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What Does Good Mean Anyway…?

Sometimes we use words with little or no thought. Words like ‘Good’ are used all the time. Rebecca Clarke argues that the word ‘Good’ means very little and is subjective. She argues that schools and OFSTED should think again when using it.

What does Good mean anyway…?
Although there are many things I do miss about being a teacher, one thing I certainly do not miss is marking.  I found myself wondering today how many hours I had spent marking over the last 19 years and wondered how many times my marking had included glib, pointless comments such as ‘Good effort’, ‘Good work’ or ‘Good try’.

Has there ever been a more useless word than ‘Good’? Its’s definitely up there with ‘nice’ in the Bland & Pointless Words League,  but it appears so frequently in our daily language as educators. 

We talk about Good behavior, a Good piece of work, a Good book to read, a Good resource to try in your classroom. We have Good ideas, Good morale and Good mornings. We have Good classes, Good year groups, Good little girls and Good little boys. We talk about Good runners, Good readers, Good artists and Good eaters. We have Good lessons, Good teachers and, following a visit from OFSTED, we all too often see banners proudly proclaiming that ‘This is a Good School!’ 

But what does Good mean anyway?  If you look up the word in a dictionary you will find several, broad definitions;

Goodadjective; to be desired or approved of or having the required qualities or to be of a high standard.

Goodnoun;  that which is morally right or  to be of benefit or advantage to someone or something. 

With so many definitions and interpretations of the word, is there any wonder that it is used so commonly? 

The problem is, good is such a subjective word. One person’s definition of good can be very different from another.  Good can also be such a powerful word; it can lift the spirits, it can raise a smile, it can build confidence and self esteem.  But being told that you are ‘not good’ can be highly damaging. If you are not good, then what are you? Bad??

Let’s return to our friends OFSTED and consider how much hinges on those 4 little letters. Schools who are judged to be Good are subject to far less scrutiny, they are unlikely to be re-inspected for a number of years giving them more breathing space to embed new strategy and policy. They are likely to attract far more students leading to more funding. They are more likely to become over subscribed. They will attract a wider field of applicants when advertising teaching posts. Good schools can find themselves in a very positive cycle, based purely on the perceptions of 4 or 5 inspectors over a period of less than 2 days. These judgements are often not a true reflection of the school, the staff or the students or indeed the local context in which the school sits and historically, have been based far too much on behavior or student outcomes, but the public perception remains the same. This is a Good school. 

It can be very much the opposite for schools judged not to be good. More scrutiny, more pressure, less time to implement strategy, falling numbers on roll and shrinking budgets. The public perception; 

If you are not a good school, then what must you be?  Bad??

I recently saw a school banner which proudly proclaimed, ‘We are not Good, yet!’ It felt incongruous to see such a banner outside a school; Why would they publicly reaffirm OFSTED’s view that the school Requires Improvement? What were they thinking?

In reality, this school was simply channeling the Growth Mindset mantra of Carol Dweck et al and utilizing the same language that they would encourage teachers to use with a child struggling to grasp a new concept or skill.  If a child is not judged to be good yet, it is our job as educators to guide them to the point where they are deemed to be good. To do this they need to see what ‘Good’ looks like and need to clearly understand the steps that need to be taken to achieve this standard.  

And here lies the crux of the problem with the word ‘Good’; because for every child, and indeed every subject and every teacher and every school, ‘Good’ will look slightly different.  
If I could run 100 meters in less than 20 seconds, I would think I had done pretty well! I suspect that Jessica Ennis Hill would not be so impressed.

‘Good’ is relative to your previous efforts, it is relative to the performance you know you are capable of. It is relative to the struggles you have had in the past and the obstacles you may have had to overcome to get to where you are today.  It is relative to the difficulty of the task we are set and how well we may perform when we expect to fail completely. (Think about how proud you are of yourself when you get a question correct on University Challenge!)  

‘Good’ is a highly personal judgement and should only be made when you have a full and clear picture of the individual. The very worst thing we can do is judge whether someone is good or bad based on the performance of another individual. A whole host of factors could have contributed to that person’s exceptional ability or aptitude; including their genetics, social status, location or ethnicity as well as their effort or hard work. Some people are naturally gifted in certain areas and can achieve great success with very little effort at all. For others it takes a gargantuan amount of effort to attain a relatively modest outcome.

Instead, as educators and assessors, we need to change the way we speak about attitude, behavior and performance. We need to focus more on what we can do well and where we need to improve. We need to focus on the small and slight changes that could lead to an overall improvement in attainment by offering specific, achievable feedback.

We need to learn to celebrate the little things and acknowledge when a school, staff member or student has acted on feedback, because what may appear to be quite a small improvement could have involved a huge amount of effort or hard work. Rather than telling students (and indeed schools) that they are ‘Good’, we need to say, ‘You have done so much better than last time.’ Or ‘There has been real improvement here,’ This acknowledges the hard work that has been done and the progress that has made, but also acknowledges that they have not yet reached the pinnacle of their attainment yet.

Young people may not find something that they are really ‘Good’ at until long after they leave school and even then, there will always be room for further improvement and development.
We need to teach students and their parents that learning is a lifelong journey. That reaching the final destination is nowhere near as important as the experiences on road travelled to get there.

We need also need to remember that without context, the word ‘Good’ means nothing at all.

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The author

Rebecca is ‘Head of Programmes’ at The Inspirational Learning Group, the provider of the UK’s largest enterprise and employability competition for secondary schools. The challenge aims to equip young people with the skills needed for the world of work, further education and training and can assist schools in hitting the Gatsby Benchmarks whilst contributing cultural capital. To learn more about The National Enterprise Challenge please contact Dan Mears on 01785 550 160.

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