Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it

I don’t know it.

There. Let that be my first confession of this blog, as part of the #blogsync for April.

Of course, I’m being flippant. I’m not quite that ignorant and inattentive. But the reality is, I don’t know half as much as I or anyone else pretends. Because as with so many matters educational: reality’s not quite like that.

It’s very easy to say that progress is “knowing more when they go out than when they came in”. Except, that’s as easy to achieve as to say. It doesn’t mean much.

Currently as part of my class’s Geography work we’ve been enjoying naming the counties of England. At random times I ask them to name, for example, some counties beginning with ‘N’ and we reel off a few. If we had a revision session then as they left they would know more of them than when they came in.

So is that progress? What about if they’ve forgotten them next week? Or next lesson? Or next door?! There is a quotation – oft attributed to Einstein – that does something like:

Education is what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten.

And in this case, there is every chance that many of them will have forgotten the names of those counties pretty soon. And for those who don’t… what good will it be? So, either they’ve achieved nothing, or we would need a way of measuring “what is left”, and I’m just not sure it exists.

Inevitably, it seems, we must now value that which is measurable, and so the ever recurrent theme of levels and sub-levels appears. And how it looks scientific. Johnny was a 4b last term, and he’s a 4a this term, ergo he has made one alphabetic place of progress. Whatever that means.

Except the adage remains: reality is not quite like that. Because what we think we see when we measure, is but a tiny fraction of the truth. And the more frequently and precisely we attempt to measure, the more we fool ourselves that we’re getting closer to the truth. We do it all the time with progress charts.


Every time we discuss progress as a point score, or a plot on a graph, we choose to overlook the erratic richter-like variation of progress in reality.

So… maybe one of my students will end up knowing those counties by heart, and will happen to win University Challenge because of it. And maybe another will just have a glimmer of understanding about where Rutland is on an occasion where it really matters (!), but as to what I know of it today?

I’m a fool if I think I can take anything but a well-educated guess!

Maybe my knowledge of progress is just what’s left after all that has been measured is forgotten?

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