What I have learned about …. Appealing to the worst

We are flawed in so many ways, but perhaps the most disturbing aspect is this constant desire not just to know how well we are doing, but to know how badly others are doing. I don’t like this aspect of myself and I like it even less in others. It is closely aligned to our wish to ‘be proved right’, which is so often about the wish ‘to prove others wrong’.

The problem with this aspect of our basic human nature is that it gets in the way of unleashing our own greatness. To fulfill our potential we need to be collaborative, embracing, open-minded; we need to believe in ourselves and our great potential and that of others. It is vital that our self-esteem is not reliant on looking down or up to others, but rather on understanding a) our own uniqueness and b) what each of us contributes to the whole.

It is so depressing when we cannot bring other leaders to the table because they believe that Heads are in a desperate competition with each other and one school’s success means another’s pain.

It is so depressing when a student makes a huge leap in performance but cannot feel happy because ‘the others are still much better than me’. And this is all the more depressing because what research has shown and what every teacher knows is that what we believe to be true about our own ability is the truest predictor of performance.

It is so depressing when I manage to do 2.5k in 20 mins on the cross-trainer (this is a huge achievement by the way), only to have it made clear that this a poor level of fitness.  (And I can cope with that because my self-esteem is pretty good and I suspect that maybe the ‘gym bunnies’ isn’t!)

As teachers and sports trainers so often say ‘ignore the others; concentrate on your own performance’.

This is why models which measure both achievement and attainment should always be about what we can do, not about what we can’t.

I need to know that I can get fitter and I need goals.  I need to have assistance and help to get to those goals. I know I will never run any races (let alone win any), but I have to say that I do not need to know what centile of fitness I am in for 51-year-old Principals.  It would add no value and could be de-motivating.

The principle of ‘knowing exactly where my child is in a national ranking’ plays into the very worst aspects of ourselves and limits potential.

Firstly, it says ‘it matters not how well or badly you are doing against a set of criteria; what matters is your relative position to others’. We therefore need others to be ‘less good’; we are not interested in how well we have done and what we have gained – only in how we look in comparison. Dear me!

Secondly, while I am happy to accept that the job of a measurement is not to assist progress, it certainly isn’t to limit it. There is a massive psychological limiting factor to rank ordering and placing in deciles. Children may know who is cleverer than them at ‘this’ and ‘in this lesson’ and ‘this year’; that is very different to a snapshot test at one of those points putting them in a decile. This is likely to have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly as it is a zero sum game. They will see very clearly that these deciles are not about them, but about relative performance. “I am in the bottom 50% so this is how I will achieve”. Yuck!

Thirdly, if we are interested in being able to measure individual, school and system improvement (and I think we are), then we cannot introduce processes which mitigate against that. We have all had a bit of fun on Twitter about the shock / horror headlines of “50% still below average”, and “10% of our children are still in bottom 10%”, but actually this is a huge problem.

People who are far cleverer than me (see blogs from @director_ioe and @headguruteacher) have explained the intricacies and difficulties with measures, but this I do know: any measurement which is a ‘zero sum game’ does not help me understand, progress or collaborate.


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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1 Response to What I have learned about …. Appealing to the worst

  1. James Park says:

    These may not be the ‘cleverest’ comments about Wednesday’s announcement, but they are by far the wisest I have seen. You say everything I was trying to communicate in my conversation with former schools minister Nick Gibb on Wednesday They goes to the heart of what it is about the conditions for learning, growing and achieving that we have to find a way of enabling policymakers to understand, recognising that their own school experience makes this almost (I say hopefully) impossible for them to do so. They also remind me of what we are trying to do with the PROGRESS Process , which is to make it much easier for schools to focus on the soil in which learning grows, rather than the leaves which provide a potentially misleading indication of whether the tree is going to produce fruit. Thank-you for writing with so much heart.

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