The Metaphor of Progress

Whatever anybody says, time is most definitely not money.

Time is space.

Let me explain: the language we use to describe and reason about time uses space and (more exactly) movement as a metaphor.

We may picture ourselves journeying through time, where we are physically moving toward the future; perhaps like a passenger on board a train: “We’ll soon reach the end of the month”, or “It’ll be a long time before I reach retirement age.”

train 1

Alternatively, we may picture ourselves as standing still and time moving past us; perhaps like a person standing on a platform watching a train go by: “Christmas will soon be here”, or “The examination season will soon be upon us.”

Original image from

Why do we make these analogies? It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery. Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstances and time. That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed for reasoning about other subjects. […] The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.

— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, p.353 [emphasis mine]

I don’t want to suggest that time is only a metaphor, but rather that our ordinary, everyday ways of thinking about time are, in the main, part of the time-is-space bundle of metaphors.

And this, of course, is fine. We live our lives relying almost exclusively on inference, induction and guesswork (rather than logical analysis, deduction and rational consideration) and — usually — it’s great! These short-cuts and rules of thumb often lead us to the correct answers more quickly than other pathways. But not always.

Sometimes our machinery of inference gets things wrong. For example, who could have predicted the strange composite entity known as spacetime that is used in relativistic physics and the many counter-intuitive (but experimentally verified) predictions that stem from it?

So, if time is space, what is progress?

Pinker (pp.357-8) summarises the work of Lakoff and Johnson which suggests (amongst other things) that “virtue is up“:

He is high-minded.
She is an upstanding citizen.
That was a low trick.

It seems to me that, currently, in the world of education in general, progress buys into both the progress-is-up and progress-is-forward bundle of metaphors.

These test scores are disappointing: we need to move this class forward to show progress.
She has made excellent progress and is working at a higher level.

And my point? That although the word progress sounds real and concrete, it’s actually not. It is just a metaphor.

When we say that students are “making progress” what are we actually saying? Are they gaining higher test scores? Are they copying stuff neatly off the board? Are they writing coherent, original paragraphs in their exercise books? Are they working on a higher textbook page number than last week? Are they able to solve more difficult problems? Do they collaborate with each other to solve problems? Are they more often in brain-state X rather than brain-state Y?

I am not sure. If I say (and I have said it before and will probably continue to say it again, both verbally and in writing): “Student A has made progress. She is working at a higher level than she was last term.” —  is there actually any useful information in that first sentence other than the implication than I like what Student A has done?

Again let me reiterate that I, myself, am not sure about this. But since the idea of progress is central to much of appraisal and performance management in education, I would like to feel we are not building on sand. Is there a way of nailing this idea of progress, other than “I knows it when I sees it”? (For some reason, I hear this said in a Yorkshire accent.)

When inspectors ask to see evidence of students making progress in a lesson, are they actually only asking to see “some stuff that I like”?

Let me emphasise that I am not averse to metaphor, especially professionally useful metaphors, but I am not sure if progress is one of those.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He  must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Is it time to throw away the simple ladder idea of progress? Just asking…

The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me

— Yazz and the Plastic Population

The Gift of Screws

Essential oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

— Emily Dickinson, Time and Eternity XXV

It’s a memorable image that Dickinson presents: that the delightful, fragrant oil of attar does not spontaneously waft or pour from a rose, but rather it must be wrung from the petals using the force of a screw press.

Screw Press

In other words, this beautiful, natural, organic fragrance is the gift of screws.

What prompted me to recall these lines? Firstly, Leonard James’ recent excellent blogpost “Kayleigh Wants To Do Well“:

So ‘Kayleigh wants to do well’? Show me a child who doesn’t want to do well! If one accepts that the overwhelming majority of children want to do well then the vapidity of the questioning becomes clear. Extracting a meaningful dialogue from an underachieving child begins with putting their desire to achieve to one side and focusing on whether the child wants to put in the effort required to make it happen. Like many an adult who wants be thinner but doesn’t want to lay off the cake, Kayleigh wants a string of good grades without making the sacrifices required to achieve them.

This resonates with my own experience with some students: “Oh. so you do want to do well? Then do the bloody work then!” (Sorry, I’m going through that time of year that I refer to as “Coursework Hell” at the moment, so I might be on a tiny little bit of a short fuse.)

Secondly, let’s not forget that learning, proper learning mind you, is bloody hard work (and I make no apology for quoting this line yet again, since it so neatly crystallises and encapsulates what I think is the single most important lesson of my two decades in teaching) :

Learning happens when people have to think hard.

Professor Robert Coe

Learning, real learning, is also the gift of screws.

The Physicist’s Eulogy

“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the Principle of Conservation of Energy, so that they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the First Law of Thermodynamics: that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every joule of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this universe. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid the energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

“And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your broken-hearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair — those hundreds of trillions of particles — have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your spouse rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him know that the photons that bounced from you and that were gathered in the particle detectors that are his eyes, that those photons have created within his brain constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

“And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as she says it. And she will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

“And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope that your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they will be comforted to know that your energy is still around.

“Because, according to both the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, not one bit of you is gone: you’re just less orderly.”

Original author unknown. Quoted by ‘WelshmanEC2’ in The Guardian [accessed 14/2/14].  NB: some minor stylistic amendments made in the version presented here.

Update: the original author is Aaron Freeman who performed it on NPR Radio in 2005. Original transcript here. Audio of performance (with added slideshow) here.

Mine Eyes Glaze Over: the systematization of tedium

May they stumble, stage by stage
On an endless pilgrimage,
Dawn and dusk, mile after mile,
At each and every step, a stile;
At each and every step withal
May they catch their feet and fall

— Robert Graves, Traveller’s Curse After Misdirection (from the Welsh)

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where individuals are expected to invest more time and energy in proving that they’ve done a thing than in actually doing the thing itself.

It seems to me that in the world of education (in the UK, at least) we have stepped through into that looking glass world already. And it’s getting worse.

Case in point: my school’s new salary policy. Gone is the system of automatic salary progression (subject to satisfactory performance management, of course). Instead, any teacher seeking to progress on the salary scale will need to submit — oh joy of joys! — a portfolio of evidence. And this is evidence required in addition to the evidence required for the performance management process. One system is not enough! We need two complex, mutually independent systems to check that everyone is doing the job that they are being paid to do.

In a way, it’s quite endearing: this is our leadership team admitting that if a person happened not to be doing their job properly, then it is more than likely that no-one on the management team would have noticed.

But never mind! An extra layer of inflexible, unresponsive bureaucracy will undoubtedly do the job, as it has done in numerous other instances.

I can’t help but be reminded (yet again) of Woody Allen’s Dictator who required that all citizens change their underwear every half hour. And that they wear their underwear on the outside. Why? “So we can check.”

The dreaded words weekly minuted line management meeting cannot be far behind. The idea of this is that I get to spend an hour meeting with my line manager and then another hour meeting with the people that I line-manage and then we’ll all email each other to confirm the issues, actions and timelines discussed in the meeting. And type up the minutes so that our line manager can submit them to his or her line manager. The upshot of this is that of course nobody has the time to actually take the actions agreed on  in the meeting. As the old joke has it: a meeting is a process whereby you spend hours in order to produce minutes.

And will the line manager of our line manager read the minutes submitted? I doubt it. Nobody possibly could, even assuming they wanted to.

This is the latest iteration of an ancient human idea:

[W]hen any uncertainty disrupted the smooth flow of life . . . men turned to the supernatural . . . The ordinary person found many willing to allay his concerns [including] professional magicians ready to supply incantations for any need . . . Superstition in general guided life . . . Charms were commonly used against all manner of ills.

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (The Romans That History Forgot) p.13

I conjure you, daemon, whoever you may be, to torture and kill, from this hour, this day, this moment, the horses of the Green and the White teams; kill and smash the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, Romanus; do not leave a breath of them.

— spell written on a lead tablet by an ancient Roman, quoted by Knapp p.13

To develop independent learning within a whole school context and challenge staff and student underperformance at a systemic as well as individual level
— Recent performance management target

Computing includes the concept of ROM — Read Only Memory; that is to say, memory that is designed so that its contents cannot be deleted or overwritten.

In my opinion, what passes for best practice in the world of education today includes the concept of WOD — Write Only Documents; that is to say documents that are designed so they are never to be read after they have been written.

Quite frankly, we are building giant pyramids and Doric-columned temples of propositions that are destined to be forever unread: mighty, cloud-piercing ziggurats of unread words.

For all the good that they do, these words might just as well be scratched on a pottery shard or a scrap of lead and thrown in a magic well as, once upon a time, the Romans used to do.

May they stumble, meeting by pointless meeting
Upon an endless paperchase,
Dawn and dusk, email after email,
Each one more urgent than the last;
Each one demanding data,
Available to the sender
Who finds it easier to press “send”
Than look it up themselves.

And may the bone that breaks within
Not be, for variation’s sake
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin,
But always, without fail, THE NECK.

(With apologies to Robert Graves for the first 8 lines)