celebrate the occasion of my 200th post, I thought that it might be consistent with the spirit of my blog and blogging, in general, to share my personal reflections on the intricate relationship between assessment, educational measurement, and blogging.
Embrace The Absurd
When I decided to begin publishing my blog in 2015, no name seemed more appropriate to describe our field and my career than Embrace the Absurd.
On one level, the events occurring in state assessment in and around 2015 certainly fit the colloquial definition of absurd. A tower that I had been building since 2004 had been unceremoniously knocked down by a single gust of hot air from a state legislature – true, it was a tower of cards, but a carefully crafted tower, nonetheless. All but a couple of states had sold their soul for a waiver that was the mathematical equivalent of the existing policy in order to avoid a federal requirement that was never actually a requirement. ESSA was being hailed for assessment and accountability flexibility that it didn’t really provide. And with the the theater surrounding the rollout of the new consortia tests, absurdity had been raised to an art form — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
On a separate level, educational measurement has always struck me as the perfect embodiment of the absurdity that Camus described. A field built around the concept of a true score that will never be known on constructs that can never be directly observed and are almost impossible to operationally define. A field which finds itself in a seemingly endless struggle to understand the meaning of its most fundamental principle. And in 2015, a field in which a preeminent figure took to a blog to declare, “I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.”
Embrace the absurd.
One achieves the highest state of being in educational assessment and measurement only when one lets go of the search for Truth and the true score and realizes that our scores and scales have no inherent meaning. Scores and scales only acquire meaning through the truths that we have constructed ourselves via our instruments and models; or perhaps more importantly, they acquire meaning within the context of the truths which have been constructed around us.
When we accept that there is no meaning in our scores and scales outside of those truths, we can begin to participate in the process of using educational assessment and measurement to assist in the process of evaluating old truths, deconstructing them as needed, and constructing new truths.
It is this level of uncertainty, doubt, and well, absurdity that makes large-scale assessment and educational measurement particularly fertile grounds for the personal reflections and commentaries that are the lifeblood of blogs.
“Je pense, donc je suis”
To better understand the inevitability of blogging within our field, we stay within France, but travel back a few centuries from Camus to mathematician, scientist, and philosopher René Descartes and the famous “first principle” he presented in his 1637 Discourse on the Method. Expressed in French in the heading to this section, the phrase is more well-known by its Latin translation:
Cogito, Ergo Sum
But it wasn’t simply the act of thinking that led Descartes to conclude that he must exist, it was what he was thinking about.
Descartes was questioning the truth of everything around him as being “no more true than the illusions of my dreams.” It was in the course of questioning the truth in everything around him that Descartes concluded that if he were “trying to think of all things being false in this way, it was necessarily the case that I, who was thinking them, had to be something…” Descartes’ principle has been reframed more completely as
Dubito, Ergo Cogito, Ergo Sum
Who among us has cannot off the top of our head name at least a half dozen prominent people in our field who likewise proved their existence, their very being, or at least made their careers, through creating doubt, by questioning the truth in everything around them.
They doubt, therefore they are. And blogging makes it ever so easy to express one’s doubts about just about anything. But just as accepting that there is no Truth in educational measurement is a starting point not an end point, the same must be true for doubt.
Descartes identified for himself four rules, or precepts, for systematically moving beyond doubt. Reading those rules, my sense is that I might like to have Descartes in the room with me while developing a research agenda or validation plan, but I probably would not like to see him on the other side of the table at Peer Review.
Doubting and questioning is a great place to start, particularly when dealing with an inane accountability policy or reviewing a set of equating results. For the field to advance, however, we must actively seek to move beyond doubt.
I Thought About It, Therefore It Is
As troublesome as the perpetual doubters may be, there is another group whom Descartes identified who pose an even greater threat to the advancement of our field:
thinkers who believe that as soon as one has said only two or three words to them on a given matter, they can know in one day what it would take someone else twenty years to think out; and the more penetrating and lively these thinkers are, the more they are liable to err and the less capable they are of the truth.
These “thinkers” never met a blog, video platform, or podcast that they didn’t like. Rather than viewing their thinking as proof of their existence, they view their existence as sufficient reason to share their thinking. Because THEY have thought about something, it must be so. And their sheer determination to spread their viewpoint ensures that their thinking has an impact on the conduct of the field and the way that it is perceived.
Am I suggesting that someone must think on a topic for twenty years before forming and sharing an opinion on it? Tempting, but no.
I am suggesting, however, that ideas, old and new, must be put to the test by those who present them and by those who receive them.
Each time you hear a speaker or read a writer sharing a particular thought or point of view on a topic there should be more substance to their thinking than the previous time they shared their thoughts; and each time they should be providing more evidence (empirical or theoretical) to advance their position. Through this process, our thinking and our field is strengthened and grows.
As we have seen play out more clearly in fields outside of our own, simply presenting the same ideas repeatedly to a receptive crowd does little to advance thinking and rarely results in better truths.
Proceed Boldly and With Caution
Perpetual doubters and shallow thinkers are part of the price that we pay for instant and universally accessible communication. The system has its flaws. As does peer review – which appears to be collapsing under its own weight. As does the concept of open access – given that somehow the academic publishing field has found a way to make open access an even more restrictive gatekeeper than peer review and paywalls. If forced to choose, I’ll take my chances with unfettered and instant communication, universal access, and the marketplace of ideas.
But we must proceed boldly and with caution.
For a final piece of advice on this topic, we’ll stay within 17th century France and consider the words of Blaise Pascal, another mathematician, scientist, and philosopher:
In each action we must look beyond the action at our past, present, and future state, and at others whom it affects, and see the relations of all those things. And then we shall be very cautious.
I Blog, Therefore I Am
Who am I? Why am I here? Why are you here?
Prior to 2015, my blog was private, a virtual blog if you will, which I guess you might also call a journal. I made the blog public in 2015 primarily to serve as a proof of concept for another blog. In 2020, I increased the frequency of my blogging for three primarily personal reasons:
- Intellectual stimulation – Research suggests that it’s important to keep your mind active and engaged, particularly as you get older. Wordle only takes up a few minutes each morning and I don’t have room on my worktable for a jigsaw puzzle.
- An outlet – You can only yell at the television, radio, or your iPad so many times, no matter how many stupid things you read, hear, or see.
- Enjoyment – Although I was happy to leave the rest of my professional activities and responsibilities behind when I left the Center at the end of 2019, I like to write.
Other writing projects may replace the blog as we move forward. I have no idea whether there will be a second 200 blog posts. But I will continue to Embrace the Absurd.