Assessment Implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Devin Vodicka

The television series “Breaking Bad” features a teacher-turned-drug-dealer who creates an alter-ego character named Heisenberg.  For many, that would be their first association with the title of this post.  To be clear, what follows will reference the work of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and not the Bryan Cranston character.  

The physicist Heisenberg is most famous for his Uncertainty Principle which clearly illustrates that measuring subatomic particles has an effect.  More specifically, there is a dynamic interplay between precision of the measurement as it relates to position and velocity.  A precise measurement of the location of the particle affects the movement of the particle and a precise measurement of momentum affects the position.  

For educators, there are three important takeaways from important principle of quantum mechanics:

  1. Measurement has an impact.  With a firm understanding that the act of measurement affects what we are measuring, we need to be mindful of what we intend to measure, when we will conduct the assessment, and what the implications of the measurement will be.  While in many cases the act of observing and measuring can have a positive result (often referred to as the Hawthorne Effect), we must also be mindful of potential adverse impacts.  For example, when school accountability systems focused on standardized tests in language arts and mathematics, was there an appreciation for how that would result in a narrowing of the learner experience to exclude other subjects such as science, social studies, music, art, world languages, dance, and physical education?  Was there an expectation that recess would be reduced or eliminated?
  2. Precise measurements often impede momentum. This means that burdensome assessments impede learning.  Again, standardized tests are a prime example here.  When we spend weeks conducting these high-stakes assessment the learning essentially stops.  We must ask ourselves if the information that we gain through these tests outweighs the benefits of the learning opportunities that are lost.  
  3. Understanding the interplay between position and velocity, we can increase velocity (ie learning) by reducing the intensity of measurements (ie assessments).  A minor adjustment to collecting less precise information more frequently can result in less interference and promote greater rates of ongoing learning.  

In all cases, we should be placing the learner at the center of our decision-making as we determine the best approach at any given point in time.  What will best serve the learner?  What will best promote ongoing learning?  These are the questions that should guide our decisions around measurement and assessment.  

For more: Check out How to Test Less

This video from Khan Academy may also be a helpful primer to better understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle:

Image result for heisenberg uncertainty principle

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