If you’re a fan of motivational edu-posters that look like they were written by a Care Bear but are attributed to Gandhi, then you’ll be aware of some of the more famous ones. In my personal favourite, a series of animals – an elephant, a monkey and a penguin – stand before an officious-looking man at a desk. “For a fair assessment, everyone has to take the same exam,” he says “Please climb that tree.” The meaning is clear: we are all special sunbeams and exams are bad things.
But it’s as seductively appealing as it is wrong: if you want to test their tree-climbing ability, it’s as good an assessment as you can imagine. Ah, critics, say, but isn’t that the point – we all have different abilities that this assessment doesn’t capture? Well, sure, but the point of an assessment is to check learning in one field, not (generally) to evaluate the total worth of a student. If someone doesn’t do well at a geography exam, you don’t send them to work in the salt mines for it. You work out why they didn’t do well, and you work on that.
Does this matter in the classroom? Of course it does. The poster I just described leads to a belief in multiple intelligences, for a start: a generally discredited model of the mind and what we mean by intelligence.
How often have you heard someone say “I’m not good at maths” or “I can’t do history” as though it were some fixed gift buried deep within them? And that belief leads to reduced motivation because the student thinks: “This isn’t for me. I have a weak spot in this area, so I’ll focus on what I like or what I’m good at.” Terrible from a student, fatal from a teacher, who can embed this thinking.
It turns out that, for the most part, when you’re not great at a school subject, it’s usually because you lack adequate baseline knowledge or experience to tackle the work you’re on. To say “I can’t do history” merely means that you haven’t learned enough about, say, the 19th century in order to understand the causes of the First World War. More often, this attitude is found in the “talent” subjects – “I can’t draw”; “I can’t run”. But most artistic pupils I know have been drawing like mad since they were kids – they’re just “good” compared with everyone their age.
I hear this still, in the classes I’m teaching this year. One of my Year 9s, who is the nicest of students, turned in a piece of homework after class. She had waited behind to see me and looked embarrassed. “Sorry it isn’t better,” she said, red-faced. ‘I’m not good at religious studies.” I spoke to her the next lesson and went over what she did and didn’t understand. It turned out that was all it was – a gap in her knowledge, which led to a canyon in her comprehension that she couldn’t bridge for herself.
Which is, of course, what a teacher is for, and what we do every day, with luck. And that’s why it’s fundamental to doing our job that we believe in our pupils’ capacities, perhaps more than they do themselves.
We need not strangle students’ opportunities by colluding in the quitter’s mournful mantras that ability is fixed, intelligence is multiple, and they “can’t do” the subject. I think it’s our job to believe that they can do anything, if they’re prepared to do something about it. And we’re prepared to help them.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71