So I received this card from a student who’s off to college. She didn’t take history (although she should have) and so I hadn’t taught her since Y9. How lovely it still is, though.
But one thing struck me. It’s where she says that my lessons were engaging. Well, thanks ever so much but I disagree. It’s fair to say that I when I taught her I worked a lot harder than I do now to create funky resources, etcetera, but I actually think it was the history that was engaging.
So why did she choose this word?
- Perhaps she saw how hard I worked and was engaged by my energy?
- Perhaps she was engaged by my personality, being the great guy that I am?
- Perhaps she found herself in trouble in other lessons but not mine?
- Perhaps she had a greater opportunity to discuss ideas in my lessons?
- Perhaps I looked into her soul and found the exact hook on which to hang something of interest?
- Perhaps this word is used so much by teachers that she’s picked it up and assumed that it’s the correct way to learn?
I think it might be a little of all of these but that the last point regarding the language we use is more important than we imagine.
We gave out a student survey to find out what they thought about the school. The results were pretty unremarkable: they like PE and technology but don’t like writing and homework and languages in Y9; boys wanted to study more wars and Y7s didn’t like strict teachers. When I subsequently asked my tutor group to reflect on their learning this year (not my phrase and not my chosen activity) a very bright young lady responded that her books are not marked regularly. The conversation went something like this:
-When you say ‘not marked’, what exactly do you mean?
-My teacher clearly hasn’t marked my book.
–But I haven’t marked your book in ages and you’ve just written one of the best essays in the year group.
-Yes, but you’ve clearly read my book and then given advice to help me improve.
–So when you say ‘marking’ do you mean actual red pen or being given an opportunity to reflect and improve your work, often through conversations? Because there seems to be a difference.
-Yes, reflecting. With some teachers we’re given a chance to improve and with others we just move on.
–OK, and so what has it got to do with marking?
-Um, well I’m not sure. But I’d like my work to be read.
–Ah, so you want your work to be recognised so that you can improve.
-Yes, if I’ve done it I want to know what I need to do next.
–So is that the same as your book not being marked?
-No, but that’s the question that I was asked.
Ah! That’s the question she was asked. I didn’t see the survey until they’d completed it but I did wonder if ‘Are your books marked regularly?’ would come up. Students were also asked how well they felt they were progressing in each subject. In history 90% felt that they were making excellent progress. But those same students were saying that their books weren’t marked.
It seems to me that we ask these sorts of questions all the time but don’t pause to consider the language employed. A much better question here would have been ‘Why is it that you feel you are/not making progress in x?’ But of course that’s not a tickable answer without a whole host of choices, and that would create more work for both the survey’s designer and the data collector.
So the language we use seeps into our student body’s language, for better or worse.
If we’re constantly on about progress and levels then that’s what the students will talk about as well: it doesn’t mean that they think like this (I’m sure there’s some research out there that’ll prove me right or wrong!) but it’s how they’ll react if we ask simplistic, quantifiable questions.
- Are your books marked regularly in x?
- Do you receive grades or levels in x?
- Do you feel that your targets are appropriate?
- How often are you set homework in x?
- Is your homework marked in x?
- How regularly are you set written assessments or exams?
- Do you receive grades or levels on these assessments?
- Do you feel you are making progress in x?
These questions create numbers, and numbers have their uses of course, but they don’t help us capture how students perceive their learning, if indeed that’s what we want to find out.
Imagine receiving thirty sets of answers to the above questions which all said no and rarely barring the answer to the last question: yes. That might be pretty confusing to a management team who are looking to control a situation.
It’s problematic, as well, in that students end up asking for their levels, for example, because they need to put it in their planners or because they’ve been asked for some evidence about their progress.
A student’s progress is not necessarily linear. It’s something that’s always seemed pretty obvious, but was very neatly explained in Becky Allen’s session at ResearchEd Brighton in April this year. She showed how just 9% of students followed their expected trajectory from KS1 to KS4, as Nick Rose neatly summarises here. And this gorgeous looking site also argues that linearity of progress is encouraged in our language because of accountability measures.
So we’re used to talking about progress and we’re cajoled into acting as if a grade must always rise. Does anyone else have traffic lights on their SIMS marksheets? These red, amber and green highlights affect our grading: we’re scared of the red just like we’re scared of eyes on a warning. Thus the language we use with students and parents follows suit: ‘He seems to be making wonderful progress then, Mr French, but I haven’t seen much of his book lately.’
There’s a mutual exclusivity which we should be braver in addressing. Progress is not learning: progress is the word we have to use when addressing and creating invalid data to summarise learning. The first thing I tell a parent who asks about their child’s level is to ignore it.
Levels and grades
Whether your school has ditched levels or not I bet you’re still being asked to add numbers to a massive spreadsheet. And that’s understandable: we’re in the hinterland, trying to find a new hope – we need to have some idea about how our students are doing! So the answers to a world without levels are, at the moment, imperfect.
I wonder, though: do we have to talk to the students about levels and grades, or whatever we replace them with? I’ve written here and here about using raw grades attained through low-stakes testing. What I like about raw grades is that the numbers make sense as long as the test is simplistic. I can draw out all sorts of inferences about the results using my knowledge of the student. Levels don’t necessarily do that, at least in history.
An F on a mock exam might well be useful for me and, framed in the right way, the student too. But telling a student that they’re ‘on an F’ is not going to engender much positivity. I’d prefer to talk to this student about the subject and what they’ve struggled with because talking about Fs and Es inevitably leads to ‘What do I need to do to get a C?’ The school, Ofsted and the DfE might be interested in that but I think a student should interested in being a better historian! Talking about levels and grades all the time creates glass ceilings and a culture of hoop-jumpers: it helps to create a culutre where C-grades are what we’re aiming for.
So what if we didn’t talk about levels and grades and only talked about weakness with the learning?
And what if we didn’t talk about engagement and instead talked about the subject itself?
What if we didn’t talk about marking and progress and targets, minimum or aspirational?
The language we use nurtures the environment we teach in. I often say to colleagues that we’ve been conditioned to think in a certain way because of the language used by others and that it’s a bit like that whole ‘Inuits have 100 words for snow’ thing in that we wouldn’t talk about engagement if it wasn’t bandied about so much. Unfortunately they’re absolutely right to reply with ‘But that’s what the examiner wants.’