An update…

I just wanted to take this opportunity to update my blog and let those of you who follow it know what has been going on.

Without trying to get too personal, I will say life over the last two years has really tested my stoic reserve. I was working as a history teacher in England and having the time of my life. England is a country that I really grew to love because of its history, culture, people, and (believe it or not) weather. I do love a rainy day! I had money in the bank and a job that challenged me on every level. I can honestly say that I was enjoying the sometimes 60+ hour workweeks.

However, in 2015 I had to return to Canada in order to renew my visa, something that should have taken two weeks to process and allowed me another 3 – 5 years in England. I was committed to my job and I fully intended to spend the rest of my life working as an educator over there. But unfortunately this was not to be. Due to a minuscule error in the paperwork provided by my employer I was denied my work visa. I spent months trying to correct this situation in frantic 3am emails to my employer but after almost six months of back and forth the school I was working for informed me that they had found another candidate for my job as they couldn’t afford to hold out in the hope that I would return any longer.

I had lost my job, my flat, a significant amount of money, and found myself facing the prospect of having to try to find a teaching job in the extremely difficult Canadian teaching market. The friendships that I had made and the plans I had formed would now face significant strains and challenges. I can honestly say that 2015 was easily the most difficult year of my life thus far and if it wasn’t for my knowledge of Stoicism, I don’t think I would have made it out with the tranquility and peace that I feel about it now.

It was challenging, I’m not going to pretend that I’m anywhere near a Stoic sage. I had nights where I could not sleep, days where I could not eat, and days where I would stuff my face. I experienced a wide range of emotions from anger, jealousy, and resentment. I was bitter. I went through an extremely rough breakup with a country I was in love with and the most frustrating aspects of my situation were that I was needed; my intentions were good, and the reason for my application being denied were no fault of my own.

But Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoic thinkers were there for me. They reminded me that this is life and if I just surrounded myself in an ocean of negativity I would drown. They inspired me to write, and so I spent my free time working on the piece that would become “Stoicism and the Path to Tranquility,” an essay that I was extremely proud of because it came from a real genuine place within myself. I was elated when Stoicism Today agreed to post it on their fantastic blog.

Since 2016 I’ve been relatively silent, which has not been by design. I’ve written a little bit for the new and exciting PocketStoic application, which is amazing. I’m thrilled that the Stoic philosophy is in a place where an application like this can be created and downloaded by so many people. It’s also amazing to see the positive impact Stoicism has been having on people’s lives and the growth of Stoicism from a relatively unknown philosophy to a movement of people who are excited to meet and discuss the various aspects of this school of thought.

I hope to be much more active in 2017 as I’ve watched my twitter followers slowly climb and my blog traffic remain steady. I ask your forgiveness for not being more active. My excuse is that I’ve been trying to rebuild my life after the events I described above. I’ve started several pieces that I just never found the time to finish, but I’m aiming to change that (I still have a half written piece on the value of Stoicism for elite athletes that I think about from time to time).

I’m incredibly grateful to you if you come to my little blog and read anything I’ve written. I hope you have found as much value in Stoicism as I have and I hope I can share more of my thoughts about this fantastic and life changing philosophy with you in the future.

Until then, all the best,

StoicTeacher

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Why the U.K. Government needs to rethink its position on immigration and foreign teachers

I love the U.K.

I love the culture, the history, Wetherspoon’s, and everything else that makes the U.K. unique, from quiz nights to pigs in blankets. As a Canadian, I felt completely at home in England, where I lived for two years while I worked as a secondary school history teacher. I was forced to leave England however, due to misfortune, and have found that the prospect of my being able to return is becoming increasingly bleak.

I am writing this because I want to talk about the problems schools are going to begin to face when it comes to finding and recruiting qualified foreign teachers in the future. As a foreign teacher who once lived and worked in the U.K., I think I am in a unique position to discuss these matters because I have observed the teaching shortage get increasingly worse, while at the same time, the policies that effectively keep foreign teachers out of the U.K. job market increase.

At the root of this problem, I believe, is a disconnect between the government and schools, as on the one hand, you have schools becoming more desperate to find teachers and thus filling positions by and means necessary, and on the other hand, you have the government making the situation worse by making it more difficult for qualified foreign teachers to be able to secure work visas to help alleviate this recruitment problem.

As I write this there are currently 5,774 teaching jobs listed on one of the main job recruiting websites in the U.K., and yet, only 893 of these positions, maths, chemistry, and physics, are on the U.K.’s skills shortage list. The skills shortage list enables employers to recruit foreign workers without having to undergo extraneous visa conditions such as market tests and financial requirements, and yet, only 15% of teaching jobs currently qualify.

The first step the U.K. government needs to do in order to solve the teacher shortage is acknowledge that this shortage extends beyond the three identified subject areas. This will allow more foreign teachers who specialize outside of maths and sciences to be able to secure work visas and occupy vacant positions.

The teacher shortage is perhaps worse than the government understands as a large number teachers who are currently occupying teaching jobs are foreign workers from Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia, who are on Youth Mobility Visas, as I was during my time in the U.K. The problem with this is that the Youth Mobility Visa is only valid for two years and is impossible to renew, meaning that the large number of foreign teachers who are occupying jobs are only a temporary solution. If these teachers want to continue to work in the U.K. they must either hope that their grandparents were U.K. citizens, so that they can apply for an ancestry visa, or that the school they are working for has the financial means and understanding of the sponsorship process to undergo a lengthy visa procedure with them in the hopes of keeping them on.

To make matters worse, the U.K. government continues to introduce measures that will make recruiting foreign teachers on Youth Visas more difficult. Measures such as the Immigration Healthcare Surcharge will only discourage new foreign teachers from taking the risk of relocating to another country when they will have to pay the normal cost of the visa process, which can be quite hefty, along with an additional £400.00 for the IHS, as well as finding and paying for their accommodations. All of this before they’ve even set foot in a British classroom.

This coupled with the fact that many of these teachers will not be able to stay in the country for longer than the two years of their youth visa makes the prospect of solving the teacher shortage crisis using qualified foreign teachers difficult. When countries like China and South Korea are often willing to pay for teachers flights, visas, and discount their accommodation, paying loads of money to teach in England’s notoriously difficult classrooms will become less and less of a draw, especially when it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a long term career out of it.

In terms of my own experience, towards the end of youth mobility visa I sought employment in a school that promised me that they would be able to meet the sponsorship requirements for me to secure a work visa. I was a little nervous undergoing this process, as I understood how much of a minefield the visa requirements could be, but the school assured me that they had done it in the past; sure enough, they were able to provide me with a sponsorship certificate.

All that I now needed to do was return to Canada and submit my documents, pay the fees (which were upwards of £1000.00 including flights back to Canada), and hope that my paperwork was approved so that I would be given a work visa. Unfortunately for me, the school I was working for applied for the wrong type of sponsorship documents, thus leading to my visa application being denied.

Since then, I have been stuck back in Canada and have been desperately trying to return to England. This task is frustrating because I am aware of the huge need for qualified teachers and I would love nothing more than to return, and yet, the U.K. government continues to place obstacles in the way. Not only has the task become more expensive, but starting in April, it will be impossible for foreign teachers to secure indefinite leave to remain, meaning that the longest most of them will be able to live and work in the U.K. is for five years.

I completely understand the fears of over population and the threats foreign workers can pose for U.K. nationals in filling desired jobs. However, in this case, where the demand for teachers is so high that more and more schools are resorting to using unqualified individuals to fill vacancies, I believe that the U.K. government must act in a way that will ensure that qualified foreign teachers are encouraged to come to the U.K. and be able to secure long-term careers.

This is the right measure to take as it will benefit the U.K.’s economy, through taxes, the teachers themselves, who are often young, enthusiastic, and looking to make a difference, and most importantly, this would benefit the children, who would be receiving their education from qualified teaching professionals with the added benefit of learning about the world from someone who has lived in another country.

It was never my intention to fall in love with England. But after spending two years taking in English history and culture, I can say without a doubt that my dream would be to return to the U.K., find a history teaching post, and undertake a long career educating the youth of England about their rich history. I only wish the U.K. government would understand that there is a subject wide teacher shortage and that there are many foreign teachers out there, like myself, who would love a second chance to return to a country we love.

Why Colleges and Universities are the last places that should be “Safe Spaces”

There has been a recent trend amongst college and university campuses to protect students from unpopular or controversial ideas. This movement has caused debates to be cancelled, speakers to be uninvited from giving talks, and popular comedians have come out and stated that performing on many campuses has become troublesome because of the sensitive attitudes college students have developed towards jokes they find to be offensive. Some students have gone as far as demanding the resignation of university presidents and faculty members because they’ve expressed ideas or opinions which groups of students have taken offence with. Whether the drive to form and enforce protective policies has come from administration, professors, or the students themselves is unclear. However, the arguments of those in favor of this type of censorship vary from a desire to prevent what they believe to be hate speech, to the idea of making such campuses safer for students whose emotional welfare may be jeopardized by being challenged by controversial ideas, to the belief that there are objective truths that have no business being questioned in a place of higher learning. This movement has spawned various terms to go along with it such as “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “micro-aggression’s” which aim to legitimize the censorship by providing students with a way to preemptively distinguish between ideas they will agree with and ideas that may challenge their thinking.

This trend is disturbing because if it is allowed to continue, it may signal the decline of both free speech and intellectual curiosity, which are an essential aspect of both a free society and a key component of any place of learning. It seems that as time goes on universities and colleges are being asked to act parentis in loco and establish what their students can and cannot handle by dictating which ideas they are allowed to be exposed to and which ideas they are not. It appears that in more and more post-secondary institutions some ideas are no longer welcome and that there are groups of individuals who are increasingly controlling a space that used to be a marketplace of free ideas. In discussing and addressing this issue of censorship on college campuses, I will discuss how the ideas of John Stuart Mill in his work On Liberty provides us with rational arguments in favor of free speech, even speech that may be unpopular or deemed as hateful or “triggering.” I will also argue that college and university campuses should be the last place we should find intellectual “safe spaces.”

To begin, I’d like to look at John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty, which should be essential reading for anyone who believes that there exist opinions or ideas that must be censored. Mill argues that whether an opinion is true or false should have absolutely no bearing on whether or not it should be allowed to be expressed. As he points out:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.[i]

Through the use of silence and control some post-secondary institutions are limiting exposure to opinions that are essential for academic and personal growth. As Mill argues, opinions that are restricted may in fact be true or have some elements of truth within them. By silencing those who hold such opinions we rob ourselves of a truth. Even those opinions, which harbor no truth, are useful as they lead to the discovery of the actual truth. By silencing those who hold false opinions we fail to consider aspects of the truth that are brought to light when they are questioned.

What is perhaps most worrying about the notion of small groups deciding what opinions are permitted on campuses, is that they are acting as if their beliefs are so infallible that they should not be questioned. In the words of Mill:

They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility[ii]

Just because a particular group has a definite opinion on a matter does not mean that they should be able to dictate that contrary opinions are not permitted to be examined by anyone else. One group should not be able to decide which opinions are accepted by the individuals who make up a greater whole, and in fact, groups who do attempt to control the opinions expressed in places of learning are either assuming that the students who attend the school are too stupid to discover the actual truth for themselves, or, are perhaps worried that by questioning a commonly held opinion an alternative truth may be discovered that is contrary to one which is endorsed by those who urge censorship.

Furthermore, isn’t the whole purpose of college and university about exploring different ideas, and the whole process by which we come to understand the world through critically examining different viewpoints? Why are we allowing particular groups to dogmatically control an institution whose whole purpose is to expose young people to new ideas, a place that asks them to question their previously held beliefs. Some may find the notion of questioning their beliefs troublesome, but what harm is there in doing that? If you find that your beliefs cannot withstand criticism then you have come closer to finding the truth, if you find that your beliefs can withstand criticism, than you can be more certain in their validity. In Mill’s words:

The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers-knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter-he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.[iii]

I would argue that this issue of censorship stems from the belief that ideas are not independent morally ambiguous entities, but instead, are demonstrative of an individual’s moral character. In this sense, particular ideas are considered as good or evil, instead of what they should actually be, which is a statement that either expresses the truth, or as Mill suggests, illuminates it. How can we say that an incorrect idea is bad, when ultimately what it will end up doing is express the truth through its refutation?

When you imbue an idea with a moral characteristic, what you ultimately do is try to silence not the idea itself, but the individual who expresses it. In this sense, bad people only express bad ideas. This is counterintuitive to the pursuit of truth because by ascribing moral characteristics to ideas you don’t address or defeat the ideas themselves, you merely silence them. When you chastise someone for believing an idea which is false by attacking it from a moral standpoint, at best, what you do is indicate to the person who holds it that this particular idea needs to be kept quiet if they want to avoid ridicule, but ultimately, can still be held onto. At worst, you offend the holder of this idea by making them feel like they are morally repugnant because their opinion is offensive, and so they cling to this falsely held idea even stronger and express it with even more enthusiasm.

If instead of attributing a moral character to an idea, you allow such ideas to be expressed freely, without moral judgment, then you allow the truth to become known. This is because ideas that are not ascribed a moral characteristic must stand on their own merits. As human beings we love to be on the winning side and thought of as good people. I do not believe that any individual does something that they believe to be wrong or evil purposely. Whenever a person acts, even if the act itself is considered wrong, they do so because they believe that in their circumstances such an act is justified. They believe that they are doing the right thing in their situation. Therefore, when we ascribe these moral characteristics to ideas we appeal to this human desire to be thought of as right and as a good person. No longer are those who happen to be opposed to our ideas trying to enlighten us, instead, they are viewed as attacking our moral character and implying that we are foolish, ignorant, or morally repugnant. In other words, when we ascribe moral qualities to ideas, we embed them into our image of ourselves, and therefore, have all the more reason to cling to and defend them.

As an example of this, let’s imagine a man who believes in equality amongst the sexes, but expresses doubts towards the notion of an hourly gender pay gap.[1] It’s not that he doesn’t believe men and women should be paid equally for their work, it’s that he questions the validity of the studies that suggest that women earn less an hour then men for doing the same work. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to say that such a man in today’s world can expect to be harshly critiqued, not criticized, for expressing such a concern by some who disagree with his opinion.

Now, although there is nothing wrong with the opinion being itself being criticized, I believe that many of the attacks will not be aimed at the opinion, but rather, at the individual man who holds this belief. He may be called a misogynist and accused of contributing towards the problems that modern women face. It may be pointed out that he is a cis-gendered white male and so his opinion on such a matter should not be taken seriously because he has inherently benefited from privilege and patriarchy his whole life. Many of the criticisms will aim at shaming him into silence and making him feel that he is a bad person for holding an objectionable opinion. Also, it may be indicated to him that his opinion is not a product of healthy skepticism, but rather, a result of the pigment of his skin, the genitalia between his legs, and his sexual preferences. Even those attacks that are specifically aimed at the opinion itself, rather than the man who expresses it, will be loaded with moral sentiments. It will be said that such opinions are evil and that we are better off without such beliefs being expressed. Some of the individuals who hear this man’s opinion may feel “triggered” and feel the need to retreat to a “safe space.”

Importantly, at no time in this example has the argument that there is not a gender pay gap when it comes to hourly earnings been refuted on the basis of facts or statistics. It has simply been pushed aside and in its place the critics have questioned the moral quality of the individual who holds this opinion and have attacked him for who he is. Such tactics fail to do anything but attempt to silence both the opinion and the individual to expresses it. The opinion itself, which lacks the ability to feel shamed, continues to exist and its validity remains a matter of dispute, it has merely been pushed into the background. If there is a discrepancy in the hourly earnings of males and females then people like the man in our example should be presented with hard evidence from reputable academic sources that prove beyond a doubt that his opinion is in error. If such hard evidence exists then there is no justifiable reason to make a personal attack upon him, for doing so will only create hatred and resentment. By attacking his character through assigning this particular idea he holds with a moral characteristic we risk entrenching him within this opinion. Because his character has been attacked along with his idea he may steadfastly cling to it no matter what reasonable evidence suggests because the fall of this idea would then suggest to him that his critics might be right about his moral character. The goal of educating people should be to enlighten them and raise their awareness, not to criticize them to gain some kind of imagined moral high ground. There should be no room for ego in academia.

This is why such controversial opinions are essential, as going back to Mill, without opposing opinions, how is the validity of gender pay gap studies to be confirmed or denied unless it is questioned. By dissenting with such attitudes hasn’t the man in our example provided a platform for the belief to be looked at critically and ultimately verified, or likewise, shown to be in error? Shouldn’t everyone who is critical be encouraged to continue to ask questions and hold opinions that may differ from popular belief in order to challenge it and provide a springboard for the truth to become known? Have we not learned from stories like that of Galileo who held beliefs that were contrary to popular opinion and thus faced condemnation for believing in things which challenged the excepted truths of the era?

There is not a single idea that exists today that should be exempt from critical discourse. Even the most commonly held verifiable beliefs should be open to criticism without worry of rebuke to those who hold them. What harm is there in doing so? We either continue to verify the truth of such claims or we come to realize an error we have made and a new truth becomes known, which should then further be criticized in order to test its validity. One may respond that in such a world the truth may be ever changing and certainty may never be known. How can we believe in anything if everything is under dispute? Mill responds by turning this notion on its head, if we can’t dispute everything then how can we believe in anything? As he points out:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.[iv]

Going back to the matter of college campuses, don’t we endanger the future generations by sending them the message that popular opinion must always be regarded as the truth and any dissenters must be silenced and shamed? How can we expect the truth to shine through without the mirror of critical opposition? When we turn the world of academia into a popularity contest don’t we create champions who win disputes by appealing to sophistry instead of rational well-reasoned arguments?

Unfortunately, university and college campuses seem to be blending the concept of a physically “safe space” with an intellectually “safe space.” I don’t believe there is anyone out there who doesn’t believe that a college or university campus should be safe space from threats and physical violence. However, and importantly, I believe that intellectually a college or university campus must be the opposite of a “safe space.” In a purely intellectual sense, those around you should constantly assault and “trigger” your preconceived ideas and notions when you step onto campus and that should be why you’re there. You should have to defend your ideas against your fellow students and teachers and be willing to change or adjust them when faced with appropriate criticism.

A college or university campus is not your home, don’t confuse residence with an apartment complex or house, the fact that you may sleep on campus is incidental, the purpose of the campus is to act as a intellectual arena where all ideas and concepts are being challenged regularly. The community that attends a post-secondary institution should be supportive towards its member’s rights to feel safe from physical harm and also its member’s rights to freedom of expression, not towards creating a group of people with a single ideology that is dogmatically reinforced. I believe that if you go through your post-secondary education and you haven’t been intellectually offended or “triggered” at some point then your academic institution has failed you. College or university is not a place that should reaffirm your preexisting beliefs, it is not a religious institution, there are times when attending lecture will be uncomfortable because you will be exposed to ideas that will offend you, and worse still, some of these ideas may expose errors in your commonly held beliefs.

If that is not what you want out of your post-secondary education then you should look to surround yourself with similar like minded people who will allow you to live in an intellectual bubble free from criticism of your beliefs. However, you should realize that by doing so you adopt the methodology of cults and hate groups who have decided that they hold objective truths that they do not want to be questioned by outsiders. You should not seek to change the purpose of college or university institutions from a place of freedom of expression and ideas, to a center of reaffirmation of popular belief. Although I wholeheartedly disagree with those students, professors, and administrators who believe that universities should become intellectual “safe spaces”, I respect their right to hold such an opinion and I refuse to become emotionally entrenched in my belief, I acknowledge that I may be wrong. I want to provoke a dialog about this question and hear convincing arguments from those who disagree with me. I just hope it’s not too late and there are still those on the other side who are still open to rational critical discourse.

 

[1] I chose this example because it is a current topic of debate between some feminists and skeptics. However any contentious issue could be inserted in its place. I also do not mean to make that claim that all feminists argue on the basis of ascribing moral characteristics to ideas, I am aware that there are feminists who have well reasoned rational arguments for their ideas.

 

[i] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 18. Print.

[ii] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 19. Print.

[iii] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 22. Print.

[iv] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 21. Print.

Stoic Resilience and the Path to Tranquility

You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.

Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.

This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.

Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.

To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.

The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.

It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.

Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:

We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.[1]

All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.

Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.

This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.

The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.

The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.[2]

This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.

Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”[3]

Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good. As Epictetus tells us:

As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it![4]

Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened. In the words of Epictetus:

Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.[5]

Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.

Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:

Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.[6]

Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.

This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:

Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes care of a room at an inn.[7]

Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.

This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.

Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:

 It’s Unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.[8]

Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.

The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.

An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.

Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:

Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.[9]

Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization.[10] Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.

To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.

Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way. Epictetus reminds us:

Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.[11]

In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.

I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquility are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.

[1] Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.

[2] Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.

[3] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.

[4] Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.

[5] Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.

[6] Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.

[7] Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.

[8] Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.

[9] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

[10] Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.

[11] Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Works Cited

Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.

Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

A Critical Reflection of England’s Assessment Policies and Practices [Part 3]

Part 3: The weaknesses of assessment policies in England

I would now like to discuss some criticisms of the assessment policies I encountered in England. One of my biggest concerns with regards to assessment policies is the ambiguity found within both key stage three and key stage four grades. The problem with these grades is that they represent a method of communication between teachers, parents, and students that ineffectually try to convey a wide variety of information in a very simplistic fashion and require students to answer questions in a very limited or rigid fashion.

When grading a piece of summative work using levels in key stage three, teachers assign a particular grade based on the mastery of a number of different skill sets and expectations. For example, a student may be asked to write an opinion piece on why William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. In order to do this, the students are told that they have to demonstrate knowledge of the surrounding events before the battle; a brief description of what happened during the battle itself, and why they believe William was ultimately victorious. When marking this particular piece of work, teachers are looking for the demonstration of a few particular skills such as: historical knowledge, careful use of evidence to support an opinion, critical thinking skills to determine what is relevant in coming to a particular conclusion, effective communication skills in conveying their knowledge and opinions in writing, etc.

It is only natural that each student will complete this task showing different degrees of mastery at each particular skill. Some students may excel at effectively communicating their ideas, but lack the historical knowledge to effectively answer the question; a second student may demonstrate good historical knowledge, but choose sources to support this knowledge that are untrustworthy due to being obviously bias towards a particular viewpoint. In a class of thirty pupils, one can imagine that a wide variety of different strengths and weaknesses are demonstrated with regards to each skill.

The problem of this method of assessment lies in the belief that teachers are meant to weigh the mastery of these individual skills in a particular piece and come to a single level grade to demonstrate a student’s competency in all of them. It becomes difficult to determine what should hold more value when judging a piece that inherently demonstrates several important key skills. A teacher is asked to weigh the value of several skills that have been completed to varying degrees and decide which has more value. Is it the ability to write effectively, the use of historical knowledge, or perhaps the ability to think critically?

The student ends up with a mark that is meant to represent a large amount of information without a detailed breakdown of where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Although this information can be conveyed in detailed written feedback, when one considers that a teacher will have, at minimum, thirty assessments with varying degrees of ability, expressed over several key skill sets, this task becomes monumental.

Similarly, the GCSE style questions in key stage four are very deceptive, in that they have a hidden expectation, that students must not only answer a question correctly, but also answer the question in a specific formulaic rigid way. One example may be a “How far do you agree” question, where students are given a statement and asked to answer how accurate this statement is, based on their knowledge. It is not simply enough for a student to demonstrate a wide variety of knowledge in regards to the question and make a good case with evidence to support their opinion, to receive full marks, a student must present both a reason why they agree with the statement and a reason why they do not agree with the statement, before coming to a conclusion about which of the two reasons is best.

I have graded several students in the past who have made a wonderful case for why they agree with a given statement; their answer demonstrates a wide variety of diverse knowledge and critical thinking, but according to the question guidelines, these responses were not worthy of full marks because they did not provide a reason in support of why it may be possible to disagree with the initial statement. It seems like a simple enough fix to alter the question to reflect what is needed to meet the expectations required to receive full marks, however, most exam writers seem to stick with this rigid format, leaving teachers to not only educate students about course content and skills, but also to ensure that students know how to apply the content and skills of the course to unnecessary formulaic, hidden guidelines.

I think the solution to these problems is to implement a rubric based system that outlines the important skills the assessment is meant to exemplify along a continuum of descriptive ability ranges in student friendly language. By using this, teachers save themselves having to write out thirty short essays on a varying mixture of skill competencies, and can simply highlight the strengths and weaknesses along the skill mastery continuum. Short, written, descriptive feedback or encouragement can then be added to target individual student needs while still making clear to students exactly what they need to work on.

Furthermore, I found that, at times, students did not fully understand the skill-sets they were meant to utilize during the completion of their assignments, particularly in GCSE classes. I have observed several instances where students were asked to write an assessment, but were not given any specific guidance or knowledge as to how their work was to be marked or exactly what their instructor was looking for. When guidelines were given to students about what was expected, they were not always in student friendly language and remained obscure.

If we expect a task to be completed to a high degree, we cannot expect our students to intuit what they need to do in order to be successful. We must make our expectations abundantly clear from the start. When possible, we should use exemplars from previous students work to demonstrate what a good piece of work looks like. The work does not have to be the exact same assessment we expect our students to complete, as we are not looking to assess how well they can copy; the example simply has to demonstrate the skills we are looking for to a high degree. Better yet, why not present a range of previous works representing different abilities and allow the students to discuss which they think shows the highest degree of skill and why.

Another related criticism of the assessment policies I encountered is based on a lack of differentiation opportunities available to students on summative assessments. The ability to differentiate material to a student or class is a key tool in a teacher’s toolkit and one that is highly prized. During my time in England, I was lucky enough to receive several hours of continued professional development sessions that were aimed at effective differentiation strategies. It is a skill that is highly prized, and yet, at the same time, all forms of differentiation are not fully embraced.

Though teacher employed differentiation is valued with much regard; schools are looking for teachers that can take a given lesson and change it to suit the needs and abilities of individual students and whole classes. Yet, assessment differentiation is rarely employed or embraced. While I acknowledge that there are times when a teacher wants to assess a particular skill, such as the ability to write an essay, and thus, must put restrictions on the type of assignment they want their class to complete. However, there are other times, when looking for a particular skill, that the method of this communication can and ought to be varied. If a teacher is looking to test student knowledge, then why limit a student’s method of expression to a written test, when a short written assignment, a dramatic sketch, or a podcast would work just as well?

Let me be clear, the reason I believe differentiation by assessment is not utilized is not because teachers see no value in it, rather, it is not employed because teachers are aware that as much as they may allow creativity and self-expression into their classroom, it is possible to differentiate their students away from the final assessment, resulting in poor grades. What I mean by this is that the final method of assessment for a course is set to be a writing task. Because examinations are completed by external examination boards that stick to a rigid written format, if a teacher differentiates too much, they risk allowing students to become comfortable expressing their knowledge in ways that will not gain them marks on the final exam.

Here we come to a philosophical debate on the ultimate purpose of schools. Some would argue that our job as educators is to develop students into productive human beings who leave school with the necessary skill-set to be successful in the working world. This line of reasoning continues, that in the working world we are not always allowed to express our knowledge or skills in any fashion we desire. If asked to create a business report, an individual may give an entertaining dramatic presentation on a companies stock history, but will ultimately fail to impress their superiors. In many situations in life, there is only one acceptable method for completing a task, and so the reasoning goes, why should school be any different.

A second viewpoint on the purpose of schools, which I myself subscribe to, argues that the role of schools is to educate and inspire students to become rounded individuals; not cogs in a bureaucratic machine. There is a large part of school that is about preparation for the outside world; we as teachers would be remiss if we ignored the fact that students will eventually move beyond our classrooms and enter the outside world. That being said, schools must also be a place of individual growth and development, a place of self-expression and creativity. Ultimately, we as educators must remember our purpose: to develop our student’s minds and allow them to find themselves, not to force them into a mold which may (or may not) help them find future employment.

This viewpoint is not necessarily opposed to preparing students for employment in the working world. Although it is the case that we do not always get to express ourselves in ways we would like, we do have the ability to choose our path and find careers that are suited to our personal strengths. As a student, I often struggled with conveying my knowledge in writing, but I was lucky enough to have had teachers that allowed me to demonstrate my knowledge through other mediums, such as verbal presentations, that were much more suited to my strengths. When looking for a career, I remembered my strengths and teaching has allowed me to earn a living off a mode of expression I find comfort in.

By limiting our modes of assessment to one particular format, say a written format, we force a variety of artists, actors, builders, etc. to adapt to a mode of expression they may never need when they leave our classrooms. More importantly, we may get results that do not accurately reflect their ability because they have been handicapped by a particular medium that does not reflect their strengths and thus does not show their best work.

To conclude, I would like to discuss the most frustrating aspect of assessment criteria I encountered in England, which are target levels. Target levels represent the expected progress a student is meant to have achieved by the end of a school year. Students will have different target levels for each subject and the idea is that each year students are meant to progress at least one level higher than their previous years target. For example, a student in history may start year seven with a level 3 as their target grade; the grade they are meant to achieve by the end of the school year, would be level 4.

Target levels are problematic for several reasons, the first being that they assume learning occurs in a linear fashion. Simply put, target levels do not take life into account. They fail to understand that as students grow and develop, gain life experiences, and get exposed to new concepts and ideas, their learning will inevitably be impacted, along with their mentality towards themselves and their education.

Saying to each child, that no matter what happens in their personal lives, they are expected to make a measured degree of progress each year is ludicrous. It’s not hard to imagine a number of circumstances that life may throw at a student that would have a negative impact on their learning; perhaps a student’s parents will go through a divorce or they will experience a death in the family. Target grades make no account of life’s inevitabilities and fail to take the human aspect of learning into account. They place a tremendous burden on teachers to push progress on students who may not be in any sort of mental or physical state to be receptive to learning.

Not only are target levels problematic because they embody a ‘one-size-fits all’ expectation when it comes to student progress, they also put blinders on teachers when it comes to marking; a process which harms both students who are struggling and students who are doing exceptionally well. Target levels can blind teachers because they falsely place a marker on how well a teacher is doing based on how many of their students reach their target. Teachers who fail to get a sufficient amount of students to their target grade are put under scrutiny and can face sanctions, while teachers who successfully get their students to their targets receive pay raises.

What can end up happening is that when a teacher is due to mark work they will sit down with the assessment and the data relating to target grades and make the assessment mark reflect the progress needed to show linear progress. A student who is struggling is awarded a mark they do not necessarily deserve, but is needed, in order to show progress, while a student who is doing exceptionally well may have their mark brought down because if a mark is too high then the amount of progress that is expected is amplified.

In practice, you may have a student who starts the year with a target of level 5, however, after their first assessment, their grade is level 5. They have achieved the level they are meant to have reached by the end of the year, at the very start. Teachers may choose to lower the actual result of their level on this first assessment to a level 4 and attribute this mark to one exceptionally well-done piece of work. However, there are cases where students continually reach or exceed their target grade, and what can happen is that the assessment results are manipulated to fit what the data says they should be. Likewise, there are students who continually fail to achieve their target levels, whose marks are changed to reach them. With this system, it is the data that drives the assessment marks and not the other way around!

I believe that this scenario is a direct result of having levels represent a large amount of information where highly detailed assessment criteria are needed. What is worrying is that a teacher may issue students a test that is aimed at assessing their ability on a particular skill set and a student may do exceptionally well; on their next assessment, the teacher may focus on a different skill set and the student may struggle. However because of the limited method of communication offered by the level system, it can be difficult give a student a lower grade. When I experienced this scenario and asked for an explanation, I was told, “Students cannot get thicker.” The mentality here is that once a level of competency is achieved, it cannot decline. Despite the fact that in this case two distinct skill sets are being evaluated, one is always encouraged to show progress, even when it has not always occurred.

Understanding how target levels are established only leads to further frustration as they are determined in primary school and follow a student for the rest of their primary and secondary career. Target levels are the product of both standardized testing and a primary school teacher’s best judgment on the ability of a particular student at a particular time. These targets are established in year two and set the expectations for a given student up until they complete their GCSE in year eleven. If target grades were somehow perfect they would effectively tell a student in year two the grades they can expect to receive in year eleven.

However, as I have illustrated, target grades are far from perfect. They are established and based on information that has been gathered to represent an individual student at a particular phase of their life, and there is obviously no formula that can predict the large amount of varying factors that each student will experience. It is possible that a student could do extremely well during their early primary years and get set a target level that is ambitious. Following this, the student may undergo hardships or simply not live up to the expectations established for them at a young age, as they progress through their education. Yet, as I have explained above, the data will at times be manipulated to reach the target, and so even though the student may lack the ability required to reach a particular level, they will somehow find themselves awarded with the grade.

The heart of the problem is not the target grades themselves, but the attitude they foster amongst both students and teachers. In student’s eyes, target grades represent their intelligence. Students who receive low targets can tend to think of themselves as intellectually weaker than their classmates, whose targets are higher. Because teachers are encouraged to follow the data, this belief is usually reinforced when teacher marking falls in line with what the target level predicts. Although it is not always the case that teachers will purposely raise or lower a student’s mark to meet their target, I wonder how much of an unconscious impact target grades have on a teacher’s ability to award a grade that is an accurate reflection of a student’s work.

Regardless, it is not difficult to empathize with a student who is quite aware that the expectations put upon them are lesser than some of their peers because they have a lower target. A low level can effectively tell a student that they are not as good as some of their classmates, and although they will make progress, they will most likely fail to achieve more academically than those with higher targets. This mentality would help explain much of the behavioral difficulties I encountered, as well as account for why some students lacked the motivation to give their studies their best effort.

Target levels impact teachers by essentially making each student a stock. Although target grades are established for students in year two, they are not subject to any real test with regards to the accuracy of these levels until a student finishes school in year eleven. From the moment targets are established in year two, teachers have an incentive to skew marks to meet the requirements of the target level in order to avoid sanctions and gain pay raises. However, in year eleven, when students complete their final exams, that are administered and marked by external examiners, who are not privy to student target levels while they mark, this results in students receiving the first unbiased reflection of their ability.

In the worse case scenario, this situation likens students to stocks in some teacher’s eyes because as a teacher looking around a year eleven classroom, it is easy to identify which student’s targets are accurate, which are moderately accurate, and which are hopelessly high. The students themselves may not be aware of this because from what they have experienced, they always meet or come close to their target grade.

The teacher is aware that in order to get a raise for the year, they have to get a certain percent of his or her class to a particular grade. What happens now is that the teacher has to consider which of these stocks are worth investing in, and which are not. Students who are likely to reach or exceed their target are given less help and attention despite the potential for more growth and development because they will do enough to reach their grade, while students who could potentially reach their target, but it’s not guaranteed, are given as much help and support both from teachers and T.A.’s as possible, to try to turn them into a winning stock. Those students whose target is far too high are essentially abandoned. They may receive some support, but overall the task of getting them to where they need to be is not possible based on the time a teacher has before the exam, and so the focus is placed on raising the middle up, not helping the bottom achieve.

We can see that in this system, if a teacher is motivated purely in terms of economy, then the students who need the most help, necessarily suffer. This is because they have targets ascribed to them that get progressively higher despite their abilities remaining the same. Thus at a point in their final year when faced with an assessment which no longer has to be manipulated to fit data, it becomes more profitable to focus attention on students who show the potential to meet the grade.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that every teacher operates with this mentality, in fact, I know a large number of teachers who give up pay raises when they could easily play this game; the problem, is that the assessment system subtly encourages teachers to act in this way. In essence, from an exceptionally young age students are given a target that increases on a linear path and they are expected to meet it year after year. Teachers are encouraged to mark in order to show this progress or face sanctions and are rewarded with pay raises for continuing to get students to their goal. This culminates in a kind of stock scenario in a student’s final year when they face their first unbiased assessment.

This leads us to perhaps the most worrying aspect of assessment policies in England that stem from a simple lack of professional confidence in teachers to be trusted to assess accurately. This inherent lack of trust is obviously related to the pay incentivization that is linked to student progress. Schools argue that external examination boards are needed in order to prevent teachers from submitting inaccurate information about student results because they have an economic motivation to lie. As I’ve just illustrated above, it is quite clear that this reasoning is correct and yet despite having external examination boards, student learning can still suffer because of the choices a teacher has to make leading up to a final exam.

The problem is not that teachers are inherently untrustworthy; the problem is that schools continue to link pay raises with student results. When you create an environment where the only way to get a raise is to get results, then teachers will do what it takes to get them (whether they are earned or not). This is not something unique to the teaching trade. Imagine if doctors were given raises, not based on how much experience and education they had, but instead, on how many patients they are able to cure. How many doctors would give into the economic temptation and become snake oil salesmen and how many would face year after year without a pay raise because their numbers didn’t meet expectations.

Again, it is not that teachers are inherently bad or greedy people. The problem is that the system judges the worth of a teacher by something that is not completely within their control. Although it is attractive to think that we should judge the ability of a teacher based on how well their students perform, this line of thinking takes the human element out of the equation. Teachers are not dealing with stable, tangible, or inanimate objects. We ply our trade to young human beings who have vastly different personalities (that sometimes conflict with our own), who are subject to the various circumstances of life and who have ups and downs. We deal with young people who are in the process of discovering who they are, and who they want to be. The teaching profession cannot and should not be judged in terms of a normative standard of progress, because firstly, teachers have little control of this progress, and secondly, maintaining that there is such a normative standard for human progress and development completely ignores all the varieties of life.

A much more effective basis upon which to award pay raises would be to encourage teachers to improve their craft by linking pay increases to continued professional development. This policy would serve three main purposes; firstly, it would link pay raises to something teachers have objective control over. Secondly, it would improve the standard of teaching by allowing teachers to come together and discuss effective teaching techniques, while also keeping their knowledge of educational pedagogy up to date. This would also reward the many teachers who already seek out CPD as a way to improve on their existing skills. Finally, by taking away the incentive to misrepresent marks, teachers could once again focus on the development of their students. Teachers would be able to work together and collaborate as professionals and design assessments that meet the needs of their students while also accurately reflecting their student’s abilities, allowing them to make informed decisions about their future.

Conclusion

In summation, it has been my intent to reflect upon what I believe good assessment policies should look like, while also exploring both the strengths and the weaknesses of the assessment systems I observed in England. In exploring this topic I have spent a lot of time being critical of the English system and although I believe that this system needs to be improved, I also believe that it has a lot to offer other countries in terms of progress. I can say that without a doubt teaching in England has made me a much better teacher. The emphasis on professional growth and development is the primary goal of most schools, as they want to improve. I am continually impressed by the quality of teachers that I came across in England as each of my English colleagues was in the field because they genuinely cared about the development of their students and wanted to have a positive influence on young minds. It is the adoption of this attitude that has driven me to write this piece, as I feel that reflection is an important aspect of continual growth. My only hope is that I can one day be as good as the many amazing teachers I encountered during my time in England.

A Critical Reflection of England’s Assessment Policies and Practices [Part 2]

Part 2: The strengths of assessment policies in England

I would now like to discuss the strengths of the assessment policies I encountered in England. One of the most useful policies I came across during my time in England was the use of learning objectives. Learning objectives are statements that communicate, in simple language, the point or purpose of a given lesson. These objectives are given to students either through the subtle use of an inquiry question as a lesson title or directly stated along with a title. Students are always required to write down these objectives in their notes for future reference.

The benefit of learning objectives is that they clearly illustrate to the student, right from the very start, the goal or purpose of the lesson. An example of a subtle use of a learning objective could be a lesson title such as, “What made Elizabeth the 1st a good king?”. Almost immediately, students will point out what they believe to be a spelling error in the title. When it is stated that, in fact, no mistake has been made, the students’ curiosity is peaked. This title tells the students through inference the objective for the lesson will be to look at the reign of Elizabeth the 1st, examine and define what makes a good king, and finally how Elizabeth met these characteristics.

The reason I believe learning objectives are effective when thinking about assessment policies is because they represent an opportunity to clearly tie in the desired skills that the lesson intends to develop. While the example of the Elizabeth the 1st lesson title may be enough for a high-ability class to grasp, learning objectives can also be differentiated to suit the needs of lower-ability classes by directly stating the skills to be developed during the coarse of the lesson. This has great value because a student who knows that they lack a particular skill, which has been identified through detailed feedback from a formative assessment, can use their notes as a reference by skimming through their book looking for lessons where this particular skill has been emphasized and developed and can use these notes to build upon their knowledge. When done correctly, learning objectives allow teachers to communicate to students the skills that are going to be developed and eventually assessed, while also presenting an opportunity to stand as sign posts to aid students understanding after the initial lesson has occurred.

A second strength of the assessment policies I encountered in England, related to school guidelines that concerned themselves with the way students take notes in lessons, as well as the frequency and methodology of the marking in student’s workbooks. Each student that I taught in England was given a subject specific workbook to use at the start of the year with the expectation that each lesson they would receive their workbook and write in the lesson title, date, and learning objective, while waiting for further instructions. At the end of lesson, students return their books to their instructor who holds them until the next lesson.

This system, while having the obvious weakness of not allowing students to take their notes home to revise or complete activities such as homework, was ultimately a success. Allowing students to take notes home can result in notes being lost or damaged, and although it is useful to take notes home for revision, I believe that homework serves little purpose, as we need to focus student’s attention towards topics when we are around to guide them directly.[1] This system also had the added benefit of allowing teachers to have a student’s notes on hand for marking purposes.

Besides allocating money toward providing students with subject specific workbooks, all of the schools I encountered in England had clear policies that outlined the frequency of when students workbooks should be marked, as well as the manner in which marking should take place. That being said, I found these policies to be sometimes problematic, as I did not believe that the marking teachers were asked to do always had merit. I do believe, however, that it is worthwhile to have policies that dictate the frequency of marking across a school, while also having consistency in the way work is being evaluated both formatively and summatively.

To return briefly to the point regarding the merit of some of the marking being undertaken, I would argue that at times it felt as if teachers were being asked to evaluate every page of notes a student produced, instead of encouraging teachers to gear specific tasks to students with the express purpose of future formative evaluation and detailed feedback.

A final example of an assessment policy I found effective while working in England dealt with the consistency of marking across teachers. When it comes to summatively assessing a piece of work, most schools had very well defined guidelines as to what they were looking for from a completed piece of work. This clarity allowed for very little discrepancy when assessing a single piece of work across a department. This was particularly true when it came to GCSE exam style questions, as they have very well defined criteria for what an answer ought to contain. Having such specific criteria ensures consistency among marking, regardless of the educator assigned to do the marking. While consistency is valuable, I felt that, at times, marking was more focused on form rather than function. What I mean is that instead of creatively demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of a topic, students were better served to memorize the different expectations for each type of question they would face and then use their knowledge to form an answer that accurately met the question criteria; we will examine this problem in greater depth later in part three.

[1] Although I would like to discuss this topic at greater length, ultimately, I feel that it is beyond the scope of this reflection and not particular to my experience in England.

A Critical Reflection of England’s Assessment Policies and Practices [Part 1]

Introduction

Over the past two years, I have spent time working within England’s secondary school system and have had the opportunity to not only observe, but also become actively involved in assessing the learning of students within England’s grading frameworks. I found this experience enlightening as England employs vastly different assessment methods to what I had experienced in Canada as both a student and a teacher. My intention in writing this piece is to not only reflect upon the grading practices I have observed in England, but also to point out practices that I feel are strengths and weaknesses of this system. In doing so, I have expounded my own philosophy of what effective assessment should comprise of.

My observations are not limited to my experiences in one school in particular, as I have had the opportunity to work as a both a full-time and cover teacher at several schools across the East Midlands area. While I am aware that grading policies within England are due to change and the system I describe is based on a limited time and geographical location within England, I still feel that my reflections hold merit, not only for my own personal growth as an educator but also for other teachers both in England and around the world. The backdrop of my observations on assessment strategies stem from my understanding of assessment theorists like Rick Stiggins, Tom Schimmer, and specifically, Ken O’Connor.

In part one of this three part reflection, I intend to discuss the importance of accurate assessment implementation through a distinction between formative and summative assessment methods as well as what I believe the aims of assessments ought to be, and what this would look like in practice. Part two of this reflection will examine the strengths of the assessment policies I encountered while in England with a explanation as to why I believe they represent good practice. I will conclude this reflection in part three by discussing the weaknesses of the assessment policies I encountered and where possible offer what I believe to be practical solutions to solve these problems.

Part One: The importance of assessment, my philosophy

To begin, I would like to discuss the importance of accurate assessment methods, as I believe that they serve as a vital method of communication between teachers, parents, students, and post-secondary institutions on the abilities of a particular student. Without accurate assessment methods, teachers, parents, and students are unable to comprehensively understand the strengths and weaknesses of a student. One can see the potential detriment of murky communication, when considering the reality that students often make important life decisions based on assessment data that could be incomplete or reflect an inaccurate account of the student’s abilities. One example being a student who has been led to believe that they can expect relative success in a post-secondary institution based on grades that have over-inflated their ability. It is not uncommon for students to enter post-secondary with unrealistic expectations for success, based on their grade performance while in secondary school, potentially resulting in both personal and financial hardships. Perhaps worse, one can imagine a situation where a learner misses out on reaching their full potential because they have been led to believe that they lack a particular set of abilities which they, in fact, possess or may possess, had their deficiencies been identified and developed using appropriate assessment methods.

Although we typically think of assessments in terms of representing learning that has already taken place, assessments when employed correctly can actually be a vital part of the learning process. Here I believe it is important to make a distinction between formative and summative assessment and clarify what each represents and why they are crucial in the development of a pupil’s education. According to Ken O’Connor “Formative assessments are designed to help students improve, and in almost all cases, should not be used to determine grades. Summative assessments are designed to measure student achievement and “are used to make statements of student learning status at a point in time to those outside the classroom.[1]””

Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between formative and summative assessment is to use a commonly employed analogy between assessments and the nature of competitive sport. Formative assessments represent a team’s ability to practice and have a coach (or teacher) assesses the ability of the team in relation to a particular set of skills and then develop these skills with well thought out drills (or lessons) designed to improve players performance for the game. Summative assessments represent the game itself where the onus is now placed on the team (or learner) to demonstrate the skills they have developed through practice.

Placing this analogy within the classroom, a history teacher, after several lessons specifically aimed at introducing and developing the skill of understanding bias, gives his or her class a formative test which will demonstrate their ability to correctly identify said skill, and thus, demonstrate an understanding of the concept. Based on the results of this test, the teacher may choose to continue on to the next skill, if the entire class has effectively demonstrated an understanding of the concept; the teacher may choose to spend a few more lessons developing the concept of bias if the majority of the class has failed to grasp the concept; or the teacher may choose to allow the majority of the class to continue onto the next concept while providing specific intervention for the few students who failed to demonstrate an understanding of the concept based on their assessment results.

The key to this process is that the students receive highly detailed feedback on their formative assessments explaining not only their level of mastery of the skill, but also ways to improve their understanding, or ideas to help push their understanding further. It is important to note that formative assessments do not need (and in my opinion should not have), any kind of number or letter grade attached to them. Such grades only distract a student’s attention away from the purpose of the formative assessment, which is the detailed feedback. Providing such grades drives students to solely associate academic achievement with particular letters and numbers, instead of mastery of a particular skill. A low number or grade only serves to disappoint a student who is struggling to acquire a skill, whereas carefully worded feedback may provoke later progress; likewise, a reasonably high number or grade may result in a sense of complacency in a student who feels that they have achieved a level of mastery that is “good enough”, where detailed written feedback could push this student towards higher levels of understanding.

At the end of a unit of lessons focusing on bias, the teacher should then conduct a summative assessment, whereby students complete an activity that is, again, designed to test their mastery of a particular skill (in this example, bias). The difference here is that this assessment will result in a number or grade that will represent the student’s final level of mastery on the given skill at a given time. On summative assessments, students should be provided with some kind of mark to denote their abilities in regard to the tested skill, and although descriptive feedback isn’t required here (as the learning has occurred and been tested), it is good practice to include some remarks explaining why a particular mark has been given (especially since these summative tests are not always the last opportunity for students to demonstrate their development, as we shall see).

Up until this point, the sporting analogy has served well in explaining the difference between formative and summative assessments and their purpose, but I think here we must break with or change the analogy to suit ideal practice. Although summative assessments exist, I believe that they are a product of limited time constraints. Unfortunately, teachers have a curriculum to follow, and although we can differentiate and do our best to foster learning, we inevitably reach points where we can no longer dedicate any more time to a particular topic or skill. In my mind, the only thing that makes an assignment summative is the condition that it is the last assessment that has been issued and marked with the intention of being used to formulate a grade. Under this definition, it is possible for a summative assessment to turn into a formative assessment if a student wishes to continue to work on developing the necessary skills required to pass the test.

Teachers often have mixed feelings about allowing students to re-take an assessment, but I strongly believe that we must have the ability to plan time for this contingency as it represents the whole point of our profession. Our job is to ensure the academic growth of the individuals put in front of us, and if a student has failed to grasp a concept and then takes the feedback given to them by their instructor, or they conduct some independent learning to acquire this knowledge, then we have a professional responsibility to give this learning credit. Failure to do so only leads to an inaccurate account of a student’s abilities leading to the aforementioned problems.

This is why I believe it is good practice to continue to add descriptive feedback to summative assessments. To go back to the sporting analogy, summative assessments represent the final score of the game, however, in this case, the students or players ideally have the ability to wind back the clock and continue to play until they win the game or develop mastery of the skills required. Although this isn’t always possible within the context of traditional educational frameworks, if this attitude is conveyed to the students, it will reinforce the notion that one’s education is a lifelong pursuit and not determinant of a particular time and place (vis-à-vis their school years).

I believe that the role of any educator is to foster the development of key skills within their pupils, through the lens of their subject. Although most teachers tend to believe that their particular subject holds objective value towards the development of rounded individuals, we need to understand that not all of our students will find this value. It’s not by chance that students tend to gravitate to particular subjects that hold their interest, and this should not be viewed as a problem. We should encourage this amongst our students but stress to them that however much they love (or hate) our subjects, the content we teach is merely a vehicle to drive the development of skills which they will later need in life.

Student learning is like a painting, we need to imprint the black lines which represent important skills such as reading, writing, addition, subtraction, critical thinking, use of evidence, understanding of bias, etc. and fill in these lines with the color (or content) of our subjects. Accordingly, each student’s painting (or learning) will have the same foundations (or skills), but look drastically different based on the colors (or subjects) the student chooses to fill in the blank spaces with. This allows for the development of rounded individuals while also allowing students to pursue their own interests.

As a history teacher, I do not expect the majority of my students to be able to remember the battle of Hastings in 1066, twenty years after I’ve taught them about it. That being said, I would hope that I’ve played a part in developing these students writing, reading, and research skills. I’d love to think that each of my students leaves my classroom with a new found love of history that they intend to pursue, as history is something that I myself value, however, realistically, I must accept that students may have interests that lie outside of my own and so I have to content myself with the idea that no matter what their individual interests, they will gain and develop valuable skills through the lens of my history lessons which they can later use to pursue their own interests, whatever they may be.

What this approach requires in order to work effectively, is for teachers to come together within a particular subject to discuss and identify the various skills that lend themselves to being expressed within their subject, as no one subject can exemplify all of the skills students will need to develop during their time in secondary school, although there will be overlap in most subjects with core skills such as reading, writing, etc. Furthermore, teachers need to identify how the chosen set of skills will be developed within their subject’s curriculum, and most importantly, how they will be consistently assessed within the department.

This approach also lends itself to effective detailed feedback, as students will know which specific skills that are being looked at for a given assignment, while also allowing a teacher to differentiate and emphasize different skills at different times. This method acknowledges that on any given assignment, a student will need to use a wide variety of skills in order to be successful. Although a teacher may be looking for one particular skill, say the ability to identify bias, this particular skill cannot be mastered without the use of other skills, such as the ability to read and understand a written passage or the historical knowledge needed to provide context within a given source.

There is nothing wrong with focusing an assessment on one particular skill, but if we acknowledge a multifaceted skill approach we are able to give even more detailed feedback to students that may help them identify where their strengths and weaknesses lie. This approach to assessment allows a teacher to tell a student that although they may have mastered the ability to identify bias, but they need to improve their knowledge of historical context in order to broaden a readers understanding of why said bias exists. It demonstrates to students that we never use one particular skill in a vacuum and that a successful academic pursuit never relies on the mastery of a single skill. As we will see later, the inability to make this distinction is one of the weaknesses I encountered while teaching in England.

Ultimately, I believe that assessment data is critical because when it is gathered and communicated effectively, it provides a snapshot of information about a student’s ability in a subject, at a particular moment, relative to a predetermined set of skills. The aim or goal of teachers is not to simply convey the content of their subject, but to use the content of their subject as a vehicle to help their students further develop foundational skills while allowing them to follow their own particular interests.

[1] Ken O’Connor, Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades: A Repair Kit (Toronto: Pearson Canada, 2012) pg. 4-5