This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
With hundreds of miles
open to habitation, people still tend to build their houses close to
the houses of other people. No matter the continent, no matter the
culture, no matter the era, this is what we do. And to find an
individual choosing to live completely alone in the world is so rare as
to confirm that human beings need to live amongst each other; indeed we
are compelled from within ourselves to group together. Humans are
social animals; it is our nature to be so.
Harry Yeatts (1997) Simply Complicated: Understanding the Human Being.
Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to Assess
Curricular Areas: Social Knowledge and Skills
Our society is currently obsessed with the politically powerful
but biologically naïve search for an inexpensive, efficient,
one-size-fits-all assessment system that precisely measures the
knowledge and skill levels of an imprecise developing or fully mature
In a previous article (Assessing our schooling system, http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2010-54.html
we argued that it’s inappropriate to assess K-12 student achievement
and teacher/school success principally on the basis of how well
students score on easy-to-measure curricular area tests that focus on
factual knowledge and language skills development.
We take this position because success in life also involves the
development of (1) social skills grounded in positive moral/ethical
values, (2) the ability to locate and effectively deal with problems in
areas in which no single correct solution exists, and (3) aesthetic
skills and values. These three elements aren’t prominent in current
state standards and assessment programs, if they exist at all. If they
are as important as we argue, incorporating them into state standards
and assessment programs will ensure that they aren’t ignored in the
It’s thus appropriate to challenge us to indicate how student, teacher,
and school assessment programs could be altered to include these areas
of achievement. This article will thus focus on assessment in the
development of morally and ethically appropriate social knowledge and
skills, and the following articles will focus on the other two areas
We’re a Social Species
We’re a social highly interdependent species, so we’re
born with some innate social properties, and must master the others
during our developmental years. For example, by the time children enter
school, most know that it’s wrong to hurt others, right to help those
in need, and to be fair. They observed these values being practiced
and/or not practiced in their family and neighborhood relationships,
and school gives them an opportunity to further develop these in more
complex social situations.
In his highly regarded book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of
(2006) Daniel Goleman explores the behavioral range
that runs from intuitively sensing the inner state of other people to
understanding their feelings and thoughts to comprehending the meaning
and significance of complicated social situations. This awareness
: To sense the non-verbal emotional signals of others and to feel what they are feeling.
: To attend and attune to others with a sustained receptivity that leads to rapport.
consciously and accurately understand another person’s thoughts,
feelings, and intentions. A recently discovered brain system called
mirror neurons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron
allows us to subliminally experience and mimic the behavior of someone
we’re observing, such as to automatically yawn when we observe someone
yawning. But we often need to add prior experience with the immediate
challenge in order to consciously grasp and appropriately respond to
the real intentions of the other person, such as in contract
negotiations, or when confronting an assailant.
: Knowing how
the social world works (such as the appropriate behavior in restaurants
and museums, and the appropriate conversation for various social
settings). Social cognition emerges out of the development of primal
empathy, attunement, and empathetic accuracy.
To simply sense how other people feel, or to know what they think
or intend, doesn’t guarantee fruitful interactions. Social skills build
on social awareness to allow smooth, effective interactions. The
spectrum of social facility includes:
: To interact smoothly
with others at the non-verbal level. This includes the ability to
automatically read and respond to nonverbal cues (such as knowing when
to smile and frown, how to orient our body). While these skills develop
effortlessly in many children, the awkward behavior of others reduces
the quality of their social life.
: To present
ourselves effectively in social situations, so that others can easily
understand how we feel and think about the issues at hand.
: To help shape the
outcome of social interactions in a manner that is acceptable to
others. Most social issues require at least some negotiation, so it’s
very important to learn how to negotiate fairly and effectively.
: To care about and
appropriately act on the needs of others. The behavioral spectrum is
broad—from simply holding a door open for a person laden with packages
to contributing to charitable and cultural institutions. Since we’re a
highly interdependent social species, it’s inappropriate for us to
expect others, but not ourselves, to contribute to common needs.
Morality as a concept is concerned with the general definitional
principles of right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, etc., and ethics with
the development of specific behavioral codes that folks should follow.
For example, since it’s immoral to kill someone, the medical profession
developed ethical guidelines that reduce the possibility of death from
medical mistakes and malpractice. (Sylwester, 2007)
The functional elements of social intelligence identified above
constitute the heart of Goleman’s book, but what’s especially
fascinating is how he draws on recent brain research to ground these
social behaviors in neurobiology. These forms of awareness and behavior
thus have an underlying biological explanation. This means that
educators can enhance social intelligence through effective
interventions—and measure the results.
Assessing Social Skills
The assessment of social skills should include objective
information on: (1) how well students understand the elements of
successful social relationships and culturally accepted moral and
ethical standards, and (2) what they believe to be culturally
appropriate choices when confronted with social, moral, and ethical
problem situations. We argue that it’s possible to create credible
assessment instruments and methods that gather objective data on the
social knowledge and beliefs of students.
The third assessment element in this field is more subjective: the
social skills that students behaviorally exhibit in school
interactions. This assessment would be based principally on teacher
observation, and it’s much easier to do this credibly at the elementary
than secondary level. Elementary teachers work with a relatively small
group of students over an extended time, while most secondary teachers
meet yet another group of students every hour or so. It would thus
probably make more sense to begin social knowledge/belief/skills
assessment programs at the simpler social dynamics of an elementary
classroom, and then to use the knowledge thus gained to develop
secondary level assessments.
I (Bob Sylwester) argued in my 2003 book, A Biological Brain in a
Cultural Classroom, that it’s possible to enhance cognitive and social
development through collaborative classroom management procedures in
which students make many of the decisions that teachers typically make.
In such a setting, it’s possible to make reasonably accurate
assessments of the development of a student’s social maturation. Here’s
a link to a synthesis of the book’s proposal, supporting neurobiology,
and practical suggestions: http://iae-pedia.org/The_Role_of_Preference_in_Cognition,_Curriculum,_and_Assessment
Goleman, D. (2006) Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam.
Sylwester, R. (2003, 2nd edition) A biological brain
in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development
through collaborative classroom management. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin
Press. For a synthesis see:
Sylwester, R. (2007) The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
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improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
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