Weasel words 2: Potential

Let’s assume for just a moment that the recently-aired figure of 70% does indeed account for the amount of heritability in educational outcomes.  I have been bouncing this idea off my colleagues in the last few days, and I haven’t found anyone who disagrees with the principle. (The fact that that already puts them at odds with the policy-makers is another story entirely…) Actually, the figure doesn’t really matter very much, and I don’t have great confidence in methodologies that claim to be able to pin such things down so precisely anyway.

So we’ll assume for now that there is some heritable aspect to educational performance, of whatever weight. From this we can derive an even more important point:  teachers do not have total control over the way their students turn out. Common sense that might seem – but we’re already diverging rapidly from those ideologies…

When I sit down to analyse the previous year’s exam results, I am expected to provide student-by-student explanations, especially in cases of under-performance. I find myself clutching at straws – a complete work of fiction is required to explain a particular event. This is not to say that I don’t recall how those students worked for me or the progress I subjectively feel they made – but I am inevitably left guessing at what specific combination of events led to a particular result. Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Easy – Once You Know the Answer is an interesting read on the dangers of over-simplifying causality.

Maybe we should consider what other factors might affect outcomes. It may indeed be that my teaching did not work for a particular student – but it might equally be that they did insufficient or ineffective revision, that they had not developed strong enough study skills or ethos during their wider school career – or equally, that on the day of their exam, the bus was late, they had slept badly, were feeling ill, or they had been dumped by their boy/girl friend the day before. Or a myriad of other reasons: who knows what combination of events actually was the ‘real’ one? But no matter how complex the real causality, the politico-education system assumes it’s all my fault.

I looked back at my own experience for insight. I was a reluctant student; despite being in the grammar school top stream, I was not especially industrious, or at least not when it came to school work – there were too many more interesting things to be doing in my teens. Who knows what my ‘potential’ actually was…

Back in that 1970’s grammar school, teachers didn’t push students especially hard, and I suppose plenty of modern educationalists would criticise them for that. But these were highly-intelligent people who taught by example, and it worked in as much as we developed an implicit respect for learned people and their ways. We also understood that our achievements were down to our work, not theirs.  I certainly don’t blame my teachers for not doing more: they knew the dangers of learned helplessness. The failing was mine, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. What’s more, it was that which has to some extent driven me to make up for lost time in later life.

I achieved adequate results, but I suspect nowhere near my ‘potential’ as it might be seen these days. My results at ‘O’ Level, ‘A’ Level and – yes – degree, were more the product of innate ability than anything I can claim much credit for. I was far too busy learning about entirely different things – things which, incidentally, have endured and continue to enrich my life to this day.

I do appreciate that I was blessed with certain intellectual advantages, but I wonder how I would have fared if I were at school today: would the present generation of bouncy, enthusiastic young teachers have pushed me to achieve more? I really don’t know. On the one hand, more pushing might have helped – except that my parents were already doing that. And it made virtually no difference at all – the brakes simply went on even harder as this awkward teenager refused to lose face.  Modern teachers might push more – but are they really drawing out ‘potential’ – or simply adding their own? They might prevent a degree of later-life regret, but do they motivate – or actually the opposite?

And so to return to this remaining 30%. From this figure, we may well need to subtract an amount for the effects that parenting and home background must have, whether positive or negative; maybe some more for the effects of peer pressure and more again for the impact of adolescence. Some students might have circumstances that affect them, such as ill health or bereavement. Finally we need to account for circumstantial factors such as those mentioned earlier. How much influence does that leave for the teacher? One might estimate 10-20% and even if you don’t accept the initial 70%, a lot of movement is necessary before the teacher becomes the dominant influence. A contributor on The Session a few weeks ago made the comment, “It’s pretty clear that a bad teacher can do all sorts of damage, but a lot less clear what benefits a good one brings”. He was talking about music tuition, but I think it’s an astute comment.

At the risk of over-exposing the poor guy, Dominic Cummings has a lot to say about good and great teachers – but he has so far to explain what he thinks that actually means. It seems to be something to do with realising students’ potential – but what that potential actually is, or how it can be ‘realised’ he doesn’t seem to know; I don’t think he’s alone.

And there’s the rub: we come to another word being used loosely, to define a concept that we can’t pin down. How are we to know a person’s potential? And in which fields? In modern usage it has come to mean the grades that statistical analysis suggests a student ‘ought’ to be able to achieve – the Minimum Target Grade.

Even a statistical sense, the concept is flawed: while macro-scale analysis may have its uses, applying it right down to the individual really isn’t helpful. The variation from the mean of those in the sample-group from which the ‘potential’ is calculated is great enough that pinning down any one individual within that distribution becomes largely meaningless. In probability terms, the chance of any given student hitting their MTG is often less than the cumulative probability of their scoring some other grade.

Then one might add the philosophical conundrum: how can anyone’s potential be greater than that which they actually went on to achieve? If the target was greater than what happened in real life, one can argue that the supposed potential wasn’t actually there, perhaps because other unknown determinants had not been factored in. This theoretical notion of ‘potential’ reeks of Affluenza, ever lusting after the unattainable.

Finally, we return to the question of which potential actually matters. Despite my modest formal  academic record, I am happy with my own ‘potential fulfilled’, met by a combination of innate intelligence and the maturity and hindsight brought simply by the passage of the years. My teachers undoubtedly did play a part, but I’m not sure it was as significant as is now claimed; in any case, it was done more by inspiration and example and playing the long-game. I really don’t think micro-management would have helped – it would have just made me more resentful.

I have deep reservations about placing such specific emphasis on potential, for all that it is a helpful broad-brush concept. I’m not sure that it does students or teachers any favours, especially when it is framed as short-term statistics– and it may do a lot of harm if expressed in a way that means little to the person concerned. It is also dangerous because we can never predict it accurately; expecting either too little or too much can both cause distress and demotivation. We should also hesitate over using inappropriately short timescales: personal potential by definition takes decades to become evident.

I’m not saying that good teaching has no effect – far from it, but we really should beware of claiming more than is realistically possible, either by outcome or method. The word ‘potential’ has become just another tool of Affluenza-education, a useful rule-of-thumb hijacked to – supposedly – justify its own often self-interested ends. Who really stands to gain from claiming that teaching is by far the most important determinant in realising someone’s potential – and then using statistics to ‘prove’ it?

Meanwhile the wider notion – that of ‘human potential’, which brought some of us into the profession in the first place – slips ever further from sight.

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