Standards, Judgments and the Finnstep – Veronica Brown

Until today, I had never heard of the Finnstep. Now, it is streaming across social media as yet another debate emerges on the subjectivity (and potential corruption) of judging figure skating. It’s rather a timely debate as I work my way through Eisner’s (1985) The Educational Imagination. Having skimmed the first few chapters (which deal with social factors that influence the curriculum, an assessment of the state of education at the time, and some curriculum basics), I have landed at Chapter 6, “Educational Aims Objectives, and Other Aspirations”. He begins with a nice overview of behavioural objectives, how best to define and use them, their merits, and their shortcomings.

I am see great value in behavioural objectives because they provide specificity, measurability and, one hopes, objectivity in assessment. Those behaviours are often tied to standards, which Eisner describes as “crisp, unambigous, and precise” (p. 116). They are best when you  know what the end product will look like. Consider swimming lessons. A swimmer must be able to fulfill all criteria for a given level (e.g., complete a front dive off a 1m board, swim front crawl 50m, swim back crawl 25m, tread water 1 minute, etc.) before moving to the next level. Swimming lessons exemplify a competency-based system based on well-defined standards. A swimmer does not move to the next level until all elements of the current level are completed. It is not a system where you can pass 60% of the elements and move on, you must pass everything or you re-do that level. The outcomes are very specific and the same standard is applied across all swimmers in that level. There is a little bit of room for judgment (e.g., the  quality of the front crawl might vary) but most elements are fairly objective (e.g., you can tread water for one minute or you can’t).

The reality, however, is that not everything is as clear as your success swimming across a pool. Eisner acknowledges there is a place for such behavioural objectives, but exposes the limitations of this approach. He asks,

But what about the rhetorical force of a students’ essay ? What about the aesthetic quality of her painting? What about the cogency of his verbal argumentation? What about her intellectual style, the ways she interprets the evidence in a  science experiment, the way in which historical material is analysed? Are these subject to standards? I think not.

But to say that such qualities cannot be measured by standards is not to say that judgments cannot  be made about them. It is not to say that one can have no criteria through which to appraise them. Judgments can say much about such qualities, not by the mechanical application of prespecified  standards, but by comparison of the qualities in question to a whole range of criteria that teachers or others making the judgment already possess. (p. 116)

This is the part that makes me nervous about assessing the affective domain. Before joining CTE, I was an instructional coordinator, managing very large classes. Leaving all this to “judgment” makes me nervous. Some of our courses had more than 40 markers. How could I be sure their judgment was the same? How could I minimize variance in that judgment? Can you really trust “judgment”? How many judging scandals have we heard about? Just how “fair” is judging? OK, I admit maybe I’m just in a slightly cynical mood having watched the Olympics all day only to hear tonight that people are talking about figure skating judges, again. Before worrying about these larger issues, let’s get back to the question of the day, how do we define outcomes related to the affective domain? Not to say behavioural objectives cannot be used in the affective domain, but I do think they are limited.

Eisner gives two alternatives to behavioural objectives, not to replace behaviour objectives but to complement them. First, he describes problem-solving objectives. One of the limitations of behavioural objectives he identifies is the need to know what the end product will be before students begin. But many of the questions we pose to our students do not have a single, clearly-defined answer. Instead, we ask them to solve a problem, with varying constraints. Even in the introductory programming course I taught, students solved the problems in different ways. My solution to the problem was not the only one and so I could not judge them based on whether they solved the problem my  way, I had to develop an evaluation scheme that provided for that flexibility. An example Eisner shares is that of an architect, who must meet the constraints provided by the client, such as budget, site, and architectural style, but the product cannot be fully assessed until it is completed. He explains that, “what is known is the problem; what constitute appropriate solutions remains to be seen after the work has been done” (p. 119). Those constraints can help to form the criteria against which the solution is evaluated but there is no single solution to the problem.

The second alternative is expressive outcomes. Something I missed as I read the earlier part of the chapter was that he used the terms “behavioural objectives” and “problem-solving objectives” but calls these “expressive outcomes“. I tend to use the two interchangeably but he’s sees a clear distinction. Objectives represent the goals we have for our students, which lead to activities. For example, we might have a goal of evaluating students’ ability to analyse a budget, which leads to an activity in which we present a case study and ask them to analyse someone’s budget. But for expressive outcomes, we begin with the activity and the outcome is

essentially what one ends up with, intended or not, after some form of engagement. Expressive outcomes are the consequences of curriculum activities that are intentionally planned to provide a fertile field for personal purposing and experience. (p. 120)

I have read this chapter several times but it is only now that I realized my error. I didn’t pick up this subtle difference because I use objectives and outcomes with the same meaning. But what is truly different about expressive outcomes is that it is the activity that we plan, not the outcome. As an educator, I cannot foresee all the outcomes that activity might yield but I might have the sense that it has value. We trust that while each student might have a different experience, participation in the activity will have value. To achieve such an outcome, Eisner recommends we “have students engage in activities that are sufficiently rich to allow for a wide, productive range of educationally valuable outcomes” (p. 121).

I like this idea of planning the activity and allowing the outcome to come forth. But I am still uneasy. At the end of the day, I have to give my students a grade. How can I assess students who have a different outcome based on that experience. Is one outcome better than another? What is the criteria against which I judge this experience? How can I be assured that a panel of judges (or the 40 people marking the assignment) will yield the same result? Thankfully, we are not starting from scratch. There are many valuable tools that can help us to evaluate these experiences, experiences that I think are critical to the development of elements in the affective domain.


Eisner, E. (1985). The Educational imagination : On the design and evaluation of school programs (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Lake and rocky islands



Published by

Veronica Brown

Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.