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  • Writer's pictureGary Chapin

At the beginning, the folks leading ALP couldn’t answer the question, “Yeah, but what is ALP all about??” This was because, until the participants of ALP got in there and lived it, there was no way of knowing. This didn’t keep us from trying, of course. We had our intentions, values, and techniques, but we knew that what-ALP-is-all-about would emerge from the people who inhabited it.

We gained clarity over time. There’s a definition of ALP. For the phenomenologists out there, you can know us by our works. There’s a graphic that nicely lays out the principles that work with ALP. You can see it here, in detail, along with annotation. These ideas are becoming the center of conversation again as ALP 2.0 does its own emerging and updates its theory of change (more on that next week), but they aren’t the essence of ALP.

The Essence

Working with the ALP community, especially with the folks leading Hawai’i’s HĀ project, I encountered the idea that a genuinely human vision of assessment, encompassing learning and joy, is rooted in two concepts: ecosystem and storytelling.

Assessment as ecosystem is a recognition of the profound complexity of relationships that make up schools, learning, our kids, and the system of learning. Every element moves continuously and impacts every other element. Biologists refer to this phenomenon as mutuality. Things are not only more interdependent than we imagine; they are more interdependent than we can imagine.

On complexity, Neil Postman once wrote that “If you add a caterpillar to an ecosystem, you don’t get the old ecosystem with an additional caterpillar. You get a new ecosystem.” The ecosystem changes—new qualities emerge—to accommodate the new addition. Postman wasn’t simply pointing out the hubris of folks who add computers to a school and expect that the only impact will be that we are “more efficient.” He was pointing to the amazing, uncanny creative power of an ecosystem. He was saying that by trying to control for the environment, we turn our backs on and deny a vibrant, abundant, and joyful source of creative power. At ALP, we think you shouldn’t do that.

Assessment as storytelling is understanding that assessment is storytelling, and this has important implications. We can treat assessment as a source of data that is open to analysis, but the only reason to do so is to develop a story—acknowledged or not—about the kid and their learning. An assessment system that results in a single number grade for a kid is telling a story, but it’s a shallow story. How do we tell better stories, i.e., truthful, supportive stories that are good for the kid and their learning? You start out by trying to. Instead of setting out to tell the story of did-this-kid-learn-enough, you tell the-story-of-the-kid-and-their-learning-over-time-and-in-this-place.

Storytelling is an essential component of all learning. When John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from experience plus reflection,” he was talking about taking our experience and constructing a story to figure out the meaning of the experience, and how it fits into our lives – what we’ve learned before and what we’re going to learn after.

At the Assessment for Learning Project, we not only advocate for these mind/heartsets, we live by them. For the February convening in Tucson, there will be a crew – maybe even a horde? – of storytellers and story catchers helping us make sense of things. If you want to tell your story, or help someone else tell theirs, let us know. The core of ALP is still emerging from the people who inhabit it.


This blog post is part of a series about Storytelling stewarded by longtime friend of ALP Gary Chapin. Gary writes for Educating for Good and can be found on Twitter @garychapin67.

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Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Today is the first in a new blog series written by our long-time friend of ALP, Gary Chapin! You’ll find his weekly dispatches from the ALP Learning Community here.

When we decided it was time to tell an Origin Story of ALP, the first thing that came to my mind was, “I remember the day I was bitten by a radioactive assessment system.”

Spiderman’s radioactive spider bite was a chance event, but the conversation with Uncle Ben—“With great power comes great responsibility.”—shows us why it matters. That’s what origin stories do: They tell us not only what happened to lead up to the present moment; they also pick and frame those moments and ideas so you know why it’s important for you to know such a thing.

For many of us, the Assessment for Learning Project, originally a grant-making initiative, began seven years ago at a gathering in Denver. ALP had selected twelve projects, from Hawai’i to Maine, designed to develop approaches to assessment that challenged the current models and their limitations. We showed up excited about our work, but not sure what to expect. The RFP (request for proposals) had actually been an RFL (request for learning). That had to mean something. But was it a real something, or a jargon something?

Spoiler: it was a real something. There’s a lot about that first meeting that was important, but the most important thing was the way ALP created the conditions for the development of learning relationships. This is good because, in assessment, relationships are everything.

Twice a year for the next three years, ALP had a convening of learners. The circle grew to include common cause orgs and new partners, and our understanding of what we were about grew.

Change happens one conversation at a time, and there were so many conversations. We went to Scottsdale (2017), and Santa Fe (2018), each time refining the lens of the work. Using new protocols and artforms to communicate in new ways so we could say new things.

In Santa Fe (2018), we were moved by the Voices of ALP exhibition, which brought us an abundance of student voices (audio and video) reflecting on their own experiences within ALP projects. These affirmed, first, assessment is a co-conspiracy of all learners, and second, this is a powerful thing we’re doing. That’s when we realized that ALP wasn’t an implementation, or initiative, or reform. It’s a movement.

It is a movement that reimagines the shape of assessment as something situated in justice, equity, and empathy, and it’s fed by people who are really into assessment. We show up at an ALP gathering and think, “Finally, people I can talk to!” This is not only vital, fascinating, and fulfilling work; it’s our idea of a good time.

By the time we held our first open-to-everyone ALP Conference in San Diego (2020), we were framing our ideas in a bunch of ways, including performance assessment, formative assessment, culturally sustaining practices, kid agency, et many cetera. It felt like a debut. Like, “Today, San Diego. Tomorrow, the world!” Sigh.

You know the rest: San Diego was the last trip many of us took before COVID shut the world down a few weeks later, and all of us, as educators, have been fighting the fires of a multi-year crisis ever since. ALP, the movement, was put on hold.

But ALP, the idea, has gone up in value. During the pandemic, interest in #rethinkingassessment has only grown. After three years, it’s time to get the band back together. February in Tucson, we are rebooting our movement.

This space is devoted to ALP stories and origins. Who are we? What have we done? Why does it matter? What’s happening in Tucson? And why might you want to be there with us in February 2023?

There’s never just one origin story, and never just one storyteller. Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive assessment. Maybe you were experimented on by Venusian psychometricians. Maybe, after a formative Traumatic Event ™, you’ve obsessively trained yourself up in the ways of heroic assessment. Probably you got here in more conventional ways: learning, teaching, curriculum, etc. Either way, we want your story as part of our network of stories. Stories are powerful things. And with great power comes … well, you know.


This blog post is part of a series about Storytelling stewarded by longtime friend of ALP Gary Chapin. Gary writes for Educating for Good and can be found on twitter @garychapin67.

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