Published on: 07 Jan 2016

Progress is not about getting straight 9s, it is about learning

Progress - we're all measuring, tracking and reporting on it, but what is progress?

Progress and how to demonstrate it are now on everyone's agenda. With the new curriculum, updated progress measure frameworks are being introduced for both primary and secondary education in England, and in January the first Progress 8 scores for the early opt-in secondary schools will become available. Most educational test publishers, including GL Assessment, have recently published brand new or updated assessments for measuring progress and setting goals, and data on progress is in a lot of demand. Interestingly, 2016 is also a PISA results year, where governments and education systems are, some perhaps anxiously, waiting to find out whether changes implemented have enabled them 'make progress' since the previous study three years ago.

But what is progress when it comes to education, and in particular, learning? Is it a steady upwards climb at the end of which all A stars - or all 9s - GCSE results await? Or is something a lot less linear and - at times - not exactly pretty?

There is an extensive body of research on learning that shows that learning looks like a cycle more than a staircase: it takes repetition, failure and revision to achieve real understanding of new concepts. Some new skills fit neatly with previous knowledge and learning can be quick. Others take a lot more work, and then there are those things that just seem to keep disappearing from memory and practice no matter what. This does not mean, however, that there is no progress or that nothing is being learned. Recent brain research has also confirmed this. What's more, making mistakes actually helps brains grow, even when the correct answer isn't found, because new connections are created in the brain whenever it is challenged. As counter-intuitive as it sounds: you can learn by making a lot of mistakes, as long as you keep trying. (But getting it right does help, too.) This is a comforting thought for those days that seem to be nothing but a mistake!

What does this mean for what progress looks like? Instead of a steady climb to success, it can look a lot like falling down, getting up, going back to the previous step, and pausing to think. In fact, a one-off snapshot of progress in learning can look a lot like standing still. This is why regular, longer timescale monitoring is so important to be able to see and demonstrate progress, and be able to support it. The new progress frameworks are a step in the right direction.

Looking at progress, instead of attainment, means that every student can have

  • an individual starting point: where am I now?
  • an individual target: where do I need to go?
  • an individual plan: what do I need to do to get there?

This gives everyone a chance to succeed, and even exceed, expectations. Progress is not about getting straight 9s, it is about learning.

Mirkka Jokelainen, Publisher, GL Assessment


Further reading:

Guidance. Progress 8 school performance measure in 2016 and 2017. (ref. 05/01/2016)

2016 Key stage 2: assessment and reporting arrangements (ARA). Key changes. (ref. 05/01/2016)

Illeris, Knud (edit.): Contemporary Theories of Learning. Oxon: Routledge, 2009.

Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H.: ‘Mind your errors: evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive posterror adjustments.’ Psychological Science 2011, 22.
(For Jo Boaler’s take on it, see: )

Oakley, Barbara: A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2014.
(A blog post on learning by Barbara Oakley:

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