Over the past year or so I’ve been following a line of thinking which has gone something like this:
Learning and performance are not the same thing. Pupils’ performance in lessons does not correspond with learning. Learning is invisible and takes place over time. We may be able to infer something about what has been learned by examining performance, but more often than not, we won’t. Learning may follow from performance, but it may not. Performance may indicate learning, but, again, it may not. Responding to cues when something is fresh in our minds is easy. Learning is only learning if skills and knowledge are retained over the long term.
If this is true (and there’s a formidable body of research which says it is) then it follows that as teachers we must be careful to disassociate learning from performance. Many people fool themselves into believing that they can see learning taking place. This provides us with false comfort and leads to very poor decision making. It may, for instance, lead us to assume that just because our skilful use of traffic lights and exit tickets indicates that everyone has learned something in our lesson we are in a position to move on and begin covering another topic. To varying degrees, most teachers, in most schools operate on this assumption.
Counter-intuitively, it also appears to be the case that if performance is reduced in the short term, our ability to retain and transfer new knowledge and skills is increased over the longer term. If true, this is particularly worrying as schools are set up to maximise short term performance gains. We may well be actively undermining our own best efforts to get children to learn.
Now, it’s certainly true that we may be interested in pupils doing more than ‘merely’ acquiring new skills and knowledge with the domains of the subjects we teach. We may also have an interest is fostering a ‘love of learning’ and turning pupils into ‘life-long learners’. This is a laudable aim, but a lot of foolishness has been perpetrated in trying to achieve it. There’s bucket loads of research of the various desirable ‘non-cognitive’ skills, ranging from motivation to perseverance to resilience and, naturally, a lot of effort has been put into how we might go about teaching these qualities. None more so perhaps than the fabled Growth Mindset, popularised by Carol Dweck’s pop psychology classic, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.
I thought I knew pretty much all I needed or wanted to know about Dweck’s theories until I had the good fortune to listen to Barry Hymer talk about we can create growth mindsets at a conference at which I was also speaking. In his talk, Barry drew a clear distinction between ‘mastery’ and ‘performance’ drawing on the work of Senko et al: Mastery goals focus on acquiring and developing competence, whereas performance goals are focussed on demonstrating one’s competence and outperforming others. He demonstrated how mastery goals trump performance goals every time:
Interestingly, in the crucial ‘perform well in tests’ category mastery and performance goals have the same chance of success in Hymer’s table but I’m not sure that this can be true if what we know about the benefits of reducing performance are true. But, even if it is true, who is likely to learn best? Who is likely to retain information after it’s been used to prove competence? As Nuthall says: “Ability appears to be the consequence, not the cause of differences in what students learn from their classroom experiences.” If we continue to value increases in short-term performance, then it follows that many pupils will continue to set these goals for themselves.
Maybe if we really want students to develop a growth mindset which will equip them with grit, resourcefulness and resilience, we need to stop focusing on what they can do, and accept that the central tenets of Assessment for Learning are holed below the waterline. Any classroom practices which encourages teachers or pupils to believe that assessment proves learning must be rooted out and exposed as the harmful nonsense it often is.
Instead, teaching for mastery will not only lead to the rounded and resilient pupils we all want, but it will also lead to improved exam performance.
So, what’s stopping us?
The are two huge obstacles in our path. The first is the institutionalised nature of schools themselves. Everything about schools is set up to value performance over mastery and learning. It would be a brave school indeed that sought to unpick the fabric of classrooms and curriculums and introduce a structure that supported sustained instead of rapid progress. But why do we have schools like this?
Well, that’s the second and perhaps more overwhelming problem. We intuitively believe that increasing performance is a good thing. It feels good to perform well and it’s uncomfortable to struggle. Pupils are happier with lessons in which they perform well; teachers feel happier designing schemes of learning which allow pupils to jump from one feel good performance to the next and school leaders feel happier with a curriculum that tick boxes, covers content and, with a fair trailing wind, tons of last minute intervention and determined teaching to the test will result in predictably decent exam performance. Anything that confirms this bias is welcomed and anything that contradicts it is dismissed.
It’s all very well to tell pupils that we want them to get cleverer through taking risks and making mistakes but nothing in the way behave supports this message. We are deeply suspicious, for instance, of teachers struggling and would much prefer to cultivate competence than run the risks required for real mastery. We may say we value growth mindsets but we have a systemically fixed mindset view about what schools should be doing. If we want change, we need to stop making the same old mistakes and start making some new ones.