Discrimination, Assessment and the Making of the Classroom Culture


“Discrimination: The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex: victims of racial discrimination; Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another: discrimination between right and wrongThe ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste: those who could afford to buy showed little taste or discrimination.”

Oxford English Dictionary Online.

We need more discrimination in our schools. Discrimination is a necessary component of assessment and the building of a strong, reflective classroom culture. It is the unfortunate consequence of a lack of discrimination that leads pupils to think that their individual ‘opinion’ counts, that if they think or feel something then so be it. “It’s my opinion!” is the get out of jail free card for a moment of challenge from a teacher or fellow pupil who is playing devil’s or, indeed, God’s advocate. If political correctness were to ‘go mad’ and stop children and teachers seeing the importance of discrimination then no useful assessment could take place.

I’m NOT talking about discrimination that results in the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people this type of discrimination is abhorrent and as a result of much argument and struggle over years the vast majority of people in our society agree that it is wrong – this has become part of the ‘sense we make in common’ and laws have been put in place over my lifetime which have been a glorious and notable change to the way we all live. As time continues battles will probably continue and more unjust or prejudicial behaviour will be challenged in all sectors of society and this is to the good but this doesn’t mean discrimination itself is a bad thing because recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another and the ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’.

Assessment is, in many cases, subjective, especially in the arts. Assessment is essentially unfair, if by fairness we mean that everything ever said, made, done or thought by anyone is as worthwhile as anything said, made, done or thought by anyone else. Yet we need to embrace this very unfairness in order to understand its intrinsic importance to how we co-exist and make our culture in common.

In his memorable phrase: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor,” David Didau uncovers an inherent problem in assessment and that is where we believe our own hype… “You, child, have a target grade of ‘B’ and your rather dishevelled piece of work is a ‘D’ go away and redraft/redo/re-perform it at the required ‘B’ standard…” The teacher as the objective gatekeeper to the highest grade is of no use to anyone apart from petty bureaucrats.

The teacher has an important role to play in the teaching of discrimination and discernment, we need to teach pupils how to judge and judge well. This means that the teacher as ‘expert’ in a domain, in which she stands on the shoulders of giants, needs to initiate children into the tradition of the subject enabling them to get to know what quality has meant in the past and that it was likely to have been a complex history of agreement and disagreement over time. In order for a child to be informed about this history they need to be taught to refrain from making their own judgements too early, until they too have been introduced to the quality of the conversation through time. As pupils become adept at discriminating and judging work based on the tradition, as taught by the teacher, then their opinions should be sought more and also challenged more by the teacher and other members of the class who can then act as critical friends to each other.

Self and peer assessment are sometimes seen as the ‘be all and end all’ of formative assessment but they’re a dangerous idea if they’re used too early and without any guidance as to ‘taste and judgement’. Dangerous? Yes, if any child is able to think that: ‘well, it’s my opinion so it’s all right’ then we are doing them a disservice. If I may bring you back to what I said earlier: good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’ and this thoughtful ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’ through well argued reasoning is an essential part of a positive scholastic, collegiate, classroom culture.

If we want our children to be fully conversant with the wider culture outside of the classroom we have a wonderful opportunity within the classroom to model how to take part. We need to teach judgement, discernment and discrimination and help children to become sophisticated in the understanding and use of these by opening their eyes to the difficulty and importance of assessment.

5 thoughts on “Discrimination, Assessment and the Making of the Classroom Culture

  1. Really interesting. I was having a similar discussion with a colleague about the problems of assessing the Arts with a scientific formula; it just doesn’t work!


  2. I struggled with this. Linking the notion of discrimination in the sense of prejudice with discrimination in the sense of discernment doesn’t get us far. The former is about moral perspectives, while the latter clearly isn’t. In fact it is very possible to argue that the former is about unlearning a perspective that assigns a kind of moral hierarchy, while the latter might be about learning a kind of hierarchy – therefore almost an opposite process. I’m wondering what your starting point for these ideas was, Martin.


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