Do we need new ways of measuring?

By | April 25, 2014

Are our current forms of measuring a person’s abilities doing the job we want them to, and might there be better ways to quantify the things about people that we actually really value?

I’m going to use an anecdote to explain what I mean. Those readers with a pathological and emetic response to the word ‘anecdote’ are welcome to skip to the final two paragraphs.



I have a younger brother who found school really tough from day 1. He’s very dyslexic and the most stubborn person I’ve ever met.  He resisted reading with animalistic fury and anger (I still have the bite marks) and was a functioning illiterate throughout Primary and early Secondary school. This was until he was 14, when one day he just decided to teach himself how to do it, because he wanted to read The Lord of the Rings, having heard me drone on about it for hours. He read every night, with a dictionary, and lumbered his way to literacy using a tool which, while highly motivating to him, would not be many people’s first choice.

He went on to get a C in GCSE English, achieved in the teeth of a late start, a significant special educational need and the horrible psychological position of having three older siblings who found traditional academic stuff to be a breeze. He dragged himself up to this amazing level through sheer bloody-mindedness and hard work. He now reads more than I do, if that proves anything. His stubbornness, in adult life, means he doesn’t easily give up – he works harder than most and does his utmost to get things right.

I also spent a huge amount of time while growing up with a school friend who is a useful comparator. He was really bright (11+ passer), from an advantaged background and seemed set fair to jump through the hoops of formal education with elan and grace. However (and he’d be the first to admit this), he was charmingly bone-idle and lacking any sort of drive or concern about ‘success’. He also achieved a C in GCSE English, slouching his way through with disinterest and occasionality. In context, this should rightly be seen as very disappointing indeed; his parents certainly viewed it that way.

So, same GCSE result, two very different people and I know which one I’d rather have working for me (pesky anti-nepotism policy notwithstanding).

When I’m recruiting, its the personal characteristics (grit, attention to detail, integrity, emotional maturity) which I value most, but can’t seem to find anywhere in candidate’s educational history. It’s certain that I’ve not shortlisted people in the past due to my inability to discern these things from the brief opportunity a letter of application or personal statement affords. How many great people have passed me by? 10? 100? It’s worrying, frankly.

If our standard forms of measuring don’t lead to accurate enough descriptions of people, what other sources of data can we use to triangulate?

It’s possible that many of the things which traditional academic qualifications don’t reveal about people might actually surface in their online activity.  If we had a way of gathering up and somehow accrediting students’ every activity – coding a website for their dad, making a movie with their skater friends, reading every book by a particular author, becoming an expert in a niche area of knowledge – then we would have a much rounder picture of who they are and how they interact with the world. We’d know if they stuck at tasks. We’d know if quality was important to them. We’d know if they worked well with others.

Compare that to what you learn about me by reading on my CV that I got a B in GCSE Religious Education. That’s a useless piece of data. In fact, I’d go further in this case – it’s an actively misleading thing to know about me (I received this qualification off the back of being dragged to church for 13 years, doing nothing in 2 years of RE classes, then reading St Mark’s Gospel the night before the single, short terminal examination).

For teachers, especially as education starts to move online (please don’t choke, it’s inevitable), there will be a rich seam of data detailing their effort, commitment and social skills – every ‘like’ a homework help video receives, every answer posted to a pupil question, every thoughtful blog post about their area of subject expertise (and take a look at these if you want to see what I’m talking about) could be conflated into some kind of meta-score of their Outstandingness.

For a while I thought ePortfolios might do this, but there may be a better way, and it’s currently called Open Badges. It would need a national framework to truly have the impact described above, because badges (like qualifications) need currency. There are hundreds of issues around this whole area, obviously, but whenever envisioning how things could be better, it’s good to think big.


This post was triggered in my mind by the ETAG consultation, which I encourage anyone with an interest in improving education to take part in. It happens to focus on technology.

4 thoughts on “Do we need new ways of measuring?

  1. Ben

    Really interesting Dom, I was probably your friend at school but that was because I was disengaged. I would say now I am one of the naturally hardest working people I know driven by the feeling of not wanting to let someone down and wanting to improve school engagement of children like me. ETAG is a real chance for us to feedback….

    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Yes, me too; fear of letting people down is common in the education sector… it’d probably grind to a halt without it!

  2. Crispin Weston

    Hi Dominic,

    At the risk of our long conversation spilling over from, I strongly agree with what you are saying – but do not think that Open Badges are the right answer. But they might be a stepping stone to the right answer.

    The trouble with Open Badges is that they are all user-interface – and there is no analytical “back end” to them. What does a badge mean? What is the evidence? Who gave it? What is their reputation and standing? How reliable are their predictions about learner capability? All of these vital questions are ones that open badges do not answer.

    In practice, they are used as party bags which say “thank you for coming and here’s something to make you feel good about your time here”. Fluff.

    But the vision, of accrediting activity wherever it happens is, I think, a very good one. And I think that e-portfolios may still have a part to play – but they will only work when we have interoperable creative tools. The whole assignment-reporting-sharing cycle has to be automated. More on this in my policy recommendations to ETAG at

    I echo your exhortation for people to get involved in ETAG, though I am not convinced by its product so far – see “What ETAG should say” at

    Best, Crispin.

    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Thanks Crispin, this has helped clarify things for me. A national ePortfolio approach is needed, with schools and employers empowered to create and accredit badges against an agreed framework.


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