Information Age Education
   Issue Number 57
January, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

The Information Age Education web site now includes a blog. Access the blog and comment on blog entries at

You may find the entry about a person being more than a number at to be particularly interesting.

With hundreds of miles open to habitation, people still tend to build their houses close to the houses of other people. No matter the continent, no matter the culture, no matter the era, this is what we do. And to find an individual choosing to live completely alone in the world is so rare as to confirm that human beings need to live amongst each other; indeed we are compelled from within ourselves to group together. Humans are social animals; it is our nature to be so.

Harry Yeatts (1997) Simply Complicated: Understanding the Human Being.

Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to Assess
Curricular Areas: Social Knowledge and Skills

Our society is currently obsessed with the politically powerful but biologically naïve search for an inexpensive, efficient, one-size-fits-all assessment system that precisely measures the knowledge and skill levels of an imprecise developing or fully mature brain.

In a previous article (Assessing our schooling system,, we argued that it’s inappropriate to assess K-12 student achievement and teacher/school success principally on the basis of how well students score on easy-to-measure curricular area tests that focus on factual knowledge and language skills development.

We take this position because success in life also involves the development of (1) social skills grounded in positive moral/ethical values, (2) the ability to locate and effectively deal with problems in areas in which no single correct solution exists, and (3) aesthetic skills and values. These three elements aren’t prominent in current state standards and assessment programs, if they exist at all. If they are as important as we argue, incorporating them into state standards and assessment programs will ensure that they aren’t ignored in the curriculum.

It’s thus appropriate to challenge us to indicate how student, teacher, and school assessment programs could be altered to include these areas of achievement. This article will thus focus on assessment in the development of morally and ethically appropriate social knowledge and skills, and the following articles will focus on the other two areas identified above.

We’re a Social Species

We’re a social highly interdependent species, so we’re born with some innate social properties, and must master the others during our developmental years. For example, by the time children enter school, most know that it’s wrong to hurt others, right to help those in need, and to be fair. They observed these values being practiced and/or not practiced in their family and neighborhood relationships, and school gives them an opportunity to further develop these in more complex social situations.

In his highly regarded book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relations (2006) Daniel Goleman explores the behavioral range that runs from intuitively sensing the inner state of other people to understanding their feelings and thoughts to comprehending the meaning and significance of complicated social situations. This awareness continuum includes:

Primal Empathy: To sense the non-verbal emotional signals of others and to feel what they are feeling.

Attunement: To attend and attune to others with a sustained receptivity that leads to rapport.

Empathetic Accuracy: To consciously and accurately understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. A recently discovered brain system called mirror neurons ( allows us to subliminally experience and mimic the behavior of someone we’re observing, such as to automatically yawn when we observe someone yawning. But we often need to add prior experience with the immediate challenge in order to consciously grasp and appropriately respond to the real intentions of the other person, such as in contract negotiations, or when confronting an assailant.

Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works (such as the appropriate behavior in restaurants and museums, and the appropriate conversation for various social settings). Social cognition emerges out of the development of primal empathy, attunement, and empathetic accuracy.

Social Facility

To simply sense how other people feel, or to know what they think or intend, doesn’t guarantee fruitful interactions. Social skills build on social awareness to allow smooth, effective interactions. The spectrum of social facility includes:

Synchrony: To interact smoothly with others at the non-verbal level. This includes the ability to automatically read and respond to nonverbal cues (such as knowing when to smile and frown, how to orient our body). While these skills develop effortlessly in many children, the awkward behavior of others reduces the quality of their social life.

Self-Presentation: To present ourselves effectively in social situations, so that others can easily understand how we feel and think about the issues at hand.

Influence: To help shape the outcome of social interactions in a manner that is acceptable to others. Most social issues require at least some negotiation, so it’s very important to learn how to negotiate fairly and effectively.

Concern: To care about and appropriately act on the needs of others. The behavioral spectrum is broad—from simply holding a door open for a person laden with packages to contributing to charitable and cultural institutions. Since we’re a highly interdependent social species, it’s inappropriate for us to expect others, but not ourselves, to contribute to common needs.

Morality as a concept is concerned with the general definitional principles of right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, etc., and ethics with the development of specific behavioral codes that folks should follow. For example, since it’s immoral to kill someone, the medical profession developed ethical guidelines that reduce the possibility of death from medical mistakes and malpractice. (Sylwester, 2007)

The functional elements of social intelligence identified above constitute the heart of Goleman’s book, but what’s especially fascinating is how he draws on recent brain research to ground these social behaviors in neurobiology. These forms of awareness and behavior thus have an underlying biological explanation. This means that educators can enhance social intelligence through effective interventions—and measure the results.

Assessing Social Skills

The assessment of social skills should include objective information on: (1) how well students understand the elements of successful social relationships and culturally accepted moral and ethical standards, and (2) what they believe to be culturally appropriate choices when confronted with social, moral, and ethical problem situations. We argue that it’s possible to create credible assessment instruments and methods that gather objective data on the social knowledge and beliefs of students.

The third assessment element in this field is more subjective: the social skills that students behaviorally exhibit in school interactions. This assessment would be based principally on teacher observation, and it’s much easier to do this credibly at the elementary than secondary level. Elementary teachers work with a relatively small group of students over an extended time, while most secondary teachers meet yet another group of students every hour or so. It would thus probably make more sense to begin social knowledge/belief/skills assessment programs at the simpler social dynamics of an elementary classroom, and then to use the knowledge thus gained to develop secondary level assessments.

I (Bob Sylwester) argued in my 2003 book, A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom, that it’s possible to enhance cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management procedures in which students make many of the decisions that teachers typically make. In such a setting, it’s possible to make reasonably accurate assessments of the development of a student’s social maturation. Here’s a link to a synthesis of the book’s proposal, supporting neurobiology, and practical suggestions:,_Curriculum,_and_Assessment.


Goleman, D. (2006) Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam.

Sylwester, R. (2003, 2nd edition) A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press. For a synthesis see:

Sylwester, R. (2007) The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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