What does progress really mean?
We all think we know what ‘progress’ means. After all, it’s a word we use every day. But schools who have not woken up to its new meaning risk getting left behind.
Language change is one of my favourite things to teach. Pupils’ eyes light up when I tell them that ‘girl’ hasn’t always been gender-specific. In the time of Chaucer it just meant ‘small child’. And ‘meat’ once referred to all food, not just the flesh of animals. But this is nothing compared with some words. Some have not just shifted in meaning but have changed meaning entirely. ‘Nice’, for instance, originally meant ‘ignorant’. And if you described someone as ‘naughty’ in the 14th century you were literally pointing out that they had ‘nought’, i.e. they were poor or needy.
I doubt any of us gets through our day without using the word ‘progress’. Like a lot of our vocabulary, it originates from Latin. It originally meant ‘a walk forward’. For some teachers, this meaning still fits with their experience of teaching. But more of us are waking up to the fact that making progress can often involve taking a few steps back: there’s no point moving on if they’ve not remembered what you did a week ago, last term or last year.
Teachers aren’t the only ones waking up to this new meaning. Ofsted are promising that their new framework will be an evolution not a revolution. In other words, a shift rather than a change. But when it comes to redefining ‘progress’ I’m not so sure.
In the current School Inspection Handbook, there are 124 uses of the word ‘progress’. But nowhere does it spell out what ‘progress’ means. The nearest thing to a definition appears on page 52 in section on Inspecting Mathematics. It’s a quote from the National Curriculum and worth reading in full:
“Decisions about when to progress should always be based on the security of pupils’ understanding and their readiness to progress to the next stage. Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content. Those who are not sufficiently fluent with earlier material should consolidate their understanding, including through additional practice, before moving on.”
It’s unequivocal: don’t move on until pupils are ‘fluent’. But how should this apply to other subjects, especially those with a colossal knowledge base, such as the sciences and humanities? Fluency in these subjects requires mastery of a lot of material. To do this, it all needs to be moved from working memory to long term memory. And yet, neither the word ‘memory’ nor ‘remember’ appear once in the Ofsted Inspection Handbook.
Teachers who have been in the profession for a while know that pupils remembering things is important. So why did many schools stop prioritising this essential aspect of learning?
Rapid and sustained
I have worked with a number of schools who are still chasing ‘rapid and sustained’ progress. This was essential if you wanted to fit into the ‘Outstanding’ grade descriptors in 2012. Fittingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s new word of the year for 2012 was ‘omnishambles’, a term created by the scriptwriters of the BBC sitcom The Thick Of It set in the corridors and meeting rooms of Westminster. But the term could just as well have applied to schools in 2012. Many were falling over themselves to get their teachers covering new content at an increasingly rapid pace.
The word ‘rapid’ was switched out for ‘substantial’ in the 2015 framework. But in a lot of schools, the damage was already done. A culture of ‘throw as much content at the kids as we can and see what sticks’ became commonplace. In many places, it still is.
Knowing more and remembering more
Perhaps the new framework, coming into force on 1st September 2019, will give teachers the confidence to slow down a bit and make sure knowledge is securely stored in their pupils’ memories. In April 2018, Ofsted’s National Director of Education Sean Harford posted the following on his blog:
“By progress, we mean pupils knowing more and remembering more. Has a child really gained the knowledge to understand the key concepts and ideas?”
This indicates a shift in Ofsted’s thinking. Whether this definition makes it way into the new framework as unambiguously as this remains to be seen. But if it does, it will hopefully give school leaders more confidence to ramp up the teaching of retention.
It would be disingenuous to claim this will happen overnight. It’s not as straightforward as just making sure teachers are doing knowledge quizzes. Yes, repeated retrieval is the key to long term memory storage, but it requires a revisiting of the whole curriculum. Which subjects require a spiral approach? How can we support teachers with planning so they interleave information without running out of time? Are we certain pupils are remembering big chunks of knowledge?
It’s a culture thing
For many schools, resolving questions like these will be a revolution rather than an evolution: it’s a change in their culture. Some teachers, especially those trained in the last five or six years, have only experienced school cultures where ‘rapid’ progress has been the aspiration. It’s little wonder that they find the idea of sometimes moving backwards in order to move forwards counter-intuitive.
Ofsted are very explicit that school culture is really what they set out to evaluate, especially in areas like safeguarding. But cultural change, like language change, can take a long time. Changing something that is embedded can take longer than introducing something brand new. For every overnight sensation like ‘selfie’ there are words which have had to play the long game. It took centuries for ‘nice’ to take on the positive connotations it has today.
When it comes to changing the meaning of ‘progress’, we all think we know what it means. And that’s the problem. Anyone who thinks they can change its meaning overnight has severely underestimated how much of a revolution this is going to be.