As a parent of four children I’ve attended a lot of parents’ evenings. Having spent sixteen years as a teacher, I’ve hosted a lot of them too. Such meetings are often dominated by a need to show the children are making progress. Progress is everything in school isn’t it. And yet the word, by definition, suggests advancement towards a preordained place. Where is that exactly for my children? Or for anyone’s? Progress, ironically, suggests a fixed rather than a growth mindset to me. I’ve always preferred the word development instead.
All too often, such progress is encapsulated in a grade – a B for Maths, a C for English or a score of 125 for Verbal Reasoning, for example. Often these grades are seen as a child’s performance. This is flawed thinking. Seeing a B grade as an indication of a child’s performance in Maths is like saying the performance of an F1 racing car is expressed by its position on the leader board. It’s not. Not at all. This is the result of its performance. Its actual performance has more to do with how it is running – its tyres, its engine, its aerodynamics, the driver’s skill, the driver’s concentration levels, the driver’s motivation and mood, and not to mention the environment in which the car finds itself: the movements of the other cars, the intentions of their drivers, the weather, the surface, the unexpected actions of the crowd, and so on. There are so many variables, so many observables, some visible, some invisible. In theory, the car could win any race or lose any race; it could spin, leave the ground or, God forbid, burst into flames the moment it leaves the starting grid. It has incalculable potential.
To say the result that a car achieves in a race is its performance is to miss all the opportunities the race team engineers have to improve the car next time. If they focused only on the leader-board position – the visible results of the car’s performance – they’d pack up their spanners and go home. Job done. The challenge, and the excitement, comes from analysing what worked, what failed, and what can be finely tuned for an enhanced performance next time.
And so it is with education. When we conflate performance with results we miss all the opportunities we have to address the learning performance of a child, and the environment in which that learning takes place.
But the problem is, so much of the learning performance and the learning environment is immeasurable isn’t it. What really lies behind a C grade in French, or a B in History? Yes, there are the 3Rs, of course – the child’s ability to read, remember and regurgitate the knowledge taught at him. But there are myriad other factors at play, none of which are revealed to us in the numerical scores and percentages that are banded about at parents’ evenings or written indelibly on school reports.
What of the child’s character traits and attitudes, his curiosity, his intrinsic motivation, his creativity, his thinking, his communication and the extent to which he is willing to participate? None of these are easily graded, thank goodness, but all of them form part of his performance and will impact greatly on his visible grade at the end of term. And, crucially, all of these invisible factors will have huge impact on his life after school, when success no longer depends on knowledge retention and applied logic – far from it. A Verbal Reasoning score of 125 is all well and good but how will it help him with his marriage, or his friendships, or his ability to commit to long term aims and hold down a job? It won’t. The only thing a verbal reasoning score tells us is the boy’s ability to concentrate on a specific problem long enough to apply some reasoned logic to it and crack some code or pattern (cynically, one might say it tells us how educable he is and how much of our attention he’s going to require in the formal classroom. No wonder schools rate this kind of data so highly). An ability to reason and think logically may be important in some jobs, but it is by no means a panacea for the kind of human challenges life will throw at him in due course.
But then reasoned logic is a Western obsession isn’t it. And yet I don’t believe it is especially innate within any of us. Homo sapiens have not survived this long on the planet due to our ability to think rationally or apply logic! Rather it is our natural propensity to wonder, to react, to adapt, to use our senses, to create opportunities, to show resourcefulness, to improvise and to work with one another that has enabled us to evolve.
Are we sleepwalking into a time when progress in school is measured in computational capacity and processing speed? Have we already reached it? I have a computer to apply logic for me; why should I shut down the things which make me human in order for me to concentrate on applying logic or solving mathematical equations? Is this what education is for? Rather than a preparation for life and all it throws at us, is school a preparation for school-life? By the time my four children graduate from full-time education they will be ideally primed for… full-time education. Anything else may seem quite alien to them, regardless of whether they achieve A*s or Es. As John Dewey said, ‘From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilise the experiences he gets outside school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily like what he is learning in school.’ I have some sympathy with this view.
But all this may be over-egging it somewhat; every good teacher is already aware of the invisible curriculum that goes on in school, a curriculum in which not everything that counts can be counted. Much is being written these days about character education, social skills, well-being and mindfulness, and that’s a good thing. But in the race to deliver on these invisible capacities, and show ‘progress’, we must resist the temptation to create curricula and assessment criteria to prove they are being taught. Surely we just need to prove they are not being taught out of pupils. God forbid my daughter will come home with a B- in grit, a C+ in curiosity, or 67% for empathy.
But we do need to recognise, and report on, these invisible elements of learning performance in better ways than we have in the past.
So how do we shed light on the invisible curriculum? How do we monitor and report on children’s character development through school without using fixed grades and percentages? How do we make predictions about their ability without serving up self-fulfilling prophecies, fixed mindsets and glass ceilings? How do we facilitate an untrammelled flow of potential?
I believe we look at the conditions of the learning environment. Historical assumptions that school is for developing academic intelligence in children and that the best way to demonstrate this is through academic qualification have created a climate that is non-conducive to these invisible aptitudes and attitudes.
A renewed focus on the learning environment will ensure that these invisible capacities can flourish in children rather than be taught out of them. In my series, The Invisible Curriculum, I address five key features of the learning environment: teacher as model learner, group dynamics, choices & challenges, language and observation. In addressing these key features, I feel sure we will enable children’s innate capacities to flourish at the same time as developing their computational capacity. As with so many things in education, it is not either/or, it is and.
The next time you attend a parents’ evening and you enquire after your child’s performance, do not settle for a numerical answer. Tell them that is the result, not the performance; there is so much more beyond the grade, and it demands our attention.