About @DrDanNicholls

Executive Principal within the Cabot Learning Federation. Thoughts and ideas do not necessarily reflect that of the CLF.

What if we are the hope and we fail?

As educationalists, we are the greatest hope and the biggest resource that children and their families have to reverse disadvantage* and give each child the agency to decide their future. However, we are falling short and we need to face the inconvenient truth that we are part of the problem. We must take our opportunity fulfil our obligation to those who trust us and need us most. It is time for us to feel outraged and impassioned by the inequity and asymmetry in our society and, dare we admit it, within our schools. We need to understand and overcome the forces that act explicitly and implicitly to reinforce disadvantage over time; we need to systemically and collectively reconsider what is normal (and acceptable).

“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein, 2021)

The pandemic has not been felt evenly, it has exposed and entrenched disadvantage and threatens to define and harm a generation. Without greater action and decisive intervention our legacy will reflect that we did not do enough for those that needed us most. To remove doubt, there is no choice, no opt out, if you are in our sector you are complicit, you are already responsible. Together we have the collective capability and expertise to make a difference. Together we must reverse disadvantage and close the 19.9 month gap that opens by age 16 in the South West (10.5 months at the end of Primary) so that those that have the least are supported to take what is offered…

“One measure of poverty is how little you have. Another is how difficult you find it to take advantage of what others try to give you.” (Michael Lewis, 2021)

*throughout this piece there are generalisations that place children as either advantaged or disadvantaged, the reality is far more complex, there is a full range of advantage and disadvantage (and attainment) and not all advantaged are advantaged and not all disadvantaged are disadvantaged. This simplification does not deny the need to consider all children as individuals.


I am more than a number

“Don’t call me disadvantaged, I’m Alice, and to clarify I may be presently experiencing disadvantage or have a legacy of disadvantage, but it has not, does not and will not define me. I am Alice, I don’t need a label I need equity… to be offered the supported opportunity and high expectations that allow me to take control of my life; to have the agency to choose what I do, where I go, with whom, when…. I do not need you to collude with me, or pity me, I need you to notice me, know me, to teach me, to support me to step forward, not backward. I need you to give me what I need (deserve)… and one more thing, I may appear less ambitious than others, I’m not, but I have experienced less opportunity and this can erode what I believe is possible.”

As educators we need to fully understand those we educate, not on the surface, but as humans who are finding their way in our world. Reversing disadvantage is a deeply personal challenge and mission for us all. Not least because when we know something about someone it becomes personal. Only action born out of knowing individual children, where it is everyone’s business and privileged in everything we do, will we have the chance to support all children who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage; that is what Alice and the 144,310 individuals who are presently experiencing disadvantaged in the South West (19.9%) need from us.


Privileging disadvantage in everything that we do

How do we mobilise and organise our effort, through everyone, for every child; delivering the equity that all children deserve? By privileging disadvantaged learners in everything we do, by applying the lens of disadvantage and understanding what it is to be presently or previously disadvantaged we will turn the dial and make the difference that we came into education to achieve. We can do this by optimising the talent that exists across our region…

“We need a social contract that is about pooling and sharing more risks with each other to reduce the worries we all face while optimising the use of talent across our sector and enabling individuals to contribute as much as they can. It also means caring about the well-being not just of our own children, but of others’ too, since they will all occupy the same world in future.” (Minouche Shafik, 2020)


Through the lens of disadvantage | the sobering truth of the reality of disadvantage

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” (Matthew Rycroft)

Once you apply the disadvantage lens and seek to see through their eyes all provision and teaching is thrown into a different light; a sobering light, one that reflects the built in tilt towards advantaged children. What if we considered performance and the quality of provision only in terms of the attendance, attainment and progress of disadvantaged learners (remembering that it is attainment that trumps progress for unlocking future opportunity for disadvantaged learners)?

When we apply the lens of disadvantage we may well see the wood for the trees. This is something as educators and as a system we are not strong at; we see averages, big cohort numbers, we hide groups in plain sight and amalgamate – when what we need to do is seek to understand. When we apply our disadvantage lens we might actually be measuring the true efficacy and impact of our provision. Only strong provision reaches through to disadvantaged learners and closes gaps; it is a strong litmus test for effectiveness.


Even over…

What if we committed to disadvantage even over… other groups, not that other groups are not important, but even over? Without this focus any push to shift provision, improve teaching and tackle the omnipresent forces that widen the gap between the have and have nots, will fail. If we are to deliver any sense of equity through education, then we must be unswerving; we may need to strive for something else, something much harder to achieve, something that is not predetermined through previous opportunity and experience.

“This is Vanity Fair a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”


Accumulated advantage versus accumulated disadvantage over time

To understand what it is to be disadvantaged (previously or presently) we need to understand the forces within society, culture and within our schools that accumulate advantage and disadvantage over time. To do this we need to see pupils and students as the outcome of everything they have interacted with; we tell stories to ourselves about who we are and these are a result of our (positive) interactions, (supported) opportunities and (rich) experiences over time. The result is that only an equitable approach has a chance of offering individual children what they (actually) need.

“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

How far do you recognise the two journeys below? Disadvantaged journey on the left and an advantaged journey on the right, considering their past and their future…

How do we shift the narrative our children tell themselves through life (a life within which we are one of the (important) narrators)? Understanding that we need to focus as much on the future for disadvantaged learners and giving them what they need to thrive as well as addressing their key gaps from their lack of opportunity and support in the past.


70 plays 30

What if, in general terms, advantaged children already carry much of what they need into our schools? An advantage that allows them to make sense of even weak provision. What if…

  • Advantaged children bring 70% of what they need through the school gates?
  • Those previously or presently experiencing disadvantage may only bring 30% of what they need?

If this is true then schools and provision should be evaluated on their ability to support those that bring the least from outside and to not over-evaluate or exaggerate our impact on advantaged children. After all the quality of teaching matters much more to a disadvantaged child than an advantaged child, who can make sense of poor provision…


Hunt don’t Fish

To fish is to cast out and seek any fish; to hunt is to purposefully track and find a specific quarry. To achieve equity through education we need to hunt not fish. Those presently or previously experiencing disadvantage do not need equality where we hope class-wide teaching or cohort opportunity will level-up and provide the equity needed; it will not. To hunt is to understand the needs of each child, to have high expectations and be tenacious about ensuring disadvantaged learners are making more progress so that their attainment has a chance of making a difference; one that opens doors (good doors) in their future.


Equity through Education

What is clear is that we should seek equity over equality to support disadvantaged learners to have the (supported) opportunity and (leveraging) experiences that will allow them to feel success. How far do we actually give what every disadvantaged child needs?

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)


Attainment mobility

“Enabling children to attain higher than would be expected based on their starting points.”

Attainment Mobility is the reversing of delayed attainment, linguistic under-privilege and lack of early opportunity, so that children self select (not self de-select) and accumulate advantage (not disadvantage) through life.

Having the highest of expectations of all pupils, irrespective of background. Remembering that disadvantaged pupils don’t lack talent or ability, but can lack opportunity and support over time. Prior attainment should not set limits on our ambitions for all pupils.

…And it is attainment that matters

To be clear, progress may well not be enough; it is attainment that counts, it is attainment that opens doors and provides the future opportunity and the empowerment and agency to make decisions.


Have unswerving expectations – it is the background music of advantaged children

What stands out in an advantaged upbringing is the level of expectation from birth. It is an upbringing that is full of rules, routines, structure, boundaries, etiquette, expectation and self-fulfilling achievement. It permeates language, attitudes and mindset. It establishes the locus of control to be with the child and not the environment, it gives the power of control to each child to be the commander of their destiny; it is an advantage that is demanding, but liberating.

Our disadvantaged children need us to be unswerving in our expectations of what they can do, they do not need us to collude and lower our expectations.


Keep it simple | What matters is Great Teaching and (really) Knowing each child

  • How far do we focus on the main thing being the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
    • what matters most, having high expectations of what all learners can do. Provokes interest and curiosity by making learning compelling and important.
    • direct instruction, explanation, modellingprogression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge. In particular building strong narratives and schema that create the structure for knowledge and understanding that many advantaged children bring to the school.
    • deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks. Enabling children to achieve meaningful work that allows them to see themselves in a new light, forever changed.
    • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedbackrapid, high quality feedback loops.
    • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.

Future thinking | less about what has been missed, more about what could be…

How far do we consider the future and what individuals need to thrive and make the most of the opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged individuals to be competitive… going forward in their future?

Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)

“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)


It is not ability or talent, it is the combination of opportunity, support and experiences over time that put advantaged ahead

Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.

What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?

Our use of language around this is really important; and our reference to talent and ability is ubiquitous. We should take all reference to natural talent, x factor, ability etc. and talk about present level of attainment; so our language does not limit learners and we do not infer attainment as pre-determined.

“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)


“Don’t give me abstract, disconnected facts/knowledge to recall over time | build schema, the framework for me to understand.”

“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)

We need to tread carefully around knowledge/retrieval and ensure that this is also about understanding/explanation, and not in that order. We need teaching to be about concepts, threads, big ideas, narrative that has a much greater chance of developing and deepening schema so that learning is much more about being memorable, structured and connected. So that knowledge is judiciously selected to deepen understanding beyond memory and abstract recall. This is particularly important for disadvantaged who will make no sense of abstract compilation of knowledge – they need the narrative and schema that advantaged learners have accumulated through time as part of their enhanced access to cultural capital.

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)


Beware strategies that make us feel good | the seating plan fallacy

When seeking to reverse disadvantage, as a sector, we are prone to gimmicks and good intentions that can do the reverse of what we intend. For example, labels are dangerous, they can confer, define and condemn. Labels give us excuses, they deepen stereotypes and generalisations and worse they give us reasons to normalise disadvantage or excuse (explain) lower attainment.

“…don’t label me, place me in a seat, or put a dot or code next to my face on an A4 page and do nothing different. You are conferring disadvantage on me; it is delayed attainment not ability and I need you to really know me and know what I need.”

If we are to use tools like seating plans, then it must move to direct action or it has the danger of widening not closing the gap.


What if this is the challenge of our time, and we fail?

We have the capability, the expertise and shared understanding to do better by the families and children that need us most. We are not yet meeting this challenge, but we can. We also have the opportunity and obligation to do so. It has never been more challenging to grow up in our world and our record in the South West is not yet one we can be proud of.

How then, do we privilege those presently and previously experiencing disadvantage – let us open that debate and move to action. Apply the disadvantaged lens and ask searching questions about what we should value and how we must act. Now is the time to use the expertise and experience across our region to make a discernible difference.


This piece follows on from two previous pieces: Part Two | urgent action required, addressing disadvantage and Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage

October 2021 | Dan Nicholls

Part Two | urgent action required, addressing disadvantage

As educationalists we still have an urgent, deeper problem; one that may already be irreversibly entrenched by a pandemic whose impact has not been felt evenly. It is more important than ever for us to work together to deliberately and systematically address deep-seated inequality and act now to slow the growing gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged children; so that children are not permanently defined by the pandemic, because they have the tools to choose what they become…

To give the power of choice is deeply embedded in our values as educators, but we will require the bravery to step into the light of the new normal and be the change that is needed, if only we’re brave enough to be it…

When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Amanda Gorman, 2021)

Ten months after writing Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage we find ourselves still in the midst of a Pandemic, one which has touched our lives. The sad truth is that the stark asymmetry of society, education and opportunity, embarrassingly revealed by the pandemic, still dominates, condemns and limits the lives of disadvantaged children. It is very hard to under-play the steepness of the challenge that we as educators face.

“We must have a bold and comprehensive plan … a long-term strategy, fully funded, planned by educationalists with cross party consensus, that looks forward for the next five years to support those most impacted by COVID-19 over their educational lifetime.” (Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner, 2021)

There is increasing hope as we extricate ourselves from the pandemic, but the sickening reality remains, the impact of the pandemic and the deep economic and social cost will burden communities and individuals into the middle of this century. This piece of writing, however, is born out of optimism not pessimism, hope not futility. It offers a framework for understanding how we can support all individual disadvantaged children to thrive in our increasingly asymmetric society and acceleratingly complex future.


Accumulating disadvantage, the past, present and future | the asymmetry of life

“…what future?” (Enola Holmes) “There are two paths that you can take Enola, yours or the path others choose for you…” (Eudoria Holmes) “Our future is up to us!” (Enola Holmes, Film, 2020)

Accumulating disadvantage and advantage is founded in early life and is perpetuated through education to fundamentally influence and determine the opportunities that are available through adulthood. This accumulation cements and calcifies the asymmetries that are hard wired into our society and education system. The interaction and compounding impact of the factors that accumulate disadvantage and advantage are detailed below: (the table contrasts key factors that influence disadvantaged and advantaged children in the past and into their future)

Accumulating advantaged and disadvantage in the past and future: self-perpetuating and reinforcing

“…with each new thing you learn, the better you’re able to absorb the next related fact.” (David Eagleman, 2020)


Life as a series of opportunities | those that we take and those we miss

Between life and death there are opportunities that we play going forwards through childhood and adulthood. For some this is a a joyous stroll through a land full of possibility for others it is a world that happens to them, a life that limits their opportunity to try another life…

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices. Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” (Matt Haig, The Midnight Library, 2020)

Considering life as a one way journey along routes punctuated by opportunities helps our understanding of disadvantage by pushing us to look forward and not just backwards to support disadvantaged children.

“…you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to (or the experiences you have) send you down a particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

Early experience and opportunity lay the ground (load the deck, build the foundation) for the future. Some individuals accumulate knowledge, understanding, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief, a set of tools that open doors and routes in their future (not initially foreseeable); the foundation for self-agency; picking and choosing and playing with opportunities as they present themselves.

The reverse is also true, if we consider life as a set of opportunities, disadvantaged children and individuals have had fewer opportunities in the past, now and in their future. Disadvantaged are, therefore, more likely to…

  • … have fewer opportunities (recognised or not) now and in the future, those that appear and those that are self-created.
  • … are far less likely to step forward when opportunities present; more likely to self-de-select themselves and step back.
  • … and have fewer tools to use, previous experiences or self-belief to exploit each opportunity. 

Tackling our disadvantaged problem forwards (as well as backwards)

We remain very uncomfortable with the truth that…. however effective we believe our present education system is, it fails, year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers, and worse still “…we could be at a turning point .. we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)

Whilst we need to assess the deficits in learning of disadvantaged children by looking back at what is missed or insecure (literacy, language being key levers), we should also look forward into their future and consider how we can load their dice and increase their (life) chances. Increasing the child’s chance of recognising, creating, stepping into opportunities in their future with a set of personal and academic tools and keys that will exploit the opportunities that life throws up.

How far do we consider the future and the specific tools that individuals need to thrive and make the most of opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged to be competitive?

A personalised approach that may also consider how best we build specialisms, areas of competence to accumulate advantage so that they are competitive with their more advantaged peers may prove a useful enablers for individuals. Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)

“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)


Present level of attainment, delayed attainment and attainment mobility

We must work harder to recognise a child’s present level of attainment as just that the present level of attainment. This understanding of attainment removes assumptions, language (either conscious or unconscious) that attainment or ability is fixed. It usefully opens the door to discussions about delayed attainment (particularly pertinent now) and to attainment mobility the ability for children to progress from low to high attaining compared to peers (something that education does not achieve well). In this sense learning is a way of creating abilities; how far can we support disadvantaged to create their own potential...

“Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Eriksson)

… it is also helpful not to be fooled into believing disadvantaged children are less ambitious and aspirational. This maybe how they present, but often the opposite is true, not having the means and being deeply influenced by our lived experience may tell a different story.


Talent identified in hindsight as the consequence of effort and practice over time

Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.

What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?


Life chances turn on small things, moments and chance | an opportunity to sow seeds and load the dice for the future

“..we are each made up of numerous possibilities.. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” (Herminia Ibarra, quoted by David Epstein, 2019)

The thing with disadvantage is that regardless of the present level of disadvantage we can accumulate advantage over time, at anytime, it is not something that starts when disadvantage is removed and it may well turn on small things as well as complex things, in seconds or years. How do we support children to fall helplessly in love with their future passion, perhaps in brief powerful encounters?

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion. … Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” (Dan Coyle)

The path we take through life is influenced in complex ways as a journey of loaded chance and opportunity. How accessible the opportunities are depends on the level of advantage or disadvantage. The way that opportunities playout over a lifetime, in often unpredictable ways, means that increasing the future chances of success and accumulating advantage can arise in even the smallest conversation, some praise, meeting them there, asking how things went, building confidence, knowledge and understanding all have the ability to build a can-do identity and increase agency that unlocks opportunities. As educators we cannot see the future, but we can increase the chances of disadvantaged by creating a broader toolbox for these future opportunities and experimentation:

“… mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.” (David Epstein , 2019)


We are all responsible, there is no opt out | It is everyone’s problem

As educators we have significant influence on all individuals that we interact with; we leak our expectations and attitudes. Some of these will be inconsequential, but others may be life changing.

“Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman, 2020)

The good and the bad news is that every interaction along life’s journey has an impact on us and informs our sense of self and our self identity. The good is that everyday there are multiple ways to influence those around us. The impact can be fundamental and is likely to bear little relation to the amount of time or investment it takes. Because we live life forwards there is no telling the impact the educators have on children on their journey through childhood into adulthood. Applying this underlines the importance of culture, the importance that it is everyone’s job, that we should not partition our disadvantaged work into time-limited strategies – it is an all the time thing. And we are all responsible.

“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

The bad is that everyday in every interaction between educator and child we will consciously or unconsciously do one (or a mix) of the following. Underlining the complexity of addressing disadvantage we need to consider how far our culture, curriculum, teaching, culture, rules, routines, language, our assumptions, bias – condemns, confers, colludes, mitigates, or removes disadvantage?

  • Condemn: to assume fixed attainment and capability making disadvantage the defining feature of an individual. “That child’s disadvantage is permanent.”
  • Confer: to give someone the identity of disadvantaged. Applying all of the damaging stereotypes and generalities of disadvantage. “Yes, you are disadvantaged”
  • Collude: to act together in order to deceive through agreeing the extent and on going impact of disadvantage. “Yes, life is difficult because you are disadvantaged”
  • Mitigate: to support and reduce the impact of disadvantage “No, you have agency over what you do and where you go”
  • Remove: to undo disadvantage by accumulating advantage “This does not define you or pre-determine your future.” (could have been ‘reverse‘, but this does not fit with choices made going forward, and may inadvertently suggest unpicking the past, rather than adding to a character and competence toolbox that takes advantage of opportunities in the future, further this might be better termed as ‘adding advantage or accumulating advantage

Educators are not consciously the creators of disadvantage, but we do make choices, minute by minute, that can limit the impact of disadvantage on a child’s future, so that collectively, consciously, together, we enable our disadvantaged children to write their own stories, to grasp, shape and wrestle with their own future. Giving them access to the game and the rules and the tactics and the confidence and self-identity to have agency.

“It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future … believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart …and that will make all the difference.” (Steve Jobs)


Keeping the main thing the main thing | Teaching as the key lever for accumulating advantage

One of the biggest levers for accumulating advantage for disadvantaged is to invest deeply in supporting and developing professionals to teach well; professional development that focuses on:

  • the key spine of what matters most in the curriculum, delivered with purpose and passion; making it unavoidable and compelling. Build curiosity and questioning in all children to secure their ability to make decisions, take chances and have agency now and in the future.
  • direct instruction, explanation, modelling. Investing deeply in explanation so that we scaffold understanding, based on a progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of the most relevant and compelling knowledge. Building schema that provides the foundation and touch points that will come easier to advantaged children.
  • deliberate practice. To build confidence and success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
  • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback. The biggest advantage that advantaged children have had and have are rapid, high quality feedback loops. From a young age advantaged children are corrected and encouraged; this matures into a self-directed search for feedback as a positive mechanism for growth and improvement. For disadvantaged it can be something that exposes, humiliates or offers confirmation that the world happens to them. Feedback has the potential to be transformational and comes in all forms, a glance, a smile, a comment, conversation, caring, valuing the person, simply repeating what has been said, questioning, pausing, motivating, (written feedback), comparison, modelling… again revealing the importance of human connection
  • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage. All teachers and wider colleagues have a role in both literacy (all aspects) and language (including vocabulary). Particular focus on oracy is leveraging for disadvantaged; again this is precisely what happens in the homes of the advantaged from an early age.

Teaching that has a strong narrative that is conceptually strong, relevant and feels important so that learning is irresistible supports the likelihood that we will accumulate advantage in disadvantaged students. Particularly where we are able to cumulatively support and expect individuals to complete meaningful and challenging work; building self-belief, self esteem and igniting the curiosity present in us all.

“This change-only-when-relevant feature reminds us that the brain is not simply a blank slate upon which the world scrawls all its stories. .. Experiences turn into memories when they are germane (to our lives).” (David Eagleman, 2020)

Teachers who, “foster rethinking cycles by instilling intellectual humility, disseminating doubt and cultivating curiosity,” (Adam Grant, 2021) are more likely to equip students for their future; to know what to do when they do not know what to do.

“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)


What if our connection with Education is elasticated to the point of failure?

In middle and long distance races athletes describe the rubber band that exists between themselves and the runner(s) in front. Once this extends too far there is a point of no return, the band snaps and it is impossible to catch-up.

Sadly this may also be true for disadvantaged children over time (and accelerated during the pandemic). There is a point when disadvantaged children increasingly self-deselect themselves from engaging, attending and trying; they become disenfranchised from education. The elastic snapping and the checking-out of education may sadly be the case for an eye-wateringly high number of disadvantaged children. Our challenge, for these individuals, will not be simply to close gaps, but to prove to those who are no longer in the game that education, itself, is worthwhile.


What you have (or have not) in your locker counts (you in or counts you out)

When advantaged children get good at something they stack their internal locker with evidence of success (their sense of identity or self). Numerous affirmations build up in their locker to reaffirm their ability and alter, enhance their self belief and agency. The number of affirmations and the amount of evidence is not compromised by odd failures or negative comments; their sense of self (worth) is unwounded and their agency undiminished.

The reinforced, affirmation and evidence rich locker of advantaged individuals

For disadvantage, their lived experience can leave their locker for a range of aspects of their life sparse. This leads to a propensity to not try again and risk further weakening the locker that may lower self-agency and give a suffocating sense that the world happens to them. The downward spiral of which leads to on-going self de-selection from trying, risking failure, (that their locker will not resist). New opportunities are not seen as such (in fact the opposite) and the disadvantaged step back, not forward, further accumulating disadvantage.


The disproportionate impact of achieving meaningful and challenging work

Disadvantaged individuals (and all children) need to have the opportunity to wrestle with and succeed at meaningful and challenging work. This speaks directly to their identity as a learner. It gives a new sense of achievement, alters the self identity, contributes to their self-belief locker, accumulates advantage, loads the dice for the future, decreases the likelihood of self de-selection and strengthens agency. Bit by bit the more we, as educators, build these opportunities the more we mitigate disadvantage and accumulate advantage.

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)


For a disadvantaged strategy, look within as much as out for answers, think in years not terms, reject initiatives, think systemic change, build culture not working groups

The scale of our disadvantaged problem is too big for short term strategy, initiative and short term interventions, it requires something deeper and systemic; our approach needs to become what we do (without trying), because it is in the culture, in the approach, owned by all. So…

  • … do look outside for inspiration, but build your approach on what you learn about disadvantage in your context; the answers and approach lie within you and your community; strategies do not travel well. Thinking deeply about disadvantage and context and ownership with strong execution matters.
  • … do not seek initiatives and short term interventions. Systemic change is required that is irreversible (not least because disadvantage holds on to individuals over time).
  • … plan to address disadvantage in the long term, think 3 to 5 to 10 years in terms of timeline. Resist the one year plan punctuated by short term interventions.
  • … do not think of disadvantage as one homogenous group; this issue is only understood by fully understanding each individual disadvantaged child and how best to accumulate advantage for them.
  • … do not just fixate on the past and gaps that exist, also consider the future for disadvantaged students, what do they need to thrive?
  • … do invest in teaching (the every lesson, everyday lever) and culture to accumulate advantage through the lens of competence and character (particularly self-belief and self-esteem) to give self-agency.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” (Malcolm Gladwell)


This is personal | the need for human to human contact | post-pandemic rocket fuel

Children typically think in the now. Emphasising human contact and quality interaction between and adult and learner in the magical places we call schools may well be the best recovery from the pandemic. Dwelling and colluding on the impact may not serve children well; keeping the Main Event, every lesson, everyday as the focus will likely best serve disadvantaged children.

“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

Human connection is perhaps the most important contributor to accumulating advantage; it is perhaps the key ingredient in early advantage before the age of 4. The pandemic significantly reduced socialisation and human connection; reducing the staggering amount of information that is socially transmitted. We all bear this responsibility, that young people watch, imitate and learn from us and that this shapes them over time. This human connection may be the biggest loss during the pandemic, but may well prove our greatest super power in the post pandemic.

“We have to see to be able to do. … You play a role in passing on cultural norms and nuances. …people who we connect with, who we trust and who we are exposed to. These are the three fundamental factors that underpin who we learn from or imitate … shaping us at each and every moment of our lives.” (Fiona Murden, 2020)


Seeking equity | giving disadvantaged what they need

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)

We should not consider disadvantaged as a single homogenous group; considering them as a group has significant negative consequences and troublesome stereotypes that will mis-serve disadvantaged children. We must maintain the view that disadvantaged children are individuals and as such we should not confer or label as disadvantage, but understand each child and give them what they need; seek equity give individuals what they need.


But what about the post-pandemic? | gifts for disadvantage from the pandemic?

  • The advancement of and use of technology to support learning has the opportunity to supplement the main event (every lesson, everyday) to support learning and to deepen learning. There is also significant opportunity to democratise learning and increase accessibility to teaching and learning 24/7. Securing accessibility to technology needs to remain a key priority post pandemic.
  • Starker understanding of the role of assessment in leaning and the need for feedback to support progress; the significantly weakened or limited in distance learning.
  • Disadvantaged individuals are likely to have weakened their present level of attainment relative to more affluent, advantaged peers. We should avoid demoting disadvantaged down set or to allow the new attainment level to limit our expectation of them. Before our situational blindness kicks in and the new level becomes defining; we need to seek equity alongside teaching the Main Event (every lesson, everyday)
  • We need to understand the impact of the pandemic on the self-identity/self-esteem locker of each child. Actively encourage and secure early success on meaningful and challenging work; building self-esteem, filling their lockers and ensuring they increasingly step forward, not back.
  • The deeper connections with family that have developed through the pandemic provide a significant opportunity to support disadvantaged children: whilst children spend c.950 hours in classroom and well over c.1200 hours in school each year, accounting for sleeping, they spend closer to 4000 hours per year with parents and carers.

The So What? | How far are we meeting the following challenges?

The following is offered as a set of challenging questions for us to consider how we are accumulating advantage for individual disadvantaged children, so that they feel and are more successful now and in adulthood; how best do we gift each child with the self-agency that allow them to make choices, seize opportunities and thrive in life.

  1. How far do we know, at an individual level, the nature of disadvantage in our context: how it accumulates over time to limit opportunity generally and specifically in our community?
  2. How far are we able to recognise “present level of attainment” and “delayed attainment” so that we do not inadvertently assume fixed ability and reduce attainment mobility?
  3. How far is addressing our disadvantaged problem everyone’s business? Understanding that we are all responsible and leak our expectations all of the time.
    • do we condemn, confer, collude, mitigate or remove disadvantage?
    • do we focus on our language, actual and body language?
  4. How far do we believe and invest in human connection as the key to accumulating advantage. The lack of human connection may have done the most damage in the pandemic, by contrast it is likely to be our superpower to influence and gift choice to our disadvantaged children in the post-pandemic.
  5. How far do we know that this needs to be an investment over the longer term, aimed at system change (teaching and culture). Initiatives and intervention are poor substitutes for systemic, irreversible change that influences how we educate over time to accumulate advantage?
  6. How far do we focus on the main thing as the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
    • what matters most, building curiosity and questioning in all children,
    • direct instruction, explanation, modelling; progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge.
    • deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
    • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback: rapid, high quality feedback loops.
    • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.
  7. How far are we looking not to just to fill the past gaps for disadvantaged, but equally seek to load the dice for disadvantaged children by looking into the future and equipping them with the tools required to recognise and step forward for opportunities with competence and character that allow them to thrive and influence their world (building self agency)?
  8. How well do we prepare disadvantaged students to:
    • recognise and create opportunities for themselves? (including being curious and asking question)
    • have the agency to step forward for opportunities?
    • have the tools to be able to exploit their opportunities?
  9. How far have we really considered what it is that allows individuals to thrive now and in the future? How far does the present education system set individuals up for success? How do we tip the balance, load the dice to give disadvantaged access to life and the rules?
  10. How far do we understand that an individual’s self identity and motivation to continue is determined by their sense of self and what they have in the locker? How far do we build in affirmations and evidence of success for children to actively build this confidence?
  11. How far are we exploiting the opportunities afforded by our deeper connection with families and communities and our use of technology to democratise learning?
  12. How far would addressing the above make everything else in education either less important or not required?

We should remain optimistic and hopeful for the future; we have remarkable educators in all areas of our sector; with the right focus we can help all children to make something of their lives in a future that is unlikely to be dull.

“Our task is to educate their whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.” (Ken Robinson)


Dr Dan Nicholls

February 2021

Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)

As educationalists we have an urgent problem. A problem that has always been there, one which we have struggled to address and now this problem threatens to disenfranchise and damage an ever increasing number of children. However effective we believe our present education system is, it fails year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers (EPI, 2019) and more than half a GCSE grade behind per subject (Progress 8 -0.45 to +0.13).

“Over recent years, there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap (at the end of Year 11), … the five-year rolling average now suggests that it would take 560 years to close the gap. … an increase in the gap in 2018 suggest(s) … that we could be at a turning point and that we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)

This is now an urgent issue, the impact of the present pandemic will not be felt equally; our asymmetric society will become more so. As you read this the disadvantaged gap is widening quicker than ever. The inconvenient truth is that the legacy of the pandemic will be far reaching, will extend into the future, and for an increasing number of children the impact will be irreversible. It may well threaten the fabric of society, but it is the fortune of individual children that should motivate our action now and as we emerge into a post-pandemic world.

It will be hard to describe the challenge that our disadvantage children and families now face. In a World that acts explicitly and implicitly against the disadvantaged, the present hiatus in their education and the impact of school closure will have a deep pastoral and educational legacy exacerbated by a deep economic downturn; the level of disadvantage across the country will deepen and grow. The already strong propensity for disadvantaged children to self-deselect will grow significantly.

Of all of the problems that our sector now faces this is the most urgent; we must act now; not in isolation, but as a sector to address the expanding disadvantage gap. Not just because it is right for individual children growing up in uncertain times, but because our very society may depend on it.

“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”


Disadvantaging the disadvantaged | Distance Learning

For all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew Effect)

If we wanted to design a curriculum and a mode of delivery that would disadvantage the disadvantaged then distance learning during closure would be it. Overlay a challenging unemployment and economic climate, the disadvantaged and newly disadvantaged will have even less ability to focus on education; will have even less opportunity and control over their lives.

The following table identifies the reasons for the widening disadvantaged gap through the lens of distance learning during the pandemic, … something that is also true during normal times.

During the time of closure there will be increasing numbers of children who are curriculum negative (accumulating disadvantage) and are falling behind; a group that will expand over time. At the same time there will also be curriculum and learning positive pupils (accumulating advantage), those who thrive in the home, making greater progress than if they had to contend with the noise of school. The result is a stretch in present attainment profile that is now widening the disadvantaged gap and significantly growing the number of children who will have delayed attainment; from those who have little, more will be taken away.

Again the impact of this will not be felt equally across schools and academies, those serving high disadvantage in highly deprived areas will have the greatest challenge; where the full impact of the pandemic and economic downturn will play out. It is in these areas and schools that we will need to work the hardest to maintain a child’s focus on education, secure attainment mobility and give them the opportunities to be be more than they thought they could be.


The impact of Distance Learning for disadvantaged (and other) children

The following chart identifies the impact of poor versus highly effective teaching on an average student and a disadvantaged student. Whilst this is true when children are in school it is also true, probably more so, when children are distance learning. This should focus us to view distance learning through the eyes of the disadvantaged learner, taking into account the barriers identified above and the suggested criteria for distance learning below.

Sutton Trust, 2011

If we are in any doubt that attendance is linked to progress, then the following graph identifies the Progress 8 score achieved by children whose attendance fall below 90% and where attendance is between 90-95% for disadvantaged (blue) and non-disadvantaged (grey). Again the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged reduces progress 8 by a further 0.36 compared to non-disadvantaged for children with less than 90% attendance. (sample data, not national data)

We will soon have the vast majority of children with attendance <90% for this academic year, but as with the pandemic, the impact is never felt equally across society; the asymmetry will deepen, the disadvantaged (and others) will fall further, loosing their foothold in education.


So what? how do we tackle this enormous challenge?

This is a question for the sector and it will need to evolve over time. The following is not exhaustive, but is a starter for 10, a plan for action based on some key periods of time:

During the pandemic | Now

  • Feed the disadvantaged and vulnerable children; prioritise the feeding of families during the pandemic, working with community groups to meet this basic need.
  • Keep disadvantaged and vulnerable children safe; do everything we can to keep children safe through the pandemic, maintaining contact and support to build their sense of psychological safety.
  • Get disadvantaged online (now and in the long term); we need to do more to tackle the digital divide, now more than ever with the current jump in technology and on-line learning.
  • Create effective Distance learning through the eyes of disadvantaged children through the pandemic; based on the following principles:
    1. Accessible: High clarity, specific instructions, dependable in format, encourages routine. – limit all barriers to accessing and completing learning.
    2. Sequenced: Ordered and progressive, does not assume high levels of inference or cultural context. – random content in the wrong order does not support learning and progression.
    3. Proportionate amount: Is achievable, meaningful, and encourages completion – too much work will encourage opt-out.
    4. Engaging and compelling: Build in hooks and engaging tasks that encourage return and continuation of learning. – reducing disadvantaged propensity to self-deselect.
    5. Human interaction: The more we can give a sense of human interaction and narrative with the more likely it will generate motivation.
    6. Validation and feedback: Encourage further working by validating and acknowledging completed work.
  • Expect and prepare for the reduced quality and coherence of distance learning as fatigue sets in and where there is a lack of long term vision for distance learning; consider key leveraging learning, lessons, resourcing that are focused on the most important key concepts and learning for the next phase of education.
  • Make this everyone’s challenge; unswerving focus and high ambition for disadvantaged children; lifting the ceiling of what we believe is possible; shifting culture and ambition will underpin all efforts to address this challenge; start now, build momentum with colleagues now – share the challenge, call for innovation.
  • Convert and recruit all Raising Standards Leaders to the cause; to focus entirely on the attainment and progress of disadvantaged children in every year group; championing and building the plan through others.
  • Build on-line and deliver Professional Development sessions during closure that focus on:
    • “Teaching through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”
    • “Leading through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”

Preparing to re-join the new normal | Next and in addition to the above

  • Review deeply the curriculum:
    • Map clearly what has been lost, not covered … assume universal coverage is low.
    • Debate then define the core spine of the curriculum; that which is now the key concepts, knowledge and skills that are most leveraging for the future.
    • Look to remove noise out of the curriculum; more than ever we need to take the shortest route to learning.
  • Plan how you will assess each child, when we re-join, to understand that key curricular and learning gaps; not to allocate a number to each child, but to understand the needs of each learner to inform the curriculum, planning and teaching.
  • Maximise and plan for the greater use of technology; exploit the recent jump in on-line learning – sift out the good and package it to supplement the curriculum for disadvantaged learners over time.
  • Plan for the deeper involvement and collaboration with families as co-educators of children. Plan how this can be directed to add resource to closing the attainment gaps.

Post-pandemic world | Academic Year 2020 – 2021

  • Do not drop disadvantaged children down sets.
  • Do give disadvantaged children the very best teachers and teaching, promoting disadvantaged up sets to get to the best teacher.
  • Invest deeply in quality teaching; the greatest determinant on disadvantage progress, ensure all professional development activity improves the quality of teaching. Be highly specific on the key spine of the curriculum, direct instruction, modelling, deliberate practice, interleaving, review, revisit. Sequence curriculum to have a strong narrative and a level of purpose that motivates and makes learning irresistible.
  • Teach disadvantaged more; this is about equity not equality. Consider extending the school day and holidays to address the widening gap.
  • Get every disadvantaged child on-line and with a suitable device; reduce competition for the device within the home. Direct learners to highly specific learning on the core spine of learning that will be most leveraging for closing the gap.
  • Do not just focus on the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge – without context, understanding, meaning and purpose this will not stick in the long term, to support understanding of the world, so that disadvantaged children have self agency in childhood and adulthood.

Long term change to education

  • We need to judge the quality of provision through those that most need it and keep disadvantaged attainment (and progress) as a defining measure of the quality of the provision. Measuring an academies ability to secure attainment mobility over time. Rewarding those who genuinely reverse disadvantage.
  • Do not create a national assessment and examination structure in 2021 that only serves to measure the impact of the pandemic and the deep inequalities in this country.
  • Adapt the present framework to address the deep needs of disadvantaged children in a post-pandemic world; one that will be harder not easier for disadvantaged children

“The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.” (McKinsey, March 2020, a quote from 11 years ago during the global financial crisis)

Whilst there are many things that are uncertain in a post-pandemic world, we already know that the impact of the pandemic and the economic downturn will hit those who will be least able to cope. We need to act now; if not now, when, if not you, who?


Dr Daniel Nicholls

April 2020

Leading in extraordinary times | paradigm shifting

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” (C.S. Lewis)

We are coping, working and leading in extraordinary times. We are in the midst of a high magnitude, low frequency event; a global pandemic that has significantly shunted and disrupted life as we know it. An event that is more disruptive to education than any other in our living (working) memory. Considering how we lead in this pandemic era and in a post pandemic world provides a framework for us to seize opportunities and to imagine how education could be. (the pandemic, at the very least, demonstrates that anything is possible).

Under times of stress we are conditioned to focus on surviving and coping; our horizon is near, our perspective is narrow. Whilst this is a necessary phase of crisis management if we step back and look into the future we can start to take control, rationalise and address the challenges and prepare to exploit the opportunities that this hiatus to normal provides, so that we increase the chance of an extraordinary destiny.

Hiatus: a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity.

If we name it, perhaps we can manage it. … and as educators we must manage it; children and communities rely on us to make sense of this hiatus and to lead beyond it, into a post pandemic world. Indeed the way schools have responded to the pandemic has elevated their role as a civic actor; there has never been a greater opportunity to rethink, evolve and establish an education system, led by and developed by our sector.


Situational Awareness

The following diagram provides a representation of the pre-pandemic phase, the pandemic and the post pandemic world; providing a framework for discussion and greater situational awareness.

The framework identifies how we moved from sensing the change that might be caused by the pandemic to the reality of the high magnitude event; an external shunt to the system that forced educators into crisis management. The traumatic change, in mid-March, closed schools across the country with educators leading from one hour to the next. This then shifted to a period of stabilisation, in the present pandemic era. A new normal, characterised by distance learning under lock-down.

At some point in the future, in a post pandemic future, we will prepare to re-join normal. This is where educators will need to show strong and deliberate leadership that addresses, among other issues, significant challenges related to societal and cultural cohesion and the urgent need to address the hiatus in the education of disadvantaged children as well as key year groups, 5, 10 and 12. The flip side is a significant opportunity, using this hiatus in normal to trigger a new paradigm; perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to understand how education could be. A release from our organisational (sector) blindness.


“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” Marianne Williamson


Paradigm shifting | our system has been externally shunted

As humans we live by accepted norms; cultural, societal and educational; taken together these create the present paradigm; one which has been thrown into chaos. How we see the world and perhaps what is possible has shifted..

Paradigm shift: a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely. 

The following diagram, which represents the same time span as above, identifies the former paradigm, the new temporary paradigm during the present pandemic era and the new paradigm that will establish in the post-pandemic world.

Whilst we have shifted into the pandemic era we necessarily play a finite game where the immediacy of the situation necessitates coping, supporting and crisis management. As we stabilise in the pandemic era we need to extend our time horizon and think with a more infinite mindset necessary to plan for and realise what we can build as the next educational paradigm. (influenced by Sinek, 2020)

This requires us as a sector and educationalists to have a purposeful awareness of the opportunities that can shape education in the new world. This requires us to seed and occupy an Innovation space, created and stimulated by the hiatus and the paradigm shift forced by the global pandemic… a unique opportunity to seize.


Our challenge | pandemic, post pandemic and beyond

The following is some initial thinking in broad terms (and far from exhaustive) of the challenges and opportunities we have a sector in these three phases…

Within the pandemic era

  • Secure provision, defined by distance learning, that is sequenced, efficient, consistent and accessible and one that has (at least a sense of) human interaction and narrative. To maintain our curriculum, learning and a sense of normality to our children.
  • Understand the impact of distance learning on disadvantaged children; an urgent concern, one that could have an irreversible legacy. (if there was ever a strategy to further disadvantage disadvantaged children then distance learning would be it.)
  • Supporting and maintaining societal cohesion; acting with community agencies to support families in these challenging times.
  • Supporting and maintaining contact with our most vulnerable children and families and those that become so.

Preparing for a post-pandemic world

  • Planning and preparing for children to re-join their education. A pastoral and curricular challenge.
  • Planning specifically to rationalise and empower children, particularly those in Years 5, 10 and 12 to experience a curriculum and assessment structure that does not compound the hiatus in their education.
  • Planning specifically to support disadvantaged children; deliberately and rigorously seeking to tackle the growing disadvantaged gap, which will be exasperated, not supported by distance learning; a challenge that will be measured in years not months.

Paradigm shifting into a new education era

  • Understanding what we need from the national assessment and examination structure. Not just for Year 5, 10 and 12 in 2021 (whose gap and random curriculum coverage is already undermining the fairness of 2021 exams and assessment, particularly if you are disadvantaged), but in the long term. There has never been a better opportunity to rationalise this structure and understand how we could better prepare all children for adulthood and to be economically and personally successful.
  • Building on the role of schools, academies and Trusts as community partners; how far does this pandemic re-shape and re-articulate the position of schools and Trusts at the heart of their communities?
  • Capitalising on the role of parents and families as co-partners in educating their children; building on the deep investments being made by parents/carers in their child’s education.
  • Re-imagining the role of technology in supporting learning in and beyond school. We are already seeing a significant jump in the use of technology; a foothold in the virtual space that will not recede.
  • Deeply considering and understanding the key/leveraging curricular elements that enable children to transition to adulthood (or secondary, or Post-16); something that is required in the planning of Year 5, 10 and 12 , 2020-21 curriculum.
  • Exploiting the depth of altruism and support between Trusts and the wider sector evident through this crisis, to build a self-supporting, self-improving system.
  • The future of school inspection in a post-pandemic world; and the opposite opportunity to build sector-led quality assurance, based around a greater understanding of what matters. What does education look like with limited performance tables and a hiatus in curriculum continuity?

“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.” Og Mandino


Into the Innovation Space | Don’t go into hibernation

So from adversity may come opportunity, perhaps one that is rich enough to bring significant good from the present struggle. One that may transform education and support our children to thrive in this uncertain world.

So go into the innovation space, avoid hibernation and dare to dream of an education system at the heart of the community, working in deep partnerships and focusing on the right things for our children and the future generations.

This hiatus may well be the jolt to the system that allows educationalists and the sector to create a new paradigm; one that will better serve our young people… but only if we seek it.


Dr Daniel Nicholls

29 March 2020

Key Stage 3 Curriculum 3.0

The following is an update that details the development of the Cabot Learning Federation’s Key Stage 3 Curriculum 3.0; it is the third iteration of the curriculum that has been in place for the last two years. It is the result of the work and insight of curriculum curators from across the Trust who have been charged with the deep responsibility of curating the curriculum for our children. A curriculum that allow children to dance across disciplines…

Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines… modern life requires range, making connections across far-flung domains and ideas. ( Range, David Epstein, 2019)

We choose to curate our own CLF curriculum across the Trust not because it is easy, but because it is hard… and because it is a challenge that we are willing accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win (for our children).

We take on this challenge fully aware of the weighty ethical responsibility that it brings; knowing that what we choose to teach confers or denies power… there is nothing more important than what we choose to pass on to the next generation.

We choose to empower experts across the Trust to own and curate our Curriculum. A shared curriculum that builds a platform on which experts can perform (teach and inspire). The shared curriculum frees professionals to follow the learning to meet the needs of all children. On the platform of the curriculum we believe colleagues should be empowered to “red dance“… to realise the promise of the curriculum and its loftier goals

We choose to empower curators in an ever-onward curation to provide the best possible curriculum for our children.

The curators are charged to fulfill the ambition of the Curriculum.To deliver the promise of the curriculum and its loftier goals.

The ultimate aim  of the Curriculum is to ensure all children have self-agency so that become active participants in their own lives, because each child has a strong sense of self and an understanding of their place in the world. This is the result of children seeking meaning and making connections as they build understanding from a foundation of knowledge and skills (expertise). Where knowledge and skills are the foundation and servant of the loftier goals of the curriculum.

The aims can be represented in a hierarchy that move from knowing some stuff, to disciplinary thinking to being able to transfer and connect to wider subjects areas and ideas, interdisciplinary knowledge…

or linked to cognitive science…

And that the nature of cognitive challenge varies. From low cognitive challenge for new knowledge and skills to high cognitive challenge for the loftier ambition of the curriculum that requires a level of assimilation into present schema. To build our sense of self and place we need to alter what we already believe to be true. Whilst it is far harder to secure these curricular goals they are necessarily built on a strong foundation of understanding made possible by a deep foundation of knowledge and skills.

The loftier goals of the CLF Curriculum are to support our young people to develop a sense of self; so that teaching and the wider curriculum support the positive development of behaviours, perceptions, dispositions and character traits that create a sense of self.

Understanding who we are can only be in relation to the world in which we live. Closely allied to the supporting children to have a sense of self is to secure a sense of place in the world. Not that this is directly taught, of course, because as with a sense of self every child is unique and at the centre of many networks of social relations, and nobody else occupies that particular position…

These loftier goals of the curriculum have the ultimate aim of giving all children self-agency both now and into adulthood. Self-agency: the ability to take decisions that give us control over our lives… so that we know what to do when we do not know what to do.

It is the loftier goals of the curriculum that live on into adulthood, far more than the specific knowledge or skills that we acquire in the detail of the curriculum that fall away. Perhaps in the same way that far after the knowledge of the rose garden have gone, the underlying meaning and pattern of that learning that changed our view of self and place remains deeply in the soil, waiting for a time to be useful (or appear in a dry spell)…

The CLF KS3 Curriculum is part of the CLF 3-19 curriculum…

Against aims of the curriculum and within the above spiral there are a set of guiding principles for the CLF KS3 Curriculum:

The aim of the curriculum is to secure self-agency for all children now and into adulthood, through a developed sense of self and place that is built on seeking meaning based on understanding secured on a strong foundation of knowledge and skills (expertise). The curriculum is based on age related expectations that are progressive and built across the 3-19 curriculum. It focuses on securing the disciplinary knowledge required to support children to be mathematicians, authors, historians, artists… It is built by Curriculum Curators and the entitlement for all children is protected by Curriculum Guardians across the Trust.

It purposefully builds up from Primary to support breadth and depth of curriculum that seeks broader curricular than that stifled by drawing GCSE of flightpaths down from KS4.

In addition the following are key principles:

The curriculum is intended to be taught to depth, stretching, demanding and expecting opinions from children. Based on a shard curriculum teachers evaluate and reflect on the learnt curriculum to follow the learning and meet needs. There are vertical strands in the 3-19 curriculum of oracy, writing, reasoning and reading. Assessment is principally through DOYA, with knowledge acquisition assessed through MCQs.

Whilst the shared curriculum is important … what really matters is how it is enacted (taught) … and then what matters is what is learnt …. and then what is long-term learnt…

The curriculum is divided into four cycles of teaching, assessment and re-teaching … repeat:

Each subject in the KS3 Curriculum is defined by a set of Age Related Expectations; starting with KS2 prior learning, knowledge and skills, Understanding and Application and then Meaning … the loftier goals cannot be directly taught.

For each cycle there are medium term plans; sets direction without stifling teachers to follow the learning to meet needs; to red dance on the platform of the shared curriculum…

All of this demands a deep focus on pedagogy and the quality of teaching. The loftier goals of the curriculum in particular are likely to require something like this:

  • Make explicit how the whole curriculum links and connects together; giving opportunity to explore direct and indirect connections between schema to piece together how they fit in the world.
  • Bounce up through the future curriculum to spark awe and wonder and set-up future learning, a sense of progression and to see the bigger picture early.
  • Build in space in the curriculum to support children to seek meaning and develop their sense of self and place in the world. 10% eureka time where the only output is speculation.
  • Explore the sense of self agency: the notion that social, political and other change can be triggered by individuals and groups. Developing skills and competences that build self-agency and the ability to trigger and sustain change.

“Empowering students to create social change and solve problems that will improve living conditions and increase well-being.” (Nathan, 2017 in Fullan, 2019)

  • Promote the he role of teacher: we learn by paying attention to others; it is staggering how much information is socially transmitted. What if it is significant others in our lives that actually make the difference; shaping who we are and who we become?
  • Understand the key importance of disciplinary knowledge (how to think like a… (historian for example) for deepening understanding, exploring meaning and enabling children to understand how to think and to conceptualise the world.
  • Contextualise learning in the present and future challenges that children face. We only attend to things that we belie/e or are made to believe are important; to these things that are directly relevant to us – make it important.

Dr Dan Nicholls | Cabot Learning Federation | July 2019

What if the Curriculum is the thing and we get it wrong?

Our opportunity

What if our opportunity is to build, design and curate a curriculum that inspires the next generation to understand themselves and their place in the world? What if this curriculum, built by teachers, as curators of the curriculum, enabled the next generation to be unusually well prepared for their future? What if this requires us to think deeper about the curriculum and what children really need?

“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)

What if we need to go back and understand how children develop, how they learn and what they need to thrive now and in the future so that they are successful in adulthood? What if these are uncertain times socially, politically, environmentally and economically and that this complexity means it is hard to predict what children in Early Years will need when they are 30 (2045) or 40 (2055)? How will they navigate the increasingly fractured and fracturing world that they will inhabit? What if by exploring these questions we gain a deeper understanding of what the curriculum should be and why knowledge alone is not enough?  

What if the dominance of knowledge and skills in the curriculum may miss the point of what it really takes to be successful in an ever-complex world? What if it is not that knowledge is not important and that knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more is not important?

What if we are endanger of swinging and being seduced by cognitive science to creating a curriculum that fails to equip children with the confidence and tools to exploit opportunities now and in the future; a curriculum that does not provide space for children to find meaning and connections across their learning so that they know who they are (sense of self), how they fit within their world (sense of place) and engage positively in an ever-changing world (self agency); a curriculum that is not worth having?…

“This is Vanity Fair (our curriculum) a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”

What if this is our opportunity to create a curriculum that is not limited to or by knowledge, but seeks to support all children to (based on a foundation of knowledge) deepen understanding, seek meaning and to have a greater sense of self and their place in the world; a curriculum that enables children to know what to do when they do not know what to do? (an ability that has never been more required)…

Enabling children to acquire knowledge and skills (expertise), which secured through application (over time), deepens understanding and allows children to seek meaning so that they have a greater sense of self and their place in the world.

What if we consider these aspects in reverse, to underline the servant nature of knowledge and to ensure we are building a curriculum that is striving for something that is worth having? Children know what to do when they do not know what to do because of a curriculum that is…

Enabling children to understand their place in the world, which they exploit because a developed sense of self and agency built on an ability to seek meaning and make connection based on  evolving understanding secured through playing with knowledge and skills.

What if knowledge is a servant for growing ourselves and our understanding of how we fit? What if knowledge falls away and is forgotten as we grow; such that we do not use as adults much of the detail of this early knowledge?

What if we start with what it means to be human on this planet; what it means to have a sense of place? then a sense of self and self agency? then seeking meaning and leave knowledge, skills and understanding as there is little risk of these being under-represented in the new approaches to curriculum? Explored here: What if this is how we learn?


Building a sense of place in the world

a curriculum that supports children to understand their world and how they grow within it as a connected individual.

What if 300,000 years ago the species known as Homo Sapian evolved in East Africa? What if sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago there was a Cognitive Revolution, triggered by a genetic mutation that enabled the evolution of a brain, out of sink with other animals, that allowed for communication, memory and the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life? … an advantage that would enable the species to conquer the world…

“The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes a Cognitive Revolution… The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens… it enabled us to conquer the world.” (Yuval Noah Harari, 2015)

What if The cognitive revolution enabled humans to communicate, think, remember, learn, invent and collaborate together? What if this created the need to develop myths (shared truths) by which humans could exist together and understand their place in the world? (countries, currency, language, religion, laws, morals, values, rituals…)

What if our understanding of our place in the world is shaped and guided by a set of myths that humans have created?

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”  (Yuval Noah Harari, 2018)

What if understanding these myths and having cultural literacy is essential if a child can have self agency now and in the future?

“Cultural literacy is important too and if you don’t know those key facts in the society you live in, you’re permanently disadvantaged. I think that is a key fact” (Michael Barber)

What if as a species, humans are myth-makers, sharing myths to support collaboration and to bind humans together. What if these myths are shared stories and structures that help us to understand the world; to make sense of it and our place within it? What if these myths become the truth (laws, language, nations, currency, religion … the curriculum)? What if the curriculum we curate is essentially a set of myths that we believe will support children to understand their place in the world as they grow?


Building a sense of self and self agency:

a curriculum that builds a sense of self and releases self agency that allow children to flourish as individuals, exploiting their sense of place in the world.

“It’s unlikely that something as complex as the sense of self resides in a single brain region … many different aspects of the self – including the ability to distinguish self and other, the looking-glass self, the ability to introspect, and our cumulative store of memories and experiences… emerges from more than one different neural system … interact with each other to produce a complex set of behaviours, perceptions, dispositions and character traits that make up the (whole) self.” (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, 2018)

What if our sense of self is the sum of our edited memories?

What if the structure of the brain has evolved to provide babies with neurons set in different regions of the brain that get connected by synapses over time to sculpt remarkable abilities that allow humans to communicate, store memories, build understanding, seek meaning and gain a sense of their own self and their place in the world? What if by age two there are one hundred trillion synapses

“At birth, a baby’s neurons are disparate and unconnected, and in the first two years of life they begin connecting up extremely rapidly as they take in sensory information. As many as two million new connections, or synapses, are formed every second in the infant’s brain. By age two, a child has over one hundred trillion synapses, double the number an adult has.” (David Eagleman, 2015)

All the experiences in your life – from single conversations to your broader culture – shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry – and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast, detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an endpoint.” (David Eagleman, 2015)

What if Individual humans are memory makers. What if we are the product of our edited memories over time? What if our experiences over time shape our schema and create a unique set of connections across the architecture of the brain to give each of us a unique sense of self? What if this means that we each understand our place in the world in a unique way?

“Among the multitudes of mental representations that a human mind entertains… only a minuscule proportion are similar to other individuals’ representations. We constantly build and update representations of our physical environment … (and) … of the social world around us that are … unique, since we are each the centre of many networks of social relations, and nobody else occupies that particular position.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

What if these memories are edited and altered over time so that they are imperfect and distorted by time? What if as soon as we create memories they are both edited at the time (as we cannot fully encode everything from an experience) and edited over time (each time we recall a memory it will be influenced by other memories, adapted to fit your schema and open to decay (connections being weakened over time).

What if passing exams and assessments are necessary, but no longer sufficient? What if this is insufficient and counter productive for the deeper learning that is required for surviving, let alone thriving in the future?

It is frustrating to know that the kind of learning involved to pass .. tests does not bolster students’ sense of agency or belonging, and there is little room for the learning that would.” (Nath, 2017, in Fullan 2019)

What if the key purpose of any curriculum is to allow children to develop a sense of self and based on a sense of place use their agency to feel and be successful in the their lives? What if as educators we carry this burden of responsibility? Educators set the conditions and the climate that allow individuals to grow and invent themselves; a curriculum that allows children to know what to do when they do not know what to do.

“For many of us, a deep and complex sense of self, particularly of our social self, has its origins in adolescence.” (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, 2018)


What would it take to create a sense of self, agency and place? What if this is for starters?

What if we understood that there are strategies that are key to developing a sense of self, self agency and a place in the world? What if to stretch beyond knowledge, skills and understanding it is important to:

  • Make explicit how the whole curriculum links and connects together; giving opportunity to explore direct and indirect connections between schema to piece together how they fit in the world. What if this is often facilitated in advantaged families? What if knowledge, kept in silos, widens disadvantage and does not contribute to seeking wider meaning and a developed sense of self?
  • Bounce up through the future curriculum to spark awe and wonder and set-up future learning, a sense of progression and to see the bigger picture early. What if teaching needs to seed future learning and connections? What if we need to be careful not to confuse cognitive conflict with cognitive overload? What if seeing the big picture at the same time as the detail is a key aspect of successful individuals?
  • Build in space in the curriculum to support children to seek meaning and develop their sense of self and place in the world.

What if you can bullet point the knowledge and skills requirement of the curriculum, but you cannot prescribe the meaning the children find, or their sense of self or their place in the world? What if this requires space and the highest level of teaching and support?

  • Explore the sense of self agency: the notion that social, political and other change can be triggered by individuals and groups. Developing skills and competences that build self-agency and the ability to trigger and sustain change. What the present up-swell if populist movements requires new insight and competencies?

“Empowering students to create social change and solve problems that will improve living conditions and increase well-being.” (Nathan, 2017 in Fullan, 2019)

  • Promote the he role of teacher: we learn by paying attention to others; it is staggering how much information is socially transmitted. What if it is significant others in our lives that actually make the difference; shaping who we are and who we become? What happens when to allow teachers to shape individuals?

“Humans stand apart from other species in the amount and diversity of information they acquire by paying attention to other humans’ behaviour, to what others do, and, crucially, to what they say. It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted, because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

  • Understand the key importance of disciplinary knowledge for deepening understanding, exploring meaning and enabling children to understand how to think and to conceptualise the world. What if Christine Counsell is right? ..

Disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth. For each subject is just that: a product and an account of an ongoing truth quest, whether through empirical testing in science, argumentation in philosophy/history, logic in mathematics or beauty in the arts. (Christine Counsell, 2018)

  • Contextualise learning in the present and future challenges that children face. We only attend to things that we belie/e or are made to believe are important; to these things that are directly relevant to us; how far does knowledge alone achieve this?

What if there are lots of other aspects of the curriculum that will support children to develop their sense of self, agency and place in the world? What if this is the true purpose of the curriculum; a curriculum in which knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more is just the start? a a servant (foundation) that allow children to invent themselves, thrive and take hold of the world in which they live.

… a curriculum that is that something that is worth striving for.


“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

Dr Dan Nicholls | May 2019

CLF Cognitive Science and Teaching Framework | Empowering Learning, Conference 2018

Empowering Learning | Autumn Conference 2018

The key focus of the CLF Autumn Conference is empowering learning. This is the central aspect of the CLF improvement triangle that identifies three key aspects: 3-19 Curriculum (evolved by experts), 3-19 Pedagogy (delivered by experts) and 3-19 Assessment (used by experts).

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The focus on CLF 3-19 Pedagogy will identify two key aspects:

  • The CLF Cognitive Science: the cognitive basis for how we learn; so that teaching, pedagogy and learning has a sound scientific basis.
  • The CLF Teaching Framework: the framework that provides for structure and language for experts to discuss teaching, pedagogy and learning.

The Conference is facilitating experts to discuss teaching and pedagogy against the background of cognitive science. Investigating the…

“… conversations and interactions that occur around events of interest between  trusted and skilled adults and their child companions are especially powerful environments for learning.”

The Conference seeks to empower experts to discuss teaching and how we play with pedagogy to secure learning against the background of cognitive science and within the structure of the CLF Teaching Framework; concentrating on the key aspects that affect learning…

“Supportive learning environments, which are the social and organisational structures within which teachers and learners operate, need to concentrate on the key aspects that affect learning.”


CLF definition of learning

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Teaching enables…

… children to acquire Knowledge & Skills, which secured through Application develops Understanding and allows the seeking of Meaning to achieve Personal growth


CLF Cognitive Science

Humans are amazing, the cognitive revolution that occurred 70,000 years ago placed them at the top of the food chain. At this point we developed an architecture of connections in the brain that allowed humans to think, invent and build meaning. In fact it is amazing what our 100 Billion neurons can encode…

“While a bee brain has one million neurons, a human one has one hundred billion, … we’re privileged in another way too: not only in the quantity, but the organisation of those neurons. Specifically, we have more brain cells between sensation (what’s out there?) and action (this is what I’m going to do). This allows us to take in a situation, chew on it, think through alternatives, and (if necessary) take action. The majority of our lives take place in the neural neighbourhoods between sensing and doing . This is what allows us to move from the reflexive to the inventive.” (Brandt and Eagleman, 2017)

From birth we are constantly trying to make sense of the world…

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Babies are born with a biological capacity to learn; this raw capacity is actualised by the surrounding environment. From birth they are constantly striving to make sense of their environment so they can gauge where best to invest their attention.

Understanding how we learn through the key principles of cognitive science (that have become much clearer over the last 15 years) allow us greater insight into the mechanics and impact of teaching. It provides a basis on which we can play with pedagogy and drive learning and secure progress over time. The table below highlights the CLF Cognitive Science approach (20 principles) that underpins the CLF Teaching Framework.

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The following table identifies the five key cornerstones of cognitive science that explains how we learn. The Cognitive Science column defines the principle and the “So What” column seeks to identify what this means for learning and teaching…Slide7

The next five seek to explore short and long term memory, myelin, curve of forgetting and automation…

Slide8

The next 5 consider schema and proximal zones, and what this means for disadvantage and different levels of attainment…

Slide9

The final five consider the curriculum, co-construction, the role of emotion, cognitive overload and our ability for divergent thinking…

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“The genius of our human minds is that they are endlessly adaptable and more powerful than we realise… learning is our superpower..” (Alex Beard, 2018)



CLF Teaching Framework

Based on the CLF Cognitive Science, CLF Pedagogy Developers have developed a CLF Teaching Framework that seeks the support the discussion and development of Teaching and Pedagogy across the Trust.

This is based on considering learning through an I DO, WE DO and YOU DO lens, so that we follow the learning and meet needs of all children. This seeks to secure learning within a culture that supports learners to attend to their learning.

The framework is detailed in the following diagram…

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The Conference supports experts to consider each of the aspect of the CLF Teaching Framework against the Cognitive Science background. The diagram below highlights the I DO and Pre DO aspects of the Teaching Framework and how this might link to the Cognitive Science…

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The diagram below highlights the WE DO and Follow the Learning aspects of the Teaching Framework and how this might link to the Cognitive Science…

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The diagram below highlights the YOU DO and Climate/Culture aspects of the Teaching Framework and how this might link to the Cognitive Science…

Slide1


An unswerving focus on learning and how this supports children to learn, seek meaning and find their way in the world is a privilege; education is the premise of progress…

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family” (Kofi Annan)

Dan Nicholls

CLF Conference 2018

Cabot Learning Federation | October 2018

CLF Teaching Framework | empowering teachers to teach

It is probably true that when teachers are empowered to play with pedagogy, informed by assessment, within an inspiring curriculum, children learn and flourish.

It is also probably true that within a Trust or collection of schools a shared teaching framework offers the opportunity to deeply collaborate and develop approaches to pedagogy that accelerates learning.

Slide11

What if this Teaching Framework is delivered by experts to secure a shared inspiring curriculum that is designed and evolved by experts (3-19 Curriculum Curators) and supported by assessment that is used by experts to adapt pedagogy that follows the learning?

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What if  Pedagogy Developers from across the Trust build a shared Teaching framework? What if this Teaching Framework is built on a deep understanding of how we learn and how we construct our understanding of the world?

What if  it is important to understand what underpins the framework…


Basing the CLF Teaching Framework on How We Learn..

What if we teach, discuss practice, collaborate, investigate and play with our pedagogy against a deep understanding of how we learn? What if this is how we learn?…

Slide6

What if learning happens when we form and solidify connections in the brain; connections that are reliably fired as long term memories through the wrapping of myelin? A process that requires focused attention, deliberate practice and repetition within an interleaved curriculum. (see How we Learn)

What if this acquisition of knowledge requires application to build understanding that leads to an individual finding meaning and then developing a new sense of self? What if this goes from few connections (local; knowledge) to connecting schema (regional; understanding) to connecting across centres of the brain (national; finding meaning) to connecting across all areas of the brain (global; change in a sense of self; personal growth)

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What if the following underpins the purpose of teaching…

Slide5

What if the key outcome of teaching is also to achieve attainment mobility: “Enabling children to attain higher than would be expected based on their starting points.” … reversing delayed attainment, linguistic under-privilege and lack of early opportunity, so that children self select (not self de-select) and accumulate advantage (not disadvantage) through life?

What if collaboration, discussion and development of teaching across schools is hampered by not having a shared understanding of learning? What if this provides a good definition for learning? (from Hattie and Donoghue, 2016)

Slide7(Hattie and Donoghue, 2016)

Perhaps then the following provides a shared definition of learning…

Slide8What if we should also see it as a process by which we more fully understand our place in world, have an increasing sense of self and grow personally?


What if underpinning the teaching framework is an understanding of the different ways the brain works? …

  • Up to 40% of what we do is automated – triggered automatically by the subconscious as a response to routine triggers. This is how we cope with a small working memory and a complex world – this automation frees us to survive and think (it is everything from patterns of thinking, talking, emotional response, vocabulary, mannerisms as well breathing etc.). What if we understood better what we need children to automate?
  • Our frontal cortex is a logical, top down problem solving area of the brain. It runs scenarios about the future (what ifs). It comes up with multiple solutions and scenarios – the vast majority of which we are not conscious of because our brain is highly selective of what makes its way to our consciousness (it would otherwise be over-whelming). This internal censorship increases with age; reducing our creativity and adaptive thinking (and interestingly increasing our susceptibility for organisational blindness and being obstructed by our historic assumptions of what is possible. What if we support children to have the tools for logical thinking and the knowledge and understanding to solve problems… so that they know what to do when they do not know what to do?
  • Elastic thinking is bottom-up. It is what happens when we engage all parts of our brain to see a our world a fresh. This requires the development of connections across all areas of the brain. It is often what happens when we are not thinking specifically about a problem, or when we are engaged in thinking about something else – we get, what is often described as, light bulb moments. This critical aspect of our thinking is ever present (not always conscious due to the self-censorship). What if we consider how we can develop this thinking in young people to support connection between topics and ideas… seeking to support children to run what if scenarios, find connections (in the world and in their thinking), seek meaning, build a sense of self and their place in the world? What if this is enhanced by cluttering the corners of young minds with knowledge and increasing the development of connections across schema in the brain?

“While a bee brain has one million neurons, a human one has one hundred billion, … we’re privileged in another way too: not only in the quantity, but the organisation of those neurons. Specifically, we have more brain cells between sensation (what’s out there?) and action (this is what I’m going to do). This allows us to take in a situation, chew on it, think through alternatives, and (if necessary) take action. The majority of our lives take place in the neural neighbourhoods between sensing and doing . This is what allows us to move from the reflexive to the inventive.” (Brandt and Eagleman, 2017)

What if connections and schema are built over time and are the result of opportunity and the support of a knowledgeable other over time? What if this early architecture and opportunity is the key to early advantage and disadvantage? …that fuels our unhelpful cultural views of innate talent?

What if this means that ordering content, building understanding in logical sequences and securing a foundation of knowledge (connections) is key to building schema in children through our teaching? What if this is why story telling is so effective at supporting understanding and developing meaning? (and explanation and modelling etc.)

What if the proximal zone is key to understanding how we learn and the importance of how we teach? What if we need to experience cognitive conflict (ideally with others) to create connections and assimilate new connections within existing schemas (groups of neurons connected together).

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What if we need to keep children in cognitive conflict as often as possible? What if it is also important to consolidate understanding and to build fluency and to extend beyond the proximal zone to offer a sense of awe and wonder?

What if we need to attend to things with a high level of focus to assimilate new knowledge or ideas? Then classroom climate becomes key. What if our emotional state also limits or increases are ability to attend to learning? What if tapping the emotions and teaching with passion, conviction and a sense of purpose increases a learners ability to make deep connections across the brain – learning becomes stickier?

What if concepts and misconceptions become the key ingredients in building coherent and helpful schema for children? What if explanation, modelling and logical construction of learning informed by key concepts will increase a child’s ability to find meaning and grow personally?


CLF Teaching Framework

What if this understanding of how we learn is considered within a teaching framework: one that considers the key interactions of teacher-learner and learner-learner within a learning episode. What if this is demonstrated circularly to emphasise the role of on-going assessment and the need to follow the learning between the key teaching elements of I DO, WE DO and YOU DO (what if this is remarkably intuitive in application). The order, length and interplay of these elements are not defined and vary over time (the framework should not be viewed as a lesson). What if this provides the structure, framework and vocabulary to discuss and consider teaching, learning and progress across the Trust?

Slide12

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What if this teaching framework provides the basis for securing the key elements of How Children Learn?

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  • I DO: What if teacher explanation, modelling, instruction, use of language, development of knowledge directly supports the development of connections and grows schema? What if this builds on previous knowledge, exploits story telling and narratives to trigger interest? What if teachers expertly dance in and out of the proximal zone so that it … consolidates and builds the fluency of key knowledge and understanding already acquired AND creates cognitive conflict in the proximal zone with new knowledge, examples and build new connections AND touches on ideas beyond the proximal zone to generate awe and wonder, seed future learning and seek connections across the brain? What if this is key to the WE DO aspect of the framework?…
  • WE DO: What if this is the most important aspect of the framework? Where learning is a social enterprise prompted and provoked by questioning, debate and discussion facilitated by the teacher? What if this is often the area that has the greatest variability and where expert teachers shine? What if this is where teachers facilitate the co-construction of knowledge, understanding and thinking out loud (full response and precision of thinking)?  What if this is where learning predominantly happens in the proximal zone, where teachers support the learners to explore, debate and argue about the learning? What if this is also where students try a bit, get feedback and try a bit more? What if this is how connections are made, understanding built, meaning is sought and children have the opportunity to evolve their sense of self and place in the world? What if this is consolidated and developed in the YOU DO aspect of the framework?…
  • YOU DO: What if this is where children work in their proximal zone balancing between consolidating/fluency (within schema), developing (in cognitive conflict) and exploring (beyond the proximal zone) … balance of individual and paired working? What if this is meaningful work that maximises the use of time?
  • YOU DO : WE/I DO: What if teaching follows the learning during YOU DO, being alive to opportunities? What if teachers intervene with impact to support more children to be in cognitive conflict more often and for longer? What if this can be individual, group or whole class intervention to seize learning opportunities, follow the learning and use time purposefully? What if this is informed by conceptions, misconceptions, identifies links between learning and uses peers to support peers in their learning?
  • CLIMATE/CULTURE: What if culture (high expectations) and climate (attitudes to learning) are essential if children are to focus and attend to their learning? Wrestling in cognitive conflict to assimilate new knowledge or insight requires a non-distraction environment? What if cognitive (over) load drastically reduces are ability to learn … the brain cannot multi-task … when we try to do two things the brain has to power up and power down every time you switch focus?
  • PRE DO: What if planning for learning episodes is based on teachers following the learning? The careful and precise selection of content (in the right order) and approach to support acquisition of knowledge to build understanding and support children to seek meaning? What if this is an ever-onward within as well as between learning episodes?
  • Follow the Learning: What if the circular nature of the framework underlines the importance of formative assessment and the need to follow the learning? What if this is the art and craft of teaching? What if this is where the most effective teaching secures greater learning gains over time?

Maybe then…

  • We will share an understanding of what learning is, what teaching aims to achieve and how we learn.
  • We will share an understanding of how we learn (cognitively) that allows us to plan, teach and evaluate the impact on children.
  • We will have a shared teaching framework and vocabulary to deeply collaborate around teaching.
  • We will deepen our understanding of the teacher-learner and learner-learner relationships in the classroom through I DO, WE DO and YOU DO.
  • We will link these aspects to how children learn and deepen our understanding of the cognitive mechanics of learning.
  • We will empower teachers to have a shared framework that allows experts to play with pedagogy to follow learning.
  • We will have a standardised framework that seek to support teacher to have enough autonomy to follow learning and seek mastery in their practice.
  • We will support teachers to use the framework and underpinning cognitive science to develop their practice collaboratively; without greater specificity of approach or strategies.

We would have teachers who are empowered to play with pedagogy, informed by assessment that allows all children to learn and flourish.

September 2018 | Dr Dan Nicholls

 

 

 

Key Stage 3 Curriculum 2.0 (CLF)

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It is probably true that the removal of levels and the growth of Trusts and collaborating groups of schools presents an enormous opportunity for teachers and leaders at KS3 to be curators of a curriculum, with embedded assessment and pedagogy, that inspires children to learn, secure progress, find meaning and grow into successful individuals … to educate the whole being so they can face the future.

“With opportunity comes responsibility … there are few more important roles in education than to be responsible for designing a curriculum that inspires the next generation to find meaning in their lives.”

It is also true that KS3 has typically been defined by mediocrity and over-shadowed by KS4. The opportunity, then, is to develop a curriculum that builds from KS2 and avoids drawing grades and progress 8 down from KS4. It should be the foundation of what we choose, across a broad curriculum, to pass on to the next generation.

Which begs the question.. what does an effective KS3 curriculum look like? How can this be designed to inspire the next generation to learn and make good decisions about the future and throughout their lives?

And… how can Trusts and partnerships of schools collaborate to enhance the curriculum and drive up standards?


What if the following is an approach to Key Stage 3?… (and the approach of the Cabot Learning Federation (CLF)) (link to: life after levels, KS3 1.0)

What if the intent of the curriculum is to enable children to acquire knowledge and skills, which are secured through application (over time and in different contexts) to develop understanding (change in long term memory) and allows children to seek meaning and achieve personal growth? (based on how we learn?)

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“…our brains do something vastly more impressive, forming neural nets from billions of cells, each connected to thousands of others. And these networks are organized into larger structures, … and so on, in a complex hierarchical scheme..” (Leonard Mlodinow, 2018)

What if the KS3 curriculum builds-up from KS2 to secure a foundation for children to be successful in life (and KS4)? What if the curriculum is focused on the progression of key content, concepts and misconceptions through KS3 (in the right order) that are designed to accelerate progress within a progressive and purposeful 3-19 Curriculum? 

What if it is broad, balanced, conceptually stretching, relevant and contextually useful… and built on high expectations of what children should be capable of?

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

What if it is designed to develop a sense of awe and wonder that secures a joy for learning; supporting children to do more than they thought possible. Boldly opening minds to hitherto uncharted knowledge and experiences? What if it empowers children to make well-informed decisions through life, with built-in entitlement for all by age 3-19?

What if the curriculum is our opportunity to inspire children to be successful individuals, historians, mathematicians, geographers, musicians, authors, artist, sportspeople, scientists, writers, innovators, dreamers, magicians, mothers, fathers, citizens?

What if we developed an approach that used well defined and detailed Age Related Expectations (AREs), for Year 7 and Year 8, across each subject that secured and deepened learning; bringing the curriculum to life? What if the Age Related Expectations are organised like this… (starting with a justification of why the subject exists?)

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What if these are written by groups of CLF Curriculum Curators across the Trust? Those Curators of the Curriculum entrusted to evolve the curriculum for our children?

What if instead of levels or grades we were only interested in children working towards Age Related Expectations (following the primary model), achieving the Age Related Expectations and importantly being given the freedom to deepen their understanding to seek meaning for themselves so that they better understand their place in the world? We might describe a child’s attainment as.. (known as DOYA)

  • Deepening (D): child has reached the year group expectation and is now taking this deeper into more abstract work – following their passion within a broad curriculum that inspires the full range of attainment and interest.
  • On track (O) / Working At current age related expectation. The child is working at the age related expectation for their Year.
  • Yet to be on track (Y): the child shows some working at age related expectations, but is not yet on track to achieve them.
  • At an earlier stage (A) in their learning journey. The child is short of the age related expectation, typically around a year behind.

What if these Age Related Expectations were built into an aligned curriculum and assessment system that supported children (and teachers, and parents) to know what they can and cannot do/understand? What if these are the key questions?… and the three key elements: Age Related Expectations, Curriculum and assessment?

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What if the transparency and publication of the Age Related Expectations gives ownership of learning to children and their families so that children are supported to keep-up, catch-up and deepen?

What if this is purposefully a knowledge-rich curriculum rather than a knowledge-based curriculum? What if there is a medium term curriculum plan in each subject across the Trust that identifies, quarterly, the key areas of age related expectations to be considered? What if this significantly enhances collaboration and focuses Networks across the Trust on planning and pedagogy?

What if the aligned Age Related Expectations, curriculum and assessment empowers teachers to collaborate across the Trust to focus on pedagogy and planning that secures and accelerates learning and progress to meet the needs of all children?

What if the curriculum provides the platform for teachers to teach, children to learn and to spread ideas (pedagogy and planning) that work?…

“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” (Seth Godin)

What if we remain fully aware that there are distinct and important differences between the Planned Curriculum, the En-acted Curriculum and the Learnt Curriculum? What if we systematically evaluated the effectiveness of the learnt curriculum to inform teaching, pedagogy and learning episodes within the KS3 curriculum?

What if this is the purpose of Multi Academy Trusts? …to provide an aligned platform of curriculum and assessment so that experts are empowered to play with their pedagogy and planning to follow the learning and inspire children to achieve more than they believed was possible?

Alignment

What if the content of the curriculum is progressive and is based on consolidating and revisiting content over time to secure changes in long term memory and progress over time? What if this shows how topics are taught, tested and re-taught over time; where gaps in the learnt curriculum are revisited in re-teaching and future testing?…

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What if the curriculum seeks depth of study rather than breadth to build understanding and to seek meaning; stretching and challenging children to think? stock-footage-deep-end-deep-end-of-the-pool-a-good-visual-metaphor-to-show-madness-for

What if The Age Related Expectations and exemplars are widely published to support the child, parent, teacher, leader and other staff to understand the expected standards and the content of the curriculum; enabling wider ownership of the curriculum? What if exemplars of At an Earlier Stage, Yet to be On Track, On Track and Deepening (DOYA) are used across all subjects to raise the bar and exemplify the the Age Related Expectations? What if these are used for moderation and professional development to consider pedagogy, inform planning and becoming experts at supporting students to gain understanding and seek meaning in their learning… securing progress?

What if the values, assessment cycle, Age Related Expectations and written exemplars for every subject in Year 7 and 8 are put together in one document to form the CLF KS3 Age Related Expectations syllabus?


What if there are two key areas of assessment:

  • Shared on-line Multi-choice Quizzes (MCQs) assessments four times a year to assess knowledge/skills acquisition and elements of application and understanding. What if this provides immediate feedback to understand gaps in learning, to support planning and re-teaching? What if this reveals the level of knowledge acquisition and application across 1000 students; providing student, class, department, cohort and academy comparisons to support improvement and trigger discussion on the effectiveness of teaching, planning and pedagogy? (so that teachers can follow the learning?)
  • Teacher assessment of attainment that uses standardised exemplar material to support teachers to make an assessment of a child’s attainment against DOYA. What if we assess across the breadth of what children can do in any one subject to judge how far a child will achieve Age Related Expectations by the end of the year? What if this includes practicals, extended writing, presentation, oracy, performance, short assessments, long assessments etc. … to provide a rounded view of attainment based on DOYA, against the subject’s AREs? What if work scrutiny and student voice support moderation of the attainment of children across academies and the Trust? What if progress is seen in maintaining and improving a child’s DOYA and in the work (broadest sense) that a child is able to produce over time? (What if teacher assessment of DOYA is linked to broad standardised scores 100, 103, 105, 107, 110 etc. so that progress from a starting point can be measured?)

What if this is how the assessment within the KS3 curriculum works?

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What if we could plot the attainment of over 1000 students (a benefit afforded by being part of a Multi Academy Trust)? What if this created a unique opportunity to moderate and standardise performance against a significant sample of children in each year, in each subject across all classes and groups? What if this was a significant nudge that raised standards at KS3?

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What if the shared AREs, curriculum and assessment cycle empowers and frees teachers to plan to meet need, follow the learning and deploy pedagogy that supports all children to feel and be successful? What if approaches to pedagogy and planning are based on how we learn? so that we:

  • Explicitly teach children to achieve the age related expectations. So that we secure the knowledge and skills through application that are the foundation for building understanding and seeking meaning – in line with how we learn and cognitive science…
    • Modelling that sought to build from knowledge/skills to understanding to seek meaning.
    • Questioning that prompted and provoked application and understanding to articulate meaning – deeply exploring concepts and mis-concepts and seeking to support children to explore and explain their developing schema.
    • Planning for children to experience desirable difficulty as they deepen and grapple with the curriculum. Thinking different and deeper for presently high attaining children.
    • Using explanation (in a variety of ways) to support connections and tell stories that allow children to accommodate greater understanding in their schema so that they better understand their place in the world.
    • Tell stories to support (with emotion) to support changes in a child’s long term memory, so that they secure progress. (tapping emotion and feelings secures understanding by anchoring connection across different areas of the brain)
    • Revisit and interleave so that children build myelin and strengthen connections to semi-permanence in the long term memory.
    • Specificity of feedback for impact so that children are more precisely supported to make connections and learn in real time, whilst they are is cognitive conflict. Emphasising live feedback and adapting teaching during learning episodes.
    • On-going teacher assessment followed the learning of children; emphasising medium term planning and aims.

What if there is also an emphasis on the development of reading (widely and often), oracy as well as the quality of writing?


Maybe then we would have a KS3 curriculum that…

…builds a sense of awe and wonder and a joy for learning up from KS2 that inspires children to be individuals, historians, mathematicians, geographers, musicians, authors, artist, sportspeople, scientists, writers, innovators, dreamers, magicians, mothers, fathers, responsible citizens… a curriculum that empowers and frees teachers to plan to meet need, follow the learning and deploy pedagogy that supports all children to feel and be successful… a curriculum developed and evolved by experts across the whole Trust and assessment that is both formative and summative so that we raise standards and accelerate progress as part of a progressive 3 to 19 curriculum.


Dan Nicholls | June 2018

Director of Education | Cabot Learning Federation

What if this is how we learn?

“The genius of our human minds is that they are endlessly adaptable and more powerful than we realise… learning is our superpower..” (Alex Beard, 2018)

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.” (Dan Coyle, 2009)

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It is probably true that we can make teaching and learning too complicated; we forget the key mechanics and processes of how we learn and secure progress? It is also probably true that developments in cognitive science have not influenced teaching and education enough and that this has informed unhelpful beliefs about a child’s potential; lowering our expectations of what individuals are capable of?

Cognitive science has opened up new (and not so new) understanding of how we learn and make progress that need to better inform teaching and our present approaches to education…


What if learning something new is a physical (and chemical) process in the brain? What if the ability to know, understand or do something relies on the development and consolidation of connections in the brain? What if progress is a measure of how far these connections form and establish in the long term memory so that schemas (groups of connections in the brain) are grown so that over time a child knows, understands and is able to do more?

A schema is a cognitive framework of connections that help organise and interpret information. Schemas allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

What if the ability of our brains to group knowledge and experiences together so that we can quickly interpret the world around us is an important developmental aspect that has allowed our survival across time? What if the development of schemas in each child is unique, is the product of opportunity and learning over time (particularly in the first few years)? What if the early architecture of the brain provides the framework and structure for later learning?

Essentially, the more adept you become at a skill, the less work your brain has to do. Over time, a skill becomes automatic (hard wired) and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill. (important to teaching as well as student learning)

What if these connections, schema and the physical and chemical altering of the brain to create long term memory is a game changer? … our minds are expandable vessels, shaped by various things we do throughout our lives…

“…no such thing as predefined ability – the brain is adaptable and training can create skills that did not exist before. This is a game changer. Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Ericsson)

What if Daisy Christodoulou is right?…

“When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our education system… one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education… What you think about is what you remember. What you remember is what you learn.” (Daisy Christodoulou quoted in Alex Beard, 2018)

What if the following demonstrates the growth of connections in the brain? What if these show the  growth of connections as a child learns (right)… and the growth in brain size over time (left)… and the impact of extreme neglect that limits future learning?

What if we experience cognitive conflict when we experience new information and attempt to make a connection to it in our brain? If this new piece of knowledge or skill is in the proximal zone, connects into our present schema and is re-visited/reinforced over time it becomes available for application and wider understanding in the future. (it becomes retrievable from our long term memory)

What if Myelin acts like layers of insulating tape surrounding connections in the brain? What if deliberate practice, revision and revisiting supports the wrapping of myelin around connections? What if the application of new knowledge and skills, particularly in new contexts allows both greater solidity of connections and more securing connections to be added? What if overcoming cognitive conflict and permanently assimilating new knowledge, understanding and skills into schemas (secured as long term memory) is progress?

What if this is Myelin; the layers wrapping around a connection in the brain?

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What if the sparking and cementing of new connections is often revealed in our language? What if this is an example of how the developing connections in the brain have located “elbow, shoulder and soldier” in the same area?…

Daughter: Can I have some elbows with my runny egg? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean elbows do you?

Daughter: No, ..(pauses, thinks).. can I have shoulders? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean that either, do you?

Daughter: No, ..(shakes head, pauses, smiles). I mean soldiers with my egg? (new myelin formed)

What if early learning, in the first few years, is the key to establishing the architecture of the brain and on building the connections that provide the basis for later learning? What if the research suggests that differences in genes only accounts for 3 to 7% of an individual’s IQ?

What if there is no innate talent? What if differences in levels of attainment are the result of the following conditions over time?

  1. growing up in a family that consistently provides opportunities, over time.
  2. where significant others support and encourage effort. Often an expert coach or tutor whose direction enables deliberate practice.
  3. where risk and failure is embraced.
  4. and where expectations are high; it is not ok to give up.

What if this is why deliberate practice is key to the altering of long term memory and to automation; the use of hard wired, often visited, set of connections that enable sub-conscious-like recall or execution of skill? What if this is a useful summary of deliberate practice from Malcolm Gladwell…

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What if the concept of a proximal zone is useful when we consider how connections are formed in the brain? What if Vygotsky is still relevant; that learning occurs when children are taught and supported to think and seek meaning in their proximal zone … that area where a child’s existing schema (connections) are in place to connect to the new knowledge?

What if the following diagram shows connections in a brain and the location of the proximal zone around the outside? What if the yellow dot highlights the impact of pitch of learning on how this is responded to by the Brain? (Highlighting when securing, conflict and rejection of new knowledge occurs)

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What if the ability of teachers to dance between cognitive conflict (middle) and consolidation (left) is the key to sparking and consolidating the connections in the brain that alters long term memory so that it can be recalled and used over time (progress)? What if there is also value in exposing brains to that which is not yet comprehensible to the individual – perhaps to reveal elements that are motivating a sense of awe and wonder and to sow seeds for future progress? What if reading a text to a child that is more complex than they can read supports vocabulary growth and provides hooks for future learning? (Doug Lemov, in TES, 2018)

What if we should seek desirable difficulty? What if connections are formed when we are focused and not distracted, when we experience cognitive conflict, when, because of this effort, there are physical and chemical changes in the brain that fuse and then harden, altering long term memory?

“Comfort (is) the enemy of progress.” (Barnham, Greatest Showman)

“Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.” (Matthew Syed)

What if the purposeful and ordered accumulation of knowledge and skills within a progressive knowledge-based curriculum is essential to building schema and understanding? What if we understood that it is the application of this knowledge and skill that has greater leverage on the growing of myelin and supporting the greater stickability of learning so that it can be used in the future? What if we took more notice of the specific impact of the curriculum on learning; prioritising our understanding of the “learnt curriculum”, in comparison to the “planned curriculum” or the “in-acted curriculum“… when it comes to learning and progress the learnt curriculum is the one that matters? What if the identification of key concepts and mis-concepts by age and topic within the curriculum is key to supporting the conceptual awareness that children need for the next stage of their education?

What if some connections grow stronger (greater wrapping of myelin) when the learning is rich and experiential? Riding a bike or driving a car are good examples of this hard wiring of connections in the brain.What if emotional reaction and seeking/reflecting on meaning significantly enhances the chance of assimilating new knowledge into an existing schema and then consolidated as a change in long term memory?…

“A very important element of learning was therefore the process of how you paid attention to something, thought about it and thus ended up with it stored. … You couldn’t learn something you didn’t pay attention to. Yet the process of paying attention to something was complex, and not always under our control. It could be enhanced… in a few ways: things that created an emotional reaction were much more likely to be remembered; repetition helped a little; wanting to remember didn’t help much; reflecting on meaning had a positive effect, such as knowing where something fitted in a story or schema, whether personal or general.” (Alex Beard, 2018)

What if “a teacher’s goal… should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” (Daniel Willingham, quoted to Alex Beard, 2018)

What if feeling safe and ensuring that all basic needs are met is crucial for supporting a child to focus on learning? What if learning and committing abstract information (not essential to survival) to long term memory can only be done when we do not feel under-threat or anxious?


What if formative assessment is the key to understanding what a child can and cannot do so that teaching is more often pitched in the child’s proximal zone? What if the support of a knowledgeable other/coach/ teacher catalyses the opportunity for a child to connect with new content? What if this means that the planning between learning episodes based on formative assessment and how teachers respond to learning in classrooms is key to maintaining as many children in their proximal zone as possible, over time? What if these are the conditions that grow connections in the proximal zone?..

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What if the specificity of feedback is key, as it has greater potential to overcome cognitive conflict and conceptually be the next area for the child to learn? What if too much feedback is presently too generic and not focused on cognitive science, which tells us that new connections, consolidation of existing connections and linking across schema to create new meaning requires specific pitch and precision of feedback (and teaching)? What if we are highly specific about the knowledge and skills being taught in a learning episode – reflecting the connections that are being sought and how this fits into the schema?

What if precise and specific feedback has much greater impact on leveraging learning? What if this specific feedback needs to happen in the moment when children are in cognitive conflict or we need to take children back into cognitive conflict when they receive feedback? What if we re-evaluated our present approaches to feedback through this lens?

What if we should develop different ways to explain and show the same concept or idea? What if this increases the chance of making a connection to existing schema in a child’s head? If a child does not understand or connect with new information, we increase the chances of connection if we seek to connect to other parts of the child’s schema.

What if modelling is a key aspect of pedagogy that seeks to support the growth of connections and the development of schema? What if modelling systematically consolidates previous learning and takes children forward with their learning – actively building schema?

What if teachers need to support children to remain in their proximal zone so that they wrestle in cognitive conflict and make gains in their learning? What if we let children give up too readily and that children are often inclined to de-select themselves when it gets hard? (particularly if they are disadvantaged) What if low level disruption is the enemy of forming and establishing connections in the brain?

What if “ah ha” moments occur when schema connect to provide a new view of the world? What if such moments can be planned for?

What if the opportunities, experiences and support that we receive (particularly in our first few years) shapes the architecture and web of connections in the brain and that this is the key difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children? What if this early advantage accumulates over time to accentuate the gap?  What if the following represents that difference in size of schema, amount of connections and size of proximal zones between advantaged and disadvantaged children?

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What if  the lower exposure to words, vocabulary and conversation for disadvantaged children  reduce the opportunity to overcome linguistic under-privildge? What if Alex Quigley is right and that the hidden growth of vocabulary significantly determines success?…

“We know that a great deal of our vocabulary is learned incidentally and implicitly outside of those (school) gates. This largely subconscious, hidden growth is like a child’s physical development… By paying attention to vocabulary growth at the micro level, we can better understand it, we can go to cultivating it and in so doing every child will be gifted a wealth of words.” (Alex Quigley, 2018, Closing the Vocabulary Gap))

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“The accident of birth (context and upbringing) is the greatest source of inequality in the US” (James Heckman) … also true in the UK. 

What if the differences in schema and proximal zone is evident in presently lower, middle and higher attaining children…

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What if in a class of 30 children the structure, size, connections (architecture) of each child’s brain is different? What if pitching learning and meeting the cognitive needs of 30 children is the art and science of teaching? What if the Yellow dot represents a particular episode of learning and how just 3 individuals may be able to access this new knowledge, understanding or skill? What if this means that differentiation and pitch by child is the key to supporting more to work in their proximal zone? What if this is not about hitting the sweet spot for all children every lesson, but more often over time … perhaps a different 80% each lesson?

What if we need to “think differently” for presently high attaining children; who need to do different to ensure that they are challenged and stretched in their proximal zone more often?

What if progress is better described like this… (that connections form, erode, stabilise, become hard wired over time; accumulated connections afford the opportunity for new understanding and meaning)…

“Siegler’s image of surging and receding waves helps to explain the seemingly random retreats and swells we experience as we grapple with new skills and tricky concepts. Rather than feeling ashamed about ‘slipping back’ into the old ways of thinking and acting we thought we had outgrown, such episodes are better viewed as part of the natural ebb and flow of learning. Slipping back is part of the process of integrating new and troublesome concepts into our mental webs.” (David Didau, 2016)


What if story telling and narratives have the ability to draw learning together and connect schema in the brain that build greater understanding and bring meaning to the world? What if George Marshall is right and that…

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

What if stories are uniquely powerful in securing new knowledge and understanding? What if these stories mirror the schemas developing and adapting in the heads of young people? What if stories tap into the narrative instinct that we all share; and use from birth to navigate and comprehend the world? What if this is deeply linked to human evolution and how humans have evolved to understand the world in story form; developing useful schemas about the world? What if stories tap into our emotions, attract our attention, and light up areas of the brain that allow us to secure change in our long term memory? (anyone who has delivered assemblies over time will immediately recognise that power of story, particularly when it is about you.)

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What if the curve of forgetting describes the need to consolidate connections and wrap myelin so that new knowledge is assimilated and committed to long term memory? What if interleaved curriculum and re-teaching and revisiting is key to securing changes in long term memory and supporting retrieval; allowing children to apply understanding from one area to seek meaning in another? What if connections break and erode over time if they are not revisited or significantly secured? (adding to the advance and retreat of progress over time)

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What if Dan Coyle is right and that greatness isn’t born it’s grown; talent is physically (and chemically) built through purposeful practice…deep practice?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).”

The challenge then is not to accept poor or wrong assumptions about what our children can achieve, but to develop culture, curriculum and teaching based on cognitive science. An enabling education system that does not limit what individuals are capable of – there is no magic involved in learning something new – it is about sparking connections in the brain, hard-wiring this understanding so that children build schema that allow them to understand the world and to seek meaning.

“From our first steps to our last words, we are what we learn.” (Alex Beard, 2018)

 


Maybe then we will…

  • …see learning as a physical (and chemical) process of sparking new connections in the brain and firming these connections with myelin that secure changes in long term memory so that learning can be applied over time and in different contexts.
  • …understand that only when knowledge, understanding and skills are stored in the long term memory as a permanent feature that children have genuinely made progress – recognising that even then these connections can erode over time.
  • …realise that learning happens when children work in their proximal zone, when there is desirable difficulty and when effort is required to overcome cognitive conflict to assimilate new knowledge, skills and understanding into schema.
  • …build progressive, knowledge (skills)-based (including application) and concept-sensitive curriculum. So that children are supported to systematically build knowledge and understanding over time and in-line with their growing schema. Each stage of education purposefully building the knowledge and conceptual understanding that readies individuals for the next stage.
  • …realise that the “learnt curriculum” is what matters when we consider the efficacy of teaching for securing learning and progress.
  • …realise that this is why teaching is so complicated as every child has schemas and brain architecture that is the result of their unique opportunities and experiences to date; so that each proximal zone and existing architecture will react differently to learning episodes.
  • …realise that disadvantaged children are not innately less able, but the product of lower opportunity and linguistic under privilege. Building knowledge, systematically and applying this knowledge will accelerate learning; vocabulary and heightened exposure to words over time is key.
  • …understand that the real impact of the 30 million word gap by age 3 is a connection deficit in the brain of maybe 60..90..120 million? On this basis it is unsurprising that early advantage and accumulated advantage is so strong in education and underpins the reasons why it is so hard to convert low attaining children age 11 to high attaining by age 16.
  • …stop seeing the gaps in attainment as being the result of differences in innate talent and open up a world of possibility for all children regardless of their start in life and opportunities to date. (the tendency for disadvantaged children to de-select themselves means that too often they do not create or sustain enough connections in long term memory to realise any appreciable progress)
  • …stop using the word “ability” and replace with “present level of attainment.”
  • …realise that it is what is planned between learning episodes based on formative assessment and the skill of teachers to respond in lessons to learning that will keep more children in the their proximal zone more often.
  • …create more specific feedback that seeks to spark and consolidate connections in the brain. Find time to recap, revisit and respond to feedback to build reinforced connections over time.
  • …seek response to feedback when children are in cognitive conflict.
  • …seek greater differentiation so that we can support more to work in their proximal zones over time. Seeking to support children to grapple with desirable difficulty, because we plan more specifically to meet of cognitive needs of children. Thinking different for presently high attaining to secure stretch and challenge in the proximal zone.
  • …use modelling to support schema development.
  • …understand that new connections are fragile and erode over time if they are not fired/used. We would build in to learning opportunities to spiral back to content and ideas with the intention of firming up long term memory.
  • …work harder to plan and create curriculum that is ordered and progressive over time so that concepts and misconceptions and knowledge are visited in an appropriate; supporting the growing schemas in children.
  • …tell stories and tap emotion in passages of learning that heighten both interest and emotion so that children fire across the areas of the brain increasing the chance that physical and chemical changes in the brain are solidified and committed to long term memory.
  • …understand why it is important to taking different approaches to explain new concepts, so that we can access and anchor new learning to different parts of a child’s schema.
  • …teach content and skills in a way that moves up and down through complexity. So that schemas are purposefully developed and consolidated over time and that new knowledge and understanding are introduced to lay the foundation for future learning.
  • …challenge children to seek meaning in their learning; taking risks and thriving in desirable difficulty to build knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • …ensure the highest expectations of attitudes to learning and focus in lessons. Committing learning to long term memory requires cognitive conflict and desirable difficulty; a significant level of focus. Dis-organised or disruptive classes will reduce focus and limit a child’s ability to convert learning to long term memory.

…there are many more implications for education when we consider learning and progress through this lens; but it would appear that Malcolm Gladwell might be right…

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities…” (…that spark connections, build schema and commit knowledge, understanding and skills to long term memory; that is the foundation for success(Malcolm Gladwell)

Dan Nicholls | May 2018 | Twitter: @DrDanNicholls