The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short – Michelangelo

… but in-setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.

It’s report reading and writing time at CCS, first full series of the year, and I witness 120+ hardworking colleagues writing as if their lives depended upon it. I don’t know whether all children and families read reports, but the process of reading and recognising the truth, victories as well as frailties is part of the process in building a child’s better understanding of themselves as learners. In recent times, it’s become fashionable to talk about Metacognition (I should know, I have led 2 seminar workshops recently), all part of the building of the conscious consciousness that makes a teacher more aware of the craft skills needed for their job.

We have worked really hard at Claires Court to establish a conversation with our pupils about the things they can do to improve their work and the progress they make at subject level, as well as in the broader holistic notions of holding appropriate values and adhering to golden rules. If truth be known, the setting of realistic goals and targets for one’s pupils is the hardest thing to do – challenging enough to really make a difference, but within reach of the individual so that they know how to bridge the gap.

One of the great exponents of this craft (giving feedback to learners) is Professor Dylan Williams*, and I read his various works with great interest.  His interest in improving this craft is the same as mine, namely that what happens in the classroom is 90% of the solution to a child/class/school/country’s needs. And the problem for all levels of our western society is that change is happening at such a pace that educational reform has been unable to keep pace.  Honestly, with the best will in the world, Governments in the UK, Europe and the USA have done their best to ‘improve’ schooling, and classrooms have improved vastly in the time Dylan and James have been pedalling their wares on the planet. The trouble is that classrooms have not improved fast enough; offshoring and automation have taken loads of semi-skilled, lower tier jobs away over the past decades and that erosion is remorseless.  Basic car mechanics is no longer a requirement when cars last for ever.  What price a milk-round these days for the willing small-scale entrepreneur?  That erosion will continue – entering the teaching profession used to be something that most educated to A level could aspire too, yet now most governments across the world recognise that they need to get the most numerate and literate into these roles if their education system is going to stay up with the Jones (Finland, Singapore, Honk Kong and Japan).  In a well publicised lecture in Salzburg last December, Professor Williams had this to say “It is as if we are walking up a down escalator. In the past, the rate at which our schools generated skills was greater than the rate at which the skill demands of work were increasing, and the availability of low skill jobs were being destroyed, so we made progress. But the speed of the down escalator has been increasing. If we cannot increase the rate at which our schools are improving, then, quite simply, we will go backwards”.

International research is important to study, absorb and inwardly digest.  Here’s a one liner that summarises what we know on how to become an expert – “Outside of the top 1% and the bottom 1%, anyone can become a professional musician if they practice enough”.  In Maclolm Gladwell’s book,  Outliers: The Story of Success, the 10,000 hour rule theory states: “to become an expert in a field of study, it merely takes 10,000 hour of focus and practice on the topic at hand“.  And what follows from this therefore is that teachers/schools/governments should not run a system that presses out the chance of success – because actually anyone with time, effort and motivation can become an successful practitioner in their field.  Now we can say expert, because of course becoming number 1 in brain surgery requires opportunity and experience too, way over this number of hours.  Back to Prof W. –

In the past, we have treated schools as talent refineries. The job of schools was to
identify talent, and let it rise to the top. The demand for skill and talent was sufficiently
modest that it did not matter that potentially able individuals were ignored. The
demand for talent and skill is now so great, however, that schools have to be talent
incubators, and even talent factories. It is not enough to identify talent in our schools
any more; we have to create it”.

Reaching back 450 years to the age of the Renaissance, when Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was in his pomp, the city fathers of Florence and Rome vied for his services, so obviously remarkable was his work as architect, painter and sculptor.  He could not have created all of this on his own, and so we know he developed his co-workers skills and talents to a very high degree.  He worked for 70 years or so, and his influence spread all over the developed world, from which we have never looked back.  This essay is not about Michelangelo any more than it is about Dylan; we know that the best way to achieve is to study well, with great teachers and so forth, but it is to understand rather more importantly that progression and development to levels of mastery can happen to us all.

So when I review all the targets and suggestions for improvement this winter, of course I will be looking for stretch and challenge, for the low hanging and readily achievable to be largely invisible, yet for humanity and understanding to be present in abundance too.  Because therein lies the rub; we can’t all be Michelangelo, but his words are very clear and if I might paraphrase using my own thought processes as a young child receiving an Airfix model as a present  “if it is easy to build, it’s not worth the making!”

*Mr William’s CV is fab – 1996-2001    Dean of the School of Education, King’s College London, then 2001-2003    Assistant Principal, King’s College London, then of to Princeton, NJ 2003-2006    Senior Research Director, ETS then back home to the Institute of Education, 2006-2010    Deputy Director, Institute of Education, University of London and now 2010-            Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, IOE.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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