The ‘eff’ word

I want to play around with the concept of effort this week.

If this isn’t the most important, yet least appreciated concept in education, I’d like you to show me what is. There seems to be this paradox around the idea of effort. We demand it of students but rarely articulate this effectively. We’re good at congratulating those students who demonstrate it. We’re usually quick to investigate, encourage, and maybe even chastise students who don’t demonstrate it. It is obviously highly prized. Yet, we are very poor at identifying and articulating just what efforts a student is making and giving them due credit for this.

Mind you, education systems world-wide are, by contrast, exceptionally good at accurately reflecting a student’s achievement. Achievement is tangible, measurable, empirical. Society can (and increasingly does) chart children’s achievements as they grow up, marking their progress against well established and quantifiable standards. We measure the achievement of students in schools (as I’ve touched on before). We even measure (in a way) how the achievements of students in one nation compare to others. Sadly however, I have to say the lengths we go to in establishing how much effort goes into these achievements is pitiful.

If you’ll excuse the indulgence, I feel the need to fade into a nostalgic anecdote, my primary school report cards back in the (sob) 1970’s used to show grades I had achieved in each subject area and right next to them with equal billing and status were grades for effort. For its time the system appears to have satisfied all concerned. Teachers gave their judgment and families understood what was implied. I think it was my grade 3 where I was really keen to impress mum and dad with my Maths but struggled with the perils of long division. When it finally came the report paired a B achievement with an A effort. With a physics teaching dad looking on, it was nice to show him that I was persisting manfully with something that I can’t say came naturally.

Ah yes, those were the days…they don’t make reports like that any more.

No, indeed they don’t. And probably, with some justification too. The modern day report card is a sleek, finely tuned machine that is crafted to maximize feedback while minimizing potential insult. While I’ve not bothered to track the evolution of report cards over the decades, I’m fairly confident in suggesting the great advancements in the art have come from a desire to be objective. Those old effort marks I received years ago were all unsubstantiated subjective opinions and any model that relies solely on the personal (albeit) professional opinion of a teacher is bound to be contentious. Long before Nobel laureate John Gurton’s report card (see below) highlighted the problem, I’m sure critics argued, “So what does it matter if the teacher saw the class all the time and is in a good position to judge? Are all teachers consistent and accurate in the criteria they apply? Is the process transparent?

The response was evidently, “No, ah, probably not. Best we drop it then. Solving the problem would take…ahem…too much effort.”

So, these days you will find some reference to effort in some school report models (actually my children attend a primary school that has a five point grading scheme for their effort) but they are unsubstantiated and appear vague and disconnected from the rest of the information. For the entirety of my professional career in high schools analysis of students’ efforts have always steered clear of the written public record and largely rested in the domain of spoken feedback.

Teachers today will usually only speak about their perception of effort in class to students and parents in vague euphemistic terms. We like to say things like a student is ‘putting in’ or ‘having a go’…or possibly “not”, as the case may be. We allow ourselves to fall into hyperbolic absurdity by hoping they put in 100% , which annoys me enormously. What does that actually mean? Surely the literal meaning of putting in 100% suggests being driven to exhaustion. Do we temper our exaggeration by imagining lines of students on life support systems and saline drips? No, what we do instead, is urge students on to even more ridiculously unhelpful rhetorical levels. “I need you to give me 110%.”

Seriously folks, the way education systems monitor effort is awfully vague and sometimes unhelpful. If you can point to examples where this isn’t the case, I’d love you to comment.

It’s a shame because I can think of enormous benefits from being able to have meaningful discussions with students and parents if only effort was more legitimately measured. For a start it would be nice to give genuine credit to conscientious, hard working middle achievers, who always seem to miss out on positive affirmation. Secondly, I can see it as a great starting point for discussions with disengaged students. From here we could move more quickly towards looking at the underlying causes for their lack of motivation and hopefully find resolutions. Mostly though, I just like the idea that we paint a more complete picture of what schools set out to achieve and what society hopes for; young people who take on life with authenticity and integrity. That’s not asking for too much is it?

Actually, I don’t think it is because I consider the issue as completely redeemable. I think we are manifestly capable of measuring student effort with a high degree of accuracy and, ironically, this shouldn’t be hard. Schools already have most of the information. First, they have the aforementioned achievement history of each student. They also have mountains of background information on each of their students. Add to this the records kept on attendance, extra curricular participation, behavior, punctuality, and even attire. Oh, and then there are the teachers.

Yes! Teacher opinion! Qualified, professional opinion!

I don’t want to be too prescriptive about how all this data would combine to establish an effort rating. In truth I suspect some indicators would tell the story more than others depending on the students or schools concerned. Nevertheless, I have no doubt it can be used to substantiate accurate pronouncements on student effort. If schools care about their students “not giving it 110%” (sigh) they should be encouraged to substantiate and quantify this better.

Nobel Laureate Gurdon's science teacher tells it as he sees it...considered and utterly subjective.

Nobel Laureate Gurdon’s science teacher tells it as he sees it…considered and utterly subjective.

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