Closing the disadvantage gap | Curriculum as the lever

Building a sequenced, coherent, cumulatively sufficient and spiraled curriculum from 3 to 19 is perhaps the most important bet we can place for disadvantaged learners

The world is an increasingly challenging place to be a child; the compounding combination of the pandemic, economic hardship and political uncertainty has exposed and entrenched disadvantage in society; threatening to define and harm a generation. Without stronger leadership and greater action, our legacy may reflect that we did not do enough for those who needed us most

This think piece explores our best bets for closing the disadvantage gap. Whilst far from exhaustive, it highlights the central and critical role that curriculum (and the enactment of curriculum) needs to play as the key lever; a bet that accumulates advantage year-on-year and is best placed to privilege those who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage. (and all children)

How … do we privilege those presently and previously experiencing disadvantage … (and) apply a lens (to) 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? from: what if we are the hope and we fail

Placing the curriculum under the disadvantage lens allows much greater specificity in response to this challenge. Identifying the connected best bets that will secure the circumstances and opportunities for children to accumulate advantage in our schools; disproportionately supporting disadvantage learners so that we (upwardly) close the disadvantage gap…

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

Successful people are not gifted; they just work hard, then succeed on purpose.” (G.K. Nielson)

The curriculum, and particularly what we choose to value, how we structure it and how we enact it, is the key lever and our best bet for disadvantaged learners. This long term investment seeks to secure the irreversible conditions required to achieve attainment mobility for all children and prepare disadvantage to thrive in an uncertain world; placing our chips on curriculum.

The impact of disadvantage on learning is not static. It is a long-term process, not a moment or an event. (Marc Rowland)


Give the golden ticket: As educators what we choose to include and how we sequence and curate the curriculum confers or denies power for our disadvantaged learners. Designing the curriculum as the golden ticket to the world for all children is a weighty ethical responsibility. We must think hard about what is in and what is out; what of all that has been thought, written and said gives the very best chance for disadvantaged children to thrive and have self agency throughout their lives. Not everything is of equal importance; we need to seek deep subject domain expertise to consider, identify and curate the key substantive concepts, disciplinary knowledge and powerful necessary knowledge wrapped together in a well-conceived curriculum; as an ever-onward investment.

Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power. (Christine Counsell)

The potential of a progressive, sequenced, cumulatively sequenced Curriculum is our best bet for securing greater…

  • Social justice: The equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
  • Social mobility: The ability of individuals, families or groups to move up or down the social ladder in a society. Social mobility is often used to describe changes in wealth, but it can also be used to describe general social standing or access to education
  • Equity: Ensuring that everyone receives what they need to be successful. In short, equality is not enough to combat disadvantage. “While the world in which we live distributes talent equally, it does not equally distribute opportunity,”
  • …as well as systemically and upwardly closing the disadvantage gap year-on-year.

Think hard about the Conceptual Backbone of the curriculum. Prioritise, as our most important bet, a progressive, cumulatively sufficient curriculum that has a well-conceived conceptual backbone; the key substantive and disciplinary concepts that provide the conceptual fabric and holding baskets (Mary Myatt) for future learning. Weaving vertical threads through subject ropes.

Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. (Stephen Pinker)

We know that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric of the subject. Thinking hard about the conceptual backbone and how this identifies the Big Ideas/Substantive Concepts to be considered through a disciplinary approach, imprints and builds the cognitive architecture. Onto this backbone substantive concepts are thrown into sharp relief and brought to life by judiciously selected necessary, powerful (subject) knowledge, seeding the ground, weaving the nets, creating the Velcro for future learning and for remembering more. Schema sticks knowledge.

It is precisely this schema development, this access to the organising concepts, that is the nurtured gift that advantaged learners bring to our schools as the consequence of experience and supported opportunity over time. It is why the year-on-year progression and securing of the substantive concepts, as threads through the curriculum, is so essential for disadvantaged learners to connect and create conceptual holding baskets for powerful knowledge that self-perpetuates in the future… creating precisely the Mathew Effect that has given an advantage to advantaged learners from birth (and before).

It is this conceptual architecture, schema and backbone that secures the big ideas, makes sense of and holds necessary, powerful knowledge that develops disciplinary understanding to build historians, authors, mathematicians, geographers, artists… who develop their states of being over time (…and with it their identity, self-esteem, sense of place, agency and belonging).

Concepts are sitting in every part of the curriculum and they cannot be left to chance, because they are acting as holding baskets for a lot of information. (Mary Myatt)


See the Curriculum as the progression model; it raises the tide. It is the year-on-year progression through a cumulatively sufficient curriculum that is the biggest opportunity and the best bet for disadvantaged learners to close the gap.

Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily. (Bruner, 1960)

Constructing and curating the curriculum and the enactment of it is a long term bet that requires a long term investment – it is precisely the coherence and sequence built progressively over time that lifts and raises the tide for all and particularly disadvantaged learners. As educationalists we need to give the capacity, space and time for subject experts to carefully craft, curate and develop curriculum. Children get one chance, one opportunity to experience a coherent, progressive curriculum; incoherence and arbitrary knowledge is leaving the guesswork to chance and children.

The curriculum requires an infinite mindset; one that requires educators to plant trees for the future. The development of curriculum through a child’s lens lasts at least from age 3 (although we also know the first 1001 days from conception is a significant determinant) to age 19 and beyond; approaching two decades. A daunting, yet helpful perspective. If the power of curriculum is its cumulative coherence and sufficiency over time – regular revolution and change of curriculum is detrimental for learners; and particularly disadvantaged learners. (how often has curriculum changed in the last 15 years? how has this lack of continuity and coherence impacted on the progress of disadvantaged learners?)

The curriculum should not be half baked. Random curriculum (or poorly conceived curriculum), can present the prospect of multi-serendipitous findings for advantaged learners to make sense of within their well-connected schema, an opportunity to meander and make meaning. For disadvantaged learners it feels more like a trek into an abstract unknown, poorly structured and sequenced, day on day struggle to work out how this bit fits. This cognitive conflict and dissonance gradually erodes confidence and shifts the blame onto themselves, reaffirming that they do not belong. (Discontinuity and incoherence is damaging for disadvantaged learners; hence the presently widening gap as the impact is not felt evenly).


Stay close to the backbone its strength is realised over time; it holds, supports and directs the curriculum, but it is an investment that should be viewed in yearsdecades (resist mission creep into a world of arbitrary knowledge, topics, lists, whims… ). Too much curriculum and teaching steers too far from both the substantive concepts and disciplinary approach to deliver arbitrary knowledge not held by the conceptual/big ideas of the subject or supported through the development of disciplinary knowledge and states of being.

closeup photography of cairn stone

Staying close to the backbone requires teachers to consider less content and to deepen teaching that hangs around on the big ideas, concepts and the judiciously selected necessary knowledge that catalyses and provides the stickier holding baskets for future learning; covering what matters most, better.


Beware the noisy, content heavy, multi-topic curriculum that is bursting with arbitrary knowledge – chasing that which is not worth having (or that which will not stick in the absence of a conceptual backbone or secure holding baskets, or because ultimately much detail is forgotten in the long term).

Arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system ‘an arbitrary decision’

Instead judiciously select necessary knowledge that exposes, simplifies and exemplifies the organising concepts and big ideas of our curriculum; think networks of knowledge held by concepts and less about facts and lists. Understanding that it is the substantive concepts and the disciplinary understanding that is the goal of the curriculum, which is brought to life through judiciously selected knowledge; gifting the thrill of insight and knowing more to disadvantaged learners.

Arbitrary knowledge, content and topics selected randomly or as a personal (or historic) whim is kryptonite for disadvantaged learners. Understanding the organising concepts gives the thrill of insight and the ‘feeling of being clever’ that super-charges curiosity; as disadvantaged become advantaged and see the world differently and are then in turn increasingly motivated to test new experiences and information against their new view of the world. Gifting how subjects are organised and the concepts that define it not only tackles disadvantage in the present, but also into the future within and beyond the subject – setting the type of schema and conceptual awareness that many advantaged learners bring to school.


Subject is King. Curriculum is enacted through the lens of subject. These domains organise and structure our curriculum into distinct realms. Only deep investment over time on how subjects are constructed will provide the insight that teachers need to teach (not present) the substantive concepts, build disciplinary understanding and secure the pertinent and president knowledge that allows pupils to know more, remember more and do more. (understanding that much will be forgotten, but that the organising concepts will live on to allow learners to know what to do when they do not know what to do, throughout their lives). Pushing wide open a door for colleagues to think deeply and celebrate widely the unique aspects of their subject; to get their subject geek on (but not in the undisciplined pursuit of content, but in the underlying structure that is so important to learning).

There is significant ‘polymathic’ demand on primary teachers and schools. To realise the intention of the new framework and to invest deeply in curriculum and subject requires significant subject domain expertise… unlikely to exist within a single primary. Educators from across 3-19 must work together altruistically across our sector to think hard about and curate accessible and understood subject curricular for teachers (and pupils). Groups of school creating the collaborative structures and subject knowledge expertise to curate curriculum that will disproportionately support those presently experiencing disadvantage.

There is a reverse problem in secondary, where the degree-level expertise tends to lean towards content-heavy curricula that are prone to ‘arbitrary’ knowledge, whims and a breadth of curriculum that is too noisy and not efficient enough to secure and deepen understanding of the conceptual framework; placing responsibility for drawing connections across subjects with students. For some learners, this autonomy leads to meaning making and mastery and for others the incoherence leads to dislocation and disconnection. We need much greater debate and discussion on what it means to be a teacher of…


Sequence matters; really matters within learning episodes. Learning happens when we think hard and where we can connect new ideas securely into our existing schema. When disadvantaged learners meet new learning in our classrooms they really need it to be enacted in a sequence that is coherent and cumulative. Whilst advantaged learners have cultural capital and developed schema that is more resistant to poorly sequenced learning, disadvantaged learners are much less able to make sense of poor sequence; the curriculum literally becomes out-of-order (and out of reach) for disadvantaged learners if it is enacted out of order.

Disadvantaged learners are likely to have less well developed schema, which makes them far more sensitive to learning that is out of sequence. Given that disadvantaged learners often need to structure and re-structure schema as opposed to accrete or tune schema it really matters the order in which areas are taught. Learners with limited or less stable schema are more likely to reject (fail to resolve cognitive conflict) new learning that is not well sequenced and sensitive to previous knowledge and existing schema.

Sequencing that achieve an hours-worth of learning for an hours-worth of input will close the gap for disadvantaged learners. Typically, disadvantaged learners are far more likely to assume that they alone do not understand when learning/teaching is out of sequence; “that does not make sense, it must be me,” compared to advantaged learners who are self-confident enough to recognise poor sequence, “this is a bit odd, but I am confident with what I already know, I’ll tolerate the learning and assimilate as I go.”


Give Status; Small Moments of Prestige, that say you belong. Disadvantaged learners are more likely to have an external locus of control, to step back and to opt out of learning. Our perceived status drives are sense of belonging, our connectedness, our value and ultimately whether we are part of the game (and entitled to be…). The Pandemic has driven far greater disenfranchisement in education; if you do not see yourself as part of the game, you will opt out and protect yourself from further status harm by playing a different game or cutting losses to avoid playing and failing.

It is easy to forget we have status to give, that it costs nothing and it never runs out. …Allowing others to feel statusful makes it more likely they’ll accept our influence. (Will Storr, 2021)

It’s probably not a surprise to discover that feeling deprived of status is a major source of anxiety and depression. When life is a game we’re losing, we hurt. …To our brains, status is a resource as real as oxygen or water. When we lose it, we break. (Will Storr, 2021)

As humans we seek status, typically measuring against those that we are closest to. Classrooms are on-going status games, one that reflects a key aspect of being human.

…our curriculum should whisper to our children, “You belong. You did not come from nowhere. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.” (Ben Newmark)

Create learning spaces where all children belong. Without psychological safety we cannot attend to what is to be learnt. Within these spaces how do we gift Small Moments of Prestige and build every learners status, how do we have greater awareness of how we give status and build a fully inclusive space for all and particularly those learners experiencing disadvantage.

To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen and to feel included by a group of people… to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider. (Owen Eastwood, 2021)


Build schema by weaving (conceptual) nets. Do not presume previous knowledge, weave conceptual nets, stop throwing fish at broken nets. We are the sum of our memories (and opportunities and experiences) over time. This means that each individual is unique; be wary of working to the average. This uniqueness is to be celebrated and yet it provides the wickedest of problems for teaching. Each of us bring a range of schema to our learning; some advanced and deep, others beginning and shallow.

white and blue net

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)

Our understanding of the world and our place in it is built over time through the development of schema.

“…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)

When we meet new information (and when we are primed to attend to it) we typically do one of four things:

  • Accretion: Add it into existing schema with little cognitive conflict, like inserting a new puzzle piece into existing puzzle.
  • Tuning: Tweak and reshape what is already known or understood in light of new insight. The puzzle picture shifts to reveal a new truth or connection.
  • Restructure or structuring: New information is acquired by thinking hard about it and securing a few connections together that can hold fast. New puzzle under construction (without repeating or see in other contexts, learning likely to be insecure).
  • Rejection: New information is beyond proximal zone, cannot resolve the cognitive conflict. No puzzle to add too, starting a new puzzle is too abstract or teaching not made the leap to existing puzzles.

Deepening the wicked problem; the importance of the proximal zone a space that is typically narrower for disadvantaged learners. Understanding where children are in their learning and the scope of previous knowledge is particularly important for disadvantaged learners who have much less scope to wrestle with learning that is beyond schema.

Disadvantaged learners typically have less developed schema supported by cultural capital and opportunities and experiences over time. This is not linked to innate ability. Whilst advantaged learners typically spend time in the accreting and tuning space, and within their proximal zone much more often, disadvantaged learners typically spend more time structuring or restructuring, wrestling often beyond the proximal zone to build understanding and retain exemplifying knowledge. Careful structuring of learning episodes to systematically build in the fundamental and foundational concepts and the introduction of ‘necessary knowledge’ gives a greater chance for cognitive dissonance to be resolved.

“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)

In this way we can build conceptual nets that allow more knowledge and understanding to be caught by disadvantaged learners; levelling-up the playing field towards advantaged learners who drag thickly woven nets (conceptual fabric of the subject) that are steeped in cultural capital and understanding that collect much of what is available in classrooms (even where it is poorly taught). It is why advantaged still make progress with poor teaching and why poor teaching has a disproportionately negative impact on the progress of disadvantaged(Helpfully the reverse is true, highly effective teaching secures greater progress for disadvantaged compared to advantaged).

Consistent, insightful formative assessment, that allows teachers to build conceptual understanding and to teach the next bit, disproportionately advantages disadvantaged learners. We need to consider particularly the pre-work and the structure of sequences of learning to address previous conceptual and knowledge gaps and at the same time consistently build learning with one eye on future learning.


Seek subject domain experts to inform, curate, collaborate and evolve the conceptual backbone of the curriculum (as an ever-onward); those who will know and understand the threads that weave vertically through the subject. Subject Communities and Subject Groups who together curate an efficient curriculum that enables all learners to secure the substantive concepts, disciplinary knowledge, meaning and understanding through the judicious selection of powerful knowledge. Where subject is celebrated and seen as an academic pursuit, where the discussion and talk is deep, expert and about how subjects are uniquely structured and organised, revealing the conceptual backbone essential for holding and accelerating learning over time…

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something they do and want to learn how to do it better by interacting regularly.” (Etienne Wenger)

Double down on and build deep understanding of the conceptual backbone with teachers and other colleagues. Teachers and colleagues often engaging in deep professional subject specific discussion and debate on the nuances and peculiarities of concept development over time. So that against this backcloth and architecture we can identify and judiciously select the necessary powerful knowledge, Tier 3 vocabulary, and secure understanding and meaning to allow all learners to know more, remember more and do more. We must create the conditions for collective endeavour, the pursuit of subject and collaboration; creating Communities of Practice in each subject/department, where teachers deliberately plan, sequence and play with pedagogy that will best enact the shared curriculum. A powerful alchemy is created when colleagues discuss practice on aligned curriculum across schools and evaluate often.

Teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long term memory and apply them fluently (Ofsted Framework)

Create much more space for teachers to debate, discuss, test and evaluate the pedagogy and teaching that is most efficacious in every way for the delivery of the specific subject necessary knowledge and conceptual framework; this can only be done in the consideration and shared planning of specific sequences of learning that fit the curriculum backbone and are an exploration of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. We should deeply invest in Communities of Practice; the result of these curriculum conversations are our disadvantaged learners best chance of experiencing teaching that is efficient, effective and focused on what matters most.


Deeply consider and discuss Pedagogy. Teachers teach, presenters present. The careful selection of pedagogy in planning sequence and in response to following learning to meet need within learning episodes is the determining factor on the quality of the curriculum. Where the teacher habits, skills, strategies and approaches are highly aligned to the subject content and disciplinary nature of the subject we will accelerate learning, year-on-year. Whilst it is important to build habits and skills of teachers, particularly those that maximise learning time, secure routines and create climates that maximise attention and attending to learning, these are just the starting point of establishing the climate for learning. Those habits and skills that are deeply linked to the specific subject knowledge acquisition and for developing subject conceptual understanding and the disciplinary aspects of the subject will secure greater learning now and in the future. Matching the pedagogical choices to the particular curriculum item, subject nuance and specific desired learning over time.


Don’t build Knowledge in a vacuum; curriculum is not a list it is a network. We learn and remember knowledge and build understanding in relation to what is already known and understood. We compare and contrast and attempt to resolve/assimilate what is new with what we already know.

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

Stacking knowledge in isolation of context and concept slows learning. Acquiring knowledge and building understanding in context accelerates learning.

The large amount of school time spent in direct word study is not being spent on systemically becoming familiar with new knowledge domains, where word learning occurs naturally, and up to four times faster, without effort. (Hirsch, 2017)

…we should be wary of assuming stacking vocabulary in a list for some quick quizzing offers anything like the deep understanding and rich connections pupils need to make between words, phrases, concepts and big ideas. (Alex Quigley)

We also need to balancing another wicked problem: how do we judiciously introduce new knowledge and new understanding in and within context, without increasing noise and surplus information far beyond the conceptual scope of some disadvantaged learners?

We need to offer insight and examples to embed learning so that learners wrestle with co-occurrences, varied examples and contexts to secure connections and deepen understanding. Using analogy, explaining and modelling expertly so that we explore the multi-faceted richness experienced when growing up advantaged.

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))


Seek rich retrieval. Retrieval practices should seek rich context based retrieval in preference to memory tests; teaching should seek to be memorable more than a test of memory. Engaging, rehearsing, exploring, discussing, explaining, defending… are far richer for memory than fact checks and quizzing.

It is inefficient to learn facts, vocab, knowledge in the absence of the conceptual fabric of the curriculum. Tier 3 vocabulary for example requires anchoring in learner’s schema. Where necessary knowledge is built within context and where it is judiciously selected to reinforce the conceptual fabric of the curriculum backbone the new information is stickier and retained up to four time faster. Where this is linked to a strong narrative and mental model we have an opportunity to disproportionately enable disadvantaged learners to close gaps efficiently and more precisely.


Investing deeply in debate, discussion and oracy. We have an opportunity to accelerate the learning of those experiencing the most disadvantage through effective oracy practice. As we support our learners to discover and use their voice as part of their learning and as a result of their learning, we enable them to develop more deeply their own sense of belonging and sense of self, with significant impact on mental health and well-being – not as a tokenistic sidebar, but as an embedded pedagogy upon which the curriculum rides. The very thinking needed as children journey through our curriculum can in many cases most effectively be done as part of dialogic learning, using subject as the ‘grammar’ and talk as the vehicle to develop critical thought. (Neil Phillipson, Dialogic Education: Mastering Core Concepts). Understanding that the development of individual and collective oracy as curriculum is essential for accelerating advantage for disadvantaged learners.


Tell Stories to tap into what makes us human. Dan Willingham highlights that, “our brain privileges story.” Fortunately, stories exist across the whole curriculum and yet our enactment of the curriculum can often revert to something far colder and transactional.

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function 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)

There are many things that attract and hold the attention of brains. Storytellers engage a number of neural processes that evolved for a variety of reasons and are waiting to be played like instruments in an orchestra: moral outrage, unexpected change, status play, specificity, curiosity and so on. By understanding them, we can more easily create stories (curriculum and sequences) that are gripping, profound, emotional and original. (Will Storr, 2019)


Tell stories about words. Etymology offers the opportunity to discover the roots of words that build stories around each word that makes them stickier (connection-wise) in the brain and offers further capacity for future learning. Mary Myatt insightfully highlights that this taps the curiosity of children (something innate in humans) and makes them feel clever. This disproportionately benefits disadvantage who go deeper into the learning and secure the necessary knowledge that will close the disadvantaged gap as well as giving status to learners, empowering them and give them the ticket to culture.

Seek to support learners to use Tier 3 vocabulary with the ease, confidence and fluency that more befits Tier 2 vocabulary. A significant passport not just to the world but also to conceptual understanding that creates the holding baskets for future learning.

Provoke, even anger learners, make them care about learning. Curriculum that provokes, that challenges is one that is much more likely to persuade the brain that this is important enough to encode, that this is important enough to release chemicals to secure connections and wrap myelin, that this is important to me and my life and my future. Curriculum that has provoking questions/hypotheses/conjectures, demands a response and tap emotions. Emotionally linked experiences, both positive and negative, are encoded much more quickly and secured in the longer term; if learning through the curriculum feels more like a quest or a mission it is more likely to be both coherent, memorable and remembered.


Make it irresistibly important, give a sense of urgency. We learn what we care about. Cognitive science has highlighted the chemical changes that happen when we code new learning. If the content of what is to be learnt is not deemed important enough, if it is not compelling enough to think hard about, it does not trigger the emotional/chemical response to connect and encode it.

Inside the brain, this relevance is expressed through widely reaching systems that release chemicals called neuromodulators… releasing with high specificity (to) allow change occur (in the brain) only at specific places and times. … The presence of acetylcholine… tells it to change… they increase plasticity in the target areas. When they’re inactive, there’s little or no plasticity (learning). (David Eagleman, 2020)

So when we attend to something, whether by free will, a burst of emotion, under coercion or by finding meaning in it, we hugely increase our chances of remembering it. (Alex Beard, 2018)

Clearly teaching is not about performance, but it is about moving learners to care enough to trigger chemical and attention cues so that new information is encoded and wrestled with. To this end making learning irresistible, provocative and conflicting is vital.

We learn what we attend to, what we think hard about. Unless the classroom climate enables such focus, particularly for disadvantaged learners who may become distracted in class (because if you bring less into the classroom, or you have other things on the mind, it is harder), and by events out of class (because we need both psychological safety as well as being able to park ‘the multi-distractions of life’ at the door), then learning is slowed and the gap widens. We learn when we attend to the information at hand, when we enhance it into focus, released neurotransmitters to encode, create connections, wrap connections and stick long enough at it to secure connections.

It is my fear there are a great many struggling children who believe they are colluding in a game in which their role is to be physically present in a classroom and to make a pretence they are learning in it, but that nobody really believes anything meaningful is ever accomplished and this doesn’t really matter. (Ben Newmark)

Make learning compelling and irresistibly important. We are competing for attention and convincing other humans (disadvantaged learners) that this is too important to be ignored. Allied with the award of status across the class and judicious issuing of small moments of prestige; learners feel valued, empowered to learn more and to take risks.

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 learning and our understanding of the world is more catastrophic than we think? Our view of what we are capable of, of how we understand the world, a subject, a concept often progresses catastrophically and not in a linear way. Once we have seen what we are capable of (or see the world differently) we are never the same. Teachers and the curriculum should create fertile grounds for this insight, born out of the curriculum, opportunity, feedback, modeling, explaining etc.

Great teaching create serendipity fields for all learners, but particularly disadvantaged learners who need to have experiences and supported opportunities that grow and intertwine understanding that is the structure for powerful knowledge that needs to accelerate learning if we are to close the gap.


Whilst the world is an increasingly challenging place to be a child, we have an opportunity as educators to address the embarrassing inequality that exists and work together to close the disadvantage gap. Our collective capacity and shared expertise applied to the development and enactment of curriculum is our best bet, or set of linked bets, to advantage disadvantaged learners. This is the key lever that accumulates advantage year-on-year and is best placed to privilege those who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage.

Our best hope is to adopt a laser like focus on disadvantage. We can then shine a light on those left behind at school and find ways to ignite their minds. (Lee Elliott Major, 2022)


Dan Nicholls | February 2022

This is significantly influenced by the insight and expertise of colleagues from across the Cabot Learning Federation.

Pre-reading for the South West Disadvantage Network | 18th February 2022

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

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)

neuronas-cerebrales

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?

Slide15

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…

Slide6


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)

Slide9

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?..

Slide12

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?

Slide13

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))

Slide1

“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…

Slide11

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.)

Slide2

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)

Slide16


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

Outstanding Meetings | How groups drive improvement

“Right at the heart of what makes humans unique is their social interaction and most importantly empathy… we are hardwired to connect social interaction with survival and that no connection can be more powerful; this is deep in our nature.” (Geoff Colvin, 2015)

It is probably true.. that we spend a significant amount of time in meetings and yet they vary greatly in terms of their impact. The way groups interact, their culture, structure, quality of interaction, expectations and the groupthink dynamics mean that meetings can be prone to encouraging poor decisions, wasting precious time, limiting progress and not delivering the ambition of the people attending.

and.. we are prone to accepting the norm and becoming conditioned to how meetings run  and teams interact in our organisation.

Jobs-quote

It is also probably true.. that there are some excellent teams who squeeze the very best out of their precious meeting time, planning and executing team/group interaction to ensure high impact that secures improvement. It is also probably true.. that highly effective groups, teams and meetings do not happen by chance – they are highly engineered, developed over-time and are based on a set of key principles that need to be developed…because details matter, it’s worth getting it right.


Which begs the question.. what are the key aspects of effective meetings/groups? How do we nudge and develop the quality of social interaction within groups/teams so that they deliver purposeful collaboration and drive improvement? In short, how do effective teams and groups collaborate to secure high performance and accelerate improvement?

(How do your meetings rate against the checklist in the Maybe then… section?)


What if.. we remembered why face-to-face meetings are so important to our culture and that they should be seen as an important vehicle for adding significant value over time and drive improvement? Seeking groups and working in teams is hard-wired into our brains – it taps deep into what makes us human and is far superior to electronic connection and phone conversations – are most important advances typically happen in person and in groups.

“…the number one factor in making a groups effective is (the depth of) human interaction. Social skills are the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage … “ideas flow” …how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all of the participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we understood that this is a workload issue. Efficient, effective, meaningful meetings reduce workload and use time efficiently to focus on the key priorities that will most benefit the team/organisation?

What if.. it is all in the preparation. Given that meetings use high amounts of collective time and significant sums of money, the planning and preparation should seek to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings? What if..

  • The agenda is published at least 48 hours prior to the meeting (7 days perhaps)?
  • The agenda is timed so that each item is given a clearly defined slot?
  • It is really not ok to not read pre-released materials prior to a meeting?

What if.. leaders take time to clarify each item and each person’s contribution to the meeting. Securing the key decisions to be made, considering the key questions and likely actions for each part of the agenda? What if.. leaders cancelled items where members have not prepared thoroughly or where the meeting will not add to the item or secure improvement in-line with the organisational aims?

What if.. there is a strategic focus for meetings. So that the focus is on the Why and a bit of the How, but largely avoids the What, which is to be owned and developed outside of the meeting and closer to the action? (Sinek and Maquett) (Interestingly: Different voices are heard in meetings depending on whether the discussion is on the Why, the How or the What.)

the-golden-circle

What if.. the actions identified in the previous meeting are always reviewed with the expectation that these would have been addressed (what if.. leaders did not let people off the hook for their actions) – What if.. this secured a motivating level of accountability to the group?

What if.. the leader/chair secured an appropriate level of urgency and drive to the meeting to reinforce its importance and reflect that time is precious. What if.. leaders took responsibility to reflect and improve the quality of meetings and team interactions?

What if.. we were committed to and are tenacious in keeping to the the pre-agreed timings – limiting discussion where required? What if.. groups were made to stick to the agenda and not go off on tangents?

What if.. we were aware of the dangers of groupthink? (taken from Sunstein and Hastie’s book Wiser (2015)) In particular..

  • Groups often amplify, rather than correct, individual errors in judgement.
  • Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as members follow what others say or do.
  • Groups become polarized, adopting more extreme positions than the ones they began with.
  • Groups can emphasise what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information that only a few people know.

“Most managers are exceedingly busy…it is tempting for them to prefer employees who offer upbeat projections and whose essential message is that there is no need to worry (Happy Talk). Employees…(can be) reluctant to provide their bosses with bad news. No one likes to be anxious or spread anxiety, especially to those who have power over them.(Cosy Club)” (Sunstein and Hastie, in Wiser, 2015)

What if.. groups can be prone to “Happy Talk” – where it is easier for members to support the growing concensus and say things that will keep the leader/chair happy? … and feed the Cosy Club?

What if.. we are vulnerable to being pursuaded more by how an idea is delivered as opposed to the merits of the idea. What if.. we are knowingly or un-knowingly bias towards other members of the group and to their ideas – what if we reinforce this bias by finding the good in what our favoured people say and ignore the weaker parts?

What if.. meetings become hijacked by professional (and forceful) opinion givers and persuaders – more interested in serving their own ego than the overall good of the group?

“Conversational turn taking also made a big difference; groups dominated by a few talkers were less effective than those in which members took more equal turns.” (Colvin , 2015)

What if.. “social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow”. (Colvin, 2015) What if.. group performance depends upon how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.

What if.. the meetings are dominated by one or a few individuals? What if.. decisions are normally aligned to the bossiest individual? What if.. any benefit of groupthinking is removed by a dominant participant; essentially limiting the quality of output to the quality of that person?

What if.. Leaders strategically self-silenced themselves?

“…leaders and high status members can do the group a big service by indicating their willingness and their desire to hear uniquely held information…Leaders can also refuse to state a firm view from the outset and in that way all space for more information to emerge.”(Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. all members of the meeting are obliged to provide a perspective (that self-silencing is actively discouraged)- so that the group can benefit from the widest viewpoint? This supports groups to benefit from insider-outsider viewpoints and reduces organisational blindness (Tett, 2015). What if.. the leaders actively brought individuals into discussions?

“If the group encourages disclosure of information – even if information opposes the group’s inclination – the self-silencing will be reduced significantly.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. it is not ok to be a bystander. What if.. “self-silencing” happens where the culture is not conducive to a range of ideas or is dominated by a few?

What if.. success is a majority agreement not full concesus – to provide the safety and support for divergent and opposing viewpoints to exist? What if.. we openly welcomed and rewarded opposing views and ideas?

What if.. silence was taken to mean that individuals agree with the item and that where they disagree or require further information that this is indicated at the time?

What if.. Adam Grant is right the most successful groups use a “giver culture“…helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return.” And perhaps this is the basis for the high collegiate, low ego culture required in meetings and teams to drive-up group success and organisational improvement?

What if.. group effectiveness depends on building up social capital of the team? (avoiding the dangers posed by Cosy Clubs) Colvin (2015) provides a good example of Steve Jobs who kept together the six top executives for 13 years until he stepped down as CEO of Apple in 2011.

What if.. we championed and rewarded divergent thinking so that when appropriate groups generated a large number of ideas in short contributions from all members of the group – seeking and promoting individual viewpoints. What if.. we actively dispatched and brought in outsiders to provide an insider-outsider viewpoint (Tett, 2015)

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions groups make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. (influenced from, Thaler and Sunstein, 2008)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to priortise what is important and to stay on track? What if… meetings and groups discussion sought to prioritise, asking…

“…what’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if.. active listening is expected from all… and this meant eye-contact and small gestures to acknowledge the developing contributions. What if.. this meant all members were active note takers and (as reflected in research)…

“…engage…in ‘deep interactions,’  with group members constantly alternating between advancing their own ideas and responding to contributions of others with “good”,”right”, “what?”and other super-short comments that signaled concensus on ideas value, good or bad.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we run scenarios of the future based on the decisions made by the group. What if.. these were considered in terms of possible and probable futures? What if.. we exercised high levels of empathy..changed perspective..and spent enough time thinking about how decision will be receieved by stakeholders and the likely level of adoption?

What if… we use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate, Black Hat (Thinking Hats approach) or set-up red teams, who construct a case against the proposed idea, change to test the quality and sustainability of a strategy or change. What if.. we tested whether each proposed change is likely to be there and sustaining improvement in 3 years time?

What if.. we realised the importance of execution and that we need to invest time in meetings ensuring that the execution of actions is fully timed, owned, evolved and reviewed?

Slide2

What if.. we ask “end of spectrum” questions to provoke debate, creativity and innovation?

  • If our lives depended on it what would we do?
  • If we were a new leadership team in this organisation what would we do?
  • If we had all the time and money we required what would we do?
  • If you had to argue against this course of action – what case would you build?
  • Are we answering the right question?

What if.. we use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking (Syed, 2015) and brings a key reality to the decision making and to measuring impact.

“Nothing seems to inject reality into a discussuin and banish wishful thinking and biased speculations as well as empirical evidence, especially in the form of data and numbers.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. the power of questioning creates better meetings and better decisions? … As Barber highlights…

“…our perception of what is possible is obstructed by historic assumptions about what is possible – they stop us considering game-changing innovations. Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered. Barber sets high targets to support ambition, urgency and to force a wide consideration of options. To drive change there needs to be a strict focus – “delivery never sleeps” (influenced by Michael Barber, 2015)

 


ALSO What if…

  • … it is not ok to allow the agenda to fill the time available – finishing an effective and efficient meeting early is a good thing.
  • … the expectation is that everyone is 5 minutes early to every meeting…(what if members are not allowed to attend after the start?)
  • … the chair was decisive and assured in maintaining both quality, timing and the momentum of the meeting?
  • … Steve Jobs was right and that only the very key people should be in a meeting making key decisions – do we get the group/meeting attendance right?
  • phones and laptops are banned? – the meeting is either worth the full attention of the members or it is not.
  • … side-conversations were not tolerated and that no one spoke over anyone else, ensuring a shared bouncing of ideas across the group.
  • only ideas and not their owners were examined or pulled apart? What if.. it should never be about taking sides?
  • … post-mortems, conducted well, are a key way for groups and teams to learn?
  • … within 24 hours the actions of a meeting are clearly circulated to all members – highlighting and driving accountability.

Maybe then.. we would use the following checklist to assess our meetings and the effectiveness of our groups and teams. Also Maybe then.. we would realise that this is hard to achieve and that it needs to be deliberately developed over-time to add real value to an organisation… the opportunity to improve our groups, teams and meetings is too important to ignore.

  1. Meticulusly plan each meeting – it occupies too much time and cost too much money not to be fully planned. Understanding and evaluating the intention of each item.
  2. Keep meetings tight – effective and efficient. Start on time, consider who really should be attending, no mobiles/laptops, keep to time, read pre-released information, keep to the agenda, no side conversations, seek clear actions, keep concise minutes and seek high accountability for agreed actions (always follow-up actions – avoid letting people of the hook) – finish on time.
  3. Delivery never sleeps – meetings should prioritise the most leveraging items for discussion and agreement. There sould be a level of urgency and drive delivered through the leader/chair – this is precious time.
  4. Beware of and share the dangers of group think (empowering groups to identify these dangers in meetings):
    1. Amplifying errors through a lack of critical discussion.
    2. Cascading initial or most forcfully delivered ideas
    3. becoming polarized based on allegance instead of the ideas
    4. Having a narrow view and limited development of ideas as the group only shares knowledge known by all  (or that of the most vocal) – lacking wider viewpoints and insider-outsider views.
  5. Find ways to support broad brainstorming, explore wide perspectives and encouage Divergent Thinking to solve problems, generate ideas and develop strategy. Effective groups seek and support “idea flow” from all participants.
  6. Avoid a culture that is dominated by “Happy Talk” within a “Cosy Club”. Seek majority agreement, by tolerating and exploring opposing positions – decisions to be supported by all outside of the meeting.
  7. Use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking and brings a key reality to decision making and to measuring impact. People need to feel something to change their views (Kotter).
  8. Beware the Bystander and the tendency for individuals to be self-silencing – create structures and an ethos that expect participation. Reward opposing viewpoints and critical comment – make it a safe environment to share critical views. Ensure silence is taken as agreement. Develop a “Givers culture” (Grant, 2015)
  9. Leaders and chairs need to take to opportunity to be self-silencing to avoid over-influencing decisions and draw a wider range of opinions out.
  10. Beware the Hijacker – generate cultures that champion group as opposed to individual success – counter act dominant individuals – make it about the groups/teams success not individual success.
  11. Provoke wider views and perspective through end-of-spectrum questions and scenario creation to test the impact and likely success of strategies.
  12. Use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate or Black Hat etc. or red teaming – set-up a team who construct a case against the proposed idea, strategy or change.
  13. Promote an ethos and culture of active listening and deep buy-in – enhance where meetings or team interaction are meaningful, effective and efficient.
  14. Execute all actions agreed in meetings – ensuring enough time is spent thinking-through delivery and execution over-time. Always return to the actions to secure accountability and the on-going effectiveness of he meeting.
  15. Why?, What if?, Have we thought?, What is the consequence of? – our meetings and group interactions need to be rich in clever and searching questions? Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered.

“…participating in co-operative group behaviour  – working for the success of the group without regard to potential personal rewards – makes us high.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. I took some of this advice?

Dan Nicholls

April 2016

How can MATs be more than the sum of their parts?…

How can Multi Academy Trusts realise their potential in a rapidly changing educational landscape so that they become more than the sum of their parts and make a contribution to system leadership that transforms education as we know it?

1 + 1 = 3

It is probably true that education is going through rapid change through Academisation and the growth of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs); the temporarily weak academies get sponsored, the perceived stronger ones seek to form and grow their MATs. What happens within MATs and in particular their effectiveness at driving and sustaining academy improvement will determine the success of this educational transformation. Will the system become self-improving?

It is also probably true that there are key strategies and opportunities afforded by the scale and connection within MATs that have real potential to transform leadership, teaching, professional development, assessment, learning, outcomes and ultimately the life chances of children in our communities.


 

What if.. the following provides a useful framework and description of the key approaches, mindsets and strategies that will enable MATs to add value and raise standards beyond what was possible when the individual partners in a MAT stood alone…

Slide1


In a changing educational landscape stand-alone Academies can become increasingly isolated, organisationally blind and vulnerable to dips in performance. At the same time there is increasing evidence of the significant benefits and security that comes with being part of a group of Academies within a Multi Academy Trust. The last half-decade has seen an acceleration in the establishment of new MATs as well as the rapid expansion of the pioneer MATs. Whilst this has fundamentally altered the educational landscape, most MATs are presently immature and rapidly exploring the potential benefits of deep collaboration and collegiality. Additionally, maturing MATs are beginning to exploit system leadership to secure a wider impact and are seeking MAT to MAT collaboration to secure greater provision, opportunity and outcomes for our young people.

“The new generation of campaigners must be collaborative in a way their predecessors were not, and had far less need to be.” (Hayman and Giles, 2015)

There is an urgent need to understand this new dynamic and exploit the opportunities that this evolving landscape is providing. This considers eight areas and approaches that have the potential to add significant value to Academies within a MAT and ensure MATs secure greater impact and improvement.

“System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining.” (Senge et al., 2015)


 

Slide2

What if.. there is a deepening of moral purpose and the motivating notion of improving the system, with other Academies; influencing and improving the educational provision for a greater number of individuals. Reinforcing this shared purpose, collective goal and deeper ambition provides the fuel for collaboration and system-focused altruism required to add greater value to the system.

The attraction of joint initiative and collaboration, carefully fostered within a MAT, exploits the useful tension between co-operation and competition. Supported through regular connection and transparent performance data, academies push and pull each other to achieve greater success against this shared purpose to uplift communities and have an impact and this generation and those that follow.

“There are many strategic benefits…from aligning joint effort, and for combining collective investment for competitive gain. Uplifting leaders know that these (collaboration and competition) are the yin and yang of enduring success.” (Hargreaves et al., 2014)

What if.. the development and use of data across a MAT provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast performance?

Matthew Syed considers Black Box Thinking (2015) and the benefit of deeply understanding and investigating performance. Where quantitative and qualitative data across all functions of Academies within a MAT are compared there is an opportunity to identify bright spots and positively deviant behaviours that have impact (Dan and Chip Heath, 2010). Centralised, shared and transparent data trawling, scrutiny and analysis allows greater focus on what matters as well as deepening accountability. As Jim Collins (2001) states, you cannot do anything without first confronting the brutal facts of your reality. For MATs this is the basis of a self-improving system and for the identification of trails, both at MAT and individual Academy level. Black box thinking and transparency of key indicators is a key advantage of collaboration for individual Academies within MATs, particularly where they…

“…have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins, 2001)

What if.. well-connected Academies within MATs have a unique opportunity to reduce organisational blindness and to bust silos? Gillian Tett, considers the impact of working in Silos, suggesting that:

“If we become blind creatures of habit our lives are poorer as a result.” (Tett, 2015)

There is significant value gained from leaders, teachers and wider staff moving between Academies within a MAT (permanently, seconded, temporarily or for reviews) that supports improvement and is a tangible element of deep collaboration. Importantly this supports Academies to learn from, evaluate, assimilate and adopt practices that are shown to have had impact in other Academies. Where fluidity of movement is high there is increasing alignment of practices across the MAT that can reduce the need for direct standardisation or imposition of practices. As MATs mature, this movement is increasingly strategic and increasingly extends through the organisation to balance resources and intervene to accelerate improvement. In a fragmented educational landscape this connection and collaboration afforded within a MAT allows for the removal of organisational blindness and a widened view that better informs improvement.

“Collaboration occurs when people work with others … to achieve a clearly understood and mutually beneficial, shared set of goals and outcomes that they could not achieve working by themselves.” (Sanaghan and Lohndorf, 2015)

What if.. Collaboration with purpose within MATs, particularly within networks is a key element for driving improvement? Collaboration is often only effective where it achieves a clear commitment and triggers action. Whilst it is typical for Principals to meet regularly within a MAT, deeper networks have a greater impact on middle leadership, teaching and the wider work of Academies. This is supported by John Kotter who describes the need to create duel operating systems, that maintain the hierarchy, whilst maintaining, cross-organisation groups that connect and innovate.

“The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance each other.” (Kotter, 2014)

Subject networks provide a good example, particularly where these go beyond the sharing of effective practice, which can ultimately either be adopted, or otherwise admired and left behind in the room. In a MAT scenario such networks develop a profundity that lead to staff sharing best practice and also syllabi, planning and resources, as well as having Mock Exams that are marked, moderated and followed with examiner style feedback. Adam Grant (2014) highlighted the advantages of propagating and rewarding strategic-altruism within these networks that need to support and generate a culture that rewards strategic givers and giving.

“If you share your best ideas with your competition, it will stimulate you to keep inventing new ones in order to stay on the leading edge of innovation.” (Hargreaves, 2014)

What if.. growing Leadership Capital is a key catalyst for Academy improvement and central to deriving impact within a MAT and across the system? Whilst getting the right leaders on the bus is key, either internally or externally sourced, it is also important that leaders are in the right seats, at the right time. MATs enable the strategic movement, training and development of leaders that support accelerated improvement. The ability to develop, promote and second leaders and middle leaders between Academies provides the opportunity to balance skills and experience to intervene for the good of the wider community. As Fullan (2010) describes these leaders become influential change agents within the MAT.

“The fact is, most effective leaders want to make a contribution beyond their own borders….they are humble. But they want to learn more, and they want to think that they have something to offer that will benefit others…they make perfect change agents, because they push upwards and laterally.” (Fullan, 2010)

What if.. securing a deep and unswerving focus on effective Pedagogical leadership as central to turning the key educational flywheel of Academy improvement? It is this aspect that Academies and MATs need to be the “best in the world (at)” (Collins, 2001). This is an unswerving mission and drive that has the greatest leverage on outcomes and increasing the life chances of children. This is the standing item for all cross-MAT networks and groups.

Slide13

What if.. strategic system leadership needs to intervene to secure improvement? In any MAT each Academy performs differently and will be progressing on their own improvement journey. Where performance is strong a level of earned autonomy provides a level of freedom to an Academy. However, where performance dips or where an Academy underperforms there is a need to impose strategies and approaches that are shown to be effective. With high trust within a MAT there is an opportunity for executive leadership, scrutiny, review and peer challenge to disrupt and provoke improvement. The best MATs use this to seek a self-improving system that delivers discernible difference.

“(when) Schools pull together and share their best ideas, while simultaneously employing peer pressure to achieve more for the sake of all students (and the whole community).” (Hargreaves et al. 2014)

make_a_difference_sign

What if.. for the system to become self-improving there is a need to scrutinise, evaluate and to pursue discernible difference on the things that matter? This type of leadership seeks to execute change and tell narratives of improvement that propagate the shared moral purpose, grows bright spots and secures alignment and improvement that raises standards across the MAT.


Maybe then.. Taken together the eight areas interact to provide a description of system leadership within a MAT; a system that seeks to be self-improving and to add more value than its constituent parts. The Educational landscape has shifted through system-wide academisation to a point where MATs are forming and growing rapidly and with few parameters. Whilst this may require some rationalisation in the future there is presently a growing movement where MATs are collaborating and taking responsibility for their wider communities; forging MAT to MAT relationships which need to grow if we are to realise the potential of system leadership and to create a self-improving and self-regulating education system.

“The role of the leader is to enable, facilitate, and cause peers to interact in a focused manner…but still only a minority of systems employ the power of collective capacity.” (Fullan, 2010)

March 2016

Delivering discernible difference

“If something is discernible, you can discern it – you can see it, smell it, taste it, or otherwise tell what it is.” (www.vocabulary.com)

It is probably true… that effective leaders and exceptional teachers have the ability to deliver discernible difference (improvement). It is this ability and awareness to focus in, move to action and deliver a discernible difference that stands these people out as great leaders and teachers. They have the ability to rationalise, prioritise, simplify, see the important, dismiss the clutter and move effortlessly and quickly to…

…secure meaningful improvement in areas that will leverage the most impact and improvement… triggering and delivering change that is both discernible and sticky…maybe even irreversible.

Perhaps… we should seek to tell stories and build narratives of improvement in identified areas or on trails where we deliberately place bets to transform practice and deliver discernible difference.

make_a_difference_sign


Which begs the question… what does it take to deliver discernible difference? How can we be more deliberate and focused on singling out the key levers of improvement; executing these changes, building a story and telling a narrative of improvement around the few things that matter?


What if… achieving discernible difference requires prioritisation of what matters? and that this takes thinking time and a careful consideration of what will leverage the greatest improvement? What if… we considered the following phrase when identifying where to play and achieve the discernible difference that we seek…

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if… great leaders and teachers understood that what you do not do, what you de-prioitise (the omissions) are as important as what is actioned? …that ability to place bets only on what counts and the mindset that reduces  crippling complexity and workload?

What if… we realised that trails and areas requiring improvement are often obvious and rarely require deep evaluation to be understood?; seek the trails that matter…

Slide4

What if… we spend too much time evaluating and applying QA to the whole population or provision instead of moving more quickly to action on the areas that require improvement; seeking discernible difference?

What if… we also realised that in any population there are outliers, bright spots and positive deviants who have that answer or exhibit behaviours that have the ability transform? …achieving discernible difference and improvement will often be within the population… seek the wisdom and grow it…

Slide3

What if…we were more aware of the fact that we can get over-excited or be prone to complacency when we measure and weigh stuff? That feeling we get when we complete the SEF, a round of observations, work scrutiny, achievement meeting, re-writing our to-do-list etc. – often confuses us into thinking we have achieved impact or improvement?

What if…we are prone to believing that things will just improve, or that if we apply a strategy more, or if we weigh stuff more, that we will achieve a different end point?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Albert Einstein

What if… we only focused on the key trails and moved to action. What if… we are not quick enough to move to action (to start stories) and as a consequence rarely achieve the change that we desire and others need…

d3a6b2aafb7946d0ec5aacd42d4860e2

What if… we do not continue to commit to action during the implementation dip or when it is easier to go off and measure something else or when we can duck the difficult conversation or action?

seth-godin-the-dip

What if… we were in the habit of telling stories; and building a narrative of improvement? … around those areas that we have prioritised, that will have the greatest impact and deliver discernible difference?

Slide2

What if… a self-improving education system or academy or teacher has the ability to understand the brutal truths of the situation and embark on a set of deliberate actions that together tell a story and provide a narrative of improvement?

g2g-confront-facts

What if… these stories always have a start, a middle and an end…

Slide1

blogs.scholastic.com

What if… we are good at opening up stories, but much weaker at building plot and poor at writing great endings (happy or tragic)? What if… we do not stick around long enough on a story or move to action quick enough to realise the twist or truths or barriers to improvement that exist?

…stories motivate people to achieve more. They show what is possible and trigger other unintended improvement.

What if… milestones are a key aspect of delivering discernible difference? That these chart progress, point to the desired destination and importantly provide ongoing motivation to overcome implementation dips and secure discernible difference … perhaps even irreversibility (Barber).

 

gorsel-km-taslari

What if…this ability to place bets on the stuff that matters is born out of an acute awareness and a lack of organisational blindness achieved from beyond our present context (Academy, classroom, MAT, region…)

What if… delivering discernible difference has everything to do with execution, execution, execution… only this delivers transformation… and possibly irreversibility…

Slide2

What if… we…

…ensure that the choice architecture, nudges and culture provokes and rewards individuals and teams to chase their own narratives of improvement, growing the ability to tell stories of discernible difference.


Maybe then… leaders would have pride in telling their narrative of improvement – their motivating stories of the difference that they have made. Maybe then… leaders and teachers can point to examples of  discernible difference as evidence of impact on others and students.

Maybe then… leaders and teachers would move to action more quickly on the few things that matter – placing bets on the one thing(s) that make a discernible difference. Maybe this… level of focused action has the ability to add far greater value than blunt, catch-all, self-evalution.

What are your trails? where is your discernible difference? what stories of improvement can you tell – where have you achieved irreversibility? Has this become the lens through which you seek future improvement?

After all… the measure of our own impact should be judged through the stories of discernible difference that we can tell.

Dan Nicholls @DrDanNicholls

November 2015

How to make stuff happen… and deliver change

It is probably true that… in education change often fails to stick. That academies and schools are full of initiatives and good intentions; strategy and initiative-rich environment that drives up complexity and confusion.

ani11

It is also probably true… that education and schools would be more effective if we understood the dynamics and nature of change; understanding how to deliver change that sticks, is sustained and irreversible.

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

Which begs that question… how can leaders and teachers execute change that becomes irreversible. How can leaders seek simple, single and focused change that alters habits and behaviours, such that change becomes irreversible and leverages improvement in the long term … or, put simply, how do we make stuff happen and change stick?


What if… we understood that coerced, sustainable and irreversible change delivers different outcomes?…

  • coerced change: a continuous effort is required to coerce and direct behaviours to secure change; when effort reduces, change reverses.
  • sustainable change: a level of effort and commitment is required by individuals to sustain the change. This is not coerced, it is likely to be well understood and supported, but because there is a continual requirement of effort it falls short of being irreversible; old strategies and
  • irreversible change: a change that has been well-executed so that it alters habits and behaviours, the choice architecture and the culture/ethos – such that the change becomes normal – it becomes irreversible.

…considering executed change in schools it is easy to find examples of each.

What if… change is pointless unless it achieves improvement – too much change gets to the same point, but wastes both time and effort… and worse damages the credibility of leadership, increasing the likely resistance to future change.

What if… successful change in schools secures changes in behaviours and habits so that change become habitually delivered and irreversible.

What if… Stephen Tierney is right in his recent blog that leaders and teachers make better decisions when they think slow and not fast?…

“Too many people are working and in some cases essentially living in an organisation where busyness, for its own sake, is seen as a virtue.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains his theory about two modes of thought; System 1 (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious).  While System 1 helps us survive in the jungle it is System 2 which is likely to be of greater benefit in addressing complex issues.” (Stephen Tierney, blog)

What if… most of the change instigated in schools (and education) has not had enough thought? What if most change fails to consider…

  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • whether this change will stick for at least 3 years
  • whether this change has the genuine potential to improve on what exists.
  • whether there is unnecessary complexity built into the change
  • whether we consider the WHY has been fully considered; as Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do they but WHY you do it.” … how to communicate for buy-in.
  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • if timescales for implementation is timed, specific and focused…with good recognition of the implementation dip.
  • Whether key milestones are used and evaluated.
  • Whether there is a focus on celebrating, measuring and growing where there is discernible difference?

What if… we really understood that the real success of any change lies in the execution? And that regardless of the boldness of the desired change this is what makes change stick and be successful?

What if… the delivery of change is best shown of Micheal Barber’s matrix of execution…

Slide1

What if… we altered the matrix to consider the inter-play between the level of energy and impact of change – highlighting the difference between coerced, sustained and irreversible change… the amount of energy required for irreversible change declines after initial execution due to shift in habits and behaviours.

Slide2

What if… KISS (keep it simple stupid) was a key driver to ensure that change is always targeted, simple and focused. What if we used members of the team to wear de Bono’s Black Hat, identifying and challenging complexity.

What if… some individuals and organisations suffer from initiativitis – the disorder that compels, otherwise good people, to launch initiative after initiative. It is all on the slow thinking, deliberate execution and persistence cubed that secures successful change. No one benefits from a thousand flowers blooming.

What if… the best leaders place bets on the changes that are most likely to deliver effective and irreversible change

What if… John Collins is right, we should fire bullets before cannonballs? Testing first, or piloting change before scaling?

What if… Seth Godin is right and that we should beware the implementation dip of change? How often do schools change direction or abandon in the dip only to initiate a new approach.

seth-godin-the-dip

What if… we recognised when to stick and when to twist – that one requires maintenance of faith that the thinking and execution will yield results and the other a realism and calculation of future effectiveness to identify where there is futility of effort?…

“Persistent people are able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it.  At the same time, the smartest people are realistic about not imagining light when there isn’t any.”  (Seth Godin)

What if… we also recognise that it is important to evolve and adapt approaches before the rate of improvement declines…

types-of-innovation-s-curves

What if… too often we launch change with one or more of these missing?… (VISION, SKILLS, INCENTIVES (understanding the WHY), RESOURCES, ACTION PLAN)

Slide3

What if… launching change after change is the same as crying wolf? That initiative fatigue sets in quickly where individuals realise that this is just one of those band-wagons that continually pass?

What if… we do not fully consider the choice architecture of any change? and fail to see, understand and use nudges to secure irreversible change?

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions that staff and students make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours, create social epidemics and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. We are surrounded by nudges; good leaders see them, look for them and use them (often automatically)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to de-priortise what is important? What if… we used this phrase regularly to focus the ONE thing.

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if…successful change taps the emotions? and has a stickiness factor?…

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)

““the stickiness factor”, is a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of people and influences their future behaviour.”

What if… Jim Collins is right that great organisation focus their time and energy on turning the flywheel. What if… this means that in schools we actually only need to get a surprisingly few things right to drive improvement. – placing bets on the few things that leverage improvement. A function of conscious choice and discipline (…to execute)

Slide3

What if… time and context are also important. What if we recognise that some change is “right for the time” and some change is “right for the context.” AND that both of these perspectives are useful for assessing previous strategies and changes.


Maybe then… we would have a deeper understanding of change. We would not drive initiative after initiative that fail to stick. We would recognise that less is more and that the success of any change is linked to making conscious choices through slow thinking, using deliberate discipline to execute and the persistence to secure the change.

Maybe then… leaders and senior teams will employ slow thinking to place bets on a few changes or approaches that leverage the greatest improvement. That we would be more professional and intelligent whenever we seek change so that we more often deliver sustained and irreversible change.

… all of this will remove complexity and allow leaders and teachers to deliver change and improvement in a focused and deliberate way… bringing a structure and an intelligence to academy improvement so that we can make stuff happen. 

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November 2015

Dan Nicholls

Stretch and Challenge | CLF Conference

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It is probably true… that consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitching learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, is perhaps the hardest part of teaching. This requires a depth of awareness of where each child is and specifically what each individual needs to do next to learn and make progress.

It is also probably true… that good lessons have the ability to stretch and challenge 80+% of children, whereas a great set of lessons stretches and challenges a different 80% each lesson. This requires teachers to become expert coaches who have a depth of subject and age-related knowledge, formatively assesses and use effective feedback to know where each child is with their learning, has the ability to use this to plan for progress, has an in-built ethic of excellence and the in-lesson awareness to intervene with effective questioning, explanation and modelling. Effective coaching happens when there is a consistent application of these elements over time, so that…

“…success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities (provided by teachers and others).” (Malcolm Gladwell)

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing stretch and challenge in all classrooms…


What if… Ofsted are right? that the stretch and challenge of all children should be based on having consistently high standards of what each pupil can achieve, including the most able and disadvantaged…and assessment that informs planning for pupils who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support enabling pupils to make good progress and achieve well?

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…and that when looking at books… there is the level of challenge and evidence that pupils have to grapple appropriately with content, not necessarily “getting it right” first time the work is not too easy?

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What if… the ability to plan for and to challenge and stretch children is impossible without a depth of knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise planning, task setting that ensure that children are stretched and challenged around the appropriate content?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to plan to pitch learning, plan lessons, activities and other elements of pedagogy to secure progress.

What if.. one of the key levers in stretching and challenging children is the subject passion from teachers who inspire young people to achieve more. Teachers have huge influence – and with that opportunity comes great responsibility:

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What if… this passion is particularly portrayed through the language we use? It is language that motivates and perhaps more importantly inspires interests that enhance young peoples lives. What if… we analysed our own use of language and identified phrases and approaches that automatically set limits (often unknowingly) on what children can achieve or indicate limits to what we believe is possible?

What if… planning to stretch and challenge requires:

  • lesson objectives that genuinely stretch children based on where they are in their learning.
  • feedback and previous progress is the basis for the planning of each lesson – teachers show the flexibility required to respond and pitch lessons by child.
  • flexibility within lessons enable learning, tasks, questioning to be altered to maintain challenge and pitch.
  • peer-to-peer learning is used to support and accelerate progress.
  • different tasks are required to stretch children who are at different points in their progression.
  • lessons and content need to increase in depth rather than breadth to support increased challenge and stretch.
  • absolute clarity around what the age-related or exam-expectations are to direct learning appropriately and stretch in the right areas.
  • have high expectations of what is possible and what children can achieve.
  • Build resilience in pupils who develop GRIT and a growth mindset to spend more time outside of their comfort zone.

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What if… children do not produce their best work often enough and tread water in the mediocre? It might be that we rarely stretch and challenge students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what what they are capable of?

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What if… children were stretched and challenged to produce work that is skewed to the right, toward excellence and not left where it probably sits at present?

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What if… there is an ongoing and accessible record of a child’s best pieces of work so that there is an immediate benchmark to build from (perhaps at the front of each book).

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What if… children can fly if they truly believe they can? 

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The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” (from, Peter Pan)

What if… teachers always started from the position that all children can achieve their potential? and What if… this was portrayed in the manner, language, optimism and challenge that teachers have for their classes/children?

What if… we understood that a child’s beliefs can limit what they believe to be possible and worse still that as teachers and educators our beliefs can also limit what others believe that can achieve?

“Tread carefully on the dreams of children; they are fragile”

“…and release them to achieve their podium position…”

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What if… to stretch and challenge individuals practise needs to be …intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (their) current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.”  (Malcolm Gladwell) … enabling children to  over-perform.

What if… creating these conditions and the opportunity to stretch and challenge children requires teachers to be expert coaches who…

  1. Opportunity – creating the opportunity for children to learn and work just beyond their present ability.
  2. Competition from like-minded individuals – create a ethos and atmosphere of sharing and feedback that balances competition and co-operation.
  3. develop GRIT – supporting children to focus on long term goals, ignoring short-term distractions. Often re-doing and re-drafting for example.
  4. seek Deliberative practise – based on precise feedback support children to practise and apply understanding.

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What if… this seeks to…

“replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (learning) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if… planning, tasks and activities are informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks support children to be appropriately stretched and challenged.

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What if… we sought more often to escalate lessons and tasks from closed to open and (more often) to challenge children to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding. What if… too often children spend time doing what they can already do?

What if… we pitch lessons in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to plan learning so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible, just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons stretch and challenge 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? seeking to pitch and stretch all children over time… an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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What if… stretch and challenge also came from teaching to depth and seeking mastery around the key ideas and concepts.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.

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What if… we stretched and challenged children based on a development of a growth mindset (Dweck) – where an anything is possible. What if… it was the absolute expectation that children had to meet the standards. …ensuring, of course, that we do not set the bar too low.

What if… we are prone to underestimating what children are capable of and that this can be highlighted through modest lesson objectives. What if… by setting the bar high and seeking marginal gains we can expect more from children.

“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

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What if… teaching focused more on the journey; on stretching and challenging children to seek “near wins” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)


Maybe then…  children will spend more time in their proximal zone thanks to the expertise and pedagogical understanding of the teacher. A teacher who consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitches learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, so that children are kept in flow more often. Teachers, as expert coaches, use assessment and formative feedback, strong subject and conceptual knowledge to use elements of pedagogy that stretch and challenge all children over time.

…and maybe then, as teachers, we can be the spark of numerous ignition stories that are born out of an unswerving desire to stretch and challenge pupils; increasing the chances of individuals to be inspired and fall helplessly in love with a future passion…

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” Dan Coyle

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

Questioning (explanation and modelling) | CLF Conference

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It is probably true… that questioning is an incredibly powerful way to drive learning and accelerate progress – particularly those questions or explanations that unlock light bulb moments of personal discovery. When questioning is used in concert with quality explanation and modelling children get a new view of the world, increased access to knowledge, greater opportunity to understand and develop skills. It is perhaps these aspects of pedagogy that have the greatest ability to intervene, inject and steer greater gains in learning.

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It is also probably true… that questioning is often the period in a learning episode where the true talent, ability and awareness of the teacher is shown. It reveals much about:

  • the on-going depth of planning to secure and intervene along the learning journey…an expert element of pedagogy – deliberately delivered, precise and targeted within a lesson and across a series of lessons.
  • the level of formative assessment based on effective feedback so that teaching is based on an the awareness of where children are, what they can do and precisely what is required to secure the next steps, the key concept or breakdown a misconception.
  • the depth of subject/age-related knowledge and passion they bring to the discussion.
  • the ability to intervene or change direction with impact to secure key concepts or tackle misconceptions.
  • the ability to build knowledge and understanding in a logical, spiralled and progressive way that support all children to make progress (or a different 80% each time)
  • the ability to differentiate through language, conscription and questioning, including the ability to judge and time, a question, an explanation or use modelling to close gaps.
  • the ability to stand back enough and facilitate to draw the knowledge and understanding that already exists in the room…provoking good discussion, debate and argument.

When it is at its best it is an awesome thing to witness and be a part of – a crafts-person tweaking, tinkering, picking, choosing, being precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to enable children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.

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This begs the question… what are the key aspects to developing great questioning and discussion as well as explanation and modelling to allow children to thrive, engage and make connections in learning and trigger sustained progress? How is this blended into an effective pedagogical approach?

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing questioning (explanation and modelling) in all classrooms…


What if… questioning, explanation and modelling can only have impact on learners and learning when it is based on a strong foundation of knowledge? Knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • Knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise questioning, explanation and modelling – with the end in mind?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to blend questioning, explanation and modelling within and across lessons.

What if… we see passages of questioning/discussion and explanation as key aspects to stick around on as opposed to a part of the lesson to move through – it drives the learning as opposed to marking points in lessons or being purely a transition. These…

  • drive passion and intrigue for the subject or area of learning. Passion that can be contagious and demands interest to accelerate learning.
  • unlock mis-conceptions, particularly where children can hear others wrestle with cognitive conflict. Consolidates learning and enables key concepts to be grasped.
  • Seek to create and resolve (over time) cognitive conflict.
  • build learning deliberately and precisely and move to application and synthesis.
  • model discussion and the elements of enquiry.

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What if… these are the key areas of questioning…

  • Wait time: so that we allow children the time to think and consider answers
  • Not to allow children an opt-out of thinking – carefully conscripting and demanding wide response – no-opt out policy.
  • What if we go to pairs sometimes to support more interaction and thinking about questions.
  • Build on answers – basketball questioning or asking children to build on or from what has just been offered. agree and build | disagree and explain | offer new idea. or pose | poise | ponce | bounce.
  • Encourage debate – step-back to allow genuine argument and debate. Using provocative questioning where appropriate.
  • Take time to dwell to depth on topics and ideas.
  • Be flight of foot – shifting discussion to address misconceptions.

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What if… we too often stifle, control and close down genuine debate and discussion? Just at the moment when children get inspired, passionate and even angry in debate we choose to close discussion down – concerned that there is a lack of control.

What if… we need to be more explicit about what children are aiming for; using modelling to de-mystify the purpose or aim of the learning? Too often children are spending too long discovering knowledge and not enough on application.

What if… we sat children in mixed gender pairs? So that girls who typically describe and explain are closer to risk taking and boys who typically describe and take risks are closer to greater explanation. Perhaps this would encourage more balanced discussion and learner-driven explanations (to class or pair).

What if… this is tightly woven into an Ethic of Excellence? the purpose, precision, rigour and timing of questioning immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintains a high bar and expects much from answers and discussion – expertly steering and intervening to maintain standards and encourage depth of pupil involvement? …the deliberate inclusion of explanation and modelling supports children in their quest for and understanding of excellence.

What if… questioning, explaining, modelling and planning was informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks supported questioning that systematically supported children to understand more …and that this provides the framework for explanation, modelling and questioning etc.

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What if… we sought more often to ask questions that moved from closed to open, but that also moved children (more often) to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding.

What if… questioning and explanation (and modelling) needs to be in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to pitch discussion and explanation so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible (discussing, explaining and applying knowledge just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons used questioning and explanation that is pitched and challenging for 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? Great teachers use effective formative feedback to build on prior learning and pitch questions and explanations in the proximal zone, whilst modelling the desired end point (or next near win)... an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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What if… great questioning replicates the connections in the brain? understanding that learning is a physical process – that the development of myelin in the brain (layers in picture below) enables neurons to fire and for things to be remembered or skills to be hard-wired … such that questioning, explanation and modelling engages children in deliberate practise and repetition to physically create connections in the brain that allow them to remember and master…developed, consolidated and practised (hardwired) through questioning (explanation and  modelling).

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What if…questioning and explanation reflected the curve of forgetting? so that it returned and repeated episodes to consolidate understanding within an interleaved, layered, escalating spiral curriculum where children repeat and return to build on learning.

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What if… we understood that practise has to be deliberate to be effective and that this is accelerated where children are in the presence of an expert coach who exploits, questions, explanation and modelling; so that the teacher…

  • maximises reachfulness in the presence of an expert.
  • supports children to embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • and encourages theft – using questioning and discussion to support peer assisted performance.

What if… this is tightly woven into Effective Feedback and the need to Stretch and Challenge each child?

What if… questioning, explanation and modeling was “… intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… explanation is best delivered in different ways to support all children to access the new knowledge, understanding and skills. Using VAK, but more importantly a variety of angles and approaches…as well as using other children in the class to explain new gains in learning – not only consolidating learning for the explainer, but offering a different explanation in peer-friendly language to the receiving child.


Maybe then… questioning (explanation and modelling) will trigger greater depth of learning, allow new ways of seeing and drive progress. The precision and deliberate delivery of these aspects of pedagogy will be based on strong formative assessment and feedback that enables appropriate pitch, stretch and challenge of children. An ethic of excellence will expect much of children their thinking, response, discussion and quality of answer … that happens in their proximal zone.

Maybe then… this aspect of pedagogy will provide the engine room of learning – where teachers tweak, tinker, pick, choose, are precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to intervene and provoke response that enables children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.

Dan Nicholls

October 2015