Are you transfixed by a proxy for learning?

This is an exploration of a few emerging ideas from my work today. During a coaching session I was exploring the idea of the “proxy”.

The word proxy means “agency of one who acts instead of another; letter of power of attorney”. In fact a contraction of procuracie (c. 1300) a word meaning administration or management.

A model I have been using with leadership groups over the last year (blog post on the way) is the idea of alignment. One part of this is the alignment between the Actual Learning Experience and Learning.

This might also be called the alignment (or difference) between Performance and Learning. David Didau refers to some work by Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork,

  • We can only infer learning from performance
  • Performance during instruction is a poor indicator of learning
  • Reducing performance might actually increase learning.

Soderstrom & Bjork (2013)

Many different sources refer to some other work by Professor Robert and the slide below from his presentation What Makes Great Teaching?

The “Curriculum is covered” is one that resonates as I hear that language a great deal. A poor proxy for learning.

There is a lot more to explore and for me to learn about some of these ideas but I enjoyed this insightful take on proxies from Seth Godin in his post Avoiding the False Proxy Trap:

Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.

This helped me get a clear sense of how we might create poor representations or flawed proxies for learning. It also made me think more about assessment and the design of assessment in schools.

Godin concludes by saying:

You’ve already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place. When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.

Gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal.

A good provocation to think through if he, for example, is referring to learning. It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Photo by Bianca Isofache on Unsplash


  1. If there’s one I’m transfixed by it would be feedback. Working as I now do at a private school, the parents love it when their children are getting attention. They often crave it themselves and seek mini-parents consultations. This can lead to children being over-supported in activities that should be independent and so the very thing that the parents want (i.e. passing an 11+ test) is the put into jeopardy.

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  1. Closest to the Synapse Wins! – More thoughts on proxies for learning – The Curious Creative
  2. Fixated by Feedback –

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