Teaching and Assessing Dispositions in Catholic Curriculum
What is perhaps most unique about the Catholic Curriculum Standards is its inclusion of dispositional standards in each of the academic dispositions.
A disposition is a habitual way of looking at something, or doing something. In education, we would like to see students possess certain dispositions that promote successful learning, such as learned industriousness, open-mindedness, and future time perspective. In Catholic education, we not only form dispositions for learning, but dispositions for life. Because of this, our educational programs are more expansive and robust.
Teaching these “soft skills” has always been a foundational component of Catholic education, the “formation,” and what we’re all about. Including them as standards is one way of making this focus more explicit, especially for new teachers.
Sample Quotes from Church Documents on Formation
For instance, when reading through the documents on Catholic education, especially The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988), The Catholic School (1977), and Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (1982), one can’t help but read exhorts for student formation, such as:
“…the Catholic school aims at forming in the Christian those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ and help him to play faithfully his part in the building up [of] the Kingdom of God” The Catholic school, (1977), #36
“Cultural pluralism, therefore, leads the Church to re-affirm her mission of education to insure strong character formation” Ibid, #12
“Respect for those who seek the truth, who raise fundamental questions about human existence. Confidence in our ability to attain truth, at least in a limited way – a confidence based not on feeling but on faith” The religious dimension of education in a Catholic school, (1982), #57
“The wonder that past ages felt when contemplating this universe, recorded by the Biblical authors, is still valid for the students of today” Ibid, #54
“…the school must be concerned with constant and careful attention to cultivating in students the intellectual, creative, and aesthetic faculties of the human person; to develop in them the ability to make correct use of their judgement, will, and affectivity; to promote in them a sense of values; to encourage just attitudes and prudent behaviour; to introduce them to the cultural patrimony handed down from previous generations; to prepare them for professional life, and to encourage the friendly interchange among students of diverse cultures and backgrounds that will lead to mutual understanding.” Lay Catholics in schools: Witnesses to faith, (1982), #12
In addition to Church documents, other dispositional standards were derived from authors’ writings on Catholic Liberal Arts education, as well as the department goals and objectives of current Catholic colleges and universities recognized in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.
Methods Used for Teaching Virtue
Most Catholic school teachers are familiar with methods for teaching virtue, such as modeling, role-play, Looks-like/Sounds-like, and story discussion. What is a little more challenging for teachers is facilitating opportunities for students to experience wonder, awe, and appreciation; to build faith and mental habits of precision and accurate questioning. Like most things, if the teacher has experienced these emotions and dispositions, it is easier to draw on personal experience to generate activities and opportunities for students. I will discuss some strategies for this in another post.
Assessing Dispositions Starts with Valid Reasons
But, the question I get asked the most is how to assess dispositions or these “non-cognitive” standards. My first response is to ask why do you want to assess the disposition and what will you do with the results?
Remember, Catholic schools have been forming students in dispositional behaviors, attitudes, and values for many, many years without having to quantify results. Our public-school colleagues are just catching up with us in the use of formative assessment – something Catholic school teachers have used for eons when we form students in areas such as courtesy, respect, reverence, piety, docility, humility – the list goes on. We may not have called it formative assessment, but that is what we were using to help students develop these soft skills. Teachers may explicitly teach a virtue and have students practice it in a role-playing scenario and then create opportunities for students to exhibit the virtue or disposition until most, if not all, students are successful. These soft skills were rarely quantified.
With current emphasis on data-driven instruction, it seemed inevitable that Catholic schools would need to respond to the assessment of soft-skills – and we should have great confidence in this since we have had much experience forming students in virtue! Again, the questions need to be asked of “Why do we need to measure this disposition?”, “How will the results be used?”, and “How will the assessment be designed to gather an accurate measure of a disposition?” These types of questions are always necessary for any assessment, but especially assessments where students’ values and beliefs are the center of attention.
When focusing on whether a student possesses a certain attitude, belief, or value, we are entering into an area that is highly personal and might change from day to day. While assessing cognition seems slightly removed from the center of the person, assessing beliefs and values cuts to the heart.
Methods for Assessing Dispositions
With a valid reason for assessment of a non-cognitive dispositions, teachers can use three primary methods: observation, student-teacher interviews, and student self-reports. Because of the nature of assessing a disposition, it is advisable to use multiple measures to gain a fuller insight into a student’s behaviors and beliefs rather than through only one assessment. Gathering information through multiple types of assessments will result in a better understanding of what the student actually believes and, perhaps, why he or she believes it. Taking multiple measures over a longer period of time can also improve the reliability of the measure and help to confirm or disconfirm the student’s beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Non-cognitive dispositions can be assessed daily through interaction, such as brief or concentrated discussions with and between students, casual teacher observations of student traits or behaviors, or as articulated statements of belief made by the student during classroom exercises. These observations can be gathered informally through an anecdotal running record. Teachers might also record more formal notations of student beliefs, values, and attitudes through the development of a more structured rating scale. Either approach relies upon a solid understanding of the disposition in question.
When targeting a specific affective disposition for formal assessment, teachers first need to think deeply about the quality and characteristics evident for that disposition. Working with other teachers to compile a list of both positive and negative behaviors is the first step toward developing a continuum for observation. With this complete, a scale or frequency checklist can be created to provide reliability and guidance when observing students.
For example, a teacher might like to note the developing disposition of how well her students “exhibit a primacy of care and concern for each human person at all stages of life and as images and likenesses of God.” The teacher would first think about what qualities and characteristics are evident in a student who “exhibits a primacy of care and concern for each human person…” and begin to list these characteristics. Consultation with other educational experts about these characteristics helps validate the behaviors or lack thereof. The teacher would next create either a rating scale or frequency checklist as illustrated below using the behaviors as the criteria of measurement.
Existing Assessments for Dispositions
Most Catholic schoolteachers are familiar with the National Catholic Educational Association’s ACRE exam, the Assessment of Children/Youth Religious Education given to students in 5th, 8-9th, and 11-12th grades annually. This exam assesses students’ knowledge as well as beliefs, attitudes, practices, and perceptions about the Catholic faith. This assessment is an example of using a student questionnaire or survey to uncover developing dispositions of faith and is similar to what can be designed to address dispositions in other content areas. Unfortunately, students might not feel comfortable completing these assessments as accurately and honestly as they could if anonymity is not available. Again, this is where multiple measures of assessment are necessary to confirm a developing disposition.
While it is possible to create assessments of dispositions for individual students, it is recommended that whole class assessment be made through teacher observation and that these types of assessments not be used for grading purposes. Assessments of this nature are best used as formative assessments to aid the classroom teacher in a more focused and integral formation of the student in all content areas.
Denise Donohue is the Deputy Director of K12 Programs with The Cardinal Newman Society and Manager of the Catholic Education Honor Roll. She has worked at all levels of education in Catholic schools and universities from classroom teacher, administrator, founder, and board member to college professor and interim Department Chair. She holds an Administrators and K-6 Elementary Education license from the state of Florida.