Suellen Shay

  • Beyond Socio-Constructivist approaches to Assessment: an account of knowledge

    Suellen Shay
    University of Cape Town

    Session 2c

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 09.00-10.00

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: Better understanding of the discipline

    The field of assessment in has benefited significantly from theoretical perspectives variously referred to as social-cultural (Gipps 1999; Broadfoot 1996), socio-constructivist (Shepard 2000), interpretive (Moss 1994), and social practice (Shay 2004, 2005). These perspectives have focused on the way in which assessment systems are shaped by social, cultural, economic and political contexts in which they operate (Gipps 1999). This attention on the social has been an important corrective given the historical (and continued) dominance of the measurement paradigm and its denial of the contextual influences on assessment. However, I argue in this paper that we now need to move beyond these social-cultural perspectives. Drawing on Maton’s (2000) distinction, what is missing is a recognition of the epistemic relations, the relationship between our assessment claims and knowledge.

    There is an emerging interest in educational research in the question of knowledge from the perspective of curriculum. This literature addresses questions such as: What concepts of knowledge underpin ‘a curriculum for the future’? (Young 2003); what kinds of knowledge are appropriate for the millennium citizen? (Muller 2000). With a specific focus on higher education curriculum Barnett & Coate (2005) ask, what kinds of knowledge are going to be fruitful in a changing world? In this literature there is general agreement that higher education is required to produce graduates capable of complex performances, although the precise nature of these complex achievements remains the subject of wide-ranging debate (Muller 2000, Barnett & Coate 2005, Knight & Yorke 2003). While this literature has succeeded in exposing the contested terrain in which curriculum choices are made, the implications for assessment of these complex performances are either assumed or neglected.

    On the other side, the assessment literature has been silent about knowledge. Driven by the accountability regime, the assessment discourse is obsessed with assessment technologies (outcome statements, assessment criteria, graduate profiles). In this discourse the nature of knowledge which constitutes the disciplines is a silent ‘given’. This paper is an attempt to bring the knowledge debates and the assessment debates together. The account begins with the work of Basil Bernstein (2000) who provides a useful model for the relationship between the production of knowledge and its recontextualization into educational knowledge (curriculum) and the ways in which particular pedagogic codes privilege some forms of knowledge over others. Maton has usefully extended Bernstein’s work in his distinction between different ‘legitimation codes’, codes that privileged ‘what you know’ and codes that privilege ‘who you are’. These distinctions resonate with the work of Barnett and Coate (2003) and the way in which curriculum privilege different configurations of knowing, being and doing. The paper will map out a conceptual terrain in which the contributions of these theorists and researchers will be located and uncharted terrain identified for further exploration.

    My central argument is that our ability as a higher education community to assess complex performances in increasingly meaningful ways requires a more sophisticated understanding of the forms of knowledge inherent in the disciplines and their requisite performances.