“Assessment” or, a Pedagogy of Possibility

After completing all the readings this week for GRAD 5114, there was one phrase from it all that continued to echo in my mind. “We believe in a pedagogy of possibility,” from Imagination First. Reading their examples of different “deaths” of imagination, such as when the little girl was discouraged by her father from being an astronaut because it is no life for a lady, or when the biologist is discouraged from working on his own project concerning suspended animation in the lab, I remembered instances in my life where my imagination was stifled, but also, when it was encouraged (and even once when it was overwhelmed). I want to share those experiences with you–not because they are better or different examples from those given in Imagination First, but because they might give some deeper insight into the specifics of how to encourage and teach imagination.

I’ll start with the time when my imagination was murdered, just to get the bad out of the way first, but also to demonstrate the major need for a cultural change in how teachers are viewed. As a child, I wanted to do many jobs, mostly related to fashion and the arts. I wanted to be a model, then a fashion designer, then a visual artist, then an art teacher. My parents were very encouraging, especially once I shifted away from model. They even enrolled me in extra art classes outside of school. However, in third grade, I had an amazing teacher. His classroom was unlike any I had ever experienced. He incorporated music and art into all subject areas to make them more interactive and interesting. I felt inspired to do actual school work for the first time ever. In second grade I made Cs in English because I didn’t even care to put periods at the end of my sentences and the only books I read were Junie B. Jones and the Magic Treehouse. But in third grade, I wanted to do more and try more–I tried to check out Anne of Green Gables and Little Women from the school library. The librarian did not let me. However, Mr. Decker and my dad spoke to her and she acquiesced to giving me the books. I read them, passed the Accelerated Reader tests with perfect scores, and was allowed to read whatever I wanted from them forward. I never forgot Mr. Decker, or the way he taught. It was the memories of his classroom that led me to want to be a teacher, so that from 4th grade onwards, whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be, the answer was easy. However, with my newly inspired love of learning, I became good at school. People became certain I was capable of great things. In freshman year of high school, my best friend’s mom asked me what I wanted to be. I said a teacher. She laughed. She asked why I would waste all my knowledge and talents like that. I clearly could find the cure to cancer, so why didn’t I focus on science or inventing? That killed a part of me. At the same time, she was an adult, so I believed her that I might waste my talents as a teacher. In undergrad, my majors were Psychology and Pre-Med. But I still never forgot Mr. Decker. Once I started working as a tutor, I finally realized she was wrong. Being a teacher wouldn’t be wasting my skills–it would be using the best of the ones I have. Mr. Decker changed my whole life–as a teacher, I could do that for my students too.

Now for the times when my imagination was encouraged. Both occurred in high school. For my sophomore English class, I had a new teacher who had just gotten her degree. She was young and could easily pass for one of the students, except for the fact she wasn’t in uniform like the rest of us. She tried a lot of different things for her class to find what worked and what didn’t, always asking for our feedback. Once she even let me teach the class because I had reach and watched Oedipus Rex many times, while she had not, and it’s plot is necessary background information for reading and interpreting Antigone (as we were doing in class). So, I knew that while she was the teacher, she valued my opinions and my ideas. It was honestly the first time I wasn’t terrified of a teacher as the authority figure. Because of this, when it came time to do our final projects for Tale of Two Cities, I asked her if I could do something different from the prompts she provided. In Tale of Two Cities, Lucie is described as the “golden thread.” I am a huge Greek mythology nerd, so wanted to tie this in with the myth of the Minotaur. I built a maze with a golden thread through it, and along the walls were my analyses of how the two stories tie together. This project took way more work and effort than the prompts provided, but I loved every second of creating it and fell like I thought more deeply and in new ways about Tale of Two Cities. In being allowed to create this project and think about how different ideas connect, I started to be able to do the same kind of divergent thinking in other subject areas. I took more risks. For example, in my junior year, I took a dual credit U.S. history class (my high school offered this class at our school, but we got college credit through Spalding University). One major arc of the class focused on the suffrage movement, and culminated in the suffrage project. There was of course a standard list of prompts, but I hated all of them. I asked if I could do something else. Dr. Hall was hesitant to allow me, but I told her I was willing to take the risk. I developed Suffragopoly–yes, a Monopoly board game based on the suffrage movement. I designed the board, property deeds, chance and community chest cards, and box design in Publisher and had them printed. I constructed the board and all the playing pieces. In going around the board, you went through the suffrage movement in chronological order. It was a successful project–on that day we presented our projects, Dr. Hall even let me and several classmates play it for a bit. She also spoke to a friend of hers that is a curator at a museum in Louisville and had it displayed there for awhile. My sister goes to the same high school I did, and now Dr. Hall doesn’t offer a prompt for the suffrage project. She gives some examples of past projects, but let’s students engage with the material in any way they desire. Now, all the projects are super intense and creative. Dr. Hall has thanked me for inspiring her to make that change with my project.

From these stories then, I hope to suggest that by interacting with students on a personal level so that they trust they can be creative in your class, you will get much better projects and learning in students. This is the same message from the TEDx talk by Michael Wesch earlier in the semester–when he allowed his student who was sleeping through class to design a game, the student was much more engaged. I studied many more facts about the suffrage movement to make my game perfect and historically accurate than I would if I just had to study for exam. I also retained those facts far longer, and my game, whenever I play it with my sister (because we do sometimes; in fact, we did this past Christmas break), reminds me of the whole of the movement. I would never keep copies of old exams to look back on for facts (Google is much faster for looking up information), but some old projects I have kept because they are interactive and fun and make me remember much easier (like the playdough model of the parts of the brain I made). So, when the readings for GRAD 5114 suggested doing away with assessment, and grades especially, I think it is possible and could be effective. The focus could be on projects of various sorts (like those suggested in Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning) and the “assessment” of these focused on the evaluative and liking aspects, rather than the ranking (letter grade) of them as suggested by Peter Elbow.

However, as promised in my introduction, I did want to mention one time when my imagination was overwhelmed. In my senior year of high school, a handful of girls from my school were selected to attend a day of the IdeaFestival (specifically the day for students called Thrivals). There were speakers from many different disciplines in science and medicine along with music and slam poetry performances. Several students were even able to compete against Watson, the super computer from Jeopardy. It was exciting and I was exposed to so many innovations and ideas, but I left feeling inadequate rather than inspired. This is because no part of the program focused on telling you how to have these big ideas, and the presence of so many big ideas in sequence made anything I had done seem small and meaningless, especially because I had no idea how to have such big ideas. So, if you want to encourage imagination, rather than stifle it, you have to be a model for students on how to think creatively, and if you are going to create prompts, create them in ways that encourage creativity and sideways learning as described in the readings by Ellen Langer last week. Like the authors of Imagination First, I believe that everyone has imagination and can be taught. I also believe that applying your imagination to material you are supposed to learn can be fun–as teachers, we can inspire students to use their imagination to make course material come to life in just as exciting ways as Mrs. Frizzle does on the Magic School Bus. So, together, in GRAD 5114 and beyond, let’s create a pedagogy of possibility.

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  1. I love your last example. It’s so easy to feel inadequate when you read about great people/discoveries/works of art. I wish we learned more about the thought process of great thinkers. How many Nobel prizes came from genius and how many from a pure accident? Is it better to look at data until epiphany happens or to throw out crazy ideas and see which ones you can develop? These are things that would be good to ponder.


    1. Brad, thanks for your comment! I totally agree! The “things” produced by great thinkers show us “what” they think, but not “how” they think–we need to know more about the process! Your second thought question made me think about the differences between exploratory factor analysis (data driven approach) and confirmatory factor analysis (theory driven approach) in psychometrics. You have to have both to develop useful (reliable and valid) scales of latent constructs. So, I think we have to continue to embrace findings from “big data (for those epiphanies),” but not abandon creative hypotheses tested in smaller samples (for developing things based on crazy ideas). Each approach informs the other.


      1. Agreed. Knowledge is often incrementally created. It’s only when we look back at the large trends that we interpret it as “aha-moments”. Often negative results never get published and failure gains no value in research. I think that creates a very distant picture of what it looks like to be a great scholar. One that discourages rather than encourage.

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      2. Your comment makes me think of the differing philosophies of science offered by Popper and Kuhn–I think Kuhn was correct that most scientific discovery is slow, as you state. Also, I appreciate you mentioning the issue of null results remaining unpublished. I have started to register my labs studies on Open Science framework, and I hope other labs and researchers continue to use and join OSF and similar platforms so we as scientists can overcome the barrier to scientific progress imposed by publication bias in journals.

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