By Scott Cormode

I am presently teaching my second child to drive. It is going much better than with the first child. It would be tempting to say the second child is a better learner. But that would be a lie. The difference is how I have taught them. With the older child, I regularly made her feel defensive. And when she resisted me, I blamed her for being obstinate. But it was not her fault. I had created a learning environment that produced resistance rather than responsiveness. With the first child I practiced what is called summative assessment, and with the second I used formative assessment. Let me explain the difference.


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The purpose of summative assessment is to assign a grade. Each of us knows that defensive feeling that comes from being graded. I remember writing my first paper in a junior high history class. I don’t much remember the comments the teacher wrote so must as I remember the bright red letter grade at the top of the page. And, of course, I remember arguing with my teacher about the grade. She told me what I didn’t properly do and my immediate response was to say that indeed I had done it. The same was true in college. And you would think that such a feeling would disappear once a person leaves school. But anyone who has ever had a performance review at work knows that is not true. That feeling of defensiveness that summative assessment creates stays with us throughout our lives. Summative assessment makes people defensive. It channels them away from learning and toward justifying themselves. As a teacher, I may want to say that my intention is just the opposite. I want to enable learning by pointing out the places where a learner can improve. The problem is that (as the research has shown) my methods do not meet my intentions. I may want to enable learning, but in fact, summative assessment makes learning harder.

What is a better model? The purpose of formative assessment is to help the learner get better. If the poster child for summative assessment is the teacher with the fat, red marker, then the poster child for formative assessment might be my daughter’s ballet teacher. Picture a room full of six year olds in pink tights. When the teacher watched them dance, she did not render a judgment. She did not stride up to me and proclaim, “Your child is not graceful.” Of course, she wasn’t graceful. She was a six year old cursed with my genes. But that’s why she was at the dance class: to learn to simulate grace against all the genetic odds. The teacher did not render a judgment. Nor did she constantly point out what the kids were doing wrong—as I did when I taught my older daughter to drive. Instead, she constantly pointed out how the kids could improve. She gave them a target and kept pointing them toward it. She would shout, “Big arms. Big arms.” instead of scolding them for having their arms at their sides. She encouraged them forward.

(To be continued.)

Scott Cormode is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters and developer of

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