Experiencing excellence transform you. Once you have achieved at the highest levels available at your perceived limits, nothing else really satisfies. When I ran, I achieved city records. Now, trotting out winning times in the teacher race is a social event: not one of true endeavour.
You may not be an expert, or even entirely competent in your field, to experience excellence. I ran to my limits, trying harder than any of my peers (at least as far as my facial expressions were concerned!). Doing so made thirst to do this in other arenas of my life, and to want to improve as rapidly as I could.
I recently read ‘Room at Top’, and think tank report by Policy Exchange that aims to readjust thinking on gifted and talented students, and on how students might both achieve and experience excellence in their education. Here are some thoughts:
a) Earnestness bristles the British sensibility. Yesterday I saw the celebration of ‘Yorkshire Day’. The cheering and singing saw mass participation, yet was enthused by a peculiar, muted quality. ‘Effortless achievement’, which is deemed one of society’s ‘highest goals’ is worthwhile only in that the effort might be allocated elsewhere. It is a fallacy to think that effortless achievement is something worthy of endeavour, unless we are talking about doing the dishes.
b) Children who are tested for brute IQ may not necessarily achieve academic success (the measure of ‘advanced cognitive performance’. Some worthy points to note are:
– The top 10% of working class children measured by brute IQ at the age of three are overtaken by the bottom 10% of middle class children by the age of twelve.
– There is substantial regression to the mean of ‘academic performing’ between the ages of 6 and 16. Indeed, comprehensively educated students achieve, one the whole, better degrees than their privately educated peers.
c) Excellence also comes in out-of-classroom activities. One definition of genius, verified by a Mensa’d individual, is the ability to cope with uncertainty. Being curious about all things, and being willing to suffer the embarrassment and risk of uncertainty, is necessary for anyone to push for excellence. Yet how often are teachers encouraged to risk uncertainty?
In a school once near me, the teachers were called upon to take literacy tests. From these, gaps could be addressed, and teachers could improve themselves. For various reasons, some valid, this was railed against and stopped. When I was at university, one tutor gave the seminar group a sheet on using apostrophes. When I began my teaching practice in one of the best providers in the UK, we were given a list of literacy points (such as practice vs practise!). Should I call upon those around me to complete a literacy test, I would share these and many other points as things of improvement that do not deride me as a thinking, sentient being. You have to be willing to embrace uncertainty.
Teachers need, I think, training or guidance from experts in various fields in providing such extra-curricular experiences for their students.
d) National policies of measuring the number of C grades via 5 A*-Cs plus English and Maths are deemed to aim for mediocrity. Making pure value-added the key measure, so that an A to an A* is granted the same worth as a C to a D, is one policy to aim for excellence nationally.
I think judgement on value-added is worthwhile (not least because my classes always achieve it). However, those not immediately inside education (i.e. not the parents or teachers or students) are more interested in seeing if the student ‘passed’ with a C, or if they achieved an A or A*.
In addition, moving a student from a D to a C is a different beast than pushing from an A to an A*. They require different tactics, and different forms of motivation. I would say, as the report suggests, that parental support is key in both.
RaiseOnline suggests percentage chances of students achieving grades when compared to those who are performing at a similar academic level. Academic performance needs to be realistic so work is pitched at an appropriate level for the student’s ZPDs. However, projects of excellence should be open to all on a regular basis: just because a student struggles with an aspect of literacy does not mean that they are not capable of advanced cognitive performance.
e) Using rubrics are an excellent way to avoid students associating their work solely with grading. I admit that I began to use grading with rubrics by the end of time at my current school in order to make students confident in using exam language and levelling: they hungered for such knowledge and requested it. I relented for most of the year, but subscribed to necessity near the end.
f) I think public performance, as promoted by Ron Berger in his brilliant ‘An Ethic of Excellence’, is fundamental to motivating and improving students through ‘marginal gains’. My students, as am I, are not necessarily motivated by the things we think motivate them. I hope they are more Pavlov’s cats than this dogs! Instead, public performance (by sharing work with others) allows students to bring to their work whatever constructs they already have: the affirmation of their peers (even if that might initially be a cursory glance) is a powerful experience of excellence. This is also something affirmed in the last-but-one incarnation of the British NC.
g) There has not been an increase between the B to A* grade performance nationally in the UK in the past 5-6 years, although there has been an increase in the F-C performance. This is, I think, the purpose of the report. What does a ‘B’ grade student look like? Are they ‘working hard’? What aspect of their literacy or thinking is stopping them from achieving at the highest levels? Is every teacher capable of performing at the highest levels?
Whether any of these parties are (apparently) capable or not is bunk: that opportunities must be provided and belief stoked is not enrichment – it is entitlement.
As an amendment, the Daily Mail suggests today that students gaining straight A-stars has risen (with a predictable backlash ,too). The numbers still seem insignificant, and do not reflect a C to A/A* grade movement: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2395904/GCSE-students-collecting-A-grades-like-Boy-Scout-badges-Number-QUADRUPLED-just-years.html
h) The social factors that hamper the achievement of excellence, or of overcoming academic aversion, are underplayed. That is not a bad thing. While the urban angst or rural apathy of some of our (occasionally dysfunctional) schools is intractable, and some teachers will be compelled to deal with some immensely challenging situations (child protection, violence, a developmental dearth of reading or conversation), situations that offer the opportunity to provide excellence can still be provided.
Of course, time and energy and spirit and vision are not in infinite supply. I know the sapping quality of maintaining monitoring processes and still having a life.
To those teachers in the most difficult situations I say this: suffer uncertainty, and offer those opportunities. Publish your students in blogs or books; let them interview others and bring their (sometimes challenging) views into their education. Let them realise that they are not just a collection of individuals waiting for a bell to ring, but are rather a representative of a line of people that stretch in the distance past (with all the mistakes, loves and foiled ambitions that come with them). And stretched out ahead is the line of people that will come ahead.
Excellence is not just something we do for ourselves because it is nice. I do not choose to write and reflect because it is ‘nice’ (although it often is!). I do it because I am compelled to do so for an invisible audience of thousands who might be wanting to see a metaphorical hand reach from the screen to take theirs in a grasps that says, “I know that feeling, too!”