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Measuring the “Immeasurable”

What do we lose by focusing on what is easy to measure?
We know very little about what our students can actually do with what they know.

Every time I get a chance to talk to parents, I ask them this question. “What do you most want your children to get out of their school experience?” The answers, by and large, are not surprising. “I want them to be good at solving the problems they’re going to face.” “I want them to enjoy learning.” “I want them to be critical thinkers and creative.” Rarely is the first thing out of a parent’s mouth “I want them to develop the ability to solve differentiated equations” or “I want them to understand the causes of the Civil War.” They may want their kids to know such things as well, but they are rarely at the top of the list.

The obvious irony is that we do very little in schools to measure the skills and dispositions that parents seem to want most for their children. Instead, we focus primarily on that which is easier to measure: content knowledge, basic skills and, in limited ways, the ability to apply what students know in certain contrived situations. We have few if any formal measures for a student’s ability to collaborate, to ask great questions, or to show empathy when working with others. Those things and more are what Justin Reich, a Harvard researcher in education and technology, calls the “immeasurable.”

To paraphrase Reich, the tension is that when we focus our teaching efforts on optimizing the measurable, we risk neglecting the immeasurable.

Important Considerations

Why is this especially important to consider right now? Because technology is radically changing the ways in which students can achieve all of those things we currently value enough to measure. I’ve written about new platforms like Knewton and Knovation, which attempt to “carve a personalized path for each student through any digital course.” Simply put, if what we value is making sure that every child has the skills, information and knowledge to do well on the test—the stuff that’s easy to measure—these new platforms will do a superior job of making sure that happens.

But what of the “immeasurables”? What about those skills and dispositions that, one could argue, are even more important to develop at a moment when access to information and traditional curriculum is exploding outside the school walls? (Visit Khan Academy lately?) What risk do we run in neglecting the things that are harder—in some cases much harder—to measure but that will play an increasingly important role in a child’s ability to continue learning and creating and contributing once she leaves us?

A Huge Risk

As a parent, it feels like a huge risk. As Tony Wagner says in a recent essay in Forbes, “There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.” Yet the overwhelming emphasis on what we assess is about “what you know.” We know very little about what our students can actually do with what they know, and the current structures of our systems and our classrooms leave little opportunity for us to move effectively in that direction. It’s the important work of school leaders right now to find opportunities for students to do real work for real audiences, and opportunities to turn what they know into performance.

My own kids’ success in life will be based primarily on their ability to be patient, persistent problem solvers; to show empathy for the people in global, virtual spaces with whom they will interact and network on a regular basis; and to show the initiative and entrepreneurial thinking that will help them forge their own path as our traditional definitions of work and career continue to shift. That’s not to say that they might not need an understanding of differentiated equations and the Civil War. But that can’t be the only focus of our assessments any longer.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at