The art of possibility in a world of measurements

art of possibility

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are adored by those who believe that every aspect of an organisation’s operations may usefully be represented as quantifiable numerical values. However,it is all too easy to feel gridlocked or overwhelmed by an avalanche of information which routinely includes regressive analysis of financial data, sprawling management accounts, dreary league tables, and complex value-added data. 

Arguably, this information provides us with a relatively sophisticated understanding of just how well we are performing. Furthermore, it serves to highlight potential risks and areas of opportunity. It directs us towards those areas where we might most profitably focus our energies. However, none of these metrics can capture the heart and soul of a school. 

Our own lives are full of measurements that have the potential to define us or our perception of where we fit into the world around us. Birth weight, IQ tests, blood pressure readings, GCSE results, degree class, height, weight and the constant demands for other information means that it often feels that our lives are little more than a collection of statistics. Perhaps the rot started with William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book! 

Reflecting upon personal data gives way to comparisons and such comparisons have a tendency to lead to complacency or despondency. How often do we feel that we are really not quite good enough? How often do we feel that someone else is more accomplished…faster, quicker, healthier or wiser? Obviously humility is a virtue but not when it is fuelled by low self-esteem and/or a crippling lack of self-confidence. 

Potentially, the desire to quantify and compare is as deleterious to the individual as it is advantageous to the collective. This is a point well made by Benjamin and Ros Zander in their wonderful book, ‘The Art of Possibility’. Benjamin, the vastly experienced conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted an interesting experiment with his graduate students at the New England Conservatory for Music. For one semester, he awarded the whole class ‘A’ grades for the term regardless of aptitude or work ethic. The award of an ‘A’ grade was made with the hope that it would provide students with ‘a possibility to live into’ the grade. He felt that Zander argues his case as follows: 

Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we were to apply this visionary concept to education, it would be pointless to compare one child to another. Instead, all the energy would be focused on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each child’s developing skills, mastery, and self-expression…when you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them the room to realize themselves. Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. 

I am not suggesting that we should do away with all forms of assessment and measuring progress does enable us to set appropriate or meaningful targets. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that the most important aspects of life cannot meaningfully be measured. Class rankings might seem important but they tell us surprisingly little about the performance of the individual. Context is everything and one might be a reasonably accomplished fish in a poorly stocked pond or a massively talented fish in a bottomless ocean of marine excellence. The former fish wins the plaudits whilst the latter fish will doubtless experience the dissatisfaction and self-doubt that comes from a perception of underperformance. 

We should reflect upon the negative implications of meaningless or unhelpful comparisons which serve to limit potential for future growth. Giving an ‘A’ to all students is not practical in the real world but we should not be blind to the fact that defining academic performance in numbers or letters creates a paradigm which is potentially damaging. After all, there is a very real danger that our children will take a similar approach when assessing their own character, appearance and sense of self worth.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School