Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?


I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his "full potential?"

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his “full potential?”

I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.

Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.

I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.

Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?

The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-

“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.

Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.

It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.

Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.

I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-

“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”

It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?

Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.

I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?


6 thoughts on “Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?

  1. Hi Richard – Interesting post as usual. As you say, it is not just semantics and language is important. The term ‘full potential’ has long bothered me, for a number of reasons. I often see it used to promote this or that service or practice for which concrete results and/or a tight focus are lacking. Meaningless rhetoric just vague enough to justify whatever one wants to justify.

    • Hi Tim,
      I agree. I feel that many people use the term “full potential” in the belief that it is aspirational. However, if others are deciding what my potential might be, why should I be motivated to go beyond this. In England children sitting final examinations are given predicted grades. I have known pupils who when predicted that they will attain a B grade simply say – well that’s fine, no need to do anything more. Others when predicted a D grade simply give up. This is certainly more than a matter of semantics.

  2. This is a thorny issue. You have raised important issues around the phrase ‘full potential’ particularly, in my interpretation of what you are saying, that the phrase seems to mean the opposite of low expectations. I was also struck by the issues that others are setting the standards for children/young people – parents, teachers, organisations. In the 2014 SEND Guidelines much is made of involving the young person or child in their educational and healthcare provision. However, there is a lot about guiding principles and insufficient about how these will be achieved.
    Over the past couple of years I have developed a strong commitment to both asking young people/children about their aspirations and recognised the importance of finding ways to provide them with information in a way that is both helpful and meaningful. The main stumbling block appears to be the time that this takes.
    I wonder whether a lot of the time those doing the assessing need to consider what has been achieved, what the young person would like to achieve and how working in partnership can lead to it. Rather than the surprise implied in othat other over-used phrase ‘over-achievement’ which I consider is based on low expectations.

  3. Hi Carmel,
    As ever you make some interesting observations. It is not only the SEND guidelines that suggest advantages to involving children in decisions about their own lives. The Children Act (here in the UK) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also make these demands. However, many of these documents have get out clauses – such as the expression “children we are capable” and variations on this.
    My own feeling is that it is better to assume that children are capable and thereby not to limite opportunities through low expectations.
    I feel it is dangerous with children to make any kind of assumption that we know what there potential is. I know for a fact that I am not the only university professor who failed the 11+ examination and therefore didn’t attend one of the elite schools which aimed to get pupils into universities. Making predictions and assumptions of potential, particularly at such a young age, is far from being a scientific (or ethical) process.

  4. I remember listening to Richard Pring some years ago talking about ‘full potential.He was concerned back then about the increasing managerialisation of education, and the way teachers were being increasingly viewed as technicians delivering a product (the curriculum) to ever higher targets (measured of course in grades and exam performance). He was concerned that ‘fulfilling potential’ was being viewed increasingly narrowly. At the same time, he spoke of the sheer fatuousness of the term. We all have many ‘full potentials’ – potential for anger, for hate, for violence – that would best be never explored let alone reached (I think in sorrow of the events in Sydney and Pennsylvania yesterday, but also of the event in Bridge Street Northampton at the weekend that left six people stabbed in a gang fight).

    Pring has written a lovely paper, entitled ‘Bring Back Teaching’ (easily found via Google) in which he speaks of the other things that teaching can and should do. Helping children flourish as humans. Understanding the value of knowledge, and what is worth learning. Understanding their shared humanity. Being curious human beings, interested in their fellow men and the world around them.

    Speaking for myself, I know I have not reached my ‘full potential’ in so many areas.
    I am a moderate swimmer only – but enjoy swimming.
    The same goes for cycling – I am no Richard Rose, and certainly no Bradley Wiggins.
    I am nowhere near as good a guitarist as I could be – I should have practiced more.
    I am a poor singer – but have gained enormous pleasure this term through singing in the University Choir.
    Judged against any reasonable target in these various areas I am a lamentable failure. So should my PE, games and music teachers be chastised for having awakened interests that have continued over 40 years, and brought me great pleasure?

  5. Helping children to flourish – now that seems like a reasonable suggestion.
    I am aware of Richard Pring’s work and indeed heard him speak on a similar subject at the Britis Society for Philosophy in Education (not sure that is the right title) conference a few years ago. He was then keen toemphasise that education is not a technical discipline or an exact science.
    Nate Gage has also written interestingly on related issues in which he blurs the boundaries between the science and art of teaching. Plenty here to encourage further discussion I think.

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