Attainment over ability

When I was at school, there was a higher, intermediate and a foundational examination paper for the maths examination. I was in top set for maths. I spent a great deal of that time in that room working very hard to grasp concepts, because I found maths rather abstract and complex to unpack. I was informed that I would be entered for the intermediate paper, on account of my ‘middle range ability, despite my best efforts. To say it did little to motivate me to work with increased exertion to understand what I did not yet understand would be a little of an understatement.

Much of the labels that we try to use are sometimes a result of a distortion around semantics, and this is something I have returned to frequently over the years. One such label is the tossing about of ‘ability’ in previous years, which I worry sets the terminology of education on a detrimental free fall where we may have ended up with a misplaced name that does not harm than good.

To make a judgement of ability, or undertake a discourse with key stakeholders around a low ability child or high ability child, sets to present far more than simply where we have made an inference around a piece of work. We are no longer having a conversation about where a piece of work can be improved, but instead, how a child has revealed themselves as capable or otherwise. It places a sticker on the child and consequently, forces them to stay stuck fast as a person who is relatively able, or not. it speaks of the person as the problem, rather than the problem as the problem, but beyond this, it carries an implication that the problem is not resolvable. That the child is of this level of ability, and that is that.

In addition to the difficulties that we set up for ourselves with such a sticky term as ability, there are several different types quite justified concerns around the lasting impact of this exchange of words. In her article in THE in 2015, Clare Taylor outlines that,

A person described as being of “low ability” now, in the present, is assumed to have more limited learning potential than those who may be judged to be “more able”.

The language that others use to depict us becomes the language we use to depict ourselves. We talk of cleverness as though it is a pre determined skill set which we have been fortunately provided with, or not, placing such weight and permanence to what we can or cannot do.

If our intention is to provide a rich curricular experience, our use of terms within that experience is equally paramount to the content itself. We cannot simply say that we have chosen the best of our subject, only to then communicate to students that they are incapable of comprehending it. In the same way that our teachers are not the curriculum, our students are not the work: they learn, interpret, articulate our subject to then, over time, reinterpret as their own. To enable students to recognise the possibility and product of success, we must model that the work is simply a demonstration of what they know at any given moment, that stands as a fluid, changeable entity over which, when coupled with the care of a decent curriculum offer, is completely in their hands.

Shifting the words we use to depict this demonstration can move students away from a language of categorised defeat, and enable us to unlock a series of steps with them so that they can experience success of acquisition, but also identify what’s next.

I did the higher paper in the end. It went far better than I (or the teacher) anticipated it might.


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