Tuesday 9 April 2013

Blogsync 4: Progress - It's all about STEPS

Progress is the new swear word in schools. It is used frequently to describe everything. Often, you will hear phrases like 'this is progress' or 'I progressing happy', or even 'Oh progress'. It may sound like it means something positive; however, it means the opposite. Worse still, some teachers are spouting 'PROGRESS! PROGRESS! PROGRESS' like some Dalek determined to rule the Universe.

This is entry of this month’s blogsync entitled ‘Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how do I know it?'. Check out here to see more entries. I have decided to use the band STEPS as the inspiration for the blog. And, in particular,  one line:

Wanna make you mine better get in line
Because that is what is happening in education. We are too obsessed with the numbers 5,6,7 and 8. And students have to get in line.

I find this idea of progress a very puzzling and confusing concept. For me, progress is about the steps to improving and going up those steps. I have progressed from a C to a B. It seems on one level that ‘progressing’ has replaced the verb ‘learning’ completely in schools. It is not what they have learnt. It is all about what they have improved on. How much have they progressed?  I worry for the good, old plenary. No long will students be asked: ‘What have you learnt today?’. They will be asked how much progress they have made in a lesson. Lots. Some. None.  Progress and learning are linked, but they are separate things at times. The learning supports the progress. Not the other way round. The progress, in my eyes, does not support learning; it is the result of the learning and too much focus on it distorts the learning. On another level, our expectations of progress has become distorted. We are expecting all progress to be exponential and continually improve in every minute or hour in a day.

I do have a big issue with this idea of progress. Not because I am ‘a leftie’ and I prefer students to learn things in a more organic way, but because I think we are looking for ‘fool’s gold’. Our obsession with students making progress could do more harm than good. Our point of comparison is weak. In one lesson, a teacher could be teaching students some facts. In another lesson, a different teacher is teaching how a student can shade a piece of art to reflect the natural lighting of an object. Are the levels of progress the same in both lessons? Will there be more progress in the fact based lesson? Or, will the rate of progress be at a different pace with students and their shading as it is developing a skill?   Progress varies from subject to subject, lesson to lesson and task to task. There should be a clear measurement for progress in lessons as, after all, it is a measurement of how good a lesson is. Is there more progress in the fact based lesson because students can do more than the art students at the end of the lesson? Or, is the progress in the art lesson of a better quality because it is refining an existing skill? Knowledge vs skills, again.  There is learning in both, but the nature of one subject makes progress transparent and the other not so clear. Furthermore, what about subjects like English that are recursive? How easy is it for students to make visible progress in something they have done before? It is easy to show progress, when it is something new, isn't. Yesterday they couldn't. Today they can.

Underlying all this discussion is learning. We shouldn't be focusing on the progress in a lesson, but we should be concentrating on the learning - after that it is what teachers are about. I help students to learn. The progress a student makes is a result of teaching and the student's learning.
To make things worse, this progress has to be boiled down to twenty minutes of observation. There must be some element of progress in those twenty minutes or you are not teaching the students correctly. Oh, and it has to be rapid. How can I show progress in twenty minutes? This twenty minute focus is meaning that we are focusing on short, superficial learning rather than deep, long-lasting learning. The learning is going back to this ‘fast-food consumerist’ culture we are fostering. The learning has to be quick. The learning has to be visible.  The learning has to rely on the consumer being satisfied.

I have learnt several things over the years and each time I have learnt something, whether it is Spanish or how to scuba dive, it has been slow. It has also been repetitive.  My scuba divining lesson did not involve a quick starter about the use of an oxygen task. I was not then thrown into the ocean. The instructor did not then measure my progress by checking if I was alive or not. In truth, real learning can vary. You might pick something up quickly like the colours in French. Or, it might take you several lessons to understand something like quadratic equations – it did for me at school. Yet, this constraint of a 20 minute of lessons is constricting us and focusing us to reduce the teaching so that students can make visible progress.

Description of classroom action

So, how can we show progress in a lesson? Or, more importantly, how do I show progress in a lesson?

Doing it wrong
Get students to start the lesson completing a task, knowing that they will do it badly. Then, spend the next 10 minutes teaching students how to improve. Finally, they redo the original task. The new version will be better than the first and you can clearly say that there has been progress made. This can be restructured to focus on prior knowledge and then retest them.  In the words of STEPS, 'One for sorrow and two for joy.' Redoing things shows students going up the steps.

My exercise books are exhibit 1.A in the metaphorical trial of my teaching abilities. It is the source of progress. If I was an Ofsted Inspector,  I would look at the books, because I’d know that what the buffoon(me) is doing in the class might not always be what they normally do. The books would tell the full story. It would say if the teacher is obsessed with worksheets, grammar tasks, peer marking or film reviews – I hate ‘film reviews’. A quick glance says it all. If Ofsted want to look at progress, then the books are the key to this.  Two basic principles must be applied to this idea:


1.       Work in the book now should be better than work at the start of the book.

2.       There must be some clear progress between marked pieces of work. There must not be repeated targets.

Reflection on effect 

What does this all mean for me and my marking? Well, any time I mark a piece of work in a student’s exercise book I look at their previous target or advice. At that point, I draw a smiley face or a sad face and I write progress or no progress. Then, when I write their new comment, I make sure that I acknowledge what they have done before. I am impressed with how you followed my advice and varied the length of your sentences, Martin. By doing this, I am feeding the progress into what I do. It isn’t all about levels; it’s about making sure I don’t repeat the same targets again and again. I am showing the progress in my marking. I am showing the steps up to the next stage.  Therefore, each piece of work in their books is about the student’s progress and shows how they are slowly getting better. I am moving away from the correct or wrong approach to work and moving towards meaningful feedback.   

My last blog argued how one sixty minute block is not a true reflection of the learning in a classroom. Twenty minutes is not enough. That’s why the books are so important, in my eyes. Progress isn’t a twenty minute thing. It is an on-going thing. You can learn something in twenty minutes, but that could or could not help you to progress. Progress is the bigger picture on the learning. Learning is judged in lessons. Ofsted judge the learning in the lessons and progress through the books and data. That is why our exercise books are important to showing students the steps to progress.

If all fails, I might have to adopt some of the following to make sure that there is clear and rapid progress in lessons. Warning: these have not basis for sound pedagogical learning and they will lead to 'Tragedy' if used. Just a bit of fun.   
·         Teach a list of facts.

·         Teach students an obscure literary term, so they can at least name it after 20 minutes.

·         Read a bit of a book they don’t know. Well, they didn’t know who the characters were before.

·         Train them to write inaccurately and terribly at the start of every lesson, so that they know that after 20 minutes they have to write it better. Then, at the end of the lesson they have to write even better than that. 

·         Don’t put any effort into their work, unless I say so. Then when I mention the phrase ‘This will show me your progress’ that is when they show me their best efforts.

·         Get them to pretend they don’t know a technique, so when it comes to looking at the work it looks like they have made outstanding progress.

Thanks for reading and check out my other blog on progress here. Please feel free to comment if you think this is a load of old progress and think I should progress off.


P.S. A big thanks to Helene for her opinions about the blog. Her blog can be found here.


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