Progress? It’s more complicated than they’d have you believe!

Progress is not linear.

My six year old found my clarinet under my bed yesterday and decided in that moment he wanted to ‘learn’ to play it. I put it together for him and explained how to make his lips firm and how to blow. After a little while, he was getting from nothing to screeching to, finally, thankfully, a reasonable tone. I’ve sent him out now to serenade our newly hatched tadpoles in the garden so I can think straight enough to write this. From a little direct instruction, through practice, came a little progress. Simples. Except not really. First, he had a desire to learn. He asked to learn. He listened, and his interest was enough to persist, for several hours until the sound finally matched that which he had heard from me. He still can’t play it – his fingers can’t yet span the instrument and they’re too small to properly cover the holes. There’s muscular and sensory work to be done there. He will need to learn to read music. He will need to learn to love music – to have a canon of tunes at his disposal that he wants to be able to play. There will be complex interplay of patience, practice, passion and supportive parenting in his march towards progress. One thing is for sure though – it won’t be a linear march. This morning, when he picked it up again, he created a screech. He had fallen backwards. I would have failed an Ofsted inspection. It took him ten minutes to get back to where he had been yesterday. He looped. And as anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument will know, progress is not linear and the process is frustrating.

Will my son become a clarinet player? Who knows. He might drop it in the pond. And that will be the end of that. But, in a round about (non linear) way, the point of this post is that neither learning nor progress fit neatly on a ladder, and pretending that they are is getting us all in a bit of a mess.

Progress – it shouldn’t be a game.

One of the most damaging aspects of our current high accountability system is the notion of linearity and a reductivist approach to the idea of measuring progress. The concept that progress should be made in ’20 minutes’ by every child did not come from anything other than a panicked reaction to the words ‘rapid and sustained progress’ in the new Ofsted criteria. An inspector might only be in my lesson for 20 minutes, how can I show that all pupils are making rapid and sustained progress? Well you can’t. You can play all sorts of games to pretend that you can – an unbelievable amount of funky, coloured self assessed progress sheets seems to be around at the moment. Tell the kids something fairly undemanding. Get them to discuss it and then colour in on their progress sheet – your back is covered. The fact that this is getting in the way of, and even interrupting the learning that might be taking place, doesn’t matter. Progress can be ticked off the list. But the thing is, it’s only progress if it sticks. From one lesson to another. From beyond the exam into the next stage of life. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

In our school, the emphasis on ‘progress over time’ has led to a re-examination of the way we record data and a focus on looking at the marking in books. There is a renewed obsession with levels, which judging from the feedback from our local T&L network group, is leading to some highly questionable practices. Observers demanding that pupils make at least one sub level of progress in a lesson, for example and a move away from portfolio based assessments to the individual levelling of every piece of work. In that world, they’ll all be getting PhDs by the time they’re in Year 9.

When such ‘data’ is scrutinised, the teacher feels under pressure to input data that seems to show progress. When I was adding half termly data into our tracking system at the beginning of the year, I was warned by colleagues not to show too much progress for the pupils, in case they fell back and ‘it looked bad’. Some of them, over a portfolio of six pieces of work, had achieved high level sixes, but I was warned not to put that data in – to ‘save’ it so it looked better later in the year – like I’d made a difference. Needless to say, I put in the marks they got. In the second round, one pupil had fallen back slightly. The others were pressing into Level 7. Elsewhere, some pupils look like they’ve stayed the same. Some look like they’ve fallen backwards. The thing is, we’re measuring different things all the time. The spreadsheet doesn’t allow me to say that a child’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, or that we were assessing technical writing ability at one point and speaking and listening at another. Crude instruments do not allow for a rich timbre, and at the moment, our clarinet is screeching. We think we’re showing progress, but we’re just making a noise.

Progress – it’s complicated.
There seems to be a vocal group of twitter teachers at the moment who are questioning the idea that relevance and engagement matter in learning. I know. It sounds mad, but they do exist. Mostly, they have had six weeks training before being dumped in a classroom, so you can’t really blame them, but a good dose of cognitive psychology, educational philosophy and neuroscience would not go amiss in increasing their cognitive gains. Firstly, then, let’s examine how relationships affect progress.

Relationships are not about being ‘nice’ and being ‘liked’. They are not about having fun all the time. They are rooted in the affective dimension and require watchfulness, humility and flexibility. They work on a complex interplay of actions, gestures, looks and words. A teacher who has great relationships notices things. The minutiae matter. And they matter because the brain is a bit more complicated than some people like to think it is. For a start, physical and emotional processes are more essential than we like to think they are – even into adulthood.

There is, in the communities of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, an emerging consensus of wonder at the complex interplay between mind and body, which challenges the traditional TOD model of cognition (Ryle, 1949). This is a model that has evolved over centuries in a trajectory from Plato to Descartes to Freud. In that determinist model, there was thought to be a close relation between intelligence, conscious thought and human identity. ‘Higher order’ thinking acting like a ‘Mini-Me’ of the conscious mind, collecting the information arriving from the senses and using logic and thought to organise, shape and present it on a clear-cut way. In this model, intuition and action are considered to be less ‘intelligent’ than rational thinking and binaries are formed. This TOD paradigm has permeated science for decades and has influenced education and research that has placed ‘critical’ and reasoned thinking as a pinnacle of intelligence.

Claxton (2012:79) outlines the TOD principles in an acronym – CLEVER:-
Clear-cut (not vague)
Logical (dispassionate)
Explicit (well justified and not hearf-felt)
Verbal (not manifest in gesture or expression)
Explanatory (not manifest in action or perception)
Rapid (requiring neither patience nor contemplation).

Yet there are a series of studies which show a complex and inter-related system of knowing in which the physical, emotional and intellectual are mutually dependent and variably expressed, leading many, including Claxton, to suggest that:-
the idea popularly attributed to Jean Paiget and widely believed in education, that we ‘grow out of’ our reliance on the concrete and the sensorimotor and that once we achieve ‘formal operations’ we can happily kick away the ladder of physical experience that helped us to get there, turns out to be highly questionable. Bodies are a whole lot more than vehicles for getting minds to classrooms and they may deserve a greater and more sophisticated role in education than merely ‘letting off steam’ on the sports field.’ (Claxton 2012:81)

In traditional modes of teaching, the body can be seen as ‘distracting, disruptive or unreliable’ (Claxton 2012:79). In fact, the body can tell us a great deal about what a child knows or is in the process of knowing. There are high levels of activity occurring in what sometimes feel like moments of stillness and silence.

In their article ‘Innovative Data Collection Strategies’, Onwuegbuzie et al (2010) point out that in spite of much writing on data collection, little has been written about the collation and representation of non verbal data. They state that even in the ‘seminal’ Handbook of Qualitative Research, only two short paragraphs in a book of 1126 pages, raise the issue of non verbal communication. We know, however from these recent developments in neuroscience that many ‘conversations’ take place in this space and they are conversations which can shape the mood of the participants powerfully (Curran, 2008). Current thinking in the field of neuroscience shows that it is almost impossible to separate the emotional, motor and higher order thinking processes and where it is possible, there is damage to the brain (Damasio 2006). Moreover, the body’s motor system reacts to metaphor and imagination as quickly and effectively as it does to reality. Claxton notes that unsurprisingly, when we hear a sentence such as ‘Bill caught the cricket ball’, our hand primes itself to catch a ball. He goes on to cite studies from Masson, Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which similar physiological responses occur in sentences such as ‘Anna had forgotten her Blackberry’ (listeners primed their motor cortex to make small pressing motions with their thumbs) and even in more abstract modes such as ‘Judith delegated the responsibility to Sheena’ where the motor cortex indicated a gesture of giving – open palm handed out. (Claxton 2012:80). While we linguistically accept that metaphors such as ‘kicking habits’ or ‘pushing up daisies’ mean other things, our brains still react literally to them, priming our legs and hands to kick and push. Do the words ‘can’t’ and ‘can’ have a similar impact?

In an observation a senior leader commented that it was good that I was not afraid of silence and would wait, but I wanted to say that there was no silence – there is talk all the time – it’s just gestural talk, waiting for words to catch up. Goldin-Meadow and Wagner (2005) point out that gestures are of the essence of explanation. That children will frequently convey meanings and understandings much richer than their words suggest through gesture. They argue that paralinguistic features of communication are often more daring and creative than children are willing to express in words or writing. We dance our language – sometimes imperceptively, sometimes clearly…

I knew it but I didn’t know I knew it….
I am teaching Year 9 and trying to get them to identify metaphor – can they tell me what a metaphor is? I ask. One boy is bobbing, hand in the air, but when he tries to say it, he falters:-

‘I thought I knew, it’s….no I can’t explain it.’

Normally I would move on, but I’ve just read about embodied cognition and so I look at the boy’s hands.

‘Look at your hands – what are they trying to tell you?’

He looks. His hands are making a curved shape – a bit like the shape men make of women, a bit like a vase. I’m not sure which, but his hands are moving in this shape without him knowing. He looks.

‘Oh, it’s like a vase…a vessel…is a metaphor a vessel – like a container for a meaning? Oh I can’t say it!’

‘You did – you found a metaphor for a metaphor.’

If we are really going to help children to make progress, we need to think about it completely differently. Progress is not about putting numbers into spreadsheets. It is about seizing upon small but significant moments of opportunity. Clues. Being open to possibility. Being positive.

Too often, teachers fail to see those small moments of something that can so easily be lost. We fail to capitalise on clues – to probe a hesitant speaker, to see an embodied explanation. We let them go and they become lost in the frustration of knowing that they almost knew but not quite. I can see my son on the edge of the pond, serenading tadpoles and it prompts a thought of myself as a fisherman, just trying to make sure that none – not even the tiddlers, get away. If we are to take the idea of progress seriously, we need to learn to look, to hook, to reel them in. And it’s complicated.


16 thoughts on “Progress? It’s more complicated than they’d have you believe!

  1. Brilliant, Debra, once again you hit the nail on the head. Not everything can be reduced to data or put onto a spreadsheet. Teaching/learning are a lot more complicated than that.

  2. Ah the art and craft of teaching…and learning! Not everything can be quantified and more often than not that which can is not worth the quantifying!

  3. Brian Edmiston prefers complex to complicated and I think I agree. Complicated is what the data-trackers, progress mapping charts and APP assessment forms (unintentionally) make of the process of evaluating progress. They are tools of empirical science that want to take shifting, complex processes and re-interpret them as a matrix of data.

    The purpose of this is to give teachers, schools, parents and inspectors clear objective information for assessment, tracking and accountability.

    All good sound motivations. Unfortunately, rather than simplifying matters, they actually make things far more complicated and ironically do more to deflect teachers from the real practical purpose of teaching and learning than almost anything else.

    This paradox is wonderfully captured by a metaphor from Donald Schön, shared by Roo Stenning @TheRealMrRoo,

    Edmiston argues educationalists need to embrace complexity – what Dorothy Heathcote called developing a tolerance of ambiguity – and actively resist models that look to define complex social reality into data-sets and reduce progress as steady linear growth.

    The development of data-tracking software has had an unintended effect on lesson evaluation and by extension teaching practice, by reducing the complex messy process of learning into a objectively measurable and observable phenomenon. This outcome pretends to invest inspectors with super-human powers of observation and has terrified many teachers into game-playing the whole teaching and learning process for the purposes of accountability.

    This does a disservice to the practice of pedagogy and damages the link between useful formative assessment and genuine learning experiences. Pushing (a very unhelpful metaphor) children up linear, objectively defined and measured, pathways often results in confusion and stress as learners are introduced to new learning before they have grasped a sufficient understanding of the last.

    Empirical progress mapping has its place and is important for accountability and for giving broad indicators over time, but it is always contingent and always liable to critical analysis. After all behind the numbers are human-beings not rolling stock.

    Becoming an expert teacher who can make expert professional judgements of children’s progress takes time and practice in the classroom. APP and other systems can help in this learning process, but they are not a substitute for the expert opinion of a teacher who knows the learners well and can make a thousand informed observations and evaluations every hour and use this information to adapt, innovate and respond as a result.

    Let’s not confuse assessing progress for formative learning, with record-keeping for accountability.

    1. Hear, hear. Diana Masny is another interesting voice in this area – just reading hers and Inna Semetsky’s book on Deleuze and Education. All so complex! Will leave the word complicated behind in future 🙂

  4. I do really, really like it when someone blogs on a topic on which I am only modestly informed, and they take me cognition to a much better place – and in such a way as I can talk about, and use, the concept I have learned from them, in real life. Thanks Debra, again.

    have chatted with disqus re the comments thingy, but to no avail; is there anything else I can do? I am mulling over a sizeable post that blends the campaigning perspectives of Early Years and the Teaching professions, but it may take me a few days to get it all together!

    1. Just keep tapping into your parent networks where you can – Sunday nights are always busy on Mumsnet for example!! Don’t worry about Discus – it’s probably got a limited reach in that sense anyway. And thanks for your comments – that one had been brewing for a while but the clarinet brought some clarity!

  5. An erudite post Debra, as ever. Most teachers know these things even if they don’t know they know (!). Many SLT could benefit from reading this. All at OfStEd should be forced to read it and Mr Gove should be beaten around the head with it 😉

  6. So much of what lies at the heart of learning, and is increasingly difficult to capitalise on in teaching, is hinted at in your piece, Debra. Relationships form the basis of all human interactions, as is demonstrated through the story of the emergence of your son’s emerging interest in music. You were there, but more than that you were there for him and with him and you understood his journey. The finest teachers I have worked with and observed in action had a way of making that investment. No data set, no matter how detailed, can provide you with a link to the learner to match this.

    You are right, “Too often, teachers fail to see those small moments of something that can so easily be lost.” Why is this? If it points to gaps in their training, we owe it to them to extend that training. But, if this happens because making a connection with each learner isn’t as highly valued as seeking to demonstrate progress to an external agent across brief time spans, then that is a fault of the system we have allowed to take root.

    I walked away from a lucrative career as an Ofsted inspector because I found limited value in vital aspects of what I was being asked to evaluate. It was a personal choice but it saddens me to realise that, at present, too much time is being devoted to weighing and measuring our pupils, teachers and schools at a cost we cannot afford.

    I have to believe there is a new dawn waiting to break over our profession when there will be general agreement that meeting the needs of individual learners requires time and a commitment “to learn, to look, to hook, to reel them in.” And, yes, it is complicated.

  7. Yes, it’s always so much more and not recognizing all that is like teaching stars how not to dance (with thanks to my first poet ever I read, e e cummings). I was about two years old and I listened as my mother read his singing to me. It filled me with such great imagery and sound even a two year old could understand at some level, somewhere inside. It was later, after I had carried his complete works around with me …. and still do sometimes….. maybe five or six years later….. when I heard his actual voice on an old recording. It changed me. I knew more. I felt the song like some star that just appears and only that. Like your son, I couldn’t span the wholes to make the notes, to consider the metaphor and imagery. But then my fingers grew. And I did too. At last, at 12 and a freshman in high school, I met Mr. Springer. My English Lit. teacher. He taught me how to see and hear and sing and put the beating of hearts in my walking. Perfect piece, Debra.

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