What makes a great leader or a great tennis player – or a great teacher?
The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon was particularly interested in such questions. As well as carrying out research into expertise, in his autobiography he reflected on a colleague he knew who was a great manager, and tried to explain what made him so good.
“When I try to describe his style, it always seems too simple, too obvious. It’s like saying of a tennis ace, ‘He always hit the ball squarely and with force, placing it precisely where he aimed.’ If you can do that, you can be a great tennis player. But is the advice worth teaching? What do you do with that information? I will try to describe his methods, but with no conviction that what I say will make great managers or entrepreneurs.”
Statements like "he always puts the ball precisely where he aimed" are TBU: true but useless. They are good descriptions, but they aren’t that helpful to the aspiring tennis player.
Unfortunately, similar statements are embedded in many of our curriculum and assessment systems.
Both the English national curriculum and the Common Core curriculum in the United States are composed of statements such as "Pupils should be taught to develop an appreciation and love of reading, and read increasingly challenging material independently", and "Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent."
Statements like these aren’t a problem per se. The problem is when they start to be used as lesson objectives or assessment criteria because they are not specific enough to do these jobs. Perhaps the worst use of such statements is as feedback for pupils.
As educationalist Dylan Wiliam has noted, how useful is it to tell a student that their scientific investigations need to be planned more systematically? If they had known how to be more systematic, presumably they would have been so in the first place.
The job of prescription
Is it the government’s job to provide more specific and helpful detail? In many successful jurisdictions, that is exactly what happens: Finland and Singapore, for example, have a history of state textbooks.
But the UK and the US are more hostile to such levels of prescription. Producing the specific detail is always going to be the responsibility of groups at a lower level than central government. Which is fine – as long as we get to the specific detail in the end…
If not, the risk is that we are all able to describe what it is pupils should be doing, without knowing how it is they should achieve it. As Simon goes on to say with regard to management: “The principles of good management are simple, even trivial. [But] it is not enough to know what the principles are; you must acquire deeply ingrained habits of carrying them out.”
It's one thing to know that when you respond to an unseen poem, you need to analyse it, not just spot features. It’s another thing to be able to analyse it insightfully.
Which do we want, pupils who can fluently speak the language of lesson objectives and assessment criteria or students who are actually able to achieve the standards they describe?
Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking, and author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths About Education. She tweets @daisychristo