The myth of progress

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

C. S. Lewis

We tend to believe that things are getting better, that mankind is on a journey to some perfect state in which irrationality will be banished. This belief shapes and distorts our thinking. Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection is often interpreted as meaning that random biological mutations, which are then inherited and selected as being most fit for the context in which a species finds itself, are working towards some ultimate goal. They aren’t. If we accept Darwin’s theory, we also have to accept that our existence is a matter of chance. We are something of a fluke.

Karl Popper, thought something similar was happening in the realm of ideas. He saw the growth of knowledge as being the result of a process closely resembling natural selection. He thought that “our knowledge consists, at every moment, of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by surviving so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit”.

But even a cursory glance at the history of ideas demonstrates that if this is true, it’s a maddeningly slow process. In education alone many hypotheses which are unfit continue to lurch about our landscape. Maybe we can better understand the spread of ideas by considering Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes and mimetic evolution. In The Selfish Gene, he explains that just as genes are driven to replicate themselves through the process of natural selection, memes – ideas, tunes, images – also replicate themselves in a similarly self-interested way. Through a process of cultural transmission, ideas spread themselves from person to person and from consciousness to consciousness regardless of whether they are good or bad ideas.

Obviously some memes are incredibly useful or beautiful – the ideas of central limit theorem, King Lear, growth mindsets, the electric light bulb, the idea of education itself – but others are not. It often seems that all an idea needs in order to be accepted is to be shouted loudly enough and often enough for it to become something we no longer question. When this happens memes enter the realm of conventional wisdom and become self-evidently true in the minds of many; their survival is assured. Or as John Maynard Keynes put it, “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas”.

Our implicit belief in progress hoodwinks us into accepting that results should always be improving and things can only get better. We only have to remember the second law of thermodynamics: everything moves inexorably towards entropy and chaos. (The entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium increases because isolated systems always evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium, a state with maximum entropy.) Any temporary sense of progress is but a beguiling illusion, just another self-interested meme that replicates as it passes from mind to mind.

Back to progress. Is it actually possible for pupils’ learning to improve in a short time or at a great rate and continue for an extended period?

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I don’t think it is. Of course we can have breakthroughs but these are rare. Sudden breakthroughs are usually the result of the steady accretion of understanding over time – the fact that they seem to happen quickly is misleading. For the most part, you have to make a choice between rapid and sustained and, this being the case, I’m going to plump for sustained. After all, progress that doesn’t last isn’t really progress, is it? This idea that progress can be rapid has led us into believing that meaningful progress can take place in individual lessons and that learning follows a neat, linear trajectory. Children move from knowing nothing to knowing a little, to knowing a lot in a smooth and easily navigable and safely predictable manner. This is self-evidently wrong as even a cursory examination of children’s work over time makes clear. Progress is, if anything, halting, frustrating and surprising. Learning is better seen as integrative, transformative, and reconstitutive – the linear metaphor in terms of movement from A to B is unhelpful. The learner doesn’t go anywhere but develops a different relationship with what they know.

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Progress is just a metaphor. It doesn’t really describe objective reality; it provides a comforting fiction to conceal the absurdity of our lives. We can’t help using metaphors to describe learning because we have no idea what it actually looks like. Even though our metaphors are imprecise approximations, the metaphors we use matter. They permeate our thinking. Learning is often conceived as a staircase which pupils steadily ascend. The long shadow cast by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget has meant linear ‘stage theories’ have dominated the way we see the mysterious process of learning. As we know from our own messy journey through life, we often seem to step back or sideways as often as we step up. An alternative metaphor is offered by cognitive psychologist Robert Siegler, who has developed the theory that learning is like ‘overlapping waves’. Piaget saw learning progressing in neat stages like a staircase: children would master level 1 before ascending to level 2, level 3 and so on. Instead, Siegler envisages learning as “a gradual ebbing and flowing of the frequencies of alternative ways of thinking, with new approaches being added and old ones being eliminated as well”. He suggests that as we encounter new rules, strategies, theories, and ways of thinking these wash through our minds like waves, sometimes obliterating what was there before, sometimes pushing suddenly forward in great surges.

This might be a more useful way to frame our thinking about progress. Siegler’s image of surging and receding waves helps to explain the seemingly random retreats and swells we experience as we grapple with new skills and tricky concepts. Rather than feeling ashamed about ‘slipping back’ into the old ways of thinking and acting we thought we had out- grown, such episodes are better viewed as part of the natural ebb and flow of learning. Slipping back is part of the liminal process of integrating new and troublesome concepts into our mental webs.

If you’re interested in how we might attempt to measure something inherently unmeasurable, I’ll be speaking at The Key’s Life After Levels Conference on 19th May. See you there.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

25 Responses to The myth of progress

  1. heatherfblog says:

    Really enjoyed this. Especially when helping my own children that lack of linear progress is very evident.
    It provokes a few thoughts though about how one should teach when learning is so messy. I have found that a mastery staircase, carefully exposing children to ideas in gradually expanding contexts, with planned repetition (to scoop up those who missed learning from that angle) works best. I am guessing some would presume that messy learning means teaching should also be ‘messy’ – unsystematic -but I am very unconvinced from my own experiences.
    When my own children don’t know ehat seemed obvious to them yesterday I think about what Willingham said about deep structure and stuff on memory and learning bring initially inflexible.

    • David Didau says:

      I’m completely with you Heather. A well-planned curriculum with carefully spaced repetitions of threshold concepts is the way to go. The mess only makes sense in the long term.

  2. jfin107 says:

    Thank you David for a stimulating piece. The idea of progress in education has proved unhelpful in recent times-‘rapid progress in 20 minutes etc.’.
    Perhaps we could return to the idea of ‘development’, a quite different idea to progress. Intellectual development would be good, for example, and could recognise ‘learning … as integrative, transformative, and reconstitutive…’ (Piaget would agree with this). Intellectual development would recognise the roles of maturation, enculturation and formal instruction and while the linear metaphor would be considerable softened, there could still be recognition of qualitative changes/growth in the child’s deep structure of thought as their mental schemas became more ‘integrative, transformative, and reconstitutive.

    • I agree that ‘development’ is a much more enveloping way of looking at things – though then we would inevitably need to look for observable proxies for development… which will eventually lead us back to arbitrary measures of… progress!

      Can we ever escape the need to measure the effects of education…? Realistically, no. We just need to keep refining our expectation of the measures and the subtlety of them I guess.

      • jfin107 says:

        By proxes do you mean what children say, write, the way they make music etc. representing their developing thought structures? These are available for making judgements about (assessment). Why arbitary?

        • You are right that all of these things are worthy for assessing – and indeed I would support that we look as widely as possible when assessing the ways in which children are developing.

          But in any one of these areas your assessments will only tell you if a child is actually ‘developing’ if you have some notion (which can be applied to each individual child) of what progressive development should look like. i.e. “This child is developing because they have performed like this in assessments over this period” (the proxies for development).

          So we are led back to expectations regarding what ‘progress’ should look like in any one area, and it is this concept of ideal progress which could be arbitrary – probably more so, the shorter the time scale being looked at.

          It doesn’t need to be ‘arbitrary’ of course. I suspect that the best judgment of progress will come from a professional teacher who is aware of the data, but also knows the child and is experienced in the many varied ways in which children can progress. That may not fit whole-school progress tracking systems very well of course, or any scalable guide to measuring progress over anything but the longest time frames.

  3. Good to get a taste of the new book! (I’m guessing so based on the reference to Threshold Concepts in Chapter 7!)

    A hugely important concept to get our heads round when re-envisioning so many other aspects of teaching and learning. It’s great that someone such as yourself is really taking it on in such a high profile way, and I think it will contribute to your new book becoming a significant step forward for the mindset of the profession if we can get it into lots of staff rooms under the label “The new orthodoxy”.

  4. Also – I hugely approve of Dawkins’ “meme” concept for understanding the success of ideas etc. It’s such a pity that just as the concept becomes mainstream, it becomes hijacked by popular culture to mean ‘A photo with a slogan under it’… A real pity…

    …and also an example of what we seem to struggle with constantly with concepts in education as they become more mainstream and scaled-up in delivery (as with ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘engagement’!)

  5. Nansi Ellis says:

    Really interesting piece, thanks. I also think we have a problem of interpretation. When governments talk about measuring progress, they mean finding a starting point and an end point, measuring what a child can do at each of those points and working out the difference. That difference (which can be given a number) is then called ‘progress’. So you can carry out a baseline assessment at 4 and then a test at 11 and calculate the progress made between the two.

    I think that difference in interpretation is one of the reasons why many parents are content with the idea of baseline assessment. It makes a lot of sense for schools/teachers to be accountable for the progress pupils make (at least in part). And it sounds different from measuring attainment. The devil in the detail is of course that you are taking two measures of attainment in order to measure progress, so you don’t remove the risks inherent in attainment measures.

    This compounds your myth of progress, because it attempts to straighten out your glorious squiggle of progress, or balance out the ebb and flow of learning. That might be OK if it was only done over the 7 years between baseline and SATs (though I’m not convinced even then), but of course it won’t be.

    I’m also guessing that the progress squiggle is impacted by personal circumstances – so could be very different for children in poverty, or with health issues or caring responsibilities for example. A straight line measure of progress between baseline and Y6 may take into account different starting points, but makes little provision for the additional effort by teachers and children to address the challenges on a daily basis throughout those years.

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  11. Sara says:

    March David, March…

  12. Damon says:

    Thank you. This has prompted a step forward in our thinking for an assessment system. Fewer things, greater depth with lots of opportunities for revisiting. Will be booking a place at the assessment conference.

  13. Not sure Piaget saw development as progressing in neat stages so much as in an accumulation of bits of information that eventually formed a schema that in turn precipitated a step-change in conceptualisation. More like the punctuated equilibrium of evolution than a staircase. The long shadow has probably been the result of what people think Piaget meant.

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