Ethic of Excellence

In his book ‘The Ethic of Excellence’, Ron Berger states that excellence is a way of thinking, a shift in culture and perspective: “if you’re going to do something… you should do it well… sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful… you should be proud of it”. According to Berger, we have to make our students view their work as pieces of art, crafted and redrafted, not merely ‘done’.

Unfortunately, there are no ‘quick fixes’; Berger states that simply ‘quizzing’ won’t make our pupils better or more intelligent. The ‘Ethic of Excellence’ is a long-term commitment, but there are some things we can do to make a start.

Berger posits making student work ‘public’ in order to improve it: “we can’t build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their confidence will grow. All the praise in the world won’t make them proud until they do something which they can value.” He does this by using a critique board. Here, students must display their work ready for constructive comments from their teacher and peers. Berger stipulates that comments must be:

  • Kind: a critique environment must feel safe; it is the teacher’s role to guard against personal and negative comments including sarcasm
  • Specific: comments must be rooted in what peers do and do not like and the reasons why. Students are encouraged to focus first on the positives and then the negatives. Comments are often framed as questions such as: ‘have you considered…’ Critique must be about the work and not the person.
  • Helpful: Berger works with a rubric or mark scheme to ensure that comments are relevant; he also encourages reiterating the project aims before work is critiqued to make sure comments are focused
  • Modelled on success: before a project commences, Berger provides his class with models of outstanding work which are aspirational for his pupils

Berger is a huge advocate for project based work and often teaches the basics like literacy and numeracy through topic that enthuse both teachers and pupils: “teachers should have freedom in the curriculum… when you’re excited about [what you teach] the students get excited about it.” While this may not always be possible in the secondary setting (Berger teaches in the primary phase), using group and project work and spending time on an individual topic, redrafting and perfecting pieces, will help students to build up the ethic of excellence and promote high expectations by demanding quality work which has been crafted over time.

It is also suggested that ambassadors within subjects are cultivated. By having positive older role models, students in earlier years are taught that trying and taking pride in what you produce is the way of the school.

Finally, students can only take pride in what they do if they are proud of their school. We can make sure that students are proud of their school by: investing time and money in its appearance and resources; involving our students in projects in the wider community where they can see the difference it is possible to make and having a rich extra-curricular time table. If the school community is positive, students will see school as a ticket to a better life – a place where it makes sense to try.


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