I knew him when…

I don’t often get the chance to drop the name of an Oscar winner who was once a student of mine, but in the tradition of the Academy Awards, I will not open that envelope until the end.

I will say that I remember this student as an intelligent, articulate, friendly and independent-minded young man, and it is no surprise that he has been successful. However, I doubt anyone (except, possibly, his mother) who claims that they foresaw, without the benefit of hindsight, that this particular successful student, more than any of his equally successful classmates, was destined to rise to the very top of his profession.

There is no shortage of stories about successful people who were poor at school, or who failed initially in their chosen field. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are most cited examples (although in Einstein’s case the claim is dubious), but the list includes Jon Stewart (now, officially, ‘the most trusted man in America’), Michael Jordan (cut from his High School basketball team), Sir Richard Branson and Simon Cowell (both dropped out of school at 16), and Beppe Grillo (dismissed as ‘stupid’ by his father and his school, fired from his first job as a jeans salesman, and now the leader of the largest single party in the Italian parliament.)

I certainly don’t believe that failure at school is a predictor of success, but I have never seen a convincing demonstration of any correlation between school marks and future achievement (however defined).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop us teachers from being far too ready to make judgements and predictions. Too often school reports go beyond simply describing the learning that has taken place (or not), and wander into making supposedly insightful comments about the innate ability, or even the personality of the student.  Partly this happens because parents demand to know where their child ranks in the competitive struggle, and schools therefore spend an inordinate amount of time in making comparative measurements, with other students, other schools, and now other countries. (I used to tell parents who demanded to know where their child ranked as a student, that I would give them this information once they told me where they ranked as parents. This did not always end well!)  At best these pronouncements and predictions are of little significance, but at worst they can create a self-sustaining label that will get in the way, particularly in the case of school systems and programmes that are selective.

People leave school with most of their lives still ahead of them, and while we try hard to equip our students for life, the reality is that they carry on learning, carry on growing, and carry on developing long after they have left us. The best we can do is to give them the values and attitudes that will make that process as natural and productive as possible, and point them in a good direction. If we miss out on particular skills or knowledge, our students will correct that for themselves if and when they need them. However, if we kill their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their independence, or their capacity for critical thought, then these attributes may never be rekindled. Perhaps teachers need their own version of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm’.

And so, to the envelope…

Huge congratulations to David Klawans, the Executive Producer of Argo, who was a student at the International School of Brussels when I taught there in the 70’s and 80’s. Much as I would like to, I can claim no influence on David, but as his mother was a good friend and colleague of mine I remember him well. It is certainly no surprise that he took the hard, independent road to well-deserved success. He did take the wise precaution of having a gifted English teacher as a mother and an equally gifted jazz musician as a step-father, which I suspect provided a perfect foundation for life as a film producer.

Works hard, but could do better.

It’s a safe bet that in any given month somewhere in the world teachers are writing, or preparing to write, reports.  It is an even safer bet that, regardless of the reporting system used in their school, the majority of teachers are complaining about it, and that many are considering a career change to something that less demanding, such as coal-mining.

When term-end exams were regarded as a meaningful and sufficient way of measuring learning, it made sense to issue a report card that simply summarised the results of those exams, together with a couple of words from the teacher to personalise the exercise (as in the title of this post).  However, although we now recognise that exam results are at best inadequate and at worst irrelevant as a measure of learning, we stick with the termly report card to which they gave rise.  Furthermore, as report cards were conceived as a simple summary of objective results, our efforts to force them to serve the completely different purpose of an anecdotal commentary on a progress actually makes things worse.  A student’s learning is a complex and constantly evolving process, and any attempt to generate an accurate ‘freeze frame’ account is doomed to failure.  Generalities are of little value, and specifics are likely to be unrepresentative, no longer applicable, open to misinterpretation,  or all three.  Hence the stress on teachers, who feel obliged to fill the yawning space allocated, yet who know that everything they write will be scrutinised, analysed and given meaning and significance that was never intended.  Small wonder that what used to be an end of term chore of a couple of hours is now a two week (or longer) wordsmithing  nightmare.

Report cards are the bane of teachers’ existence, and school administrators are caught between the preference of the faculty not to have to work late into the night after a full day of teaching and the demand from parents for detailed information on the progress of their children.  They could be forgiven for wanting to scrap report cards completely.

So why don’t they?

Technology has given us the means of communicating with parents and students in a way that properly mirrors what is happening in school, i.e. an ongoing commentary made up of small observations that, when taken together, provide a realistic narrative of the development of the student.  Of course, many Elementary (and some Secondary) teachers already do this for themselves in the form of running records, class notes etc., but they tend not to be shared with parents or students.  If a permanent three-way conversation were to be established, parents and student would gain a much clearer understanding of the complexity and inherent messiness of learning, as well as a more meaningful picture of the student’s progress.

Of course, tweeting parents regularly would add to the daily workload, but at least it would be work that had a clear purpose, and could be structured sensibly into the working day, instead of the present artificial exercise that ruins the lives of teachers for a month, and then ruins the lives of many students for the weeks following!