Industry February 2012

What Are Teachers Talking About?

It’s great when your child comes home and shows you the big capital “A” his or her teacher has written on that last piece of homework. You’re a successful parent. The child has been successful. Oxford … Harvard … medical school … law school … the world is opening up before you both.

But what actually constitutes an A? What (apart from just “working harder”) can one really do to improve on one’s C? What would a B piece of work look like? What are the criteria?

These are very important questions for two reasons: teachers and schools should be accountable for the grades they assign; and students should be given whatever help they need in order to be more successful.

Confucius is forever reminding us that even a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step—and a huge, thousand-mile-long step is not what is meant. Rather, it means a step that doesn’t really seem to have got one anywhere at all. And, what’s more, it doesn’t just start with one step: it’s entirely made up of single steps.

This is a journey in which one is going to need some indication of one’s progress, otherwise those single steps will just make one feel as if one is getting nowhere. So one breaks it down into small, attainable, nowhere-near-a-thousand-mile-long chunks.

Educational progress is similar. For example, in England, as part of the National Curriculum, they’ve defined all those chunks, right through from the start of school to age 14, and organised them into eight progression-based Levels. At any time, a child’s current level of skills, knowledge and understanding in any subject area can be identified by teachers. Moreover, built into the system are clear, concrete definitions and explanations of what they need to do next.

Progress (not just isolated As, Bs, and so on) is tracked, often on quite sophisticated computer database systems, and the conversations at Parents’ Evenings have a ready and rich focus: ask a teacher what your child needs to do to improve and they can tell you in detail; discuss the specifics of rapid progress in one subject area compared with apparent stalling in another. These thorough tracking systems also enable rapid management analysis of the performance of teachers, groups and whole schools.

Across the world, education professionals nowadays are trained to interrogate their systems—and expectations—in order to find better answers, not just to perennial questions, but also to emerging, new, twenty-first-century ones. A shift of balance towards the empowerment of individual students benefits everyone. In international schools, any day of the year might bring new children to the classroom: in this environment I’m always encouraged to see how quickly a culture of transparency allows them to adapt, begin to move forward and make the school their own.

Because the fact is, nobody can take a thousand-mile step. Children on their way to success benefit most from focus and clarity. Where am I now? Where am I going next? Why did I just fall short and how can I succeed next time?

An A is always gratifying, no matter how mysterious its provenance—but today’s teachers have a lot more information for you than just letters of the alphabet.

Learning isn’t a magic process (even at Hogwarts) and now, more than ever before, there is clarity for children, teachers … and for you.