Friday, 24 July 2015

The Progress Paradox

There is a radical concept in urban design known as shared space. It involves the removal of kerbs, street furniture, and painted lines in order to blur the boundaries between traffic and pedestrians. The idea is that if you merge the various zones of use in the urban environment - pavements, cycle lanes and roads - people become more aware of other users and more conscientious towards their fellow citizens as a result. And it works! Removing all the features that are designed to keep us safe actually makes us safer.

I promise there is a point to this and I'll get back to it later.

I have blogged before about the highly dubious and misguided approaches we take to measuring progress. That we seek to distill learning down to a baseless numerical value not for the benefit of teaching and learning - for teachers and pupils - but for the purposes of accountability and performance management. Levels - perhaps once fit for purpose - were hacked up into an ill-defined system of sublevels and points, and bundled into neat packages of 'expected' progress in order to quantify learning and satisfy the demands of external agencies.

Points became the currency of scrutiny.

And so, these measures are now part of the common language of assessment and are now so integral to the daily running of a school that it is hard to imagine a world without them. They have come to define the contours of learning. It is perhaps inevitable that when levels were removed we set about recreating them. We needed the numbers to 'prove' the progress even though we knew deep down that the numbers meant nothing. The cage was opened but we quietly closed the door and stayed put.

But we have to measure progress, right? Surely we need to quantify it in some way?

Don't we?

One of the key reasons for the removal of levels was that they often caused pupils to be rushed through content before they were ready. Pupils that were deemed to be 'broadly level 4' therefore reached the end of end of the key stage with significant gaps in their learning.

But if that was a key  issue with levels, isn't it a problem with any progress measure? If we are driven by steps, bands and points then isn't there a big temptation to tick the box and move the pupil on? Aren't we just chasing meaningless numbers? Has anything really changed?

This brings me back to the concept of shared space. Perhaps if we remove all the points and expected rates of progress - the street furniture of assessment - we would concentrate more on the learning; on identifying pupils' weaknesses and addressing the gaps. Assessment would then be returned to it's proper state: about what is right for the child, not what is right for the bottom line; and ultimately both the child and school would benefit.

So, maybe progress measures are a distraction and if we concentrate on embedding learning - on consolidation, cognition, gaps, and next steps - then the progress will take care of itself. Perhaps, ironically, pupils would make better progress in a world without progress measures, where teachers are not chained to expected rates linked to linear scales that tempt them to push pupils on before they are ready. We must avoid repeating past mistakes, shoehorning pupils into 'best-fit' bands and expecting uniform progression through the curriculum. Instead let's focus on the detail - track the objectives that the pupil has achieved and assess their depth of understanding. The progress will be evident in pupils' work and we don't need arbitrary numbers to tell us that.

Essentially it all comes down to one irrefutable truth:

If you teach them, they will learn.


  1. I think they'll learn anyway, if they're sentient beings and they won't necessarily learn what we want them to, just because we're teaching them. However, I'm with you completely on the other points. Assessment for accountability is now a massive spanner in the works of education.

  2. I agree, in part, with what you say. Excessive use of data is unhelpful and its reliability & validity can be questionable. However, it can have a place that doesn't interfere with teaching properly.
    I don't see that attributing a numerical value to the stage of children's learning from time to time, for the sake of gauging progress in individuals and cohorts, has to influence what you teach them. It doesn't have to be the driver for that. Teachers should still focus on what pupils need to learn and reinforce

  3. Thanks for comment and yes, in theory, I don't have a problem with numerical values being used for progress as long as a) it doesn't involve broad 'best-fit' approach, b) does not assume progress to be linear, c) and does not assume all pupils learn at same rate. And there lies the problem: I just don't see how you can make a progress measure without building in these assumptions. It becomes a fudge for the start. I believe current approaches to measuring pupil progress to be flawed beyond usefulness, and are more for accountability than as a aid to teaching & learning. For example, I can't see how assigning a pupil into a band such as Y4 Developing because the pupil has achieved between 33-66% of objectives (common approach) is of any practical benefit. It's no different to calling them a 3B. It tells us nothing about what the pupil can and cannot do. We do it so we can assign them a value and make the assumption they will make 3 steps per year. The risk is that the pupil will be moved on before they are ready and thus repeats the mistakes of levels. It does seem that in many cases we are starting with the values and working backwards just to create something we think will satisfy Oftsed. It's these sorts of back-to-front approaches that I'm trying to tackle here. Hope that makes sense.