Social-Constructivist Assessment and The Problem of Standards


In my position as the so-called native English teacher, my primary responsibilities are to teach communicative English and culture. Part of that responsibility includes a performance-based assessment, or speaking test. For the students, this has been a frought time, since they have to get used to a new teacher, learn very new content and then do a new speaking test, for which they will receive a grade and class rank.

I had an idea for how my speaking test would go, but I asked around the school for information about my predecessor and his methods. Students in the past were tasked with creating videos in pairs based around a topic like “my favorite video game” or to make an advertisement for a product they created. These types of social-constructivst assessments (SCA) are common and popular in language classrooms. They give the students a sense of agency in their work and allow them to use their language, rather than just regurgitate the language given to them arbitrarily in the classroom.

However, I’ve noticed a problem in both class instruction and assessment praxis using SCA. This problem can be describe as something like a disconnect or gap between the classroom and the real world. Or, in the case of assessment, where do the standards for assessment come from? How does the student or the teacher know whether or not the student was successful? Most importantly, who decides? This essay wants to explore a few questions:

  1. What is the nature of the gap in SCA and teacher praxis?

  2. How can I fill the gap in my own SC assessments?

To address these questions, I will first give a basic overview of SCA, focusing on the primary aspects that are important for the language teacher. From there, I will describe what I perceive are the gaps in much of teacher praxis using SCA, knowingly or unknowingly. Finally, I will attempt to describe my own practice using SCA, how it fails and in what way I want to improve it to close that gap.

Social-Constructivism in Assessment

In education and in second language education in particular, the “socio-cultural turn” has brought with it SC pedagogies and assessments. Here, I will sketch basically the important concepts in SC that pertain to language assessment in particular. Some useful basic reading for this would be Adams (2006), Kaufman (2004) and Palincsar (1998). In particular, I want to focus on 1) learning as opposed to performance 2) Who or what is the source of knowledge 3) co-creation and discovery of knowledge.

Learning and not Performance

SC is in large part the antithesis of standardized, psychological testing that is the “official theory” of assessment in society. What I mean by “official theory” is that if you were to ask the average person something like, “how do you get into college?” they would answer with something like, “get good grades, graduate and score well on the ACT or SAT.” The ACT, SAT, GRE, LSAT and so on and so forth are foundational elements of how we decide whether or not someone is qualified. In language education, A TOEFL score is one of the primary end-goals of many language learning students. In Korea, getting a good job (any good job) requires a high TOEFL score, even if your job actually requires no or minimal English use.

What we also know about this official theory, is that it is often disconnected from our work and lives. A high or low GRE score might say something about your abilities in math and language, but how do those scores apply to the specific graduate school you want to attend? or job you want to get? In my case, the quantitative portion of the GRE was almost entirely disconnected from what I had studied and wanted to study in language and education. The only relevant portions, the statistics, I was able to do without much difficulty.

SC recognizes this fact. It notices that performance on a psychological-based test, does not mean you have learned anything outside of that test. There is a problem with transference. In my previous essay, I reference Mark Fisher’s concept of market stalinism, in which the abstracted assessment becomes the driving motivation for workers, at the expense of actual work. The same happens with test-takers. The TOEFL score becomes the end in and of itself and is not dependent on actual language learning or applicability to the world outside of the psychological test.

The Source of Knowledge

In traditional performance-based testing then, the source of knowledge is the teacher and the test. It is the teacher’s job to give the students knowledge and it is the students job to evidence that knowledge on the test. How a teacher pedagogically-implements those facts is not too important, really. A teacher may have great methods, may engage students in task-based activities, may implement even SC methods, but if the students know they will be given a performance test, and that that test is what will determine their success, your efforts as a teacher will be undermined. Because the source of knowledge has not shifted.

Here, I will focus on the Vygotskian strand of SC. For SC, the source of knowledge lies in the social reality and its interaction with individuals. Knowledge is co-created and cannot be simply transmitted from teacher to learner. Instead, knowledge as it exists in the cultural-historical moment, is presented to learners, who must then interact with it. Interaction here is meant to capture the embodied psychological activity that an individuated organism explores in their environment. This moment of interaction is where knowledge is created by the learner. The source of knowledge then, is emergent in interaction between the social world and individuals.

SCA then, requires that the students are involved in the design, implementation and judgement of the assessment. Teachers have taken this and developed many different kinds of interesting and insightful assessment strategies. Project-based and problem-based assessments are two very common types. In problem-based assessment, students are involved in the 1) identification of problems 2) the discovery of solutions and 3) the creation of transmittable information, in the form of a report, an experiment, a product or machine. The teacher’s role in all of this is to guide the students and provide reasonable limitations that can help students make progress but that don’t impede the interaction of the student with the source of knowledge.

The co-creation of knowledge problem

Importantly, and as I’ll discuss more below, some teachers stop there when devising SCA paradgims. However SC emphasizes that the source of knowledge is not the “teacher” or the “content” persay. Those two things are important, but the source of knowledge is the social reality and the practices that those realities produce. This is often too large and abstract for teachers to make use of in practice and so sometimes we get projects like “Choose a Christmas song and change it teach a historical fact“, to terrible results.

As a teacher, the main problem pedagogically is not the abhorent racism that can be displayed, but the absolute disconnect between the knowledge that was created and the social world and its practices. Which historians are taking popular songs and then re-organizing them to talk about historical events? This is not a practice that historians, as a social group, engage in. What reason would there be, then, to do so in a history class? The project is useless outside of itself and has no connection to the source of historical knowledge. It might be fun to do, and the students might internalize some facts about history, but it is not learning in the SC sense, and so fails as a SC assessment.

SC and vygostkian theory emphasize that knowledge is rooted in culture and that a cultures history (which is why vygotksian theory is also referred to as “Cultural-Historical Theory). As new individuals interact with the historically-rooted cultural practices of their social groups (families, friends, schools), those practices are internalized and modified by their own set of experiences and memories. Knowledge then, begins external to the individual, and is then re-shaped through internalization by the individual, in interaction with the social world.

The Gap Between Theory and Practice

When teachers ignore this cultural-historical part of SC, and devise assessment projects that lead to things like the KKK-Jingle Bells song, it is not the case that they are simply forgetting the cultural-historical and that the students are not able to learn. Instead, the problem is that the learners themselves will impose their own previously learned cultural-historical practices on the assessment itself. This is good, because we want learners to bring their experience to bear on new problems and projects. The problem is there may be no useful connection between the cultural-historical practice they choose and the practice intended to be mastered (history, in this case).

In language teaching, I see this all the time in speaking activities and games. Teachers often devise information gap or other partner-searching tasks, where they go around and ask each other for information. Importantly, this practice has no obvious contact with the social reality of the students. The practice is not obviously connected socially outside of “this is what we do in English class”. And so, what happens is that the students impose their own social reality onto the task. In one class I observed, I watched a talkative girl wander from friend to friend and saw how her orientation to the activity was mediated by the partner she was talking to. To friends, she was joking, with other girls she was work-like and with certain boys, she suddenly affected a different pronunciation and appeared to forget how to do the task.

And this good. We cannot change this fact. The problem is that if we do not account for it in our SCA, then students will choose whatever social orientation they think best fits, and that may not be the one that leads them towards the intended field of mastery.

Ignoring the cultural-historical in language assessment

When considering, then, the SC assessments I mentioned in the beginning, we can see how make a presentation about your favorite game and make an advertisement are great examples of project-based SCA, but that can fundamentally miss a crucial part of SCA: namely, what are the practices we are intending to transmit and what is the social field and community that the standards of “good practice” come from?

In the case of your favorite game, there are clear applications to various fields of use. Business presentations being the most obvious, but there are many others. When, however, students are not given a target social context, then the “standards” used to determine success or failure are also arbitrary. In this case, what makes a presentation worthy of a passing grade? and more importantly, who decides?

In SCA we would say that the students, in conjunction with the teacher, would decide before hand what the exact standards would be and how they will be judged. A great SCA would also have the students use those standards to self-evaluate. But this is exactly the problem. Where do the standards come from? And why one set of standards over the other? Even after students create standards with the teacher, how can the students transfer their knowledge outside the classroom to a specific field of use? How will they know if that transference is appropriate or not?

Praxis – Board games as social communities and standards

In my own practice, I have tried to account for the problem of standards through the use of board games and the communities of board game players. Starting from the insight that Gee notes, assessment in video games is unnecessary because players know they have successfully learned the game when they beat the game. Beating a game is itself the very assessment that you have learned the game. In my classes then, being able to play a board game in English is proof that the students have learned 1) English vocabulary and grammar 2) the social application of that vocabulary and grammar.

But, how do we know that the English used in the students games is the right kind of English? and what does that even mean in SCA? In this assessment, playing the game is only one part of it. In addition, students are given a project in which they create a play through video of a board game that is similar to Tabletop, Game the Game or Ready, Steady, Play amongst many others. By using the community examples as standards, students then can actively borrow from the best practices in the videos they use. Together as a class, students can identify what makes a great video and categorize what it means to be successful in that. In small groups, using the categories they decided on with the community as their example, students then plan, organize, produce and self-evaluate their own play through video.

With the underlying organization of their project situated in a community practice that is already established, students and teachers do not need to appeal to arbitrary definitions of success or failure and can even more effectively argue their own evaluation by appealing to evidence in the community itself.

A Final Admission – Failure

With that all said. I will account here briefly my current failure at implementing a Vygotskian SCA. I was never able to get the students to identify with or recognize the social community of tabletop gaming as something they were themselves attempting to socialize into. This is an entirely knew way of learning for my students and even though they are socializing into the community of people-who-work-in-technology-and-robotics, it is not apparently an obvious idea to them.

As such, I was never able to incorporate the idea of taking standards from the community itself and I ended up creating a series of standards based on the classwork students had done to that point. Students then video taped themselves playing the game, using English to do so. Then, they gave themselves a score based on the standards established. If they scored themselves the same as I scored them, then I gave them additional points.

The source of knowledge here though, is very clearly me and it is very obviously arbitrary. Students learned some things, but it’s not clear at all to me or to them I assume, how what they learned transfers to other contexts. For future classes, the challenge now is how to successfully orient the students towards the idea that they are socializing into a community of English users.

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