2012: time to stop this poverty of aspiration known as ‘ability’ labelling.

Have you ever taken an IQ test? My Dad loves to complain that IQ tests only measure how good you are at taking IQ tests, (albeit while noting he was once a member of Mensa), and the more I’ve been reading about learning, psychology and neuroscience the more I find I absolutely have to agree with him.

It’s always been fairly nonsensical when you consider how this fabled human quality of ‘natural ability’ was so inextricably and inversely linked to poverty, parenting and early childhood experience. I wonder how many of the people who graduated from the ever-expanding Open University last year were written off as ‘not very bright’ at school? My own mother left school at 15 without a maths qualification and with an enormous chip on her shoulder. By the time she was 55 she had a masters degree in literature and a great deal more pride. She not only had to study, she had to build her own confidence and teach herself study skills, and I have to say I admire her greatly for it.

Perhaps, in her school days, she failed her 11+. Perhaps she was put in low ability sets. Perhaps she was given cloze-exercises and wordsearches when her peers in other sets and schools were getting challenged by extended problems. Maybe nobody ever took the time to go back and shore up a few shaky foundations of her understanding, nobody took the time to give her the will, the confidence, and the discipline to learn nor the tools with which to improve. I suspect instead they simply said ‘she’s not very able’ and were happy for her to not understand much of what was being taught, gain Ds and Es and then shunt her off to some low-expectation low-demand qualifications to suit her ‘talent’ level.

Of course there has been a change in focus in these days. Now having failed her 11+ she would have been allocated a target grade that is appropriate for her ability while showing a suitable level of progress. Teachers may even tell her they have set an aspirational target of a C. High aspirations indeed(!), and then of course she would be advised to take some of her favourite subjects, possibly less academically demanding ones, so that she won’t lose her self-confidence.

Oh dear. Can 2012 be the year we stop this nonsense? Time to go back to first principles.

Every student has some history of attainment and some holes in understanding. However, just as importantly, each of them bring with them varying levels of motivation across subjects. The process of learning itself requires a number of skills, and different students will be strong in some and less-so in others.

Attainment, and capacity to learn. The two planks of student education and development. And yet for some reason lots of teachers pay far too much attention to the former, and concentrate overly much on the narrow ‘confidence’ element in the latter.

It is our role as teachers to develop a student’s capacity to learn as much as it is to present the subject material. If a student finds something hard and unappealing it is our job to develop their mental capacity to learn it effectively and find some hook of interest and experience on which to hang it – not to find them easier work or funnel them in to ‘alternative provision’.

If a student doesn’t initially warm to a subject, or has trouble accessing it, then they are not ‘less able’, they have simply not yet developed the capacity to learn it so effectively, nor have they yet attained the relevant previous skills and knowledge. Children develop at different rates, but that does not imply ‘ability’. If a student isn’t accessing material in a lesson then perhaps the assessment of their understanding has failed – there may be earlier concepts that they haven’t grasped that are blocking their progress.

That said, if we give students the impression that it is their job to sit there passively and be ‘taught’ by teachers then we are doing both the students and the teachers a disservice. In developing their capacity to learn we must not only instil motivation but also the discipline and rigour of study. Some of the best things that we learn in life are the ones that are hard, verging on unpleasant at first, and only blossom into fascination at a later stage. If we trust both that the outcome of our efforts will be worthwhile, and that we have the ability to overcome the obstacles, then we can learn.

Poverty of aspiration is a terrible thing. Is is easy, as @oldandrewuk always says, to write off  “other people’s children” as simply less able, while staying up late with your own helping them with homework and buying in expensive private tutors so that they can fulfil their true potential.

I very much hope that any student who, in my career so far, has felt that I have written them off or ‘dumbed them down’ will, in 20 years time, track me down with their own Open University degree in hand and shove it in my face. I am sure I would deserve it, just as much as my own mum’s maths teachers most certainly did.

Agree/disagree? I’d love to hear your comments.

5 Replies to “2012: time to stop this poverty of aspiration known as ‘ability’ labelling.”

  1. An excellent blog to kick off 2012, although – as I’m sure you’d agree – it is dangerous to assume that all ‘favourite’ or ‘less academically challenging’ subjects are really of less value, just because they don’t count for as much in some spurious standardised measure of student (or school) effectiveness. I agree that too many kids have been corralled into certain pathways because of lazy assumptions about inability, and share your view that this is a tragic failure that should haunt us as these young people prove us wrong. But I also think we need to widen our view of what counts as being of educational value in schools, to include some of the subject areas that have sadly come to be seen by many in the current paradigm as insufficiently rigorous. Surely it’s not beyond teachers or curriculum designers (or exam boards) to ensure that so-called ‘soft subjects’ – many of which, like media studies and citizenship, for example, provide the space to introduce key concepts and teach key skills for life in the modern world – are taught and tested with the same academic rigour and high expectations as other so-called traditional subjects.

  2. I am familiar with the view you present and it should make us get the best out of children, but I do believe ability exists. Seems like common sense to me. I know how the argument runs: if you practise something so many times you get profiicient, but a non-musical person will alwyas struggle, a non-linguist will find it tough. Interesting post though. Thanks.

  3. I know we have discussed this a bit on Twitter, but I thought you’d like a comment here too.

    I think that you are making an important point here. We live at a time when academic selection before Key Stage 5 is very widely rejected, and yet some of those who reject it most fervently are actually arguing for something which is functionally equivalent: a non-academic route through secondary schooling. Yet all the classic objections to selection (i.e. that it writes off kids, particularly those from working class backgrounds) apply equally to such a system.

    My one objection to what you are saying is the talk of “developing the capacity to learn”. I tend to find the various variations on “learning to learn” to be excuses for dumbing-down, just as much as talk of non-academic options for non-academic kids is.

  4. This is all very well, but this sort of thinking has taken teaching down a blind alley, causing serious social problems for which educationalists should take the blame.
    The idea that there cannot be winners and losers, but everyone has to be a winner is a con trick that educationalists have perpetrated on our children to their enormous detriment. In the real world, not everyone can be a winner and it is a huge problem that we educate children to believe that they have a ‘right’ to win. They do not.
    In the business world we have an important maxim, “what can’t be measured, can’t be managed”. The same applies to education. The teaching profession would like to abolish measurement because that would remove any possibility of managing their efficiency and allow them to continue the ‘everybody is winner’ whitewash. We must resist all such pleas.

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