Weasel Words 1: Success

I’ve been reading on through Dominic Cummings’ magnum opus. It’s interesting, if heavy reading – the guy clearly isn’t ever going to be a poet… I’m finding his insistence that the solution to education’s (and Society’s) problems lies in a techno-fix to be questionable, if predictable. Some of his observations are enlightening and concerning in equal amount – consider the following:

“Given the lack of empirical research into what pupils with different levels of cognitive ability are capable of with good teachers…and given excellent schools (private or state) show high performance is possible, it is important to err on the side of over-ambition rather than continue the current low expectations.”

(Amen to that.)

“Because so many of those responsible for devaluing standards use some of the language of cutting edge science (e.g. ‘peer collaboration’), it has provoked many of those who wish to reverse such devaluation to reject arguments that are based on science because they sound like pseudoscience to people who have to listen to debates about schools.”

(Too true – though he goes on to say that some of those methods are not in themselves flawed – a reasonable observation)

“One of the main problems is that state schools have defined success according to flawed league table systems based on flawed GCSEs while private schools have defined success according to getting pupils into elite universities and therefore taught beyond A Levels”.

The question that is racing through my mind on reading this is how does Cummings define ‘success’?

This of course is a much wider issue. The education system is now riddled with the casual use of words like ‘success’, ‘progress’, ‘good’, ‘bad’ and of course ‘failing’. I am left wondering whether they actually have any real meaning any more, or whether like ‘Outstanding’, they have been completely devalued.

‘Success’ is surely a weasel-word if ever there was one – it can mean what you want: is a happily married individual a personal ‘success’ or – if they valued this above workaholia – a career failure? It all depends what you’re looking for.  Schools regularly talk about pupils’ ‘success’ when what I think they mean is ‘exam success’. And even then, one person’s success might be another’s failure. What they actually mean is the number of students who got high grades – not at all the same thing.

I wonder whether Cummings also has this in mind as his chosen indicator; I’m not decrying exams as one measure of students’ capabilities, but that is a different term entirely – and we should use the concept more carefully. I don’t think that exams are particularly good at measuring even intellectual success, especially now that so much effort goes into drilling pupils in exam tactics: crossing grade thresholds has become a more important objective than actually demonstrating knowledge and understanding per se. Cummings’ comment in the third extract above shows the dangers of this. Real, inherent intellectual ability barely comes into it any more  – and it could be added that both schools and exam boards have colluded in this by weakening the exam system though providing huge quantities of analysis, information and hot-housing in  the name of transparency and ‘accessibility’. Or is it actually for demonstrating ever-rising pass-rates? The chart below, extracted from Cummings’ essay makes interesting viewing.

Chart: Comparison of English performance in international surveys versus GCSE scores (Coe)


I think we need to rediscover a much wider definition of success. I’m not being bleeding-heart about it – I’m unsentimental that in order to identify success, one also needs the existence of failure (which is where many educationalists go all weak-kneed) – just that we should be much more circumspect in the use of such terms. This is especially so when we slip into fake-quantification of such terms, often without defining our criteria or parameters – and then go on to make far-reaching judgments about students or teachers based on what are actually highly subjective observations conveniently dressed up in pseudo-scientific terms.

I sometimes think of teachers as ‘planters of seeds’ – we cultivate the ground, sow the seed and nourish it for a short while. But we rarely see the crop come to ripeness – that takes several decades. This is success of a largely unseen, unquantifiable kind, but I would argue, by far the most important, whether for the individuals concerned, or for society as a whole. What the bean-counters are measuring is not intellectual, academic or personal success (which is what I thought we were about) – but simply those who succeeded in riding the system.

The same could be said for judgments passed about ‘good’ or ‘talented’ teachers. I will return to that another day…


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