When performance and results are conflated

Every day, in every school, there are two curricula being delivered:

– a visible one, shaped by the national curriculum, delivered through a timetable of teaching and learning and measured via academic qualification;

– an invisible one, shaped by the learning environment, delivered through ‘hidden’ attitudes, behaviours and skills and modelled and observed by teachers, via daily conversations and social interactions in school.

Both curricula are of fundamental importance and both influence a child’s development. Both will determine the future life chances of every student who passes through school; they are inextricably linked. One is visible; the other is hidden.

It is common practice in schools for data on pupil attainment and progress to be collated at regular intervals during a school year. This data is then scrutinised and used to form important judgements on the quality of teaching and learning and the resultant success of students.

Attainment and progress data are the results of teaching and learning methods, and they tell us a lot: they show us areas of strength and areas for development. But as soon as we investigate further, we find that learning performance comprises attitudes, behaviours and skills which are hidden deep within the learning habits of students and the way in which they interact with the learning environment around them. Such a dynamic is not articulated by data alone; we need something more. In the worst practice, the results of a learner’s performance over a term is held to be that learner’s performance: ‘Isabelle has performed well in Science this term – she achieved an A grade’.

The A grade is not Isabelle’s actual learning performance; it is the result of her learning performance. Hidden beneath the grade lie the attitudes, behaviours and skills that enabled Isabelle to make progress.

If we want to improve learning performance and enrich the learning environment in a school, attainment and progress data cannot be conflated with performance. We need a way of tracking a learner’s habits so that we can continue to monitor their attitudes, behaviours and skills at the same time as charting their resultant attainment and progress through the academic curriculum. If the latter is the visible aspect of schooling (the work, the exams and the grades), the former is the ‘invisible’ part – the hidden learning. Similarly, if the grades are the quantitative data, a focus on attitudes, behaviours and skills gives us the empirical, qualitative information we need in order to adjust and improve a learner’s performance along the way.

But articulating this using the traditional language of learning is like trying to explain quantum mechanics using the language of classical science. There is so much hidden. Trying to highlight the facets of a learner’s performance through an academic score alone is like trying to light up an auditorium with a torch.

If we were F1 engineers, we would know that the performance of our car cannot be encapsulated in its position on the leaderboard at the end of a race. This is the result of its performance. We know that it has everything to do with the car’s design, its engine, its braking system, tyres, suspension, fuel, oh.. and the driver, his/her attitude, skills, concentration and so on. There are so many factors and facets of good driving performance, and learning is no different.

We need dynamic and continuous diagnostic information on students’ learning performance so that we can do something about it – and not wait for Isabelle’s grades to descend from an A in Science to a C in the next round of summative tests, before we then scratch our heads and consider what’s wrong with her.

That’s why I wrote the Hidden Learning Program


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