Weasel words 3: Progress

When I was learning to drive, I learned quickly, and my instructor said, “You’re making such rapid progress that we might as well put you in for the test early.” Then, a few weeks before the test, my ability to do hill-starts suddenly deserted me…

Progress is important; without it people give up. Daniel Pink identifies it as essential to intrinsic motivation. But to hear some people talk about progress, you’d think it can be sliced like a cake. Yes, you can measure how far you’ve walked down the street in a given time – progress of a sort, albeit merely quantitative rather than qualitative. But the term is now being misused in education by everyone from Ofsted down. Lesson observations can live or die on how much ‘progress’ the pupils supposedly made. When I was last visited by Ofsted, the ‘P’ question was indeed asked, and my not-untruthful answer was to say, “They now know X, which they demonstrably didn’t at the start of the lesson”. This seemed to pass muster, though whether said pupils still know X, six months later is perhaps more questionable.

From this I concluded that Ofsted does indeed use a definition of progress which thinks it can be sliced by the hour. I suppose it might possible in a skills-based subject, such as P.E. Maybe it’s easy enough to measure how fast someone can run, give them some concrete instruction, measure their new speed and identify an improvement – which is supposedly down to your intervention. Even in relatively skills-based academic subjects like Maths  it is perhaps relatively straightforward to teach a new procedure, get the students to do 20 exercises and give them a mark to show that they can now do something they previously couldn’t. And yes I do know there’s more to Maths than that… It’s also possible to differentiate by task, simply choosing an appropriate level of challenge for each pupil, a bit like you do on a computer game.

I think it’s from this mind-set that the whole edifice of techno-teaching has evolved, and I suspect it might even explain why some subjects seem to gain more favour than others. Many of its proponents do indeed seem to come from the kind of subjects where it is relatively easy. But what happens if you teach a humanities or arts subject? These subjects deal with uncertain and even intangible matters. There is no single, linear pathway through the content of Geography, let alone Art. Neither is there a single, neat answer that can be judged right or wrong in the arts or social sciences, particularly at the higher levels. There is no such thing as the ‘right’ route through an English or Philosophy essay – let alone Critical Thinking (which I teach) for which exam marking must be an absolute nightmare of non-standardisation.

Given subject matter which is largely non-linear and content-based, differentiating meaningfully by task is also much more difficult. You either know your stuff or you don’t, albeit at a given level of sophistication. Greater sophistication equates at least in part to more knowledge, not necessarily more sophisticated knowledge – though what you do with it is another matter, and just as hard to pin down. With certain exceptions, the skills are largely generic, so (important thought they are) there’s not very much to be gained from focusing on them instead – even assuming you could benchmark them accurately.

All of this makes measuring progress in the National Curriculum/Ofsted sense just another game of charades. Even deciding which Key Stage level lower school children are on is a lottery, given that there is no simple measure or linear direction for the work they actually complete and the things they understand. In plenty of assessments I mark, pupils hit different levels for different parts of what are inevitably multivariate tasks, such as identifying, describing, explaining and analysing a given phenomenon. Even more perplexingly, there is not always a correlation between the levels achieved and their position on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It’s not unusual to find competent explanation piggy-backing off poor description, even though the linear progression says that’s not possible. Deriving an average from this is as meaningless as it is difficult; you simply can’t average describing and explaining.

Another misconception is that progress is linear and constant. Yet I know from learning curves of my own, that they are bumpy, and can even go into reverse. Quite often, you spend hours, days, weeks seemingly getting nowhere; you may even consider giving up in frustration. Then, for no apparent reason, you make a surge of rapid progress. It’s as if the brain needs to let new ideas ferment for a while before it can assimilate and apply them. In extreme cases, as with my hill-starts, you actually go backwards in order to go forwards (just as suddenly, the skill came rushing back…). Measure this process at the wrong moment, and you will get some extremely unwelcome results to show to Ofsted.

Short-term memory is notoriously fickle, and the process by which both skills and knowledge transfer to the long-term memory is still not understood in any methodical sense. I have measured children’s ‘progress’ at the end of an hour, in the advised way, and then tried testing them again several weeks later. The retention levels are not always impressive; does this mean that my teaching is ineffective, or just that the expectations are unrealistic? Recently, I have told children to try learning a fact a day when preparing for a test; I have lengthened lead times accordingly, and refuse to tell them the precise date of the test until it is nearly upon them. As yet I don’t know whether this works, but it is an attempt, albeit fairly crude, to circumvent the short-term learning-rejecting cycle that is too easily mistaken for real progress if the time frame is wrong.

The problem with this weasel word is not the concept behind it, but the fact that it has been applied in a narrow, blanket sense to subjects that really aren’t suited to it. It assumes that progress is a single, measurable, unidirectional entity – which in many situations, it simply isn’t. Such a definition of progress could, to my mind, only have been devised by someone with no real appreciation of how learning actually works – or at least how different it can be from subject to subject. It seems to be an Affluenza-derived definition that sees both it and learning in general as an acquisitive, cumulative and certain process little different from the way in which a millionaire might acquire new cars.

It isn’t that either.

What’s more, as Doppler knew, progress also appears different depending where you’re standing relative to it. And we haven’t even touched the value-laden question of which kind of progress you might be looking for…

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