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Mistaken measurements

by tim middleton

How far is it between Harare and Bulawayo? If you are a crow, you will be advised that the distance is measured at 366km; if, however, you are a mere mortal who will travel by car, bus or bicycle, you will find the distance you need to cover is 440km. If you are a mathematician, you will endeavour to work out how long such a journey will take. It would appear all very simple, straightforward and sensible — except life is not a matter of mathematics. The average speed could be worked out, but it obviously does not take into account the volume (and speed) of traffic, the delays at the tolls, the weather conditions, the state of your car, the availability of fuel, the animals on the road, the road works being conducted, among others. Are you a good driver because you reached your destination more quickly than others?

We will also all be familiar with the standard question: “How long is a piece of string?” The answer? It depends on how long the piece of string is (or “Twice as long as half its length”)! In other words, there are some things that we cannot measure. This question is similar to the favourite question of many a parent: “How good is your school?” So, how can we measure it? The answer is, it depends. Of course, those of us with business or sporting backgrounds will look to answer the question in the same way that we consider how good a business or sports team is – we turn to league tables, to results. However, we make several mistakes in doing so. Education is not a matter of mathematics.

The first mistake is that the league table is based on academic results alone. Let us repeat this loud and clear and often: education is not about academics. School is not about academics alone. Education is about the intellectual, mental, emotional, social, spiritual and physical development of the child. If anything, this pandemic lockdown experience has underlined this point very powerfully, as what the children have missed out on especially during this period is the social interaction of a school whereby the most important lessons cannot be learned from books or on their own. But if we continue to rate academic results, why are we still banging on that schools must do Life Skills?

The second mistake also follows on from that point. Even if we did wish to look at academic results alone (or above others), we need to look behind the results. We should take into account the number of hours spent in getting the results (do pupils study from six in the morning through to nine at night?); we should consider the number of vital activities that are denied the child by doing so; we should examine the teaching methods used to consider how much learning is actually taking place; we should reflect on subjects offered, how many pupils in a class, how many scholarships are offered, on what basis pupils are accepted to the school and so on. All of the above will affect results. While we invite academic boffins to come up with the mathematical formula that can measure all of that (good luck!), we will simply ask: has each child progressed during the year?

The third mistake we make in measuring a school is to look at the reward schemes employed at the school. A pupil who receives Colours may be highly-praised but while he is talented, he could be lazy, arrogant, selfish (qualities that are not respected or desired). Similarly, we might think that many children involved in service is proof of caring pupils, but the only proof will be found if the children continue to visit the orphanage or Old People’s Home after they have left school. We might see that a school has excluded ten pupils during the year and think that is evidence of strict discipline yet that could be fallacious and misleading; it may indicate the school just offloads its problem children (so no learning takes place) or equally that it has serious flaws that so many pupils do misbehave.

Too often we use the wrong measurements when it comes to determining the ‘success’ of a school; it is as if we measure distance in kilograms, weight in seconds and time in kilometres. Too often we leap to conclusions without looking at all the factors. The simple assessment of any school is to look at the children.

Look at the children now and see how they relate to their peers, their elders, their teachers, their parents, their world, their work. Look at the children when they leave, and see how they continue to live out the lessons they were taught. Look at the children 30 years later and see if they continue to live by the values instilled in them at school — in other words, look in the mirror, not at the map!

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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