Sunday, 9 March 2014

Brilliant effort but no progress

I promised myself I wasn’t going to blog this weekend as I have done a lot this weekend However, I find myself stuck on a train, without a decent book and with no signal on my phone. Oh, and the man next to me is eating crisps like he is a broken hoover. So, what do I do: blog.

Pedagoo London was a fantastic experience; and, again, I met some lovely people. I thoroughly enjoyed networking, and gossiping, on a Saturday morning in a building that modelled itself on an Escher drawing. The stairs! Leaving the building involved me walking up some stairs, down some stairs, up some more stairs and finally down so more stairs. Logic usually tells us that down and out is the usual way out, but this building defied logic. I went up, down, up, across, down, up, across and then out.


Anyway, my talk. My talk was about progress. It is the latest ball and chain to attach to teachers. The key questions people ask of students are when they creep into a room:

       What level are you working at?

       What is your target?

       What do you need to do to improve?

All of these are designed to analyse the progress. Does the students know where they are in the learning journey? Do they know what they have to do? Do they know where they are going?

We are in the storm of raising progress – I am still waiting for the eye of the storm. Everything is geared around progress. We must raise the levels of progress. It is not your ‘A to C’s that really matter now. It is your three levels of progress. But, I think that a lot of things are in the way of progress. The key one being effort.

Now, I applaud Mr Gove’s effort. It is excellent. It is brilliant. He has certainly put a lot of effort into improving education. In fact, I will give him a nice, pretty, golden sticker, because he has worked harder than others in politics. But, sadly, there has been little progress. Effort good. Progress limited. This I feel is the problem with data, reporting and things in the classroom: we look at the effort first and progress second.  

Look at the sorts of phrases I have been guilty of writing on students’ work.

Brilliant effort

Good effort

Superb effort

Average effort

Poor effort 

Lacks effort

Needs more effort

 In fact, a lot of reports that parent’s receive are focused on effort. We number it. We grade it. Yet, progress is something a parent has to infer from a collection of numbers or grade. We explicitly talk about effort, but we implicitly talk about progress. A parent is supposed to look at a target grade and a working at grade and decide if it is a sign of good or bad progress. A parent might see a level 7 target and the report says their child is currently working at a 6. They might infer it is bad. They might infer they are close, so there is no need to worry. They might infer that it is better than last year and shrug their shoulders. They might infer that they need to call a tutor. They might infer that the colour-coding of these grades in pretty. We report effort more than progress, because as long as they are working hard things will turn out alright in the end. It doesn’t always work that way: How many schools have Year 11 intervention plans? Yes, they worked well in Years 7-10, but they are miles away from their target.

I recall a student I taught and his poor efforts in lesson. I nagged. I moaned. I cajoled. I punished the student for not working hard enough. He did not produce the 50 pages I equate to superb effort in his written work. Instead, he produced measly pieces of work and I spent hours of my time writing: poor effort – you must work harder. But, on reflection, I now realise I missed a key point. He showed progress in those little pieces of work. He listened to my lessons and fitted all the ideas and skills into his writing. He did everything (apart from write pages and pages of work) I asked him to do. He made more progress than others, yet I was punishing him for not conforming to a model of an A* student. Because he wasn’t working to my idea of what hard work looks like in a lesson, I wasn’t picking up on the progress he had made.

If I think to my method of marking, the first thing I judge is the effort. It is either: wow, there’s a lot to mark. Or: phew, not much to mark – there’s a relief. Then, there are the various shades of grey between those levels. I know, you are thinking: we mark effort because it is encouraging and supportive towards the student. Let’s go back to Gove.  I could applaud his effort; it might encourage him to stay in education. He will, however, feel that he is doing the right thing and doesn’t need to improve or adapt his methods. Unless I inform him that the level of progress he is making is minimal, he will keep doing things in the same way. It worked last time so why should I change it.  

Rather than comment on the effort, I now tend to use these three phrases:
 

Progress

Some progress

No progress

Irrespective of the amount they have done, key is the learning. This doesn’t mean I allow, support, small pieces of work and tiny efforts in my lesson. I just will not be blinded solely by effort. When marking, the first thing I think of now is progress. Does this piece of work show evidence of progress?


We don’t give teenagers enough credit. They know this flaw in our system - they are clever enough to not mention it.  If we think writing ‘poor effort’ on a piece of work several times is going to improve a student, we have another thing coming to us. If it was simply a case of writing more, then everyone in schools would be getting A grades. The A grades do write a lot, but their work shows progress.

Like an Escher drawing, we are in this endless journey of going up and down in lots of directions. Maybe. Just maybe if we toned down our emphasis on effort and focused on progress, we might see the progress we all want to see. Those all-important three levels of progress. Because, for all our efforts to improve effort, we could be like the drawing going down when it looks like we are going up.


Thanks for reading,
Xris  

 
P.S. I do intend to blog more about my session, but I wanted to show progress in the blog and not impress you with my effort. More next week, I hope.

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