Teaching Stories

Bag for life? Towards a carrier bag theory of assessment

As a secondary school teacher, and now also working as part of the University of Bristol’s BILT team, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on different experiences of assessment.

Particularly mindful of a new cohort of students, whose education has been altered by COVID, moving through to Higher Education, what stories will they have of their experiences of assessment? And in what way will they conceptualise such stories? In this piece I reflect on the role of programme level narratives and possibilities for refreshing our relationship with assessment.

Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’[1] provides a compelling lens through which to consider how we see assessment. For Le Guin, stories can be categorised in two genealogies – the ‘killer’ story and the ‘bag’ or life story[2].

The story that has typically come to dominate our socio-cultural experiences is the ‘killer’ story. The hallmarks of this story, Le Guin argues, are its focus on action, heroes, battles and ‘all the sticks spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things’. These types of stories become pervasive. Our experiences commonly reinforce and mythologise narratives whose shape ‘is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if [the hero] isn’t in it’.

In opposition to this is the narrative which slowly accretes, which is more natural; for Le Guin this is narrative as a receptacle, narrative in its first, most incipient cultural form, as a recipient. Stories whose slow coalescence is derived from our human desire ‘to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again’. If it seems difficult to pinpoint narratives which typify this, it’s likely a reflection of their absence from our cultural domain.

In charting the competing calls of these two narrative approaches, Le Guin recognises the power of the dramatic ‘killer’ form and that the latter is ‘unfamiliar, it doesn’t come easily, thoughtlessly to the lips as the killer story does’, but also her own sense of disenfranchisement from a culture ‘explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing’.

We all navigate our world by the way we understand the story of our own lives, and this extends to how students (and teachers) see assessment. For many reasons, education as we know it now can seem to many students about sticks and swords, about hitting a mark. For students recently or currently in secondary school, after two years of Teacher Assessed Grading, such a process can only have accentuated their sense of conflict.

In listening to university students’ experiences of assessments, many too (or too many?) have surveyed their assessment histories in manner more reminiscent of veterans recounting compelling victories and bitter defeats, of mangled weapons and moments of glory. THOK! Assessment. Over. What’s next?

What can change this narrative paradigm? It is too simplistic to see this as ‘competing’ roles of formative and summative assessment (both are integral), but is it also about the culture and way in which we see education, learning and assessment?

For Le Guin, there must be a ‘certain feeling of urgency [to] seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story. It’s unfamiliar,  […] but still, “untold” was an exaggeration. People have been telling the life story for I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.’

Firstly, it might require us to create a new enfranchisement narrative around assessment which lessens the imperative of ‘starting here and going straight there’; it might encourage us to reflect on how we challenge the narratives students create about assessment, where self-worth is diminished if there is no sense of ‘conquest’.

Secondly, to pursue a different way of conceptualising assessment will require thoughtfulness in language. The thoughtfulness of the individual to shine a light whilst in the shadow of other larger constructs. It might require careful, well-chosen words. Words which are not born of conflict, of simply right or wrong, but well-chosen words which stay with students – ‘words which hold things, words which bear meanings’.

Finally, it might involve a reappraisal of how assessment should feel. Assessment which is felt to be useful, uncombative and maybe even, in a sense, beautiful. A way of creating a narrative around assessment in which students feel that later on, when they need it, to follow Le Guin, they can ‘take it out, share it or store it up for winter in a solider container, or medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred’.

[1] Le Guin draws her analogy from the work of Elizabeth Fisher (1980) in Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society, New York: McGraw Hill.

[2] from Le Guin, Ursula K. 1989. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, 165–170. New York: Grove Press.

2 thoughts on “Bag for life? Towards a carrier bag theory of assessment”

  1. Dear Joe, thank you so much for this. I think your three recommendations are really very valuable indeed, and as a linguist, I am glad to see the power of language recognised in this way. May I ask one question: in your view, even with the three recommendations implemented, is this kind of assessment feasible when marks are given and thus, verdicts passed? Or will students (and perhaps even some colleagues) still see the reframing as cosmetic and the marks as the real thok-point?

  2. Dear Christophe,
    Thanks very much for engaging with the post and your thoughtful comment. In terms of feasibility, I think there certainly are practical realities that we are all constrained by, but I would hope that in the pursuit of an idealistic model of learning and assessment we could at least improve things beyond a cosmetic level. For example, it might be about encouraging students to focus on their progress, rather than attainment, or attenuating the ‘thok-points’ by exploring formative feedback prior to looking at marks. Or simply to encourage a celebration of learning beyond a transactional exchange (and I think that is where language is vital).
    With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed reading Harland et al’s arguments for ‘slow scholarship’ https://doi-org.bris.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/02602938.2014.931927
    I’m aware I have probably not (yet) decisively answered your original question, but that might be one of the features of my own slow scholarship.

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