Does our school system want students to learn or perform?

Here’s one thing I hope we can all agree on: schools exist to help children learn. How come, then, so many students and teachers focus so much on short term performance? This week our shiny new head of Ofsted Amanda Speilman said she plans to get this out of the school system. She wants to eradicate the “tendency to mistake badges and stickers for learning itself.” Noble words but a little hard to take from Ofsted; some have critiqued her on the grounds that this sounds like Ofsted are going to start punishing schools in new ways- this is a complete misread based on the incredibly bad headline of this article, she clearly says she wants to praise schools that take her route not punish those that don’t. The deeper problem is that historically Ofsted has been widely considered to be one of the principle components in our system to incentivise the focus on performance over learning. This seems a bit like the father of the Williams sisters turning around and telling Venus and Serena that they are too tennis obsessed and should understand the value of engaging in a wider range of activities.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of delivering CPD with a colleague on some of the relevant research around this subject- understanding the difference between performance and learning. (The main aim was to encourage colleagues to apply Soderstorm and Bjork’s review of learning and performance to their own practice. If you are interested I’ve attached all our resources). It was also interesting because running the same session four times in a row really gets you to think about it…

Its important to get to grips with the key distinction between performance and learning. The former is the ability to showcase your learning or ‘retrieve information’ and the latter is your ability to retain it. Memory theorists have, for a long time now, know the difference between these two things. They know for, example, that learning can occur even when people are not asked to perform and even when multiple errors are evident in ‘performance’ whilst learning. For example, much of your driving ability later in life is defined by learning to drive by watching your parents, even though you never perform the act. Rats that made a ton of errors whilst learning a maze learnt it better. This is called latent learning; stagnant or bad performance is not necessarily indicative of no learning. They also know that once performance has been mastered, learning can still occur. For example, violinists that continue to practice a piece after they have mastered it are much more likely to retain that learning for longer. This is called ‘overlearning.’

This is not to say that latent learning or overlearning are desirable strategies in themselves. We know that learning can still occur when you are fatigued and unable to perform at your best. This doesn’t mean we want to get children out doing laps for hours before they learn something new. These concepts just show that performance and learning are two different things and the former is not really indicative of the latter.


So: is the school system set up to help our students learn, or to perform?

What memory research has known for a long time has only really reached the ears of the education world more recently. Ofsted has abandoned individual lesson grades because they realised that if you go looking for ‘learning’ and ‘progress’ in a 20 minute period the teacher will show you performance, not learning, because significant learning doesn’t happen in that time frame. Teachers know the rules if an Inspector walks through the door: pause the lesson and ask a range of targeted questions so that the students say impressive things. Similarly, Inspectors (should) judge marking based on its consistency with the school’s own assessment policy not a wider set of principles; children’s books were being subject to the same kind of performance management. Performativity can turn the marking in a child’s book into a work of art overnight. Or worse: we focus on creating lessons to produce something good in the book, not to produce a new thought in the child’s mind. I’ve heard it all: ‘my partner does the ticks whilst I do the comments’, ‘I got them to retrospectively improve a piece of work they had done three months ago in a different colour pen’, or, my favourite ‘my head of department gave me the name of three children and just told me to throw their books away.’ In many ways, our exams, whilst more complex, turn into similar kinds of performance, except the script is hidden from them in the form of a mark scheme and we are there to translate its language. A GCSE essay can very quickly be transferred into a list of formulaic success criteria; students are to stick to these and maximise their marks. Even if they master the curriculum within the first two years, they must keep doing these essays over and over again. They are there to perform, not to learn.

I want to stress two things at this point. Firstly, these stories come from a range of schools (many award winning, many outstanding…). Secondly, I am convinced that all of these stories came from teachers who nevertheless secure outstanding learning for their students. Performativity in schools isn’t eroding outstanding teaching, our system isn’t fraudulent, it just results in good teachers doing crazy, irrelevant things to please onlookers.

Why do our schools have to bother with performing instead of learning? I think that underlying all the mechanisms that we can point to -performance tables, Ofsted inspections, floor targets- there are a few deeper reasons that basically drive this process from the outside. As a result, anyone who really wants to look at this question needs to understand that this won’t be a matter of simply adjusting a few elements of how an inspection works. Here they are:


  1. It is widely believed by many people (politicians, the public etc) that they know what good teaching is and that they would identify it if it was in front of them. This is despite the fact that most research shows these kinds of judgements to be highly variable. Literally ten people can watch the same lesson that was previously judged to be ‘outstanding’ and will come out with vastly different assessments of its quality. We would laugh if we observed a complex medical procedure and someone asked us to assess the surgeon. Even worse: we were awake when we were being operated on in school so we think we understand. This is despite the fact that being a hormonal child probably limits your understanding of what is happening to you as powerfully as most anesthetics. This means that on a personal, deeply powerful, psychological level we look at schools in a way that we don’t look at many other areas of the public or private sector. As a result, teachers have to make it constantly explicit to everyone that what they are doing is working, and sign post to everyone when it is happening, like a surgeon would have to if they had the representatives of the Sectary of State for Healthcare watching over their shoulder as the conducted complex heart surgery. This results in a focus on performance, not learning.
  2. We don’t accept failure in our schools despite the fact that making mistakes and learning from them is fundamental to the learning process. If schools are going to be learning-centred places they are going to be mistake-ridden places. We know this from all the research on desirable difficulties as a core part of the learning process. Learning to spell means spelling difficult words incorrectly. But am I going to show a book riddled with errors to a parent or inspector? Nope, because they would freak out and assume my heart surgery is about to end in failure. (FYI, even when teachers have rough books they will show a visitor the redraft books. In effect, hilariously, they show them the performance, not the learning.) Even worse: students hate making mistakes because they have been taught from a young age that you get what you want when you perform. As a result, they engage in terrible study habits like re-reading textbooks instead of creating notes from new reading to create connections across a topic. They devise elaborate strategies to avoid admitting failure or difficulty- everything from large scale bad behaviour to throwing away pieces of work in front of you because they aren’t perfect to copying from their friends. We teach them to perform; they are rewarded when they do.
  3. Governments don’t like making things harder because it means results might get worse. This would be interpreted as a bad thing by the public because of reason 1 in this list- good teaching is easy to identify and we should just hold people to account. Risk, innovation and challenge are fundamental to learning and progress; schools need to use these strategies all the time. We tend to think these things are only worth it if there is a profit round the corner. As a result, the public education world prefers stable hierarchies of ‘outstanding’ to not-so-outstanding schools, stable reputations (or mythologies) of transformative head teachers leading a turnaround school agenda, and stable students focusing on mastering particular exams as quickly as possible. All of these teaches professionals that quick wins and short term performance of particular cohorts will be better rewarded than deep changes in the way students in the school learn- the former gets you immediate and vociferous praise, the latter risks a few bad sets of data as you adjust which will be sharply punished.

And so, we end up with a performative education system based on the self-perpetuating public confidence problem. Teachers are performing open heart surgery on your child’s future; it is unconscionable to waste their time with crazy, irrelevant things. And yet we do. Anyone that wants to really change the education system for the better needs to radically change the public’s understanding of the education system by convincing them that it is complex, at the same time as convincing them to place their trust in it. It is a difficult challenge, but given that we all agree that schools exist to help children learn, it is worth it.

Nerdy notes

I know I have conflated two different concepts of performance here but I think the links are relevant. Some extra reading if you fancy:

David Didau’s blog covers some of this and has a good interview with Bjork:

Stephen J. Ball , The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity

Robert A. BJorK and Judith F. Kroll, Desirable Difficulties in Vocabulary Learning

CPD Resources


Performance vs Learning_takeaway

PerformancevsLearning_card sort

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