The Pupil’s Progress.


“Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound…”  John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

For the pupil, progress relies on hope, a belief in a journey towards a point of completion and an idea that ultimate salvation is just one more bit of effort away. This promised land, in which there  shall be ‘seraphims and cherubims’ and an eternal life of joy, will be won when the child has moved from a state of incompletion towards the superior state of ‘got some good exam grades’. Physically a child starts school small and finishes it tall, progress has clearly been made. Academically you start school without any certificates and you end with an Ebacc and an A level or two, or, God forbid, a vocational qualification, as you trudge towards the closed factory gate to the newly opened call centre. Rather than a heavenly pursuit, a pupil’s progress is tied to these rather mundane goals.

Teachers have algorithms to set their pupils targets. They distribute these goals like manna from heaven and report: “If Jacinta wishes to progress to a B grade she will need to knuckle down and work hard until the exam.” Then they track her progress towards that goal. This has become the extent of their ambition, justified by the belief that the B grade in such and such subject will get her a job in animal husbandry or law or a part time job in a beauticians. The belief in progress is underpinned by a dour utopian utility.

Most children make expected progress, which therefore isn’t really progress at all, it is doing as expected, so why is it fetishised so much? Because it can be measured, and if the underprivileged progress more than the privileged then all the added value boxes will be ticked and all will have really achieved (except the privileged who will have under-performed) and the bastions of privilege will come crashing to the ground and all will surrender to the new meritocratic reality: the meek will inherit the earth.

But this won’t happen.

And nor should it.

Progress is an anathema to a humane education, it is bowing out of our responsibility towards each other by sacrificing education on the altar of hope in a suburban heaven on earth, which is always one more qualification away, where we think perfection is attainable, – but only by adding an extra GCSE, PGCE  BA, MA or a Ph effing D… Education – inflation, inflation, inflation.

Instead of the hubris of ever marching progress we need to learn how to remain still, how to be us in the here and now. Teachers can’t make the future for their pupils, they must allow them to make it for themselves. Teachers should introduce pupils to the best that has been thought, said and done and enable their charges to begin to add to the best that has been thought, said and done; initiate them into how to use judgement, discernment, and discrimination, introduce them to past successes and mistakes, and share with them that humanity is a flawed state of being. No matter how perfect we believe our systems to be, teachers should not spend all their energies supporting systems of progress that insist pupils sacrifice themselves to the demands of a mechanistic target grade with its accompanying objectives and computer generated statements. The subject matter that is taught is more important and interesting than any grade; discovery and adventure more important than the progress myth and its simplistic goals.

Pupils need to practise in order to live a good life, so support them in forever becoming. Teach, don’t track. Focus on ideas, knowledge, practice and debate, and not grades. Encourage children to do something now, for its own sake, and not in the mistaken belief that it will make them a better person, get them a better job or help them progress towards a far off, dull and distinctly obtainable, goal. Instead of these dismal stories offer them adventure in the never ending pursuit of wisdom.

14 thoughts on “The Pupil’s Progress.

    1. Hi Juliet,

      Yes, I think so. Progress in the lesson: ‘measured’, verifiable – box ticked, move on, ‘accelerated’, and then moving on idea, is not helping. Children need time to absorb, they can’t forever be showing progress in every lesson, let alone every twenty minutes or so. We need to teach them and not worry about showing some mythical (or real) OfSted inspector that our kids have progressed…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have this on my wall–your post made me think of it:

    Dear Teacher:

    I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
    Gas chambers built by Learned engineers
    Children poisoned by Educated physicians
    Infants killed by Trained nurses
    Women and babies shot and burned by High School and College graduates

    So I am suspicious of education.

    My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produced learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

    Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

    Chaim Ginott (1972)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lovely, it reminds me of this quote from Isaiah Berlin:

      “Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation…”


  2. It sounds so delightful. But then so did Pol Pot to a lot of people. The Devil is in the details.

    I can teach trigonometry to my Year 10s because I can rely on them already having been given the necessary previous skills. Without a given syllabus that we all can rely on, students will arrive in our classrooms in such different states of knowledge that we can’t build on what they have.

    Sure, you say, but we don’t need grades to do this. But without grades there is no checking that the required skills are being taught. We would have a system where a teacher, so keen to “educate” wouldn’t get round to properly teaching the required elements. (This happens anyway, but it is at least kept in check.) Without grades there is no way to establish that teachers are doing their job consistently so that others can work after them. We’ve all had to teach a skill the previous teacher(s) should have taught — now imagine that tenfold.

    I find it myself. I would rather teach students how to count and do Maths in non base ten systems than yet another round of percentages and fractions. It is more interesting for me, and them. If I was not forced into a syllabus, with requirements to teach to the test, instead of an hour or so pinched from the year I could easy use a week or two on that alone. And I could spend a week on set theory. And another on matrices. And they would have a more interesting year, in which they learned a whole pile of useless things. Not useless because intrinsically useless, but useless because the next person would not build on that base, but go off other tracks. They’d get to their finals years and be unable to do Calculus because they would have not spent the requisite times on the building blocks.

    And there’s the rub — the really beautiful Maths is at the end, and can only be reached by hard work. And the interesting Science requires a whole host of basic principles to be bludgeoned through first. A system where teachers don’t focus on the boring bits isn’t going to do most students any favours at all in the long run, even in terms of making them better educated (as opposed to more taught).

    In theory Communism sounds more equitable that Capitalism. In practice it just sucks. In theory Meritocratic authoritarianism sounds more efficient than Democracy. In practice it leads to death camps. In the same way education sounds better than mere teaching. But actually isn’t.

    And who pays for this lovely education that isn’t focused on useful skills? It assumes a government prepared to shell out for the wonder of it all. Are voters really going to want their tax spent like that? If we all learn what is beautiful in our education, where are our accountants and technicians going to come from? Society as a whole pays for education because it is useful. The less useful it is, the less they are going to want to pay for it, and the education system is ferociously expensive already.


  3. Thank you Chester!

    Well, where to begin? I think you have set up a number of ‘straw man’ arguments here…

    Your exordium referring to Pol Pot is, may I say, rather extreme, (though I like the ‘devil’ in the details bit as that captures an opposing view to the ‘pilgrim’ imagery I was using).

    But, anyway, lets look at the straw men!

    Syllabus: where have I argued that a syllabus is a bad idea?

    Grades: where do I say don’t ever grade your pupils? The nearest I get is: “Focus on ideas, knowledge, practice and debate, and not grades.” But that is about the focus of the teaching, in other words concentrate on teaching trigonometry rather than ‘this is how to get a B’.

    Useless things: where have I suggested we should teach useless things? I say we should teach the ‘best that has been thought, said, and done.’

    Building blocks: where do I suggest we shouldn’t teach the building blocks in a subject?

    Hard work: where do I suggest there shouldn’t be any hard work involved?

    Boring bits: where do I say that children shouldn’t be taught anything boring?

    Communism vs Capitalism… Well I’m on the side of the angels 😉

    You say that: “Meritocratic authoritarianism sounds more efficient than Democracy.” and this might be alluding to you agreeing with my point about “the bastions of privilege will come crashing to the ground and all will surrender to the new meritocratic reality: the meek will inherit the earth.” Though I’m not sure…

    Useful skills: again, this seems to echo your point on ‘useless things’, where am I suggesting we should teach useless skills?

    Then society paying for ‘useful’, do you mean by this my comment on ‘utility’? Where I say: “The belief in progress is underpinned by a dour utopian utility.” which is not the same as saying education should be useless. Here I am arguing about the focus on the ‘target grade’ rather than the ‘subject matter’.

    You say: “If we all learn what is beautiful in our education, where are our accountants and technicians going to come from?” And, again, I have not said we should only teach beautiful things’ In fact I don’t think I used the word ‘beautiful’ at all. But, just out of interest, do you think accountants and technicians don’t need to be taught a sense of what is beautiful? Anyway, again, a straw man because I haven’t said we should only teach things that are beautiful.

    The piece was about the practice where the grade and how to obtain it has become the focus of learning, rather than the subject matter which the teacher is teaching. In other words, trigonometry, is more important than how to get a C grade. If a pupils learns trigonometry, then, by all means give them an A grade to show the teacher to come that they have learned trigonometry, but it is the trigonometry that should be the focus; the child should be learning not about how to accrue grades, but how to accrue knowledge.


    1. Martin,

      Sorry about taking so long, but I don’t come here very regularly.

      Your reply sounds very reasonable. But it doesn’t sound like the original article in the slightest.

      You said “Teachers should introduce pupils to the best that has been thought, said and done” but in practice the syllabus has a tendency to program what I can teach. Your article made no allowance for how this awkwardness was to be overcome.

      You ask “But, just out of interest, do you think accountants and technicians don’t need to be taught a sense of what is beautiful?”. Well, sure they do, and I will digress in class to show students some of the beauty of Maths (which over 90% will ignore, by the way). But the main thrust of my teaching is to get them the required skills so that they can move on up.

      Maybe its me, but your article seemed to make an impassioned plea for teaching more or less ignoring grades. It left out all details of how exactly we merge teaching both practical and beautiful. There’s no mention of how teaching “for its own sake” might lead to inconsistencies and false paths, and how we might direct teachers so that it doesn’t.

      Hence to me it looked like a “Year 0” plan — a beautiful theory on paper, which if followed leads to disaster.


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