Measuring progress …………or shooting the goose?

A colleague and I were having a conversation.  One of those snatched moments in a corridor when something really happens and you find yourself getting excited about teaching as you share your thoughts, usually finished off with, “We really need to get together and have a proper talk.”  Which, of course, teaching being what it is almost never happens.  It was a shared lament really, both of us are reputed to be pretty good at what we do, observers usually say that they enjoy being in our lessons and that the children are doing fantastic work, they wax lyrical about the engagement, about the independent learning about all sorts of things that we take for granted.  Then comes the, “BUT”.   “But I’m not sure that I could see progress.”

For those of you fortunate enough not to be under the threat of OFSTED let me explain.   OFSTED are the Office for Standards in Education, in other words the inspectors.  Now I have no problem with anyone coming into my classes and watching or better yet joining in.  I have always held the belief that the more everyone knows about what teaching is all about the better.  The problem is that an inspector may now be in my lesson for perhaps twenty minutes, during that time they will form a final opinion about how good I am as a teacher, an opinion which will contribute to the overall rating my school gets.  Well everyone wants to be classed as an outstanding teacher don’t they?  To do that I have to show that all my pupils are making better than expected progress in the twenty minute lesson slot.    What it actually means is that all my pupils have to demonstrate that they are making better than expected progress during that time.  Have a think about that for a moment, if you teach ponder a few of your classes and the individuals in them.  If you do not have the privilege of spending time with large numbers of eager learners then let me fill in some of the details for you.  That means anywhere up to thirty five teenagers from a wide spread of social backgrounds with a diverse range of previous learning varying from those who can barely read to the sort of pupil who at thirteen can tell me that the analysis of the art work I have just shared with the class is fundamentally a Marxist one.  It’s an interesting job.

However another conversation with a teacher trainee focused my thinking on a potential problem.  This student had worked in two very different schools and in contrasting them she explained how one school was driven to achieve the outstanding verdict so hard that the lessons had become fragmented as the teachers sought to evidence progress at least every twenty minutes.  The strategies that she described were very efficient and it would be very hard to say that they were wrong in any way but they left her with a dissatisfaction about the learning experience.  Now I am sure that we have all experienced lessons that dragged on and on; a little variation in some of those would be great.  However I am delighted to relate that for very many of the children in lessons in my team the lessons fly by.  One of my favorite phrases is; “Is that the end of the lesson already?”  And that is after two hours of solid work.  I hasten to point out that two hours is really not very long if you are totally immersed in what you are doing.

Most of us who do design or any form of art would recognise that moment of flow, when everything is working, the ideas are coming easily, everything you touch seems to turn to gold and things are going just right.  We would also testify to the hours of plugging away at something which just won’t flow, the problems, the frustrations and the sheer hard work.  However the idea that someone would interrupt that flow just to stop you and make you prove that you were making progress would offend many of us. Do you remember that time when you were just getting the hang of an idea and someone asked you a question that drove the idea out of your head?   Of course skilled teachers would recognise the time when intervention is required, either to redirect or to reset the focus.  In process based activities like designing very often the learning comes with the doing; the experience of struggling with an idea that just won’t quite work and then arriving at the elegant solution after hours of work is what the subject should be all about.  Of course there are some knowledge based aspects to it as well but learning about the facts will not give you an insight into the practice, doing it does that.  (If you want to know how true that is watch an academic talking about an art or craft object that you really know about because you practice that art or craft.)  

I suppose what I would argue for is a less structured approach to demonstrating progress.  And perhaps a more nuanced perception of what learning progress looks like in design and art based subjects.    The alternative sounds a bit like painting by numbers.   Several time this year, and once today, children have said to me, “That’s the best thing I have ever made!”   That has to be worth something, it is to me.  I am sure that part of the problem is that we understand what that feeling of flow is like, we know its value personally but it is elusive.  Working out how to write a learning objective for your class that expresses it might be tricky and devising a plenary that evidences it will tax you but it is what makes the subject for most of us so we need to develop our own language of learning.  Something for another post perhaps.

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