From Institutional Effectiveness and Accreditation
Methods that obscure HETEROCHRONY retard progress in higher education assessment. The concept, which has been a key to understanding evolutionary and developmental biology for decades, refers to the differential effects of timing on the developing structure of organisms. A change in the timing of an organ relative to other organs results in a change of context that can have profound effects on the entire species. In fact, heterochrony is considered to be one of the prime mechanisms for the emergence of the human brain from that of prototypical primates.
On an intuitive level we all understand heterochrony in the development of higher learning. A Mozart or Picasso who gets introduced to an art at an astonishingly early age is able to connect the art with aspects of language, social skills, and cognition that delight others for centuries after their lives. Yet there are findings that such accomplishments have consequences. For example, recent research (Ruthsatz and Urbach, in press) reveals a similarity between prodigious development and autism. If heterochrony is so important to the development of higher learning, why does it appear that no one is studying or even measuring it? One theme of these AALHE Methodology postings has been that biological methods are decades ahead of assessment methods. Despite the findings of fMRI studies or the genetics of intelligence, the methods of biology are far more important to the assessment enterprise than its findings are. A half century ago, biologists wrote about brain weight to body weight ratios. Today, such arguments are seen as ridiculously oversimplified – somewhat like trying to study a computer by comparing the weight of its processing chip to that of the whole computer, housing and all. Instead, biologists write about timing mechanisms in genes—chemical process that change the shape of molecules and result in an enormous variety of outcomes for developing and evolving organism. Today, many assessment providers use measures as crude as brain and body weights, like test scores and grade point averages. They even obscure the data in rubrics by assigning scores to levels and averaging the scores. Such global scores provide scant help to learners.
I have argued that the descriptions of student learning should be based on at least ten developmental dimensions, with four-levels each. Such descriptions are the codons (genetic sequences that determine function) of learning and when we know their interrelationships within and between programs, then we can begin to understand how different forms of higher learning interact to produce persons whose educations prepare them to adapt to their rapidly changing futures. Such understanding will be crude compared with knowledge based on the human genome, but it is a necessary step toward such knowledge.