The ‘eff’ word


Let’s play around with the concept of ‘effort’.

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 from the 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.

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

No, indeed they don’t. With some justification too. The modern day report card is an exercise in communicative dazzle camouflage, 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.

These days you will occasionally 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 still 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%.

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.

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! The teachers. Make use of teacher opinion. Qualified, formatively assessed professional opinion.

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