How was Assessment Done in Hunter-Gatherer Cultures?

Markus Packalen

How was assessment done hunter-gatherer cultures? This question raises interesting considerations about the diversity of assessment and its role in modern education. We explore the assessment practices of past times and their significance in learning.

The changing assessment challenges teachers and raises questions. In his blog post, Markus Packalén, an expert in learning and assessment, reflects on the two-dimensional task of assessment in primary school: on one hand, measuring learning, and on the other hand, supporting learning. Assessment is not just about crunching numbers or ranking students in order of superiority.

What was the progress report for the gatherer like? "You have made excellent progress." You gathered more berries than last year. How about the hunter's? "You shot your arrow into the river. You need more practice." What was the commendable level in the goals of cultural competence and interaction?

"A tribesperson expresses themselves through diverse cave paintings and evaluates the cultural significance of transition rituals." Did the tribe's youths receive feedforward feedback on food procurement, and did they have a growth mindset beyond just their armpit hair? Did the hunting proficiency of a single tribe follow a normal distribution? Did the elders and healers evaluate individuals' social competence by comparing them relative to other tribe members, or was the assessment objective, comparing the individual to the commonly accepted image of a tribe member at the seventh grade level? Did early strength pedagogy encourage the tribe's youths to specialize in either hunting or gathering? Did some of them live their entire short lives as seventh-grade students, demoralized by continuous criticism, without believing in ongoing learning? I really don't know.

Perhaps answers could be found in the desk drawers of Harari, Bryson, or Bregman. A wild guess is that even though there wasn't formal education or assessment, there was a precise order within the tribe. Everyone knew exactly whose arrow hit the mark, who was the fastest runner, and who could distinguish between healthy and poisonous berries. Mutual comparison and the resulting specialization and division of labor are characteristic of human groups.

Assessment in schools is strongly linked to time, place, and culture. It is theoretically guided by the curriculum, but in practice, also by teaching tradition, prevailing image of humanity, and values. The Finnish curriculum divides assessment into two parts: summative, which aims to determine the student's level of competence, and formative, which provides feedback guiding learning. Both have been topics of discussion lately.

On one hand, concerns have been raised about the equality of assessment, and on the other hand, whether assessment is truly encouraging. Both concerns are related to students' mutual comparison. Relative assessment, meaning placing students in order within the student group, was removed from curricula as early as 1985. Teachers are expected to be objective, meaning that assessment is given by comparing the student to the competence description defined in the curriculum, not to other students in the group.

However, in practice, every student group is a tribe, whose members always compare themselves to each other, if not from the teacher's side, then from the students themselves. And because students are different, comparison accentuates differences further. Although students are the same age, their levels of development can vary by several years. There are significant differences in academic, physical, and social skills. One gets help from home, another doesn't. One speaks Finnish as their mother tongue, another doesn't. The output achieved by one student's effort is at a seventh-grade level, and another reaches a ten, even with their left hand and eyes closed.

In an ideal situation, every student gets to climb the staircase of learning at their own pace and experience success from it. In a nightmare scenario, a student struggling at the bottom of the staircase doesn't see their success, only how many steps behind they are compared to others. Positive feedback accumulates for advanced students, leaving those trailing behind with only a sense of their own weakness. Students drift further apart from each other in terms of both competence and self-efficacy. This problem has been attempted to be solved by somewhat blurring the differences between students by replacing comparable exam grades with ambiguous verbal assessments. However, these often remain so abstract that they don't provide proper information about the student's competence to anyone involved. The best remedy is to adjust the assessment culture in a way that doesn't directly encourage students to compare themselves.

Yes, one side of the assessment coin is determining the level of competence, conveying to the student which step they are on. However, it's important to remember the other side of the coin, supportive assessment. It celebrates that the student has already reached this far and shows them how to progress further. Alongside grade numbers, teacher encouragement, peer praise, and friendly guidance are needed.

In a good assessment culture, both sides of the coin are necessary. Competence must be recognized, but it's equally important in the classroom community to learn to acknowledge successes, regardless of the step they occur on. The purpose of assessment is not to find the 'Primus inter pares' — the best among peers, but to acknowledge each individual at their own level. The aim is not to leave the slowest members of the tribe to die under the tree but to keep all hunters and gatherers involved and nourish each one to develop at their own pace.

Markus Packalén is a classroom teacher who used to work as an expert in learning and assessment at Qridi Oy.