What is potential?
When we say that we want every child to achieve their potential, what do we mean? Do all pupils have inherent potentials – some things they may be able to do or become as opposed to other things they never will? If a teacher’s job is to unlock potential, what if the pupil’s potential is to become a burglar?!
I don’t think we can really ever measure or categorise meaningfully the positive potential for anything. We can maybe measure potential negatively and for easily definable achievements – a man with no legs probably doesn’t have the potential to be the fastest man on the day and win the Olympic Hundred Metres in 2012. But what positive criteria would we use to measure whether a pupil has the potential to become, say, Prime Minister? Would we give it a score? So that pupil X, in the debating team and developing his empathy skills well, has a Prime Ministerial potential score of 50%, possibly alongside a CEO of middle-sized corporation potential of 85%? More importantly, if we could find such a measure, what use would it be?
I heard a nice definition of potential the other day. ‘Potential’ simply recognises that given motivating circumstances pupils do better. Achieving their potential really means providing the most motivating circumstances. This is useful. It means we can start to describe motivating circumstances. We can take two groups of pupils, with intelligence as the constant, observe which group performs better and begin to define what ‘motivating circumstances’ are.
It is, of course, the motivating circumstances that explain the stories behind the statistic that says the biggest determinant of success at GCSE is socio-economic status. And those motivating circumstances include the physical, social and emotional prerequisites mentioned in the previous post on social work.