How should we measure success?

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How should we measure success? And how should we describe the concept of success to our students? Alex Wood offers his perspective.

Determined to Succeed was the 2002 Scottish government’s review of education for work and enterprise. It is also the title of a newly published book (Kevin Murphy and Neil McLennan, Lulu, £14.99) distributed to school students in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

The foreword by David Cameron (the real David Cameron, Stirling’s former director of education) stresses that the economy needs people who are highly and appropriately skilled but also self-aware.

The book presents young people with excellent models for developing skills and self-awareness. Successful individuals – from police officer to personal shopper, golfer to petroleum engineer – offer their unique, sometimes contradictory, perspectives.

The petroleum engineer had to bypass a teacher who dismissed her mathematical abilities as non-existent and various men sceptical of a woman’s ability to rise in that professional sphere. 

The teacher had to overcome dyslexia and a fear of public speaking. The advice on self-belief, focus, seeking support, the virtue of hard work, all make sense and will hit the nail on the head for countless young people.

There nonetheless lies behind the very phrase “Determined to Succeed” a highly debatable post-modern paradigm which has permeated education and become casually accepted as a universal truth.

It implies, first, that those who succeed (and the book’s narrators, fine folk many of them, exemplify this) are those who have come out on top, as defined by earning most or holding senior, high-status, managerial posts.

Second, it implies that the key component of success is determination. Hard work, focus and energy may help you succeed, but determination is absolutely essential.

Educationalists need to deconstruct these two assumptions. First, there are countless hard-working youngsters and adults who have well-honed skills, focus on the task in hand but do not become famous, achieve high-status jobs or earn mega-bucks. They are not failures. They are the industrious many on whom our society and economy depend, the socially committed citizens who run our third sector, maintain vital organisations in our communities, or simply raise their families with care, love and guidance. They make the world go round.

To deify financial success and social status is to insult the efforts of millions whose material successes are limited. 

When “determination” is factored in as the essential fuel which powers success, we are truly entering a frightening world. It is proper to wish to be a great surgeon so that one can save lives, to wish to be a learned judge the better to dispense justice, to be an elected politician to serve the electorate and the citizenry. All of these fine justifications can become compromised by an excessive determination.

It is also proper to wish to exercise one’s skills to the optimum: to be as good an actor or footballer or teacher or joiner or parent, as one can be – without thought of what will be gained.

Most of Murphy and McLennan’s narrators rightly stress an ethical perspective (not all of them: one boasts of lying to her bank manager to secure the loan which established her business). 

If, however, determination is the key to success and success a virtue in itself, then ethics fly out the window. Those who have not succeeded by that definition have failed. Those who have succeeded have demonstrated determination, the triumph of their own will.

Perhaps neither determination nor success is a suitable moral compass for schools and education. Perhaps we need to tell our kids that hard work, focus, planning, self-awareness and many of the other virtues extolled in this book are good things in themselves, worthy of our efforts, irrespective of whether they lead to success and the glittering prizes.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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