What’s more important? Learning or progress?

Take that progress! We want learning

We’ve known since the publication of Ofsted’s Moving English Forward in March last year that demonstrating progress is not the be all and end all of an inspector’s judgments, but just in case anyone was in any doubt, Kev Bartle has forensically scoured Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook and come to these damning conclusions. He unequivocally states that,”There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning” before going on to say:

Even Ofsted (the big organisation but sadly not always the individual inspectors or inspection teams) realise that ‘progress’ is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore CANNOT IN ITSELF BE OBSERVED IN LESSONS other than through assessing how much students have learned.  ‘Progress in lessons’ is the very definition of a black box into which we, as teachers and leaders, need to shine a light.

As often seems to happen, I encounter new information when I’m ready to process it and yesterday I came across this (thanks to the prodding of the hugely knowledgeable Cristina Milos) from Robert Bjork:

Bjork says that learning and performance should be seen as distinct and should be disassociated in the minds of teachers. Performance is measurable but learning must be inferred from performance: it cannot be observed directly. That is to say, performance  is easy to observe whereas learning is not. You can tick a box to show that students’ performance has moved from x to y but you can’t tell sometimes whether learning has taken place. There are many instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and there are instances where performance improves, but little learning seems to happen in the long term.

Learning is, as Wiliam said, “a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos”*.  And the problem is compounded by the fact that current performance is an unreliable indicator of 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 rapid progress but there may not actually be any learning happening.

This is the Monkey Dance, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on in far too many observed lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students’ performance and their observer can nod, smile and tick away to their embittered heart’s content. But there may be little or no learning taking place.

So clearly the problem is: if we’re going to disassociate learning and performance (as we so obviously need to do) what strategies will promote learning? Well, very helpfully in the final 30 seconds, Bjork says the following:

When you introduce things like variability, spacing, reducing the feedback, interleaving things to be learned rather than blocking the things to be learned; that appears to slow down the learning process and poses challenges but enhances long term retention and transfer.

Robert Bjork

Each of these ideas deserves their own blog post and this is something that I’ll beaver away at over half term. Any suggestions on excellent ways to embed pedagogy that promotes learning rather than progress will be very gratefully received.

As ever, Darren Mead got there first and makes the same points, but more amusingly, here:

Post script: You will of course have noticed that I’m using progress and performance interchangeably; I think this is because they’re the same, but please do feel free to dissent.

*Liminality is a fascinating subject and one worth reading more about. You could do worse than start here.

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