I am getting a little tired of unreflective grade-and-test-bashers, silver-tongued and ‘inspirational’ gurus on the educational speaking circuit peddling a rosy picture of learning and lame ‘garden-like’ analogies.
I am getting even more tired of assessment-standard-accountability-statistically-crazed literacy-with-funding, 3Rs, ‘core knowledge’, test and merit pay, bean counters, vote counters and ‘good old days’ pundits.
Well, the former lot is waxing lyrical about ‘learning’, the latter about ‘performance’. Let’s put ‘learning’ in one side of the continuum and ‘performance’ on the opposite side and ask three questions:
Is there a difference between learning and performing?
Definitions abound. I loosely borrow from Dweck’s that makes a lot of sense to me.
Performance is about doing well when required and expected. The ability to deliver generates reputation, often hierarchical when in relation, compared to others. Performance has standards and is data-driven (data as ends, not means), quantifiable, measurable. It is efficient, gets things done. ‘Facilitating performance’ is about removing the obstacles to overcome. Similarly, risk, error, uncertainty are to be avoided or at least minimised so one can stay in the zone of competence.
Performance is extrinsic. It is about winning positive judgement and avoiding negative ones. Since error is likely to produce condemnation (poor results, diminished status etc), one needs to look smart, competent and avoid looking dumb, oft at all cost. Errors are also likely to produce low self-efficacy (a ‘belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations’; Bandura), and trigger blame on self (“I’m useless …”) and others (“it’s teachers’ fault I failed the unit…”), even giving up.
Do we need performance in our lives? Sure do, with all its good and bad sides. We all like doctors to prescribe the right treatment, train drivers to drive safely, athletes in our team to win … you name it (next time you see a politician, remember the above paragraph).
And then there is learning.
Learning is about mastering a new skill, understanding, growing. It cannot be pulled up on demand nor shut down when not needed. It is not a goal but a process, a strateg(ising) to deal with. Whether it’s maths, kissing, football or philosophy, ‘facilitating learning’ is about creating meaningful, challenging obstacles to overcome. Risk is welcome, errors are something to learn from. Learning is data-informed (data is means to ends). It is intrinsic. It is about being smart, not just looking like it at all cost. Learning breeds high self-efficacy.
Learning is also messy, un-predictable, un-measurable (at least in ways many performance fans would have us believe). It requires going out of zone of competence, which can often be a very uncomfortable and a brave thing to do, especially if others, public are involved. Learning can be very inefficient, wasteful even.
Do we need learning in our lives? Silly question really… Ask a scientist about discovering a cure for a disease, a parent working out what makes their child eat vegetables, a footballer practising a better way to kick … another endless list.
In short: Performance = doing and not screwing up. Learning = screwing up and doing it better.
Is learning better than performing?
I have never liked telling people what to do, but I do love watching them coming up with their own answers. So, no silver bullet from me today (and run away from anyone who tells you they have one, fast !). But for the record – we need a smart, local, contextual, holistic balance between the two.
‘Learning’ with no ends, consequences, checks, expectations while magically holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya shields us from the realities. It does not make resilient learners that sometimes need to stand up and deliver, decide, make a tough call, lead when needed. I have nothing against assessment for example, I just don’t think it’s a great way to motivate, stimulate, nourish interest in something.
Contrary, overemphasis on performance, the seductive simplicity of ‘objective’ standards derived from de-contextualised data and delirious joy of thinking things are repeatable and replicable with people, abnormal focus on winning positive judgement from external others (hello ‘tiger mums’ out there …) leads human flourishing to a ‘performative trap’ – seeing oneself and others in terms of standards, points, wins, data collected. The obsession to ‘look good and be right’ is filling an ocean of human sorrow and anxiety around you and me right now.
Why are these questions important to ask?
The ‘performative trap’ is encroaching our societal, shared mental modes which frame our experiences, shape the view of reality and with it priorities. We are increasingly calling it up to simplify complex reality around us. And because we are social animals, we tend to share it and reinforce it with choices we make.
And just why is it a trap? Take this example from McWilliam:
[W]here error results in painful condemnation from external others who are marking, grading and measuring each move, then it is more likely that a student will avoid uncertainty at all costs, not embrace it for what it might conceivably offer to fresh understanding. So too an institution’s performance, dependent as it is on the judgment of external others, is vulnerable if and when its ‘mistakes’ (ie, a less than dignified place on league tables) are out in the open. When the price of failure is a lack of enrolments, diminished reputation, and/or a funding cut, it is to be anticipated that ‘best foot forward’ can become not simply an important imperative but the dominant imperative that renders all others to marginal status.
So, I answer the above question with a set of further questions (all first-pass, top of the head stuff) that you may recognise, ask, expand upon in your own context. Then work with the push and pull …
To a student:How important are school grades to you? Why? Do you think you would learn as much if there were no grades, tests? What does that tell you about the way you learn? What will you do in situations where there will be no grades and ranks? What do you think of people who don’t get good grades? If/when you have children, what will you encourage them to do at school? Why so? …
To a teacher: How important is to you to ‘get the marking right’? Do you think Bell curve is a necessary thing? Is assessment a good motivator? Why (not)? Are there better ways to stimulate learning? Are students you teach primarily an economic resource to be classified and passed on? Why (not)? What have you learned today? How important is it to you to have the answer students ask for? …
To a parent: If your child seems ‘behind’ in one area but ‘ahead’ in another, what do you do? What should the teachers do? Why so? Is it OK for your child to be happy learning something but not reaching what you think is their full potential in it? How much do your school grades matter now? Why (not)? …
To a school administrator, to the Prime Minister, to the radio pundit, to your P&C council, to your Twitter followers … you get the drift, surely 😉
I acknowledge that all this ‘performance vs learning’ may be a bit chicken-or-eggish, even a false comparison to some, but sure is a good way to get your bullshit detectors working.
PS If intrigued by the ‘seductiveness of figures’, head over to these couple of recent posts by Ira Socol (Measurement and overpromise and Art of seeing ) or an older series of co-writing right here on Human. Good stuff that may get you angry, or thinking … or both.
Dweck, C. (1999) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, Personality and Development. Ann Arbor, MI: Psychology Press.
McWilliam, E., Taylor, G., & Perry, L. (2007). Learning or performance: What
should educational leaders pay attention to? Paper presented at the The 13th International Conference on Thinking Norrkoping, Sweden.