Competence Measurement and Cognitive Profile
The philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in his book The Formation of Scientific Mind, complained about teachers because they don't understand that people don't understand. As early as 1938, he marveled at teachers who do not take into account that students come to the classroom with ready-made knowledge. He then looked at learning as a process of creating a scientific culture through which to get the obstacles accumulated by everyday life out of the way of pupils. This is understandable, for everyone seems to have had experience of gravity before coming to physics class - many of us will remember falls from climbing frames or bicycles, and we can easily recall broken vases or jars. But these experiences are only the beginning of the journey to understanding gravity. A painful understanding of the earth's gravity can be deepened more or less painlessly and built upon pedagogically. Bachelard was convinced, moreover, that these initial experiences had to be overcome by teaching. He reasoned that the initial culture of pupils needed to be weakened and instead pupils needed to be led to critically examine their knowledge and experience. In general, Bachelard's dream was the idea of a pupil who questions: How does what I have experienced really work? Is my explanation true? How will I find out?
There is an echo of the good old principle in the philosopher's complaint - to begin with what is familiar to the pupils so that they can proceed to what is unfamiliar. In doing so, at least since the time of J. A. Comenius, it is assumed that the teacher really knows what pupils know and what they can do - otherwise this principle cannot really apply, it can be at most a nice memory of a wise lecture in didactics.
Staying in the field of physics, this continuity between the familiar and the new can be seen, for example, in the national curriculum for the second cycle of primary schools, where we can read directly what is to be known to pupils at the end of each year. There is no shortage of it. In summary, the aim of this education is - together with the education of biology and chemistry - to develop thinking, cognition and communication in natural science (the document explicitly talks about developing science literacy). In other words: the teaching of physics should be about developing cognitive competence in the context of physics, and then, by analogy, in the context of chemistry and biology. This ideal, as described in the regulatory document, can be described as the optimal cognitive profile of a graduate in physics education in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades. And from it, one can really only draw tentative and imprecise conclusions as to what kind of thinking, cognitive and communicative activities this or that pupil is capable of. It is not at all possible to infer from them at what level they are able to exercise and use these competences. In physics, there can be significant differences - can the pupil just follow the instructions described in a simple procedure in an experiment, or can he already design his own investigation procedure? Or, to put it another way, can the pupil merely understand the different ways of solving a physics problem, or is she already equipped to propose an alternative solution to a physics question on her own? We could continue in this way in other subjects and in other educational areas: the substantial majority of teachers do not have relevant information about the current level of thinking, cognition and communication of the pupils under their pedagogical care. Meanwhile, unsuccessful learning actions in classrooms often stem from a lack of knowledge of what pupils are cognitively capable of - for example, at the start of a new school year, which begins in anticipation of new learning activities, exploratory learning experiences or unusual communication tasks. Let's face it: the information that a boy is an average student at the end of Year 6 says nothing about which competences he is lagging behind and which ones need to be emphasized, nor does it say anything about which areas of communication such a pupil excels in. The first step out of this vacuum of information about the pupils' initial culture of thinking must be seen in the systematic measurement of competences.
In our context, it is not necessary to map the cognitive level of pupils in all areas of cognition and social interaction - not least because a detailed insight into all of a person's dispositions would take too long to measure, and this would not help either the relevance of the data obtained or the usefulness of the information about the cognitive profile of a classroom, a school or, later, of an entire young or adult population. Rather, in the school setting, the competencies to be measured are intended to be functional - functional in that they will enable the development of pupils' cognitive profiles to be monitored in critical areas of thinking, cognition and communication, and in selected areas such measurement is already taking place on a regular basis: reading, correct argumentation, verification of hypotheses, testing the options and reviewing the actions, abstracting and modelling, assessment and selection of alternatives. On this occasion it should be stressed that this is not measurement for measurement's sake. An overview of pupils' entry levels in selected areas can be beneficial in a number of ways: it can help significantly in planning teaching - in designing lessons and more coherent learning pathways, in selecting resource materials, in formulating individual questions and in assessing the cognitive progress of children and young people that we aim to make in school. Output measures are then intended to demonstrate this development and so reveal more specifically whether the teaching has helped children, to what extent and in which cognitive domains they have successfully developed.
So far, full-scale measurements carried out in the Slovak Republic are limited to individual data on which cognitive areas, for example, a fifth-grader from Orava excels in or which competencies a ninth-grader from Zemplín fails in - these tests are primarily tied to subject memory traces, minimally to the process of thinking, and not at all to detecting the degree of development of cognitive dispositions, for example, to what extent pupils are capable of reviewing their actions or correctly forming judgments when making decisions.
For now, let's conclude that the current investment in national tests covers methodologically problematic surveys and moreover - it is happening in the wrong field with minimal impact on what needs to be done more specifically with children and young people and what needs to change. In fact, the percentage figure in the result of such a measurement does not provide a single relevant data on specific schoolchildren, and it is not possible to draw methodological impulses addressed to teachers on how to correct teaching from it, which cognitive areas of real pupils should be targeted - such an expensive measurement clearly lacks a rational purpose that would lead to thoughtful modification or effective change of teaching to take into account the cognitive state of the heads in the classrooms.
It is reasonable to assume that an informed awareness of the cognitive realities of boys and girls in our schools can improve the impact of learning activities - at the very least, by enabling teachers to know more accurately what particular sixth-formers can mentally handle, or even what particular ninth-formers can't handle communicatively. Measuring competence, then, cannot be a one-off event, but should periodically provide valuable information about children and young people's thinking and cognition, i.e., at what level of thinking and cognition they started and where they have moved cognitively over the course of the school year.
The human mind is an extraordinary evolutionary phenomenon that has arisen mainly through the refinement of the brain. This refinement has been going on for millennia, but at the moving end of time stands the human being, who is endowed with a multitude of endowments: he can learn to read texts and understand them, he can judge multiple possibilities of his own and others' actions, he is disposed to correct his decisions, he has developed the biological foundations to formulate hypotheses and then verify them, he is able to abstract real, though physically unobservable, relationships from concrete phenomena, and so on. As a biological species, we use a living intelligence that can develop in many dispositional areas and can grow to different heights (maybe everyone can tell how many legs a dog has, but not everyone can independently identify the correct answer to the question: Why don't animals have wheels?). How and to what extent an evolutionarily formed disposition becomes a developed competence has a major impact on the people who work in schools as educational experts. The measurement of competences is primarily intended to provide them with both professional help and methodological support.
A substantial part of our knowledge about people is gained through communication experiences. Gaston Bachelard would perhaps agree with the suggestion that teachers should go beyond the common, often stereotypical, experiences with pupils in the course of their work. One way of overcoming these experiential barriers could be to systematical and methodological deep insight into the cognitive processes involved in pupils' learning outcomes. For example, to make it clear why pupils sometimes do not understand and why useful pedagogical principles should have not only theoretical but also real validity.
Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools
All of the cited dispositions were defined and described by a team of authors led by Darina De Jaegher and are part of the Database of Cognition and Social Interaction Descriptors (DaCoSiDe).
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