What Every Teacher Needs To Know About… Progress

  • What Every Teacher Needs To Know About… Progress

Both of which sound great. But progress that doesn’t last isn’t reallyprogress, is it? This idea that students’ progress can be rapid has led us to believe that meaningful development can take place in individual lessons, and that learning follows a neat, linear trajectory. Children move from knowing nothing, to knowing a little, to knowing a lot in a smooth and easily navigable and safely predictable manner. This is self-evidently wrong as even a cursory examination of children’s work over time makes clear. Progress is, if anything, halting, frustrating and surprising.

Most lessons are organised to make sure students can perform at their peak. We give them cues and prompts to ensure they can answer tricky questions, and make sure everything is familiar and safe. We use traffic lights and exit passes to prove that they understand the material covered and leave secure in the knowledge that they have learnt.

Such performances are often fleeting and tell us little about what is actually going on inside pupils’ heads. It seems so clear that if you can do something now, that must be evidence of learning – but this is very far from the case. One thing more than perhaps any other that might improve how teachers teach and pupils learn is to recognise that short-term performance is a remarkably poor guide to long-term learning. Performance can be propped up by predictability and current cues that are present during the lesson but won’t be present when the information is needed later. This can make it seem that a student is making progress but there may not actually be any learning happening. Here’s an example:

The capital city of Poland is W_ r s _w. Any idea what the capital city of Poland is? Warsaw? Oh, well done. Marvellous progress!

This is the Monkey Dance, and is a blunt but fairly accurate caricature of what goes on in far too many lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students’ performance so their observer can nod, smile and tick away to his or her embittered heart’s content. But have you ever taught a lesson along these lines only to discover that students appear to have forgotten everything next time you see them? Is that really progress?

The long haul

So, what do I mean by learning? The definition of learning I find most helpful is the ability to retain information over the long-term and transfer it between contexts. Learning is only worthwhile if you can remember it next week, next month, next year. And it’s of little practical purpose if you can’t use it anywhere except the classroom.

Performance and learning are distinct. Learning is invisible. We can only ever see students’ performance, and from that we can only ever infer what learning might have taken place. But performance is just the tip of the iceberg and as we know, it can be deuced difficult accurately to determine the shape and size of an iceberg from just looking at its tip. Learning takes place beneath the surface; it happens inside students’ heads and often outside the hurly burly of the classroom. If we think we have seen learning, we’re wrong; we’ve only seen students’ current performance.

Over a century’s worth of research in the field of cognitive psychology has consistently demonstrated that current performance is a very poor indictor of future learning. Being able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in a lesson is no guarantee they’ll retain this ability or be able to demonstrate anywhere else (the exam hall for instance.)

Tough love

And even more surprisingly, reducing current performance actually seems to increase learning. By making it harder for students to perform at their best, we increase the likelihood they’ll retain and be able to transfer new skills and information. This is deeply counter-intuitive, but consider this: if you believe you have grasped a concept or mastered a skill, you stop thinking about it. Learning stops. But if you know you’re struggling to get your head around something then you mull and fumble your way through it. The process of embedding new ideas into long-term memory continues, even if you’re unaware of it.

If this is true, and there’s compelling evidence to suggest that it is, then we need to rethink what we do in lessons. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for a job well done when children appear to have learned, we might be better to acknowledge that they are merely performing well. Because we can never know whether real progress has taken place in a lesson, maybe we should invest our efforts in getting students to embrace struggle. We should tell them learning happens when you think hard. If you’re finding something difficult, that’s because you’re learning; if it’s easy, it’s probably not worthwhile.

To help young people make real, worthwhile progress we need to disassociate learning from performance, both in our eyes, and the eyes of our students. Because the fact that you can do something nowis a poor proxy for being able to do it later, or elsewhere.

About the Author

David has run two english departments and been an assistant head with responsibility for teaching and learning. he is the author of the best-selling ‘the perfect english lesson’ and his latest title, ‘the secret of literacy’.