Must everything be measured?
Moving toward a wise and compassionate
assessment process in higher education,
let's reclaim the wisdom of the qualitative.
Amanda Moore, D.Min.
“Life is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”
– Daniel Libeskind, Polish architect and poet
During a recent afternoon walk, I was delighted to cross paths with my favorite theologian, Dr. Jay McDaniel. Rather auspiciously, we went straight to the heart of a shared concern: quantitative metrics! Our conversation revealed that we are both concerned about higher education’s increasing focus, perhaps even obsessive focus, upon numerical data as a means of assessing programs, departments, and institutions. While quantitative metrics can be extremely helpful in identifying strengths, weakness, and trends within an institution or groups of institutions, personally I sometimes fear that our vision (transformative learning) is obfuscated by details (numerical data.)
Over the last decade, I have attended more than a few professional meetings (at international, national, state, and local levels) where discussion has centered upon quantitative assessment of affective learning experiences or establishing numeric rubrics to objectively facilitate organizational change. In one recent meeting, after an hour of less than fruitful discussion about how we might quantitatively assess students’ feelings about a particular program, I suggested that perhaps a qualitative approach (such as focus groups or narrative research, which is my primary research methodology as a pastoral theologian) might be a more effective way to learn how students “feel,” since affective realities are hard to measure. The quick, emphatic group response was that assessment MUST be “statistically valid and measurable.”
Jay and I stood under the shade of majestic oak trees and shared our own stories. Stories illustrating our shared concern that higher education has perhaps become overly focused upon measurement, sometimes forgetting that the end goal is not always numerical reports from empirical data sets, rather the goal is to learn what we do well, what needs improvement, what we value, and where we find meaning as a community. Our conversation moved from sidewalk space to cyberspace, and Jay shared a couple of interesting articles from Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism: “Just Say No to Metrics” and “Against Bean Counting.” I responded with Julia Steiny’s Education News article “Be Careful about What You Want and How You Measure It.” Ms. Steiny very aptly concludes her article with these words: “Numbers totally matter. Stats are invaluable. All facts are friendly. But human judgment must play its part, hopefully with wisdom and broad perspective, to make a final call. The best we can do is to balance hard science with…common sense.”
Numbers do matter, but so do “wisdom and broad perspective.” Perhaps there are a few of us on the “wisdom” bandwagon! Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche identifies three levels of understanding that are necessary for the development of wisdom: intellectual, emotional, and perceptual. While we in higher education seemingly do a fine job with intellectual understanding, it is possible that we may not always as effectively move to the emotional and perceptual levels, and this may limit our ability to move toward wisdom. Still, my memory is that higher education assessment was much more balanced between wisdom, common sense, and scientific quantification 15 years ago. So why has this sometimes single-minded focus upon that which is “statistically valid and measurable” arisen? Of course, I don’t know the answer! However, I will offer several possibilities as a means of starting a dialogical reflection.
Clearly, we in higher education are trying to do what is expected and required. Still, most of the possibilities I’ve considered are ultimately rooted in fear. We must comply with accreditation requirements (or else…), we must comply with public demands (or else…), we are afraid of power, we are afraid of tyranny, we are afraid of losing our jobs, we are afraid that our colleges and universities are under fire, and we are afraid to change. Theologian Walter Wink suggests that in the world of power, where fight or flight is operative, there is a “Third Way,” the way of love, compassion, and non-violence. Interestingly, in healing serious psychological trauma (a state in which a person is stuck in fight/flight,) Compassion Based Cognitive Therapy is considered one of the most effective interventions. Compassion works, and compassion moves us toward higher levels of understanding and wisdom.
How can we move from our collective monologue of rigid insistence upon objective quantification? How might we move more toward recognizing that knowledge and wisdom can arise from employing mixed methods: both quantitative and qualitative, both humanistic and scientific? Libeskind suggests that “Life is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.” Sometimes I fear that, in our dogged focus upon metrics, we run the danger of dehumanizing the assessment process, or at least objectifying it into meaninglessness. Humans are much more “complex and interesting that what is obvious.” Responses to a Likert Scale may give us an overall sense of whether or not a program was well received, but it will not tell us beautiful stories of transformative experiences. In my mind, a compassionate and wise assessment process has tremendous creative potential, and it represents an opportunity to build community through the use of constructive dialogue and imaginative storytelling. It can provide an opportunity for us to share our stories of kindness, unkindness, imperfection, beauty, failure, and success. It can offer us an opportunity to share what is meaningful and what is not. It can provide us with a venue for exploring new ideas and shared values. How might we humans, as a community, move more toward greater wisdom and compassion in assessing the world in which we live?