Never live like common people; the problems with trying to empathise with those who lived in the past

Years ago a friend and I were travelling through the Ethiopian countryside in a rickety old bus. It was sunset and each village we chugged through was full of farmers returning from their fields. The air smelled of burning wood and spices as women prepared evening meals. “I love this time,” I said. “It’s when everyone’s at their happiest. Work done for the day, time to eat, talk with friends and then rest.”

My friend, himself an Ethiopian from an agricultural background, said nothing for a long time. Then, kindly but firmly, in a tone that ended the conversation; “Ben, you know nothing at all about it.”

He was, of course, quite right. Although I had thought I was, I was not empathising at all. The seemingly idyllic scene was only so in my eyes. Knowing nothing about what it was like to farm in Ethiopia, knowing nothing about what it was like to live at the whim of the seasons and knowing nothing about what it means to worry about your children starving I had simply plopped myself, as I was, into the villages we were passing and created my own happy fiction. What I had not understood was that if I lived in an Ethiopian village, I wouldn’t be me.

Of course, there are things I could have done, and indeed did do, to make more sense of what was happening in the villages we passed. I spoke to my friend. I asked questions. I read. I learned about the motivations, fears and beliefs of people who lived in agricultural Ethiopia. None of this led to me to empathy. The more I understood the less I believed I could ever understand what it’d feel like to be an Ethiopian farmer.

If this is true of people in the modern world, I think it is also true of the people who lived in the past. It is simply impossible to really know what people felt. Even seemingly straightforward physical sensations are more problematic than they might superficially appear to be. Take the burning of Nicholas Ridley in 1555, which was by contemporary accounts particularly agonising. Even if were capable of empathising with some of this pain, this empathy would be myopic because Ridley was likely to have been certain of heavenly salvation after death. We don’t know how he felt because most of us lack the certainty of his belief system.

The inner thoughts and emotions of past people remain a mystery to us and the best we can ever achieve is to gain something of an understanding of what their motivations, fears and beliefs were through their words and actions. Anything else is fiction.

It is because of this I don’t think the building of empathy, as defined as knowing what it felt like to live in the past, is a legitimate aim for history lessons in schools.

Why then is empathy so prominent in history in schools?

A recent Twitter poll (yeah, yeah, know not scientific) I ran suggests that there isn’t consensus over whether or not empathy has a place in school history. I find this puzzling, especially as there does seem to be a consensus among historians that empathy, at least in the way I define it, is not an aim of the discipline. Those kind enough to comment and even blog in response to my poll have given me some ideas as to why this disconnect might exist. As always, I encourage anyone who thinks I have got something wrong to point it out to me.

We define empathy differently.

The definition of empathy I have used so far (to know what it felt like in the past) is not shared by everyone. Some history teachers understand the term to mean understanding motives and aims, which gives insight to understanding the past better. To me this distinction, while apparently subtle, is actually profound. Ian Dawson’s canonical Je Suis le Rois lesson is a good example; after completing extensive knowledge based study, students take part in a scripted role-play on the Norman Conquest. By adopting roles students gain a deeper understanding of the likely motivations of the key players. It would be very easy to read this sort of activity as an attempt to know how those involved felt, but this misses the point. The lesson is scripted. Students are not encouraged to try to envisage how they would have felt had they been there. They do not improvise based on their own emotions.

I don’t disagree with teachers who define empathy this way and run activities like this one but do feel this isn’t the only conception of empathy helped by history teachers, and may not even be the most common.

Some teachers think history should be morally instructive

Lessons on slavery, segregation and the Holocaust invite moral judgement about the attitudes of people in the past. How could they not? As thinking, compassionate humans we respond emotionally to such atrocities. Such events, from a modern perspective, are incomprehensibly barbaric and it is natural to try and make sense of them by creating a narrative in which each event becomes a lesson for us in the present day. This has become a trope. We talk easily of ‘learning the lessons of history’ and I’ve seen Santayana’s ‘those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ up on the walls of many history classrooms, including mine. For curriculums with this ethos empathy is a useful tool; encouraging children to imagine what it felt like to be the victim of an historical injustice makes it more likely they will be on the look-out for its recurrence and less likely for the event to happen again.

As controversial as this may, or may not be, I think history lessons in schools should fight this.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, as I tried to demonstrate in my story about Ethiopia, it is impossible. Nobody can imagine what it was like to be Ann Frank. In the attempt to do so we graft our own internal, private thoughts and emotions onto a shadow. If we were Ann Frank we wouldn’t be us. When we try to empathise with her we imagine us as her. Any conclusions we draw by doing so will inevitably be flawed. Some might defend this approach by saying that while perfection is impossible, we can better empathise with past personalities by learning more about them. I don’t think this is true. I find the more I learn about someone the more they slip away. When I knew nothing about Ethiopian villagers I thought I could empathise with them; the more I learned, the more unfamiliar their world became and the more I realised I couldn’t.

The idea of moral instruction as a purpose is also flawed in that the jury is very, very much out on whether societies learn lessons from the past at all. We now rightly regard slavery as morally indefensible, yet human trafficking is rising. The teaching of slavery as immoral, perhaps by encouraging children to empathise with the enslaved, has not ended it. This is important. If we don’t learn from the past then having this as a stated aim of history in schools is to set ourselves up to fail.

Secondly, encouraging empathy as a tool for moral instruction is dangerous in that it implies the values we hold now are both universally accepted and correct a priori. This is sort of reverse Whiggish. History taught this way is a tool to emphasise our past mistakes and to highlight injustices where they still exist in the modern world. We teach children about the suffrage movement so they are better able to spot modern sexism. We teach them about the issues with National Insurance so they will value the National Health Service. There is evidence of this in the sorts of perspectives children are asked to take when empathising with those in the past. Writing a letter as a Great War soldier, yes. Writing a letter as a general, no. Writing a diary entry of a slave, acceptable. Writing a diary entry of a slave owner, unacceptable. By encouraging or allowing this we create a narrative that fits our own views and reduce interpretative scope, valuing some perspectives over others because we find them more palatable, not because of stronger evidence and argument.

I, of course, understand that some will say that this is all quite right and proper. It was wrong that no women could not vote before 1918. It was wrong that soldiers were made to fight in trenches. It was wrong that people were enslaved. With my history teacher hat off, I agree. But for me this comes with a significant cautionary note; if we accept the use of history to teach moral lessons, we open the door for those with very different morals to do the same. If we are to accept that a purpose of history should be to teach what is right and what is wrong, then we need give extremely careful thought as to what these morals are and where they come from.

History is regarded as different in schools to how it is at higher academic levels.

I’m quite sure some will read this and come to the understandable conclusion that I have a stick shoved firmly up my arse and am being fussily quasi-intellectual and pedantic. I think I get the point; what does it matter if children aren’t completing historical essay work in Year 7? They’re only bloody eleven! Aren’t they more likely to learn the basics if they deeply and imaginatively immerse themselves in the past? If imagining being a Saxon warrior in the shield wall on Senlac Hill helps you remember what a shield wall is better than just answering a question, then why not?

This sort of thinking is pretty widespread. Recently I heard of a history teacher told by an Ofsted inspector (also a history teacher) that the lesson she’d taught had not been successful because she had tried to teach them different interpretations. “They just need the Horrible Histories stuff in Year 7,” the inspector said, “get them hooked in and the rest will come after.”

A while back, someone sent a tweet which said something along the lines of “I want to engage children with history, not just in it.” I think it identifies the difference in approach clearly.

Engaging children with history, if I understood the tweeter right, is exposing them to a whole range of resources and activities set around the past and not being constrained by whether or not they fit with any scholarly definition of history as a discipline. This could mean showing films such as Saving Private Ryan or reading classic literature such as “The Eagle of the Ninth”.  If these are accepted as valid historical activities, then encouraging children to take part in empathetic activities is entirely logical. Both Stephen Spielberg and Rosemary Sutcliff, to at least a degree, had to imagine themselves in the past to make the productions they did.

Personally I am not comfortable with this in my own classroom. For me, ‘doing’ history should mean being concerned with the same issues that l historians are, and communicating this knowledge in a comparable style. Historians don’t write in the first person. Historians communicate their ideas through essays and articles and don’t write novels, make films or (generally – #1066 historians I’m looking at you) act.  Even when historical fiction is at it very best as it is, in my view, in Mantel’s Wolf Hall series it still is not history. Some historians may present documentaries, but these documentaries will almost always be based on more formal academic work. This is, of course, not to say I expect Y7 students to write full essays each week (Daisy Christodoulu explains why this would be a mistake), but does mean that I wouldn’t choose any activity, including an empathetic one, that wasn’t of the same genre.

I suspect that different attitudes towards what schools history is and for might be at the crux of disagreement around all activities that aren’t classically scholarly. This division, if indeed it exists to the extent I suspect it does, might well be unbridgeable; some teachers believe it is to teach moral lessons and to give children an interest in the past generally, which makes empathy a legitimate aim. Those of us who disagree with this see no purpose in even making the attempt.

So, having already written far more than I intended to when I started this, I won’t try. Instead I’ll finish with two quotations that I think illustrate the fundamentally quixotic nature of attempts to get children to empathise with people who lived in the past:

“For whatever we lose (like a your or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

                                    e e cummings


“But still you’ll never get it right

‘cause when you’re laid in bed at night,

Watching roaches climb the wall,

If you called your Dad he could stop it all”

You’ll never live like common people.”

                                    Jarvis Cocker.


If target grades don’t work, what will?

Part 3 in my target grades series: Part 1:  Here Part 2: Here

Although I have a very dim view of target grades I accept they come from a well-intentioned place. Their purpose is to motivate children by giving them a clear goal. As I’ve written about in my two previous posts on this, I don’t think they succeed, but this, of course, does not mean we should not encourage children to work hard. If we are to accept that target grades don’t motivate children very well then we need to think about what does.

On the whole I think teachers and schools are reasonably good at extrinsically motivating children to work hard in lessons. Using rewards and sanctions, having sensible school policies and teaching effectively generally does lead to children working hard in lessons. While David Didau[1] quite rightly points out that this doesn’t necessarily lead to deep learning, trying hard is a necessary precondition.  The hope is, that if we can build good working habits extrinsically, eventually they will become intrinsic as they are automated.

I teach my KS3 history classes three times every two weeks. I like to think my lessons are effective but, on their own, they are not enough for children to really learn what I expect of them. To do this, children must retain the knowledge I teach them and extend it by completing work outside my classroom. This is not new thinking. The importance of homework is well recognised, understood and enshrined in the English Teaching Standards[2].

Typically, I set two types of homework; self-study to review knowledge covered in my class, which is assessed in short tests, and extra reading linked to what I have taught, which is assessed through written questions and discussion. It is here I experience difficulty. A good proportion of children do what I ask of them and it is these children who learn fastest. But a significant number of children don’t work outside my lesson; while they enjoy my lessons and work hard in them, when they leave my classroom they don’t think about history at all until I next teach them. These children struggle; not completing retrieval practise or reading around the subject means they fall behind their more intrinsically motivated and harder working classmates.

As a conscientious teacher I, of course, follow up. Children who don’t study at home are given detentions and I contact their parents. This results in quite exhausting periods for everyone involved and usually results in only very short term improvements; a child will, if compelled to, learn what they should have before their test in the detention. Pushing hard on children not completing their extra reading has, in the past, often led to widespread copying of the work of conscientious children who did complete the questions based on it.

Children who are no intrinsically motivated are only completing the extra work I expect of them because they want to avoid losing free time. I suppose I could continue sanctioning and issuing detentions constantly but this just isn’t practical – it also does not prepare children for later study at college or university, at which they will be quite rightly expected to self-regulate and work hard without constant supervision.

So why aren’t these children motivated to work and what can we do about it?

Most of the students I teach who don’t work outside lessons come from environments in which academic success is relatively rare. Children who have parents who did not succeed academically themselves are generally not very well supported in studying at home. When I speak to these parents I often notice a real gulf between the volume of work they think their child should be doing, and the volume I think they should. This is a real problem because if a parent feels my demands are unreasonable it is very unlikely they will provide the extrinsic motivation necessary to ensure their child completes the work.

This issue is compounded by the fact that my goals and the goals of the parents of these children are often, partially at least, in conflict. I want the children I teach to love history, get outstanding grades, attend great universities and get professional jobs. I am willing to accept their immediate, short-term happiness might be compromised in order for them to reach my long term aims. The parents want their children to be loved, happy and content; they might want their child to attend a good university, but if doing the work required to get there makes them unhappy, they’d prefer them not to go to university at all. In this we find another reason that target grades fail; too often these ‘aspirational’ grades don’t reflect the aspirations of those subject to them at all, making them irrelevant; if you don’t want to work hard at home to get a good grade so you can go to university, why would you care if you don’t achieve them? Even really supportive parents who do provide extrinsic motivation do not guarantee that children will be motivated to work. I know lots of parents who have ‘grounded’ children, changed Wi-Fi codes, confiscated devices and still found their child doesn’t study. It is actually quite likely that I have, in the past, overstated the influence parents have. I’ll go into the reasons for this later.

Even if we do accept the powerful role parents play (and we might well be wrong to do so) I am aware of the need to be very careful; my own very typically middle-class upbringing and background does not give me right to judge the aspirations of anyone else. I am perfectly willing to accept that some children may indeed be happier if they don’t go to university. Or they may not. I really don’t understand enough about how happiness works to say.

My point here is that while of course important, extrinsic motivation is limited. We may be able to get children working reasonably hard in lessons with good relationships, and rewards and sanctions, but this will not lead to deeper learning if children are not intrinsically motivated to do well at school by working hard outside it.

Most schools do have an awareness of this. As I wrote about here, schools in areas where children do lack intrinsic motivation to work academically typically do a lot of work around raising aspirations. Such programmes usually involve external speakers, trips to universities and academic mentoring. The problem with these is that they don’t really address intrinsic motivation at all because they are really just another attempt to motivate extrinsically. The schemes assume those on them will see university as a reward worth sacrificing short-term happiness for. Unfortunately, in the absence of intrinsic motivation this just doesn’t work because children are savvy enough to know that their reward for completing academic work to get in to university is more academic work once they get there. If they aren’t intrinsically motivated to do the academic work this really isn’t much of a reward at all!

At this point it is worthwhile pointing out the inherently reductive nature of my argument so far. Framing the work children do in school in the context of the extrinsic rewards they obtain by doing it assumes what the learn has no utility beyond grades and consequent wider life opportunities.  This, of course, isn’t true. What children learn in school has value in itself. Framing the argument this way is also practically unhelpful in that if children don’t want careers that depend on academic success then it really doesn’t matter how wide a range of opportunities within that field we offer them. To achieve what they are capable of students must be intrinsically motivated.

Building intrinsic motivation

The factors affecting intrinsic motivation are complicated. Most of us, as I did before doing some reading on it, probably assume that our upbringing plays a big role. This seems like common sense. As I have discussed, parents that lack intrinsic motivation towards academic work do seem more likely to have children that lack it too. However, the problem with making this link too strongly may be to equate correlation with causation, in that it ignores other factors that may also play a role. It also seems likely that in making the link confirmation bias also plays a big role, with us over-emphasising examples that support our preconceived prejudice and downplaying the examples that contradict them. Brian Boutwell[3] points out that, when the very sad examples of abuse and neglect are controlled for, parenting has far less of an effect generally than it is usually assumed to, and that this has been borne out through twin studies, which generally show that hereditary traits are more influential than parenting is.

Putting aside genetics, about which we can do nothing, and parenting, about which can do very little, still leaves some positive implications for how we might better motivate the children in our schools.

Firstly, extrinsic motivation is likely to be an important precursor to intrinsic motivation. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, school rules and routines have an enormous role to play in automating good habits. These habits may, over time, become the foundations of intrinsic motivation but won’t unless they also lead to rewards that are intrinsic to the subjects children study. This has played out well in my own recent experience; before a recent set of tests I supervised extensive revision in lessons, structuring the sessions in a way that would be replicable in the homes of the children in the class. As a result of this, most children in the class, particularly those who didn’t usually study, did better. These children enjoyed the feeling of success and found the next sequence of lessons more interesting, because the embedded knowledge they had gave more nuance to the new material. Of course, I don’t have time to do extensive revision in lessons before every assessment but I am hopeful that they will come to see that the success they enjoyed is replicable and that this feeling will build their intrinsic motivation.

In this approach I see the possibility for a much more powerful and productive approach to target setting than the performance goal based target grades which plague English schools at the moment.

I propose, humbly and with full knowledge that much thinking and critique is necessary, that we replace target grades with subject specific learning goals based on the knowledge organisers gaining traction in English schools.

The knowledge children need to know should be carefully curated and standardised at departmental level and, while informed by content required at GCSE, would not be solely based on it. Standardised exams would be given at the end of each full term to test the degree to which this knowledge has been embedded. These exams would, as has been well articulated by Michael Fordham[4] and Daisy Christodolou[5], contain a range of assessment methods relevant to the subject area, but would not (perhaps should not) be in the same format each time. They would test content over a long period of time, not just on the material taught in the immediate weeks leading up to them.

School data tracking would not track progress against any grade at all, apart from perhaps in the latter stages of Year 11 when it might be appropriate, but on how much the child had improved. Progress could be tracked with a simple 1-3 number, representing improvement, stagnation or regression. This progress number would also take into account, especially in the most knowledge rich subjects, that the amount of material on which children are tested is continually growing, which actually means maintaining a score might actually mean improvement.

Learning targets set by teachers would be subject specific and based on discrete knowledge, not generic skills. For example, in my subject, history, a target might be “revise the reasons why there was a disputed succession to the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor” if this was an area on which a child had performed relatively poorly. The child could then be given the relevant knowledge organiser and a productive homework after the test would be to complete work on this. I am completely certain this would be more productive than the standard “describe features in more detail’ sort of nonsense which still seem to be very widespread.

In implementing such a system it would, of course, be very important to ensure that the vast majority of children do make progress and succeed, with careful thought given as to how to best support those that do not. This is not just necessary at an individual level but to the cohort as a whole; if a critical mass of children are not improving then this becomes normalised and students, perhaps more influenced by their peer group than anyone else, would lose motivation to do better.

I hope that the ethos this would create would be one in which continual improvement is expected and that an increasing body of knowledge has intrinsic value. Freeing children from having to think about how close or far away they are from a target grade, with all the other problems these have, would allow them to focus on learning for its own sake from the point at which they are, which I think would be far more helpful in building intrinsic motivation than the system we struggle with at the moment.

As always, I am up for robust critique of what I have written here and am well aware that there is a huge amount I’m probably too uninformed to have even considered. I’d be grateful to anyone who can constructively point out where I’ve gone wrong and what I should look in to.  In addition to those I have referenced I’d also like to thank Tom Sherrington and Joe Kirby for their work in this area, which has been really very helpful.







Good afternoon!

I’ve been revisiting Doug Lemov’s work this week, after reading a lovely blog by Jo Facer (@jofacer) on how she uses the principle of ‘warm/strict.’  Very briefly, as much as I understand it, ‘warm/strict’ means being simultaneously kind and exacting at the same time, a combination that especially benefits students who don’t always get positive reinforcement and strict boundaries at home.

In this really short blog I’d like to share one, really small, thing that happens in all my lessons that I think helps build a ‘warm/strict’ atmosphere.  I am sure there’ll be lots of teachers who think this so obvious as not to be worth blogging about, but it wasn’t obvious to me and took me a few years to work out. I am posting in the hope that it will save someone some time. At the end, I’ve posted a short video to show how it works.

I am unashamedly strict. All my classes begin in silence. Students are expected to write the date and title and begin the work, usually some form of retrieval practise without speaking at all. If any do speak, for any reason, whether it is to greet a friend, make a comment on the temperature or to borrow equipment, I pull them up on it. To start with getting this routine right took some effort but now it’s rare that I get any significant non-compliance.

When everyone is working I take the register, which is where the ‘warm’ comes in. Whatever a child says to acknowledge their name, I look at them and say either ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ and repeat their name back to them. If the child says ‘good afternoon’ back to me, I put an extra warm inflection in my voice when I say ‘good afternoon’ back, to make it clear we’ve moved from the routine to a genuinely polite and kind exchange. I also use this very brief interaction to build relationships and give brief, concise feedback. If the child was absent in the last lesson because of poor health, I ask them if they are feeling better. If I know a child is prone to rush handwriting I will gently and kindly remind them to take care. Over time, it has worked wonderfully. When I began very few students and none in some classes said ‘good morning’ back to me. But, gradually it spread and is now more typical than not. One child would and, when hearing that this child had got a really warm, personal response, other children joined in wanting the same. Now, almost all the children in my classes say good morning or afternoon to me, which establishes a lovely, calm and warm feeling, which is of tremendous benefit to the rest of my lesson.

Sometimes a class forgets and don’t, but usually, as soon as one remembers they all then join in. I love it when that happens.

Of course, I get that I could insist that children say ‘good morning’ back to me and don’t think it is at all a bad thing when schools and teachers do. I actually really like the idea of a school culture in which this is expected. But, in the context within which I currently work, I am happy with my own system.


Why target grades miss their mark. Part 2.


The dearth of research on the impact of target grades on the performance of pupils in English schools is no mystery. As I described in an earlier post they began as Fischer Family Trust ‘expected grades’. They evolved into target grades because this is what schools thought inspectorates wanted, and assumed their current guise after Michael Gove abolished the Contextual Value Added (CVA) measure.  This process wasn’t really overseen by anyone, which meant nobody thought it was their responsibility to work out whether or not they were effective in helping children learn.

This is unfortunate. Target grades have now become deeply embedded in the culture of many schools and domain specific research on their impact is necessary if we are to work out whether they are desirable or not.

In the absence of research conducted in English schools I am indebted to Ryan Campbell for pointing me towards studies on the impact of Performance and Learning Goals on businesses.  While I am aware that there are likely to be issues in applying findings from one area to another, I am hopeful some inferences may be illuminating.

Goal-setting theory was originally conceived and developed in industrial/organizational psychology.  Studies by psychologists such as Locke and Latham identified two types of goal; Performance Goals and Learning Goals.  Performance goals are outcome orientated with typical examples being the increase in productivity or profits, or a reduction in wastage.  Learning goals are intended to improve the knowledge or skill of an individual or organisation.[1]  While learning goals may eventually contribute to a performance goal they are fundamentally different.  Target grades in English schools are, in effect, performance goals because they are measures of the standard reached across wide-ranging domains of disciplinary knowledge and offer no support in achieving them.

Studies by Locke, Latham, Seijts and others found that having specific, challenging performance goals did indeed lead to better performance than easy, vague ones.[2]

This might appear to support the use of target grades, but these findings came with a number of important provisos.  In order for performance goals to be effective, those set them had to be personally committed, couldn’t feel that they conflicted with other goals they may have and had to have the ability to achieve them. Target grades do not necessarily meet any of these three criteria.

Firstly, not all students set target grades will be committed to achieving them, especially in subjects they dislike.  As teachers we hear this regularly, with “you only care about getting grades so the school looks good’ a depressingly familiar refrain.  This was manifest a few years ago when re-sit results counted, which resulted in children happy with their original grade made to retake exams in order to reach targets that had been imposed on them.  The failure of children to buy in to the grade set for them may partially be because of a lack of consultation and, interestingly, early on the FFT recognised this and recommended that the data they provided be used as the basis for a conversation between parents, teachers and pupils, which then generated what was described as an ‘agreed target grade.’  This approach could be criticised by saying those with low aspirations will set inappropriately low grades, but it is important to remember that any positive impact of setting challenging targets might is negated if those involved are not committed to them.

It would not be fair to say that all, or indeed most, children see the achievement of a target grade as in conflict with other goals they may have.  That said, I do feel that some do see things this way.  Children from backgrounds in which academic success is neither common nor valued have other goals which are very important to them.  For example such children may derive immense and understandable satisfaction from being a caring sibling, a good footballer, a vivacious party-animal or a cheeky and popular local character.  Achieving good grades at school, and the work, might be perceived to be in direct opposition to this; studying hard can mean not doing other things from which these children build self-worth.  Locke and Latham (2006) are clear on this in writing that performance goals can only be effective where there is “discontent with one’s present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome.”[3]  If children are content living in the world in which they do, target grades will be seen as at best an irrelevance and at worst an implicit criticism of their values.  Of course, such issues don’t affect all children so perhaps it might be argued that it isn’t an argument against target grades in general, but just a suggestion they be applied to those who see no conflict between achieving them and other life goals.

My final concern surrounding target grades as performance goals is more fundamental.  Seijts and Latham find that performance goals can only be successful if those involved already have the knowledge and skills required to meet them.  They use the example of The American Pulpwood Association to illustrate this, which issued performance goals to pulpwood crews, resulting in increased attendance and productivity.  Crucially, this only worked because the loggers already had the knowledge and skills to effectively fell and process trees.  It was motivational because they had the basics down already.  Seijts and Latham explain this is because before the processes needed to perform well have been automated, mastering the required knowledge and skills will fully occupy cognitive resources – the imposition of an external performance goal is a dangerous distraction.  The implications for target grades are very clear; if children are guided to think about reaching a grade they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills required to reach, they will not be able to focus as clearly on the steps they need to make to improve.[4]

This is damning to target grades.  Students are novices in their fields of study.  By their very nature as novices they lack the knowledge and skills required to achieve the grades assigned to them.  Seijts and Latham couldn’t be more equivocal on the consequences of this:

“The assignment of ambitious goals without any guidance on ways to attain them often lead to stress, pressures on personal time, burnout, and in some instances unethical behaviour.  It is both foolish and immoral for organizations to assign ‘stretch goals’ and then fail to give employees the means to succeed, yet punish them when they fail to attain the goals.”[5]

For those of us who work with children and target grades this might well make for uncomfortable reading.  Although concerned with businesses there are clear parallels in the manner in which target grades are assigned and the consequences of this.  Very recently heard of a schools that issues detentions  to students who fail to achieve their target grade in tests and, am sure few teachers are unaware of instances of ‘bending the rules’ or even outright cheating on coursework and controlled assessments.  Such instances, while of course not excusable, are certainly understandable; teachers are as much victims of the target grade system as their pupils are.  They too are not always given the means to attain their performance management goals, typically based on target grades, and they too can be punished when they fail.

Of course, good schools do provide children with the support to reach their targets but these very helpful ‘learning goals’ which I’d like to discuss in much more detail in my next post, are subverted by the performance based target grades that hang so distractingly and pointlessly over their heads.


[1] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265-266

[2] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265

[3] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265

[4] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P126

[5] Seijts and Latham.  Learning versus performance goals:  When should each be used?  Academy of Management Executive, Vol 19. No 1. 2005. P124


The problem with Progress 8



I have never much liked the word ‘progress’ as a description of how successful a child has been at school.  To me it has a vague, annoyingly fussy and managerial feel which obfuscates the true purpose of schools and, wherever possible, I try to use ‘learning’ instead.  Whatever it is called, measuring how much students have improved over time has become increasingly influential on the way in which teachers and schools are judged.  Recently, progress as the primary measure of a school’s effectiveness has become formalised and embedded by the introduction of Progress 8.

On the face of it this appears fairer than judging schools on the attainment of exam cohorts.  This is because, the thinking goes, attainment is, at least partially, the result of intelligence; a school with lots of clever children is likely to get better grades than one with less intelligent ones and, because intakes are, theoretically at least, out of the control of schools, it would be unfair to judge a school’s effectiveness on these results.  Progress seems a fairer measure because children are assessed from the point at which they started.

As well meaning as P8 might be, it is riddled with problems and is actually a very unreliable measure of school effectiveness, which may come to have a damaging effect on the education of some children.

The statistical problems with P8 have already been very robustly covered by others, as has the unpleasant way in which it pits schools and their pupils against each other in a drier, more academic version of Battle Royale.  I’d go even further though, and argue that the measure is actually conceptually flawed because it is based on three incorrect assumptions:

The KS2 data used as the benchmark against which progress is assessed is safe.

I have already written lengthily on this here.  Briefly, KS2 tests assess the attainment of children in discrete disciplines (English and Maths).  They are not tests of a child’s capacity to learn.  The grades children achieve in these tests are the result of a very wide range of factors of which their ‘intelligence’ (I use quotation makes here because of the lack of consensus as to what this is) is only one.  Using the grade a child achieved in primary school in two subjects is not a safe starting point against which to assess their attainment in another five years later.  This is continually misunderstood with most schools (and Ofsted) wrongly referring to students as high, mid or low ability based on these attainment tests.

If we accept these arguments, and that KS2 data is not therefore a safe measure against which to assess learning, P8 loses credibility.

Even if we put aside concerns around the safety of KS2 data and blindly accept averaged scores in English and maths as reliable and appropriate benchmarks against which to assess the learning of pupils in other subjects, further issues remain.

Socio-economic context makes no difference to the speed at which children learn.

I do understand why socio-economic context is ignored in progress measures.  Recognising the influence and taking it into account can, of course, lead to lower expectations of certain groups of children, which may embed differences in attainment.  This, of course, is why Michael Gove got rid of the Contextual Value Added measure.  But we all know it makes a huge difference and ignoring it won’t make it go away; children from poorer backgrounds lack significant advantages held by their wealthier peers and, as a direct result, are less likely to do as well at school. Teachers and leaders know that it is harder to get good results in a school in a disadvantaged area than it is to get them in an advantaged one, which means given the choice they are more likely to choose to work in more affluent ones.  When combined with performance related pay, this creates an educational landscape in which recruitment and retention are much more difficult for some schools than others.  Of course, some schools in very disadvantaged areas buck the trend and achieve outstanding outcomes (the school I attended was one of these), but using these as evidence that it as easy to run a poor school than a rich ones is to indulge in whataboutery and, in my view, knowingly disingenuous.

Perhaps worst of all, ignoring context means ignoring the issues that most disadvantage some children.  For example, white English boys with prior poor attainment are the group least likely to make ‘good progress.’  If we know this then we should accept that a school with a high proportion of these children is less likely to achieve a good P8 score than one with a smaller proportion regardless of the quality of teaching.  This should be acknowledged and a system-wide focus on the reasons for this underachievement would almost certainly be more productive than ignoring the issue.  Not doing so creates conditions in which schools may be incentivised to reduce their proportion of poorly-performing groups, which is clearly neither desirable nor the intention of the P8 measure.

The difference in value between the different GCSE grades is uniform.

An intended consequence of P8 is that the progress of all students now matters equally.  Previously, when schools were measured on the percentage of students achieving Cs or above, a lot of effort was put into children struggling on the D/C border with other children perhaps neglected as a result.  P8 should, at least theoretically, end this with the value difference between a new 1 and a 2 being the same, or close to the same, as between a 3 and a 4, or a 4 and a 5.  This should mean all children are pushed to improve, not just a few key groups.

The problem with this is, outside of the measure itself, the different GCSE grades are of different value.  Colleges do not offer children places based on the progress they have made.  Nor do universities, or internships or employers.  Life differentiates by attainment, not achievement.  This means that schools may actually be quite right to care more about whether a child achieves a 3 or 4 than they do about whether or not a child achieves a 1 or a 2.  A 4 might get a child into a college when a 3 does not, whereas it is far less likely achieving a 2 instead of a 1 will make a difference to a pupil’s future opportunities.  I suspect that many schools and teachers will, either consciously or sub-consciously, recognise this, which will lead to tension between how a school is judged and what is best for the pupils who attend it.

I worry that the focus on progress for all, as well meaning as it is, may create a system in which what happens inside school becomes less and less relevant to the world outside.  Teachers, schools, Ofsted and the DfE may care very deeply about progress but outside education it is poorly understood and typically ignored.  I don’t think parents, as much as we might think they should, typically care very much about how much ‘progress’ children make at a school; they care about attainment because they know it is this that really determines their child’s future opportunities.

It seems to me that an important unintended consequence of our preoccupation with progress has been the creation of an accountability measure largely irrelevant to the world beyond the rarefied ecosystem in which it was conceived and incubated.   This is, of course, not to say that progress should be ignored; doing this could easily cause schools to teach to the middle and, by so doing, de-prioritise the learning of both lower and higher attaining pupils.

If we really need a system to judge schools against each other, it must be based on credible data, acknowledge the role of context and reflect both achievement and attainment.  While I’m happy to be put right on anything I’ve got wrong, as it stands, I don’t believe P8 does any of this.




Analogy, metaphor and simile


A few months ago at the West London Free School I was in the audience when historian Robert Tombs gave his lecture on ‘Why teach your own country’s history?’ In a speech full of knowledge, wisdom, poetry and passion, Tombs illustrated the way personal history fits into a country’s by describing individuals as ‘being trees in a forest.’ Later in the lecture he expressed his bemusement at the formulaic, repetitive style in which many undergraduates write and asked the question “who teaches them to write like this?’

The answer was, as I’m sure he was quite aware, we do. We teach our students ‘on the one hand, on the other.’  We teach them the formulaic application of ‘additionally’, ‘moreover’, and ‘furthermore’, that a description means five points and a good explanation means giving three reasons. Of course, when college places and life opportunities depend on exam grades, we should be forgiven for doing so.  Exam board rubrics and mark schemes mean that there are good reasons we teach children to write in this ugly fashion, especially when there is no extra credit for writing about trees or forests, regardless of how much more beautiful and illuminating such a passage might be.

I am, of course, far from the first person to point out that this is a real shame.  Jim Carroll and Lee Donaghy have done a great deal of meaningful work on how to genuinely improve historical writing and I’ve found Rachel Foster’s work on exposing students to real scholarship helpful in showing children how to more elegantly express complicated ideas.  I’ve also got great hope that, before too long, Daisy Christodoulou’s work developing and advocating comparative judgement might mean that more imaginative, graceful answers get the credit they deserve.

Breaking free of the shackles of descriptor statements opens up a more nuanced discussion as to what good historical writing actually is.  For me, one hallmark is the sophisticated and original use of analogy, metaphor and simile.  These, of course beautiful in themselves, demonstrate deep understanding of what is being compared and serve as useful shortcuts – we understand something new better if its similarities to something with which we are comfortable are made explicit.  Analogies, metaphors and similes can act as bridges between the familiar and the new.  Tombs’ passage about trees in a forest is so apt and compelling because we all have a clear vision of it, which makes the point he’s making clearer to those of us who might not have considered the issue as carefully as he has.

With the explicit aim of getting my classes to write more beautifully, I’ve been thinking about ways in which I can build the capacity of my students to effectively use analogy, metaphor and simile in their work.

  1. Use them when explaining

Students are more likely to write allegorically if we use analogy, metaphor and simile in our own explanations.  Of course, this will fall flat if our own examples are clichéd or clunky, so I think it is important to spend time thinking and developing them.  While planning a recent sequence of lessons I spent a long time trying to find a good analogy for the Vikings who so regularly raided England in the early medieval period.  The first one I came up with was ‘vultures’, but I rejected it because vultures only prey on the dead and dying.  I then thought of ‘hyenas’ which I found unsatisfactory because these animals are so far geographically removed from Europe that the image became distracting.  In the end I settled on ‘wolves’ as I felt this reflected the way in which Vikings sensed weakness and hunted in groups.  Using this analogy meant explaining pack hunting tactics to my class, which leads to my second point.

  1. Develop large schemas.

This is fairly straightforward.  If we want students to be able to make allegorical connections between disparate events and themes they must know a lot.  If they don’t know much, the events they study will flap meaninglessly in the wind.  To build these large schemas a rigorous knowledge based curriculum is necessary with plenty of wider reading to support it.  In addition, we shouldn’t be scared to move away from the subject we are teaching if we feel developing an analogy makes this worthwhile.  At the beginning of last term I spent half a lesson teaching Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandius’ to a Year 8 class in order to demonstrate why having a son to pass his legacy to might have been so important to Henry VIII.  It was definitely worth it.  While not all students used the poem directly in their exams (some did though), almost all used the word legacy in a way that showed they had a real appreciation as to why Henry may have become so set on his divorce of Catherine of Aragon.

Schemas can also be developed by exposing children to proper historical scholarship.  To do this, while not wanting to appear a kill-joy, I’ve been weaning my students off “Horrible Histories’ and other similar books, and onto extracts from broadsheet newspapers and accessible historical scholarship such as Schama and Marc Morris.

  1. Make it clear allegorical writing is prized.

I don’t yet have a visualizer so to do this I read particularly apt comparisons out, and then we unpick.  We spend time on each image and explain why the connection between them has value, before encouraging students to make different comparisons, which the class will critique.  This, as well as giving us all a good laugh every now and again, allows us to minimise the silly, facile and clumsily obvious.

The work does seem to be paying off. I am seeing encouraging signs.  Students are trying.  Some of their attempts are clunky and some are, occasionally, hysterically inept, but the odd gem is emerging.  Marking a recent Year 11 essay I saw Oliver Cromwell’s massacre of Drogheda referred to, concisely and confidently, as “part of Cromwell’s bloody victory tour of Ireland”, which, I’m sure, had come out of a discussion we’d had about Leicester City’s open-topped bus parade around the city centre.  I was, with no analogy, metaphor or simile, quite thrilled.  I hope Professor Tombs would be too.