Sunday, 12 January 2014

Progress:4 Effort:1

I have just completed my first week of being an acting Head of English. So far it has been good, but it is still early days. Things have been tough but I am enjoying it. Anyway, during this busy, hectic week I have been thinking of progress (isn’t that we all do now) and I was thinking of how over the years different phrases or buzz words have driven /directed my teaching. Interestingly, my mother is a nurse and she often bemoans the amount of paper work, but she has never once commented on how she must ‘bandage more’ or ‘raise the antiseptic’. Every year I seem to have had a different word driving every action, thought or deed I have in school. At the moment, I am directing the school play and I can't stop thinking that the actors are not making enough progress.  

Over the years, I have had ‘FFT’, ‘Aspirational Targets’, ‘Personalised Learning’, ‘Every Child Matters’, ‘Value Added’ and now ‘Progress’. It is funny how obsessed things were at the time these words were thrown about . It was once FFT this and FFT that. You can’t possibly do X and Y because of the FFT. Or, don’t forget the FFT. FFT drove me mad at the time. Then, I had ‘Aspirational Targets’. The genius idea of giving students a target two or three times higher than the one they could realistically achieve. In principle it was nice idea, but sadly it was just a joke because teachers struggled to define for students what a student should be aiming for and what they should be really aiming for. I had endless conversations with parents and students over the difference between their target and their aspirational target. Often this led to: ‘Why didn’t you just give them one target?’ Raising aspirations doesn’t lie with a grade; it is a way of thinking, yet I was told to crank up the grades and tell the student to aim high. I love the idea of telling all students they can achieve an A, but you have to do a lot more than telling them that.

Then, not so long ago, I had ‘Personalised Learning’. It is funny all of these things still exist in my brain and they are natural parts of teaching, but the buzz words drove the teaching when it was in vogue.  Every discussion tended to end on personalised learning and we did lot of personalising. Oh, look we have personalised the learning! It is surprising that these concepts were ever boasted as being new pedagogical approaches. They are natural concepts in teaching yet we were being told to include these and not to forget them. We must show evidence of it in lessons. Then, I get to ‘Every Child Matters’. For me this was the most insulting one, it assumed that I walked into a classroom and taught only a certain percentage of students. It assumed that I wrote off children. It assumed that I ignored them.   

That leads me to today: progress. That is the word that drives things today. It is all about the progress. What progress are the students making? How do I know progress is being made? This is commonplace in schools now. Surprisingly, for once, I agree with a buzz word. However, it is for not the reasons you’d think. Rather than witter on about it, I am going to explain through a lesson I taught this week…..

My Year 9s are currently preparing to write some travel writing and as part of the preparation stage for writing we are practising sentence writing. Each lesson starts off with something I call ‘Grammar Time’. Played to the music of MC Hammer, students have to create three sentences using a model I have provided. After they have written the three sentences they come to my desk and I mark the sentences.

This one lesson in particular had this sentence as a focus: Like an animal, he ate the meal quickly. The students went mad and started writing their sentences, starting each one with a simile. A simple little writing task turned into an explorative discussion of the effectiveness of similes and the patterns. Here’s some of my favourites:

Like a fat women hidden behind a twig, we could easily see him.
Like grenade next to a bowl of jelly his head exploded.
Like blood the snow fell.
Like a maze she couldn’t make her mind up.    
Like a broken light bulb her mood changed.

Our discussion covered several different points. They included:

·         Two contrasting items (jelly and grenade) in the simile made for the most original comparison.

·         The first thing we write down is usually the most obvious. (Like a snail, he walked slowly.)

·         The similes that we have not used or heard before make the best ones.  

·         Objects make great comparisons for describing mood.

·         The more unlikely the item of comparison and the item are naturally linked together (blood and snow), the more effective the simile.

·         Adding texture to the object adds an additional layer of meaning. For example, the broken light bulb means something different to a normal or temperamental light bulb.

·         Using a famous figure in a simile reduces the effectiveness of a simile.

When I originally planned this, I didn’t expect to get so complex with writing down one blooming sentence, but we did. However, it is not the lesson that I want to draw attention to. It is the progress. There were three students. Let’s say they are all boys so I can mask their identity. This is what they did:

Student 1: He wrote three predictable similes.

Like a cheetah, the player rushed to the end of the pitch.

Student 2: He wrote the three average similes, but used a different structure.

She was cold like a snowman.  

Student 3: He wrote three average similes.

Like a ghost, I could barely see him.

All three students came to me. They had produced a good effort. They had worked hard. They had produced the work I had set them. I sent all three of them back after marking their work and telling them how to improve.

Student 1:  Before, he wrote three predictable similes.

Now he wrote three average similes.

Student 2: Before he wrote the three average similes, but used a different structure.

Now he wrote three average similes using the correct structure.

Student 3: Before, he wrote three average similes.

Now he wrote three similes which created a particular kind of mood.

The thing I think that has happened too much in the past is that effort has dominated our opinion towards work produced. We have praised students that show a high level of effort and punished those that show no effort. Look at the lesson I did. I could have praised all the students in the first instance for completing the work done. They all had demonstrated a high level of effort. However, there was little evidence of progress. By praising the effort, I am masking the lack of progress. Personally, I think this has been at the heart of teaching for decades: the praising of effort has hidden a lack of progress. The student may have worked really hard: the effort is praised; the progress isn’t mentioned. The student feels he/she has done well. They then feel like they do not have to adapt their behaviour.  

Like the Voice, maybe we need to distance the person from the progress sometimes. British culture loves an underdog and we love someone that tries. Maybe in the past we have focused more on the effort, than the progress. Joe Bloggs has tried ever so hard. I don’t think teachers need to become Simon Cowell, but maybe we need to do something about the connection between progress and effort. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone has made progress if they have written seventeen pages; it just means they have worked hard.

As teachers we do need to praise effort but it should not be at the detriment of progress.  Effort has been like a mask in some cases and hidden a lack progress. How can we expect students to improve or progress if we give them the wrong messages or more likely mixed messages about their work?


Progress:  4                                                                                                         Effort: 1
Thanks for reading,



  1. In the past I have seen examples of effort without progress. One that sticks in my mind is a year 10 boy who used to copy a huge number of answers from the back of a particular textbook, and had got so used to doing this and being praised for it (who knows how many years this had been normal for him) that he (uncharacteristically) flew into an incredible rage when I told him off for it.

    However, in the last year or so I have seen the opposite. An obsession with "moving on" to something new in order to show progress, long before students have done anything near the appropriate amount of practice. I don't mind progress as an aim, but we need to be prepared to accept that it is often incremental and only visible over the long term. The amount of effort necessary to ensure a child shows in your lesson they can answer a particular type of question might be far less than the amount of time it takes to get them so used to that type of question that they will never get it wrong ever again. And yet, that is often what genuine progress requires rather than moving onto the next thing.

  2. Thank you for the comment. It is without doubt a complex issue. I totally agree with you about the long-term aspect. I toyed with the idea of mentioning it in the blog, but that is the next stage. Could the students do use the simile structure independently and without support? That would be the next phase for me. It is a complex thing and I don't have it fixed.

    Thanks again,


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