On “Content Awareness”

I recently used the phrase “content awareness” in a blog post about a standardized testing experience I had:

“… ultimately the exam process is hardly about the content, it’s about the presumed measurement of content awareness (“knowledge” seems too generous here)… Passing the exam is not about knowing the content well or deeply, it’s about seeming to know enough and indicating awareness of what these particular test authors deem relevant, representative, and necessary to practicing in the field.”

A couple of conversations on Twitter in response to this phrasing and to the certification process of which this exam was a part, got me thinking. My primary insight about “content awareness” is that I live from it, by it, with it, all day, every day. “Content awareness” is what allows me to participate in most conversations which interest me, particularly on social media.

Engaging constructively in conversation does not and should not require specialized knowledge or expertise. It does require a healthy dose of self-awareness and humility. (That’s the “knowing when to shut up” part.)

Here’s an example: I follow ed tech coverage, commentary and classroom stories because they reflect an expanding field that is having an increasingly strong impact on teaching, learning and our forever shifting interpretation of what education is and does. My interest extends beyond me and my particular needs as a teacher and learner. Rather, wrapping my head around what the influx of the latest digital technologies means for all of us as learners, consumers, citizens, and communicators has become a far more compelling task. What we do in our schools, homes, businesses and governments are no longer isolated happenings. Our individual and collective choices, both online and off, are often more deeply interdependent and strangely connected in ways we are challenged to envision. All the more so since the arrival of Google, Facebook, Apple and Co.  So I follow education technology threads as a way of keeping track of developments related to my field but also influenced by and with influence over so many other areas of our day-to-day existence.

I am not an IT or tech integration specialist, nor do I need to be. Rather, I have a level of content awareness of ed tech and other fields which allows me to engage in meaningful conversations with others around these topics. The more I read & listen, the higher my content awareness and the more precise and fruitful my questions. In relation to the exam, “content awareness” has a negative framing. I refer to it as less than content knowledge. After the fact, however, I want to rethink that stance. Because, literally, what do I know? And how can I be sure that I know what I know?

I will spare all of us a long trip down a rabbit hole of epistemological soul searching. (I looked it up: epistemology is, in fact, the study of knowledge and how it is constructed.) My point here is that “content awareness” has more to offer than I was originally prepared to admit. serves as my intellectual operating system. There’s the full truth. I am willing to say that there is so much I do not know. And there is a whole lot of which I can become aware.

And in that awareness, I can cultivate and grow interest, seek out practice, and raise useful questions. With my content awareness I can do more than contribute to ambitious cocktail chatter. When I choose to go deeper by reading the book rather than the single blog post, by deciding to teach a concept to others and researching sufficiently to that end – then I put myself on a path to some pieces of knowledge which remain fragmentary; always pieces of a much larger and more complex mosaic.

I would love to stop here and let us all feel a little warmer and fuzzier realizing that we may no longer have to play the expert quite so often. But there’s another level.

My newly revered “content awareness” is also the product of a very privileged educational path. I attended private schools from pre-school through graduation and continued on to a prestigious 4 year college. The amount of teacher attention and deeply personal feedback received in highly positive learning environments means that all the conditions were right for acquiring strong academic and non-academic foundations in which specific knowledge accumulation is readily matched with opportunities to explore areas of interest and encouragement to take learning risks. My “content awareness” goes together with the trappings of educational privilege where the benefit of the doubt is more easily given once I’ve mentioned my alma mater or submitted a writing sample. Rote learning  tends to be what our society requires of those we anticipate will become the employees of the pleasantly “content aware.”

In this parallel reality, “content knowledge” or rather, the lack thereof, becomes the measuring stick for deficits. It becomes an instrument for locating and exposing all manner of lack in the primary players in the system: students and teachers.  Content knowledge is what standardized testing purports to measure and in doing so provides school systems with mountains of data about who and what needs fixing. But the tests, it would seem, begin from assumptions rooted in very middle class “content awareness.” The tests are therefore rigged against the bulk of the students assigned to take them. This is hardly news to those of you who follow the reform wars in K-12 public education. But this line of thinking throws my self-flattering take on “content awareness” into stark relief.

Claiming “content awareness” constitutes privilege, plain and simple. Now that that’s established, how will I use this particular privilege? Being able to “think out loud” here in this space is one avenue. Broadening the conversation among friends, colleagues, newcomers is another. This post, and the meandering thought process it reveals, remind me once again that we are not finished. This much I know.

Pass/Fail: My Last Standardized Test

I recently took a standardized exam.
100 items with multiple choice answers: A,B,C or D.
I passed the exam.
I feel relieved but not proud.  I feel as though my special knowledge and understanding in a specific content area has somehow been cheapened by this experience.
I may not say much more about the exam because I signed a form that I would not reveal anything specific about the exam to anyone.
Here’s the thing though: I passed the exam but my understanding has been failed.
In a few weeks apparently I will receive a document or set of documents which will confirm that I am qualified to do what I do. I have provided evidence of the necessary coursework, practical hours and now successful completion of a standardized exam.
Unfortunately, as far as I can gather, the exam is not designed for learning, only qualifying.
I will not see which responses were incorrect. I will not find out which 20 items were excluded from the final result. There will be no opportunity to reflect on whatever knowledge gaps I should try to close. This irritates me substantially. As a learner, I want to find out which items I got wrong. I want to know how I might have misread a question or failed to see what the test authors really intended. I miss the opportunity to become better as a result of having submitted to this particular measuring instrument. In fact, this measuring instrument and its sponsoring organization seem to have no further interest in my learning or growth. On the contrary, the exam is simply a gate tender. Pass and the gate is opened. Fail and the gate remains closed.

So ultimately the exam process is hardly about the content, it’s about the presumed measurement of content awareness (“knowledge” seems too generous here). A number, a score; not the learning, or the effort, or the enduring understanding.  63 or higher (out of 80) constitutes a passing grade.  Anything below the cutoff does not. Passing the exam is not about knowing the content well or deeply, it’s about seeming to know enough and indicating awareness of what these particular test authors deem relevant, representative, and necessary to practicing in the field.
I know that I passed.  I can see on my results summary that I got a perfect score in one section and less than perfect scores in the other 5 areas. That really isn’t much to go on. And the point is that the system is okay with this. Passing the exam apparently demonstrates that I have enough knowledge of a content area in order to be named “qualified.”

How does “knowing enough” stack up against “knows well” or “understands” or “can apply appropriately”? The results of this exam will offer no indication, nor does the exam (or its authors, or sponsoring organization) actually care. Rather, I have paid the piper with my fair to middling performance and may now dance through the gate of qualification.

If this is my little rant at 50, what must this incredible standardized testing juggernaut be doing to our children who are subjected to such measuring chores throughout their primary and secondary school education, particularly in North America?  Our children no doubt understand implicitly that adult organized systems are all about opening and closing gates in order to sort and categorize individuals and groups. They grasp early on the difference between pass and fail, between winning and losing; what it means to move up or be kept back. Even when we assure them that each of them is precious, unique and so much more than a test score, they still know that scores matter and bad scores tend to have bad consequences for the people involved. They also see that many of us adults live in fear when it comes to testing: fear of not complying, fear of not measuring up, of not teaching enough, or of teaching too much, of daring to opt out, or fear of taking all the tests away.

Even if I believe that this was my final standardized exam, the experience stands as a powerful reminder of how limited and potentially limiting high-stakes standardized testing can be. It makes me want to rethink the whole notion of assessment -as a tool to shatter limits rather than reinforce them. What would a worthy assessment of my special skill and content knowledge look like if I wanted to “find out” what would help me break down barriers? I imagine submitting video or audio recordings of my work with clients along with a reflective essay response. And then having a conversation with one or more peer evaluators who offer feedback and for whom I return the favor at a later date. This would be an assessment which is bound up in an ongoing learning process. And note, it is labor intensive, high touch, and based on trust. As a process it would prove challenging to standardize, difficult to scale, yet it would have the potential to deepen practice of the individual who benefits from the support of a community of practitioners.

Developing fresh visions of what could be otherwise proves particularly helpful in this instance. It allows me to provide a sub-optimal professional experience with a greater purpose. I create the learning I was missing and in the process remind myself that I am free to do that. Every. Single. Time. No matter who may be keeping score.