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‘Impact’ is just Another Meaningless Educational Buzzword

Just because you can’t track it on a spreadsheet, that doesn’t mean learning isn’t happening, argues Louise Burton...

  • ‘Impact’ is just Another Meaningless Educational Buzzword

There’s a new favourite word in the education lexicon; you may be familiar with it. The word is ‘impact’ and it’s everywhere.

Take for example the story of my friend. Recently, she was organising a poetry workshop for her English class.

Her line manager was sceptical and challenged her decision: “But what impact will this have on the students’ learning?” she demanded.

Now, my friend has been teaching English for many years and I have observed her doing so. She is absolutely the kind of teacher I would wish for my own children: engaging, knowledgeable, funny and authoritative.

She ploughed on defiantly with her workshop because her knowledge of the subject and her pupils – as well as her many years’ experience of teaching – led her to believe (almost instinctively), that she was doing the right thing.

But when her manager wanted to know about ‘impact’, she was really asking: “Can I hold you to account; is what you are doing measurable?”

Measurable limits

My most vivid memory of A Level English was being taken to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Ben Kingsley and David Suchet in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The ‘impact’ was not clear to me at the time – but I was enthralled; and I’m sure no one asked the teacher why she was doing it.

However, the world of education is now overrun by people who lack the qualities my English teaching friend has. They are technocrats, obsessed with measurement.

Everything is quantifiable, everything can be reduced to a target and easily transferred to a spreadsheet.

In instances such as my experience of Othello, though, ‘impact’ takes on a different meaning. It isn’t a measurable outcome on a spreadsheet; it is a qualitative, transformative experience with long-lasting effects upon the pupil – in this case, my younger self.

These days, if the same teacher organised the trip, it would need to be justified as a revision exercise and the students would probably have to do an assessment when they got back to school, to prove the impact on their learning.

Of course, much of this obsession with measurability is not motivated solely by a desire for ever better exam results; it is also driven by the conviction that schools can change society.

For example, tracking the progress of ‘disadvantaged’ children against a set of targets is a process based on the belief that if these youngsters achieve at a higher level, that will result in social mobility.

Because of this, teachers not only have to monitor the progress their pupils are making but have to categorise them in various ways as well: EAL, SEND, disadvantaged, male, female, Pupil Premium and so on, in order to see how they compare with their peers.

Accountability over quality

Alas, this can lead to gameplaying in schools, so that Ofsted can see how much impact an intervention has had on a specific child or group of children.

I have heard teachers complaining that they have had to make the same pupil do an assessment or piece of work again and again until they get a better result.

And this is having a deleterious effect on teaching and learning generally; as Michael Young writes in his Foreword for What Should Schools Teach? (edited by Alex Standish and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert), “accountability is replacing quality as the priority for schools.”

Increasingly, the holding of teachers to account via assessment objectives and targets – rather than disciplinary knowledge – is determining how subjects are taught in school.

This in turn undermines the authority of the teacher as subject specialist.

In their introduction to What Should Schools Teach?, Standish and Sehgal Cuthbert explain how school systems driven by accountability measures are affecting education.

They argue that competences are treated as more important than knowledge, and used to show how a pupil has progressed; which is reinforced and perpetuated by the accountability-driven Ofsted.

A former English teacher told me how her head of department once spoke to her after observing through the classroom door a room full of pupils reading a novel: “I see a lot of reading, but not a lot of learning.”

“At this point”, the teacher told me, “I decided to fall on my sword.”

Her judgement (and authority) about how to teach was being challenged and it was assumed that the act of reading together as a class was not a worthwhile activity, simply because the outcome or ‘impact’ was not observable.

Power and authority

In his recent work, The Rediscovery of Teaching (2017, Routledge), Gert Biesta looks at the nature of the teacher’s authority and how an act of power on his or her part, ie deciding what the pupil should know, becomes an act of authority when the young person acknowledges that this act has contributed to their ‘subjectness’ or ‘grown-up-ness’.

He also argues that this makes teaching a risky business, because we do not know if or when this power will be accepted – and it may be long after the pupil has moved on to pastures new.

Unfortunately, the technocrats who wield power in many parts of education cannot cope with risk. Anything that is unpredictable is irrelevant.

This is a short-sighted view of education, as it fails to accept that ‘impact’ is not always quantifiable.

Maybe my first experience of watching a live performance of Othello is what gave me a love of theatre; I can certainly remember scenes and soliloquies as if it were yesterday. But seeing the play was only part of the process.

The teacher’s deep knowledge of the text, and her ability to impart that knowledge to her pupils, made watching the play significant – not just by enabling us to pass our A Level, but because it broadened our horizons and exposed us to a new experience.

I hope my English teacher friend, and others like her, will stick to their guns and continue to use their subject knowledge to inspire their lessons and their students; not simply the spreadsheet to be scrutinised at the next staff meeting.

Louise Burton is a history teacher and has worked in secondary education for over 20 years. She is a member of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum.

The Academy of Ideas Forum gathers monthly to discuss trends in educational policy, theory and practice. Find out more about what to expect at academyofideas.org.uk/forums/education_forum.

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