The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance

What’s more important? Learning or progress?

Take that progress! We want learning

We’ve known since the publication of Ofsted’s Moving English Forward in March last year that demonstrating progress is not the be all and end all of an inspector’s judgments, but just in case anyone was in any doubt, Kev Bartle has forensically scoured Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook and come to these damning conclusions. He unequivocally states that,”There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning” before going on to say:

Even Ofsted (the big organisation but sadly not always the individual inspectors or inspection teams) realise that ‘progress’ is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore CANNOT IN ITSELF BE OBSERVED IN LESSONS other than through assessing how much students have learned.  ‘Progress in lessons’ is the very definition of a black box into which we, as teachers and leaders, need to shine a light.

As often seems to happen, I encounter new information when I’m ready to process it and yesterday I came across this (thanks to the prodding of the hugely knowledgeable Cristina Milos) from Robert Bjork:

Bjork says that learning and performance should be seen as distinct and should be disassociated in the minds of teachers. Performance is measurable but learning must be inferred from performance: it cannot be observed directly. That is to say, performance  is easy to observe whereas learning is not. You can tick a box to show that students’ performance has moved from x to y but you can’t tell sometimes whether learning has taken place. There are many instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and there are instances where performance improves, but little learning seems to happen in the long term.

Learning is, as Wiliam said, “a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos”*.  And the problem is compounded by the fact that current performance is an unreliable indicator of learning. Performance can be propped up by predictability and current cues that are present during the lesson but won’t be present when the information is needed later. This can make it seem that a student is making rapid progress but there may not actually be any learning happening.

This is the Monkey Dance, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on in far too many observed lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students’ performance and their observer can nod, smile and tick away to their embittered heart’s content. But there may be little or no learning taking place.

So clearly the problem is: if we’re going to disassociate learning and performance (as we so obviously need to do) what strategies will promote learning? Well, very helpfully in the final 30 seconds, Bjork says the following:

When you introduce things like variability, spacing, reducing the feedback, interleaving things to be learned rather than blocking the things to be learned; that appears to slow down the learning process and poses challenges but enhances long term retention and transfer.

Robert Bjork

Each of these ideas deserves their own blog post and this is something that I’ll beaver away at over half term. Any suggestions on excellent ways to embed pedagogy that promotes learning rather than progress will be very gratefully received.

As ever, Darren Mead got there first and makes the same points, but more amusingly, here:

Post script: You will of course have noticed that I’m using progress and performance interchangeably; I think this is because they’re the same, but please do feel free to dissent.

*Liminality is a fascinating subject and one worth reading more about. You could do worse than start here.

Related posts

Myths: what Ofsted want

What is learning?

Is there a right way to teach?

64 Responses to The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance

  1. sean says:

    Learning is key for me, however we can’t forget that we work in system where students get exam passes that rely on performance as well. Got interested in spaced learning recently, quiet high on Hattie’s list. Ties in with the iceberg post about the dialogue with observers, discuss strategies used in the long term to promote learning

  2. Siateach says:

    I couldn’t agree more, the need to show progress in a lesson often seems artificial and very much a ‘ticking box’ exercise. Concentrating on the learning that has taken place and whether this is assimilated effectively should surely lead to progression OVER TIME. Progress in one lesson is not over time and suggests that progress is linear, again an artificial form.

  3. learningspy says:

    Sean – of course you’re right about the need to work towards performance. That is the point of the learning (certainly in out system.) Performance isn’t a bad thing it just shouldn’t be the focus of individual lessons.

    Siateach – Yes, we need to confound the idea that progress is linear. It may well be, but learning is messy.

    Thanks both

  4. Julia Seggie says:

    Biggest issue here is that good teachers get bogged down with showing what super resources, tasks, activities they can do or teach and then they forget the whole purpose of their lesson is about what the students are learning. When they focus on that, the progress can be “seen” because it is implicit. It usually involves students getting the opportunity to work on something and show their understanding which is probably why outstanding lessons generally have elements of paired and group work in them, although not always. The more we all get the opportunity to peer observe the easier it is for the penny to drop on this.

    Progress over time can be tracked back in a single lesson through looking at books, talking to students, using data and planning ( a one off lesson just doesn’t wash any more!)

    When you plan your outstanding lessons, do you think about the learning that needs to happen or the lovely activity you saw Mr X do at Conference Y?

  5. learningspy says:

    Thanks Julia – I really take your point about activities. I consider myself the enemy of activities. I’ve blogged about this recently here: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/02/11/icebergs-taking-risks-being-outstanding/

    Progress *can* be tracked over time, but is it? If we’re to avoid merely tracking performance this needs much more than a cursory flick through a couple of books during an observation.

    Is the question is your third paragraph rhetorical? I always think about the learning I want to happen and how I can check to see whether it has. This is massively imperfect and the only way I can really tell is to give it TIME.

    Thanks, David

  6. Mary Whitehouse says:

    At York Science we agree with Bjork that you cannot see learning, only the evidence of learning demonstrated by the way a student answers a question, discusses a hypothesis, explains a prediction at the start of a practical task …
    Our project http://www.yorkscience.org.uk is aiming to develop good questions and tasks – which we call ‘evidence of learning items’ – for KS3 Science.
    Successful (or unsuccessful) completion of the task or question provides the evidence – I would have thought that was the ‘performance’. If students do not have an opportunity to provide evidence of learning (perform) then how can the teacher know what to do next?
    So I think there IS a difference between ‘performance’ and ‘progress’.
    Maybe we should just forget the word progress in planning lessons?
    And forget the dreaded levels too!

  7. learningspy says:

    The problem is that if we accept that learning can only be inferred from performance and then design our lessons to elicit performance (or worse, progress) then we only have evidence of what they can do *now*. Our lessons need to be designed, as Bjork suggests, to focus on ‘long term retention and transfer’. Short term performance *may* build towards retention and transfer but it might not. This is where i need to do some more research and experimentation.

    Maybe you’re right and progress/performance cannot be used interchangeably (although I think they ARE used this way already – and this at least needs to be challenged!)

    And levels? What are levels? 🙂

  8. Mary Whitehouse says:

    I guess I have a lower expectation of ‘performance’ than the way you are using it.
    Specifically in science, for instance, a teacher might use a concept cartoon as a trigger for group discussion. From that the teacher will get an idea about where students are in their understanding of a concept, and then they will know what to do next in the lesson – move on as they all have grasped ht idea, or an activity for them to help develop that understanding better. I agree with you that ‘performance’ on that task does not mean they all have got the idea completely, you would need a variety of tasks/questions to be able to say that there is solid understanding of an idea.
    I am talking about using evidence of learning in a formative way, not as a summative tick the box moment.

  9. learningspy says:

    Are you implying I’m interested with ‘summative tick the box’ learning?

    The problem is that no matter what performance suggests in a lesson, actual learning is much more mysterious. Nuthall tells us that between 44-81% of all learning in a given lesson is unique. That is, it’s learned by only a single child. If we are designing lessons to measure learning we’re stuffed.

    Instead we need to focus on building progress into learning outcomes, test for prior knowledge, using hinge questions to ‘take the temperature’ of lessons and use dialogic questioning to explore misconceptions. This may result in learning over time but if we expect to see progress through performance we will be deceived: the teacher will most certainly NOT have a clear idea of their students’ understanding.

  10. Mary Whitehouse says:

    aha
    I think we are understanding one another now – no I didn’t think you were INTERESTED in ticking the boxes, though that seemed closer to what you were describing when talking about performance.

    I totally agree with your last paragraph. We have been trying to write ‘learning progressions’ – that is the progression through science ideas that we would hope to see students to make through a KS.

    We have to think how to give teachers the confidence to recognise progress in a student’s learning without resorting to a rubric and ‘levels’..

  11. Beccy Pook says:

    I am finding this discussion both timely and useful. If progress is improvement at a given skill or in depth of understanding and perfomance is the quality of what you are doing then they are not the same thing in my opinion. It seems to me that if you wanted to show progress in a lesson you would have to repeat the skill being used or take feedback on the level of understanding at two points in the lesson.To what extent can you assimilate such assessment in an hours lesson with thirty students? Is that a useful way of spending a lesson or likely to engage a student? Or is it better to give them a sequence of skills and knowledge and assess progress after a series of such tasks? As they are then possibly going to perform using all of these gained skills and knowlege and their performance will demonstrate progress.Then of course there is the issue which is raised of learning being complex and non linear. (I have found myself to get equally frustrated with the way in which the phrase understanding is used, especially in learning objectives.)

  12. learningspy says:

    Assessing progress in lessons is highly artificial and you will end up only judging students’ performance at that moment in time. This will not be an indication of learning.

    You’re right to say that ‘understanding’ is a problematic term: all too often it ends up being deemed a fairly low grade skill which is probably due to its status in Bloom’s (unhelpful) taxonomy. However, some concepts are much harder to understand than others so we have to be guided by the demands of our content which is where designing learning outcomes comes in. SOLO taxonomy can be a useful tool for making sure these outcomes are based on hierarchical manipulations of knowledge.

    I intend to write on this in more detail soon.

  13. […] arguments laid out here should be adequate to convince even the most entrenched and wrongheaded champions of […]

  14. […] Icebergs, taking risks and being outstanding – tips for ensuring any observer gets what you’re doing. It’s particularly important to explain to the ill-informed the difference between learning and progress. […]

  15. Alex Quigley says:

    I find the connection between ‘learning’ and so-called ‘progress’ really intriguing. I think the single lesson observation has always been founded upon a ‘noble myth’ that such a snapshot of teaching can show learning and better progress over time. Of course, it cannot, but it is one way of capturing a snapshot picture of progress – wholly imperfect of course, but helpful as one minor strand of reviewing professional quality and development. When teachers employ those engaging tasks so beloved by observers and get labelled ‘outstanding’ I don’t think outstanding learning can be proven to be in evidence; however, what the teacher is effectively exhibiting is their ability to get groups of students to become positively compliant and show engagement in the classroom interactions. By showing the teacher can create these conditions we are making the assumption that learning will progress better over time with such a teacher, over a teacher who cannot elicit such positive compliance.

    It is imperfect of course and we shouldn’t make as much of it as we do. The fact that crucial external judgements are built upon this elaborate game of displaying engagement distorts the whole shooting match. The idea of ‘rapid progress in learning’ is a nonsense, causing a host of ill-thought through whole school approaches it seems. If it were labelled more simply as a ‘high level observable social engagement’ perhaps we would come nearer the truth about lesson observations. It is more than just playing semantics, it is about displaying an expert understanding of how learning happens in optimal circumstances. I would hope that issues like ‘spacing’ and ‘interleaving’ learning became more commonly part of our educational discussion.

  16. […] Didau’s blog The Learning Spy, he presents a series of articles The Problem with Progress (Learning vs Performance, Designing a Curriculum for Learning, and Designing Lessons for Learning).  It talks about how we […]

  17. learningspy says:

    Alex, you’re right; this is exactly what happens: “By showing the teacher can create these conditions we are making the assumption that learning will progress better over time with such a teacher, over a teacher who cannot elicit such positive compliance.”

    I get that. I really do. The problem is that much so-called ‘outstanding’ teaching actually warps learning. Teachers are still being told to use ‘progress pitstops’ and ‘multi-plenaries’ to show evidence of teaching. What you describe is fine; clearly we want to get a sense that a teacher can take a class with them, no matter how they achieve it, but what we absolutely don’t want are teachers who are deceived into thinking that demonstrating progress is a good thing.

    I’ve been having a real think about how we can re-design our curriculum to take advantage of spacing & interleaving. I’ll let you know how we get on.

    Cheers, David

  18. […] blog is inspiring for many reasons, mainly that this teacher takes such a strong psyhcological viewpoint […]

  19. […] The problem with progress part 1: learning vs performance […]

  20. Cristina Milos says:

    I couldn’t help smiling at your “I came across a video”, David. You were recommended that video by me after we had a discussion on learning vs. performance on Twitter.
    That is all.

  21. learningspy says:

    Cristina – I’m glad you smiled. I’m so very grateful for being pointed in the direction of Bjork – it has profoundly changed my thinking.

    Many thanks

  22. Lily Johnson says:

    I read this article with particular interest and more than a hint of bitterness, having just been awarded a ‘3’ ; need to improve. Most areas were a 1 or 2, but I was informed that I couldn’t evidence progress.

    I am disappointed, as I used a learning continuum starter and returned to this for the plenary. However the observer said that as I had only taught the group of under-performing Year Sevens a few times, he was using their opinion. The two students he asked said they could paragraph already, so they couldn’t say they’d learned anything. He then said I should have collected evidence from other subjects to offer evidence of progress.

    The idea of these lessons is to get small numbers of students from low level 4’s to secure level 5’s for reading and writing skills. I would appreciate the opinion, or even the guidance, of some of the intelligent folk who post here, or even the Learning Spy himself. Thanks in anticipation, Lily.

  23. learningspy says:

    Lily, I’m sorry: this is everything I despise about the way teachers are held to account. The ignorance of some school leaders leaves me aghast, it really does.

    “The two students he asked said they could paragraph already, so they couldn’t say they’d learned anything.”

    How does he know that they could paragraph already? Did he test them, or just take their word for it?

    “He then said I should have collected evidence from other subjects to offer evidence of progress.”

    Really? I don’t think any teachers do this routinely – especially not to jump through an observation hoop!

    But, are you asking how to do better in an observation or how to move students from lvl 4 to 5?

    The first one’s (relatively) easy. I’ve written about it here and here.

    The second is much harder. Firstly, I hate levels – they’re meaningless and stupid. What does each individual kid need to improve on? Do they know? My advice, for what it’s worth, would be to ignore levels and teach them what they need to be able to do.

    Best of luck.

  24. Lily Johnson says:

    Hi David, thank you so much for taking the trouble to reply. It looks very much like I have lost this battle, but I will continue to keep reading your blog, together with a few others, in the hope that I may go back to the sort of observation success I used to enjoy.

    May I take the opportunity to say how much I enjoyed your book, which I have read through twice and am now skimming through again in a bid to rediscover my love for this job, which is currently somewhat lacking!

    All I can do is keep doing my best in the relentless persuit of the elusive good or outstanding, which I used to achieve almost effortlessly. It’s a funny old world!

    Regards and thanks,

    Lily xx

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  27. Lily Johnson says:

    Hello again David,

    I wanted to update you on the thorny issue of lesson obs and feed back, while also introducing some work I have done, with incredibly powerful results!
    I was observed again last week and got really positive feed back, together with constructive suggestions to secure outstanding. I was graded 2 overall, with huge swathes of the review being outstanding, most notably marking and planning for individuals ogress.

    I bit the bullet and collected the history exercise books of all my additional literacy year seven students, in a bid to jump through the hoop known as ‘demonstrating pupil progress’. I marked
    each of their books very thoroughly, then wrote detailed feedback and a literacy target for each
    student. This was about a month ago and the results are nothing short of miraculous. Student levels have improved, while they are clearly aware of what they do well and how they can improve their weaknesses.

    Arguably more importantly, students seem to have really benefitted from knowing that we teachers talk to each other and we are not living lives of splendid isolation, well away from other teachers. They are seeing their learning as an exciting challenge, in which we are all participating in ensuring their progress and success. It has proved to be an incredibly powerful and effective tool in enabling pupil progress. Even OFSTED cannot complain about that!

    Thank you once again for your fab blog, your interest in my predicament and your excellent suggestions for improving teaching, all of which have proved outstandingly helpful! Yours, Lily x

  28. learningspy says:

    Lily – that’s great to hear! I’m really pleased that you’re finding ways to improve your students’ learning and feeling so much more positive as well. An excellent outcome.

    Thanks for keeping in touch, David

  29. […] are unclear about how their lessons fit into a sequence. If we can rid ourselves of the myth that performance is evidence of learning and to be able to say, here is where they will be independent and this is how I know.  As teachers […]

  30. […] see, here’s my problem: if we accept that learning is not the same thing as performance, then how can we possibly think that any AfL strategies are measuring anything except performance? […]

  31. […] David Didau @learningspy wrote a great blog about that here […]

  32. […] this important? Well, I’ve argued before that progress can’t be both rapid & sustained: the two cancel each other out. And, at the risk of over-extending my metaphor, I’m beginning […]

  33. […] Teacher talk: the missing link Mind your language – a language based approach to pedagogy The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance […]

  34. Wsmith says:

    This blog is full of common sense in what I call “the emperors new clothes” debate, where you think school is obviously all about the learning until you start talking to the powers that be and realise that it is all an illusion! I wish that you were not a complete enemy of activities, because if learning is messy then you have to get your hands dirty. The maze analogy in video is a good one.

  35. […] Where lesson observations go wrong Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations? The problem with progress Part 1: Learning vs Performance […]

  36. […] Professor Robert A Bjork has made a convincing case for the fact that learning should be separated f…, and that we need to acknowledge that in a lesson observation we can only see students’ performance. My position is that the idea of ‘progress’ can be deeply harmful to both teachers and students. Much better to acknowledge that students are ‘making progress’ rather than being deceived into thinking ‘progress has been made’. We can infer whether learning has taken place but we can’t know. As Graham Nuthall said, “learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.” What’s the use of students being able to do something at the end of a lesson but not remembering how to do it next lesson? Professor Robert Coe, director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, has declared that schools inspectors in England are basing their verdicts on evaluation methods which may not be reliable. Coe says that we use the following proxies to judge whether learning has taken place: […]

  37. […] (@learningspy) explains that what our assessments actually measure is performance, not learning in The Problem with Progress. Invariably accountability will drive curriculum and teaching and learning decisions but I worry […]

  38. […] we should seek to ensure pupils learning is sustained. I’ve argued before that the concept of ‘rapid progress’ actively undermines the likelihood the pupils will make sustained progr… I would add that the way in which schools generally design their curriculum is to maximise […]

  39. […] Part 1 – Performance vs Learning Part 2 – Designing a curriculum for learning Part 3 – Designing lessons for learning […]

  40. […] Don’t trust your gut: a little bit more o the problem with grading lessons Deliberately difficult: why it might be better to make learning harder The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance […]

  41. […] sometimes take a bloody long time to learn. There have been blog posts about how progress doesn’t necessarily demonstrate learning and blog posts arguing that […]

  42. […] or indeed learning. David Didau’s blog is the best place to read an exploration of this idea: “The Problem With Progress”. Effectively, the fact that performance may be improved and indicators back this up, does not mean […]

  43. […] I wrote earlier in the week about why, despite it’s limitations, research is better than a hunch. Since then, I’ve been reading Daniel Willingham’s article on Real Clear Education; he says that it’s not that people are stupid but that science is hard. He refers to the nobel prize winning physicist Carl Weiman whose interest in science education came from many years of working closely with physics undergraduates and observing that “their success in physics courses was such a poor predictor of a student’s ultimate success as a physicist.” Or in other words, performance was not a useful indication of learning. […]

  44. […] I wrote earlier in the week about why, despite it’s limitations,research is better than a hunch. Since then, I’ve been reading Daniel Willingham’s article on Real Clear Education; he says that it’s not that people are stupid but that science is hard. He refers to the nobel prize winning physicist Carl Weiman whose interest in science education came from many years of working closely with physics undergraduates and observing that “their success in physics courses was such a poor predictor of a student’s ultimate success as a physicist.” Or in other words, performance was not a useful indication of learning. […]

  45. […] I wrote earlier in the week about why, despite it’s limitations, research is better than a hunch. Since then, I’ve been reading Daniel Willingham’s article on Real Clear Education; he says that it’s not that people are stupid but that science is hard. He refers to the nobel prize winning physicist Carl Weiman whose interest in science education came from many years of working closely with physics undergraduates and observing that “their success in physics courses was such a poor predictor of a student’s ultimate success as a physicist.” Or in other words, performance was not a useful indication of learning. […]

  46. […] for schools to demonstrate that pupils make ‘rapid and sustained’ progress. I argued in this post that you can’t have both; rapid progress comes at the cost of sustained progress. But unless […]

  47. […] need for schools to demonstrate that pupils make ‘rapid and sustained’ progress. I argued in this post that you can’t have both; rapid progress comes at the cost of sustained progress. But unless […]

  48. […] the students at that particular moment. This is something I went into a great deal of detail about here. Briefly, learning can only be inferred from performance. Sometimes students perform really well […]

  49. […] 2) – The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance […]

  50. […] Icebergs, taking risks and being outstanding – tips for ensuring any observer gets what you’re doing. It’s particularly important to explain to the ill-informed the difference between learning and progress. […]

  51. […] first to go was the idea it possible to see progress in lessons. Once I’d been introduced to the idea that we should disassociate ‘performance’ […]

  52. […] the same thing. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it rocked my world to its rotten foundations. Read this post if you want to find out […]

  53. […] David Didau’s posts on the differences between ‘learning’ and ‘performance’ have influenced me hugely this year. I’ve always performed well in observations. I feel that I’m reasonably good at getting students to behave, work hard, and perform well in classroom activities. But does my performance, or their performance, guarantee learning? Once I realised the distinction, I had to think a lot harder about whether or not my students were learning. The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance. […]

  54. […] learning is really invisible, are the measures of performance we’re adopting to measure them by proxy really the best ones we […]

  55. […] blog posts are dedicated to this subject – I would definitely suggest having a read of this, this and this – and I’m convinced that when I redesign the KS3 curriculum I need to think about the […]

  56. […] and book looks might be more favourable to stabiliser tasks. This is the problem with focusing on performance versus learning. Long term, it’s balance bikes that’ll lead to success on the real thing. Let’s […]

  57. […] in using this data is compounded by the fact that there is also seemingly a difference between learning and performance in lessons and that what students retain is not necessarily what they demonstrate: therefore […]

  58. […] of a student performing a process accurately does not imply they’ve learnt it securely. Performance and learning just aren’t the same. Memory is crucial […]

  59. […] of my students. One of my PGCE students even used a fancy web-app to do this. After reading David Didau and Rob Coe I don’t do these any more. Not only do I think they are wastes of time (see […]

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