An earlier form of this essay appears in the Spring 2005 issue of educational Horizons

Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses:
the Impediments of Formalism

© 2005 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 1/14/14

… occult causes: the very absurdity which Moliere so happily ridiculed when he made one of his pedantic physicians account for the fact that opium produces sleep by the maxim, Because it has a soporific virtue. --- John Stuart Mill1


"Occult " causes are frequently offered as explanations. They may be difficult to distinguish from explanations that have some scientific basis. Indeed, it is often lack of knowledge on the part of the explainer that turns a useable concept into semantic puffery. Easy availability of such explanations -- you can concoct them on the spur of the moment -- overrides any concern for their inaccuracy.2

"Why can't Johnny read this book?" "Because it's beyond his readiness level!"

"How can you tell that?" "Because, as you say, he can't read the book!"

Another common one is this:

"How can I get Sammy to behave?" "Reinforce his desirable behavior!"

"How will I know if I have reinforced that behavior?" " If you see it occur more frequently!"

Then, of course, there is that good ol' fashioned distinction between between the "good kids" and the "bad kids." The Good Kids you can expect to be good, even when they aren't because they have merely made a mistake, or have had a misunderstanding, or have suffered a momentary, uncharacteristic slip. Good kids are worth the investment of a teacher's time and trouble.

The Bad Kids you can rely on to be bad even when they appear otherwise because they're really trying to trick you and lull you into being off your guard and who knows what mischief they're up to when your eyes are off them? Such kids just waste a teacher's time and don't deserve the opportunities so lavishly afforded them.3

Weaknesses and Formalism

We tend to overlook the fact that we judge performances in context. That is why people who are generally competent outside of the classroom can appear so inept inside it. "Can you read this text?" is not merely a demand to make some sense of it, but often, in school, to identify plot, and character, author intent, and or, at a minimum, to be ready to recast the story in one's own words. (I teach philosophical analysis at the university. Educated adults who have long believed themselves to be quite competent readers have, initially, rough going in my classes when I ask them to analyze a text in the methods of my tradition.)

Any individual competence can be recast as a display of weakness if we restrict the manner in which it is performed. Formalisms are the, usually social, restrictions in terms of which we judge individual achievements. Some formalisms are necessary. Many are controversial. Others are pernicious.

For example, anyone might traverse a 100-mile stretch of highway in an hour by just exercising a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal. The formalism we call "speed limit" makes this feat difficult, if not impossible to do. Do we, nonetheless, complain of a "weakness" in our driving? The recognition of the idea of plagiarism places restrictions on many a student's ability to hand in an impressive essay. Concepts of theft might interfere with an individual's otherwise quick accumulation of wealth. Yet behavior constrained by such rules and regulations is not judged to be a weakness.

Pernicious formalisms are ones which have been, often unconsciously, introduced as schooling customs from a particular social class or cultural group and which cannot be reasonably expected to be same for every child. Pernicious formalisms might be the particularly idiosyncratic expectations of an individual teacher, not necessarily intentionally perverse but stultifying all the same. Basically, our schools tend to judge a child's strengths and weaknesses within a framework of expectations that the following constraints are in place and have been adapted to: "Children, even though it is only 8AM (or even earlier), behave as though you have had a good breakfast, enough sleep, warm clothing, time to prepare your lessons, supportive parents, emotional calm, high energy despite the long bus trip to school, impeccable manners and hyper-trained sphincters!"

Academic Formalisms

And then there are the Formalisms of the school and classroom "subject matter ." Whether these are necessary or pernicious is often a controversial issue that must be decided on a case-by-case basis.4 Whether or not they even matter is debatable : there is no end of delight in our society to recounting the many, many examples of successful, wealthy people who are weak in academics.

No one is weak or strong in a school subject except with respect to a task we might consider for them. Johnny is never just "too weak" or "strong enough" without provoking the inquiry, "For what?" Students who study foreign language via a reading translation method usually end up weak in communication skills in that language. Phonics advocates fuss that whole language approaches to reading make for inadequate readers. Whole language advocates fume to the contrary. Modern approaches to math, some argue, leave students with weak computation skills. Mere computation is not really mathematics, rebut others.

There is a legitimate concern about student strengths and weaknesses. It comes from the recognition that what the curriculum is determines what we count as strength and or weakness in a student. The curriculum, in turn, is much determined by the organizational needs of the school, or even, merely, by administrative convenience; consider, for example, the debates over whether block scheduling is appropriate, and for which subjects.

So far as concerns for schooling equity are concerned, it is worrisome, indeed, that the administrative convenience of the school district or of different levels of government might ultimately determine who passes and who fails in the classroom. The practice of standardized testing, for example, is not rooted in pedagogical concern.5

Computers, et alia

A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity --- Clifton & Anderson 6

What about the effects of technology on our judgments of personal competence? Is being a poor speller a weakness, especially since word processors have spell-checkers? Don't calculators make the memorization of "math facts" obsolete? Few people can use a slide rule any more. Even engineers, relying heavily on computers, can let their skills at solving differential equations decline .

We have generally given up that notion that everyone must be prepared to grow and hunt her own food . We can and have to depend upon farmers, and food processors and retailers. Must we rebaptize every such dependency a weakness?

Harry can enter almost any secure building undetected. Is this ability one of his strengths? It depends. Is he a government investigator? Or a burglar? Louise doesn't know where the Islets of Langerhans are. Is this inability a weakness? It depends. Is she a doctor? Or a travel agent?

The moral: Abilities do not necessarily indicate strengths. Inabilities do not necessarily indicate weaknesses.

Pursuing Educational Equity: a dilemma

The notion of formalism gives us a handle on something that many educators complain about in the present national atmosphere of coercive achievement testing for public schools . The strong test emphasis, they complain, interferes with their attempts to reach each child. Their complaints are dismissed as merely self-serving. But, in fact, "No Child Left Behind," or anything vaguely similar which imposes a standardized testing program on schools, may be a mechanism by which many children are stultified in their learning.

Purportedly in pursuit of educational equity, standardized tests are being used -- indeed, overused -- in public schools as an organizationally convenient means of comparing student abilities. But standardized testing imposes severe and often new levels of formalism in terms of which the academically relevant behavior of the students is evaluated . Unless prior preparation has been done with the students, one ought to expect vast discrepancies in achievement as measured by the tests. And every educator knows that spending the majority of class time preparing for testing is bad curriculum, any way you look at it. It is boring to student and teacher; and, it provokes rebellion and sabotage from both the "good" and the "bad" students, as well as their parents. The uncircumspect pursuit of equality makes dependency a weakness. It make school related abilities a strength. Change of context might well reverse these judgments, or make them pointless.


[1] A System of Logic

[2] See related essays on teaching and learning at

[3]The modern version of Malleus Maleficarum. See Suspected witches are either guilty as evident in their behavior, or, lacking that evidence, they are proven guilty as evidenced by our inclination -- doubtless induced in us through their spells -- to judge them as innocent. See, also, E. G. Rozycki, "Dragons, Sea Monsters, and Kids Who Don't Want to Learn" at

[4] Some concerns about formalism in the teaching of mathematics are given in "Acculturation to Formal Reasoning" at IS IT REASONABLE TO BE LOGICAL? Limits to the Use of the Probability Calculus and Logic

For extended examples of deformalized, inductive approaches to the teaching of grammar in various languages, see Catalog of Materials for the Study of Inductive Grammar & Usage

[5] For an overview of the structure of formalisms that link testing to student treatments see, "Rationales for Intervention: from test to treatment to policy,"

[6] Donald O. Clifton & Edward Anderson, (2002) Strengthsquest. Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career and beyond. Washington, D.C. Gallup Organization. p. 8