8/28/09 10:35 AMEvaluating Learner Strengths and WeaknessesPage 2 of 4http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Strengths.html
university. Educated adults who have long believed themselves to be quite competent readers have, initially,rough going in my classes when I ask them to analyze a text in the methods of my tradition.)Any individual competence can be recast as a display of weakness if we restrict the manner in which it isperformed. Formalisms are the, usually social, restrictions in terms of which we judge individualachievements. Some formalisms are necessary. Many are controversial. Others are pernicious.For example, anyone might traverse a 100-mile stretch of highway in an hour by just exercising a heavyfoot on the accelerator pedal. The formalism we call "speed limit" makes this feat difficult, if not impossibleto do. Do we, nonetheless, complain of a "weakness" in our driving? The recognition of the idea of plagiarism places restrictions on many a student's ability to hand in an impressive essay. Concepts of theftmight interfere with an individual's otherwise quick accumulation of wealth. Yet behavior constrained bysuch rules and regulations is not judged to be a weakness.Pernicious formalisms are ones which have been, often unconsciously, introduced as schooling customsfrom a particular social class or cultural group and which cannot be reasonably expected to be same forevery child. Pernicious formalisms might be the particularly idiosyncratic expectations of an individualteacher, not necessarily intentionally perverse but stultifying all the same. Basically, our schools tend to judge a child's strengths and weaknesses within a framework of expectations that the following constraintsare in place and have been adapted to: "Children, even though it is only 8AM (or even earlier), behave asthough you have had a good breakfast, enough sleep, warm clothing, time to prepare your lessons,supportive parents, emotional calm, high energy despite the long bus trip to school, impeccable manners andhyper-trained sphincters!"
And then there are the Formalisms of the school and classroom "subject matter ." Whether these arenecessary or pernicious is often a controversial issue that must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Whether or not they even matter is debatable : there is no end of delight in our society to recounting themany, many examples of successful, wealthy people who are weak in academics.No one is weak or strong in a school subject except with respect to a task we might consider for them.Johnny is never just "too weak" or "strong enough" without provoking the inquiry, "For what?" Studentswho study foreign language via a reading translation method usually end up weak in communication skillsin that language. Phonics advocates fuss that whole language approaches to reading make for inadequatereaders. Whole language advocates fume to the contrary. Modern approaches to math, some argue, leavestudents with weak computation skills. Mere computation is not really mathematics, rebut others.There is a legitimate concern about student strengths and weaknesses. It comes from the recognition thatwhat the curriculum is determines what we count as strength and or weakness in a student. The curriculum,in turn, is much determined by the organizational needs of the school, or even, merely, by administrativeconvenience; consider, for example, the debates over whether block scheduling is appropriate, and for whichsubjects.So far as concerns for schooling equity are concerned, it is worrisome, indeed, that the administrativeconvenience of the school district or of different levels of government might ultimately determine whopasses and who fails in the classroom. The practice of standardized testing, for example, is not rooted inpedagogical concern.