Success! Whose success? – has the success criterion become just another tool for transmission in your classroom?

hypotised child

So many times in education new things sweep through classrooms. There is a great rustling of excitement, teachers rush to use this latest tool…hopefully there are some good effects to learning, but then the new gimmick (that you were sure wasn’t just a trick) gets sucked into the gurgling whirlpool of curriculum coverage.  (Whaa! Hang on to a branch – save yourself!) Also – the last tidal wave of Ofsted wanting pace and challenge has meant at times pupils barely have time to pause and think  – gotta be active, active, active. Let’s hope we didn’t forget the learning too! (Thankfully I think they noticed the pendulum swinging away there – I hope).

The truth is, these new things are usually based on common sense ideas, but dressed up in fancy, new clothes and somehow, some way, we all take more notice of the fancy clothes than the common sense. I hope this hasn’t happened with our dear friend the success criterion, which was realised in the profession as a means to make learning explicit and clear.

My point is that most of us would agree that we are trying to create independent, self-actualising learners who eventually become their own best teachers. Provocative as it may seem, the very best teachers seek to eventually make themselves useless to their pupils, while the worst make themselves indispensable to their pupils, so that the teacher is everything, a life line to learning, the keeper of all. This sounds extreme, and perhaps it is, but sometimes this is needed to make something quite subtle deliberately evident. I am wondering you see whether there are times when a simple tool like a success criterion can slip quietly into becoming a means for the dependency and passivity that we seek to overcome in our pupils.

This thought came to me when I was looking at some old plans. I realised that I had written in the success criteria for the lesson on the plan and that this was the same set of success critiera printed out and used in the children’s books. Well, that’s making the learning journey explicit to the children some might say? Exemplifying success so that the destination is clear? Yes, maybe. But I wonder how many teachers are doing this in the usual mad rush we always find ourselves in, and simply giving out these steps to success without a second thought?  ‘Read your success criteria won’t you children…and don’t forget to share it with your partner at the end to check you did it.’

In this case, how far are the children really involved in their own learning journeys if they are told what they are going to learn (the learning intention) and how to get there (the success criteria)? That sounds to me more dependent and passive than ever!  What will they do on their first day at work unless someone appears with a tick list for success?

I suggest that we just take a moment to stop and check here. Is it a good indicator of learning success to have every book with the same printed success criteria and learning intention at the top of the page? Ok, so you might differentiate them, three different printed success criteria, but what is the real purpose to these?  The real purpose is to make pupils stop and think about what they need to do in order to successfully learn something or for them to understand what success looks like. The very best way to do this is allow pupils to take control of this themselves. This does not mean reading something stuck into their book, nor nodding their head when shown a list on the white board. The answer must be for pupils to determine success themselves after having success modelled to them. This is subtly different from being told what success is or looks like because this way it is a very active, engaging process that is all about self-agency.   This is what modelling is for after all, to pull pupils across that zone of proximal development, but how much more powerful to have them become active agents in this process themselves.

So, I say, let’s remember the common sense part of success criteria and not get distracted by the fancy typing and boxes that look nice in books, especially when they’re highlighted!  You can have your printed title and success criteria, but why not leave the set of empty bullets points for pupils to write in three or four things they have agreed with a friend? This would really be enabling the personlised learning this AFL tool was originally devised for. Would we be so daring as to even leave a space for them to write in the learning question? They’d spend too long writing it all out? Oh well, let’s just give it all to them then? Really? Why not put a collection of different success criteria on the table to choose from then. Choose the one that you and your partner agree best describes success? Why not leave a selection of learning intentions too? What did we learn? What will we learn if we do this? At least ensure each child has got themselves involved in what success is! Also be careful of agreeing a success criteria as a class as a whole, because let’s be honest, that is only the criteria agreed between you and the pupils who contributed isn’t it?

Perhaps I’m over thinking this, but I think it’s worth shaking this up a little – we must always reflect on these ‘new-fangled-thingamy-giggies’ mustn’t we? We must always make sure we’re working hard to become increasingly useless!

All thoughts on keeping success criteria active and rooted in learning gratefully welcome!