Invisible Progress: Why It’s Okay To Miss It And What To Acknowledge

In a previous blog post, we discussed what invisible progress is and why teachers should care. In a nutshell, invisible progress refers to the progress made by students who are working quietly to overcome their struggles and challenges, which goes unnoticed or unseen by teachers.

Teachers should care about invisible progress, because the way they approach their students’ invisible progress could make a significant difference in the classroom. In this post, we will share why invisible progress is easy to miss, and what teachers can do to ensure that even if it is missed, students continue to thrive in their classrooms.

Why It’s Easy (And Okay) To Miss Invisible Progress

When I first speak to teachers about invisible progress, a common response is that they become very defensive. It’s a fair response; if I say “your student may be making progress that’s invisible that you’re not recognizing,” they may feel that I’m accusing them of not doing something that they’re supposed to be doing.

In response, I try to explain to people that missing invisible progress is not due to a weakness or inability of teachers. It’s something that we’re all prone to; it’s basic human nature.

The Invisible Gorilla experiment is a study that perfectly supports this point. It’s a phenomenal study that has been cited countless times. Essentially, the idea is that when you’re focusing on one thing, you often miss other things that are – in hindsight – quite obvious and hard-to-miss.

Here’s how the Invisible Gorilla experiment goes:

1. There are two groups of people: one group wearing white shirts, and one group wearing black shirts. They’re passing a basketball around.

2. Participants are told to count the number of times that the players wearing white shirts pass the ball.

3. If you haven’t seen this video yet, please take a look for yourself before moving on!

4. After the video is over, the participants are asked how many times the players in white passed the ball. Then, they were asked if they saw the man in the gorilla suit walk past.

Most people don’t notice the gorilla because they’re so occupied by the task that’s given – of counting the number of passes made by the white team. Again, the big idea is that when you’re focused on one task, it’s easy to miss something even so blatantly obvious.

Another test that supports the difficulty of recognizing invisible progress is the Gradual Change Test. It states that when change happens gradually, it’s hard to notice because it is – as the name states – gradual.

For example, when we were kids, we went to the doctor and they always measured us and told us how much we’ve grown. But on a day-to-day basis, we didn’t notice our own growth.

And it’s no different when you’re talking about development, educational development, emotional development, and so on. It’s hard to measure gradual development on a day-to-day basis.

So when students have invisible progress that teachers miss, it’s not something that anybody should ever take personally and have to feel defensive about. Compared to the one task given in the Invisible Gorilla experiment, imagine the multitude of tasks that are incumbent upon teachers that they need to focus on. No wonder it’s hard to notice any invisible progress that’s going on in the classroom! It’s just humanly impossible, and no one should ever be insulted or get defensive.

What To Acknowledge About Invisible Progress

There are two important things to recognize about invisible progress.

1. It exists

The first step is to acknowledge that invisible progress exists. If we don’t talk about it and don’t acknowledge it, our students’ hard work and effort that they are putting in all on their own will continue to remain invisible.

This is supported by numerous studies and anecdotes. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, all of the cognitive traps that he talks about become very obvious the moment you hear of it. Similarly, if you know the invisible gorilla, it’s impossible not to notice the gorilla thereafter. Just knowing that something is there draws enough attention to it which allows you to see it.

We know there’s always so much going on in the classroom and we are forced to concentrate on so many things. It’s a very busy and chaotic environment. As such, acknowledging that invisible progress exists can be a first and crucial step to spotting it in your students.

2. It can be critical

We need to recognize that invisible progress exists, and then we need to realize the criticality of invisible progress – or more accurately, the potential negative effects of not addressing it properly in our students.

Dan Ariely, a famous behavioral economist, conducted a study to test people’s motivation. In this particular study, the participants – a group of MIT students – were divided into three groups and given a simple task to do: find pairs of identical letters in a list of random letters.

1. In the first group, people were told to write their names on their work. When handed to the experimenter, they looked over it and said “Uh huh” before putting it in a pile.

2. In the second group, people didn’t write their names down and the experimenter just put their sheet in a pile without looking at it.

3. In the third group, the experimenter received the sheet of paper and immediately put it in a shredder.

The participants in each group were asked if they’d do the same task again, but for less money each time. The idea was to see which group would stay motivated enough to continue working even when less money was offered each time. And of course, there’s the interesting catch that the second and third group participants quickly realize that they don’t need to be accurate to receive their payment since no one is checking their work.

The results: On average, the first group worked all the way to 15 cents. At 15 cents, they stopped saying “yes” to doing the task again for less money. In comparison, the third group stopped at 30 cents. That’s twice the amount of money needed to motivate a group of people who didn’t even need to be accurate! Despite the opportunity to make easy money, these people were not motivated enough to go under 30 cents like the first group.

And most interestingly, the second group – the ones whose work wasn’t directly destroyed but rather ignored – turned out to be the same as the third group. In other words, ignoring their work was just as detrimental to their motivation as destroying it.

The good news is that with a little bit of acknowledgment, you can really motivate people. But the bad news is that ignoring people – and ignoring people’s progress – is almost as bad as shredding their efforts.

And we all know how we feel when our efforts are shredded.

As such, invisible progress that goes unnoticed can be quite demoralizing for children that are working really hard and not getting any kind of acknowledgment.

What Teachers Can Do

When we catch invisible progress being made by students on their own – which, again, is a tremendously commendable feat – we have the opportunity to make a life-changing impact. We can nurture it with encouragement, positive feedback, and a supportive environment.

But as mentioned, invisible progress is hard to notice (rightfully so), and classrooms can get hectic. As a teacher, you can’t guarantee to spot every single case of invisible progress in your classroom, and that’s okay. Like academic performance, there are some things that teachers simply can’t guarantee.

What teachers can guarantee is that no student in their classroom goes unnoticed. Every day, every single child gets some kind of acknowledgment, encouragement, or positive feedback. That’s what teachers can really guarantee. And if you do that, it’s likely that even if there is invisible progress, you’ll dampen the detrimental effect of it going unnoticed, simply by making sure to consistently engage with that student in some kind of positive way.

Pro tip: Try out a tool like ClasStars that helps your track and analyze your engagements with your students! And can even identify individual progress.

ClasStars’ mission is to help teachers acknowledge every student’s progress and work every single day. No child should go unnoticed, and that means there’s no reason why a child needs to come to school, go through the day, and have their progress be invisible to the most important people.

In a previous blog post, we discussed what invisible progress is and why teachers should care. In a nutshell, invisible progress refers to the progress made by students who are working quietly to overcome their struggles and challenges, which goes unnoticed or unseen by teachers. Teachers should care about invisible progress, because the way they approach their students’ invisible progress could make a significant difference in the classroom. In this post, we will share why invisible progress is easy to miss, and what teachers can do to ensure that even if it is missed, students continue to thrive in their classrooms.

Why It’s Easy (And Okay) To Miss Invisible Progress

When I first speak to teachers about invisible progress, a common response is that they become very defensive. It’s a fair response; if I say “your student may be making progress that’s invisible that you’re not recognizing,” they may feel that I’m accusing them of not doing something that they’re supposed to be doing. In response, I try to explain to people that missing invisible progress is not due to a weakness or inability of teachers. It’s something that we’re all prone to; it’s basic human nature. The Invisible Gorilla experiment is a study that perfectly supports this point. It’s a phenomenal study that has been cited countless times. Essentially, the idea is that when you’re focusing on one thing, you often miss other things that are – in hindsight – quite obvious and hard-to-miss. Here’s how the Invisible Gorilla experiment goes: 1. There are two groups of people: one group wearing white shirts, and one group wearing black shirts. They’re passing a basketball around. 2. Participants are told to count the number of times that the players wearing white shirts pass the ball. 3. If you haven’t seen this video yet, please take a look for yourself before moving on! 4. After the video is over, the participants are asked how many times the players in white passed the ball. Then, they were asked if they saw the man in the gorilla suit walk past. Most people don’t notice the gorilla because they’re so occupied by the task that’s given – of counting the number of passes made by the white team. Again, the big idea is that when you’re focused on one task, it’s easy to miss something even so blatantly obvious. Another test that supports the difficulty of recognizing invisible progress is the Gradual Change Test. It states that when change happens gradually, it’s hard to notice because it is – as the name states – gradual. For example, when we were kids, we went to the doctor and they always measured us and told us how much we’ve grown. But on a day-to-day basis, we didn’t notice our own growth. And it’s no different when you’re talking about development, educational development, emotional development, and so on. It’s hard to measure gradual development on a day-to-day basis. So when students have invisible progress that teachers miss, it’s not something that anybody should ever take personally and have to feel defensive about. Compared to the one task given in the Invisible Gorilla experiment, imagine the multitude of tasks that are incumbent upon teachers that they need to focus on. No wonder it’s hard to notice any invisible progress that’s going on in the classroom! It’s just humanly impossible, and no one should ever be insulted or get defensive.

What To Acknowledge About Invisible Progress

There are two important things to recognize about invisible progress.

1. It exists.

The first step is to acknowledge that invisible progress exists. If we don’t talk about it and don’t acknowledge it, our students’ hard work and effort that they are putting in all on their own will continue to remain invisible.

This is supported by numerous studies and anecdotes. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, all of the cognitive traps that he talks about become very obvious the moment you hear of it. Similarly, if you know the invisible gorilla, it’s impossible not to notice the gorilla thereafter. Just knowing that something is there draws enough attention to it which allows you to see it.

We know there’s always so much going on in the classroom and we are forced to concentrate on so many things. It’s a very busy and chaotic environment. As such, acknowledging that invisible progress exists can be a first and crucial step to spotting it in your students.

2. It can be critical.

We need to recognize that invisible progress exists, and then we need to realize the criticality of invisible progress – or more accurately, the potential negative effects of not addressing it properly in our students.

Dan Ariely, a famous behavioral economist, conducted a study to test people’s motivation. In this particular study, the participants – a group of MIT students – were divided into three groups and given a simple task to do: find pairs of identical letters in a list of random letters.

1. In the first group, people were told to write their names on their work. When handed to the experimenter, they looked over it and said “Uh huh” before putting it in a pile.
2. In the second group, people didn’t write their names down and the experimenter just put their sheet in a pile without looking at it.
3. In the third group, the experimenter received the sheet of paper and immediately put it in a shredder.

The participants in each group were asked if they’d do the same task again, but for less money each time. The idea was to see which group would stay motivated enough to continue working even when less money was offered each time. And of course, there’s the interesting catch that the second and third group participants quickly realize that they don’t need to be accurate to receive their payment since no one is checking their work.

The results: On average, the first group worked all the way to 15 cents. At 15 cents, they stopped saying “yes” to doing the task again for less money. In comparison, the third group stopped at 30 cents. That’s twice the amount of money needed to motivate a group of people who didn’t even need to be accurate! Despite the opportunity to make easy money, these people were not motivated enough to go under 30 cents like the first group. 

And most interestingly, the second group – the ones whose work wasn’t directly destroyed but rather ignored – turned out to be the same as the third group. In other words, ignoring their work was just as detrimental to their motivation as destroying it.  

The good news is that with a little bit of acknowledgment, you can really motivate people. But the bad news is that ignoring people – and ignoring people’s progress – is almost as bad as shredding their efforts.

And we all know how we feel when our efforts are shredded.

As such, invisible progress that goes unnoticed can be quite demoralizing for children that are working really hard and not getting any kind of acknowledgment.

What Teachers Can Do

When we catch invisible progress being made by students on their own – which, again, is a tremendously commendable feat – we have the opportunity to make a life-changing impact. We can nurture it with encouragement, positive feedback, and a supportive environment. 

But as mentioned, invisible progress is hard to notice (rightfully so), and classrooms can get hectic. As a teacher, you can’t guarantee to spot every single case of invisible progress in your classroom, and that’s okay. Like academic performance, there are some things that teachers simply can’t guarantee.

What teachers can guarantee is that no student in their classroom goes unnoticed. Every day, every single child gets some kind of acknowledgment, encouragement, or positive feedback. That’s what teachers can really guarantee. And if you do that, it’s likely that even if there is invisible progress, you’ll dampen the detrimental effect of it going unnoticed, simply by making sure to consistently engage with that student in some kind of positive way.

Pro tip: Try out a tool like ClasStars that helps your track and analyze your engagements with your students! And can even identify individual progress.

ClasStars’ mission is to help teachers acknowledge every student’s progress and work every single day. No child should go unnoticed, and that means there’s no reason why a child needs to come to school, go through the day, and have their progress be invisible to the most important people.