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

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

Is there Life after levels? – an approach using Age Related Expectations..

“We have.. come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of attainment can be used to judge their talent ..and ability.. and potential.” (adapted from Rose, 2106, “The end of Average”)

fce193ace76044e716a3250e46ccda9d

“Typing and ranking (against the average) have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgement always erases the individuality of the person being judged.” (Rose, 2016)

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It is probably true that the removal of levels and Ofsted’s “no prescribed or preferred method” presents an enormous opportunity for teachers and leaders at KS3 (likely to refer to Year 7 and 8 for most – with the preference for three year KS4)  to own the curriculum, develop assessment, improve pedagogy and inspire students to learn and progress into rounded, successful individuals (who also achieve well at GCSE and A-level).

This opportunity is likely to be enhanced in Multi Academy Trusts where scale provides a unique chance to drive-up standards and create world-class, shared, moderated approaches to curriculum, assessment, reporting and teaching in an area of the curriculum without external benchmarks. A chance to define specifically and focus on what students need to know, understand and do as the foundation for being and feeling successful.

It is also probably true that it is hard to avoid recreating a levelled system or to simply drop GCSE grades (or numbers) down through Key Stage 3.

“There are no ladders (progress is not linear), instead, each one of us has our own web of development, where each step we take opens up a whole range of new possibilities that unfold according to our own individuality.” (Fischer quoted in Rose, 2016)

It is also true.. that to move from levels at KS3 requires a shift in what is valued; a letting go of reassuring and convenient level descriptors, ladders of progress and grades. There is also an inherent danger that we will drift into a time of mediocrity and low expectation as schools and academies introduce non-standardised approaches across KS3 – an area that is presently riddled with  underachievement, dips in progress and firmly in the shadow of performance measures at KS4. And.. there is additional danger that where KS3 is inept this will have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged learners and those on the margins; widening gaps already open on entry to KS3.

And it is importantly true.. that primary colleagues have already moved to an age related / mastery approach. The 2016 results show 53% of students achieving the Age Related Expectations (AREs) in Reading, Maths and Writing (with the percentage achieving ARE in Reading (66%), Maths (70%), Writing (72% (TA)) and SPAG (72%)). Children entering secondary in September understand their attainment and to a lesser extent their progress against Age Related Expectations.

It is also true.. that the time for stalling on a life after levels approach at KS3 is over; not least because of the extraordinary opportunity that it provides. Almost half of all schools have dropped GCSE grades (or numbers) down through to Year 7 and 8 from GCSE (some dropping Progress 8 measures through the five years). Whilst this is both reassuring and convenient it offers no continuity with Primary approaches and essentially replaces levels with grades – particularly where these are fine graded and flipped to the new number grades… (replacing 4c with 4c, but less useful than the previous level because it relates to an equivalent performance projected to a distant summative exam, inherently narrowing the curriculum and experience of children)

However.. in a world without levels there is still a need to measure both the relative attainment and progress of students against a clearly defined age-related standards or expectations to measure the efficacy of the curriculum, teaching and to identify groups and individuals who fall behind, as well as ensuring that all students who need to deepen are stretched and challenged. And.. as Ofsted rightly identify there is a need to secure progress across all Years, in all subjects and across all groups and that where students fall behind they are caught up.

“When we are able to appreciate the jaggedness of other peoples talents – the jagged profile of our children – we are more likely to recognise their untapped potential, to show them how to use their strengths, and to identify and help them improve their weaknesses.” (Rose, 2016)


Which begs the question, what should an approach to life after levels seek to achieve at KS3?

What if.. we developed an approach that used well defined and rigorous Age Related Expectations across each subject and an assessment approach that measured both progress and attainment of children against these AREs and an approach to teaching and learning that inspired, deepened learning and brought the curriculum alive? What if.. was all enhanced through collaboration within a Multi Academy Trust?

What could that look like?..

What if.. this approach to KS3 had a fundamental influence on:

  • The curriculum – so that it becomes absolutely transparent what every child should know, understand and be able to do. As well as affording the space and time to support teaching that deepens and stretches all children within Age Related Expectations. Building a curriculum that inspires children to enjoy and find life long passions across a broad and balanced curriculum – that answers, “what do we want young people to become, how can we give them wings and purpose in life?” as opposed to, “how can we prepare children to achieve an A grade (or 9) in 5 years time on a narrow summative exam testing areas that do not translate well to success in life?”
  • Assessment – common summative assessments that test students against Age Related Expectations (requiring teachers and leaders to develop, create and moderate assessments, enhanced within a MAT or a Collaborative). Using  formative assessment to close gaps, accelerate progress as well as catching-up those short of or falling behind the Age  Related Expectations. Broadening our use of formative and summative assessment to include teacher assessment, coursework, book scrutiny, oral presentations, group working – to assess and support children to work at and deepen within ARE.
  • Teaching and learning: Secure learning and progress of all children against the age Related Expectations of knowledge, understanding and skills. But, and here is the real opportunity, inspire and stretch children so that they deepen within the Age Related Expectations within a flexible, broad and balanced curriculum. Built in Formative feedback that has a strong influence on lesson planning and closing gaps to and beyond the Age Related Expectations.

What if.. we no longer equate speed of learning with ability? (Rose, 2016) What if.. we stopped labelling children as less able or more able; recognising that the key thing is that all have potential to attain well, regardless of their present level of attainment? The present level of attainment of a child is much more likely the result of background, chance, opportunity, linguistic privilege, context etc. than innate talent or ability. What if.. Age Related Expectations made explicitly clear how to close attainment gaps? And that.. the assessment and feedback woven into (and not bolted onto) the curriculum celebrates the jaggedness of children’s abilities and talents?

What if.. this new approach championed all subjects; Art, Music, Drama, PE, writing, poetry, sculpture, design, craft, reading, languages … because when students are enthused in their learning and they value increasing parts of it, they will also progress in literacy and numeracy as the vehicles for them to pursue their passions?

“Good Schools get on and do things: dance, drama, music, art, using the outdoors, speaking in other languages, finding out about the past and other places, growing things, cooking, going places, using ICT and paint brushes, making things, experimenting, learning about their own bodies, working out how to get on with others in the real world. Above all, they use all these experiences as vehicles to do amazing English and Mathematics to support the structured literacy and numeracy programmes at the same time bring purpose to learning for pupils.” (Mick Waters, 2013)

What if.. this extended to extra-curricular opportunities, not least because this does can unpick disadvantage and has been shown to have a significant impact on grades and progress. As Angela Duckworth describes extra curricular activities are, the playing fields of Grit. (When we talk of curriculum at KS3 we should retain “curriculum” in its broadest sense).

“When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they’re both challenged and having fun.” … “There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurriculars fare better on just about every conceivable metric – they earn better grades, have higher self esteem, are less likely to get in to trouble and so forth. … more participation in activities predicts better outcomes.” (Angel Duckworth, in Grit,2016)

“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)

What if.. the present Year 7 and 8 Curriculum is so opaque, directionless and random that it actually works to enhance accumulated disadvantage? What if.. there was real clarity and consistency for all about the Age Related Expectations so that.. only motivation is the limiting factor for a child’s attainment. What if.. this disrupted the loop of unequal opportunity for students at the margins?

What if.. all of this had the ability to tackle workload through:

  • The sharing of resources, SOW and curriculum planning.
  • We did not seek breadth and focused on quality and depth of learning; reducing the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace. Reassuringly clear clear about the key concepts and misconceptions, as well as the required Knowledge, Understanding and Skills.
  • Centralised assessments and reporting to generate real clarity of expectation.
  • Curriculum groups and CPD to have clear direction around, for example, the key Year 7 concepts and misconceptions. This will bring shared purpose to departments across Academies.
  • Establishing shared exemplars for the Age Related knowledge, understanding and skills in Year 7 and 8 to support modelling and acquisition of AREs.

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What if.. the very first question that we ask is, “what should students at the end of Year 7 (and 8) know, understand and be able to do?” ..in each subject? (and across the full curriculum?)

“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)

What if.. it is much more about developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. and that KS3 is about this grounding across all of these areas within a broad, balanced, inspiring, motivating curriculum … Then the question is what do we, as professional teachers, subject specialist and leaders, want our Year 7 (8, 9) children to know, understand and do? Ensuring that we set our expectations high enough.. (and on from Expectations at KS2)..

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” (Michelangelo)

What if.. we also realised that there should be only one set of expectations – the Year 7 Age-related standard – And we avoided describing any sort of level on the way to this standard or beyond. We became comfortable that the Age Related Expectation is just that. And in a similar way to Ofsted who provide no descriptors for Requiring Improvement (it is not yet good) .. students are  “working towards age related expectations” (Of course it may well be helpful to use departing levels, KS2 Age Related Expectations and even GCSE descriptors to inform and support shared construction of the Year 7 Age Related Expectations and the Year 8 AREs … BUT we should resist on-going comparisons and remove levels and grades from assessment – there is no life after levels if levels or grades or a proxy still exist – AREs are single statements of what is expected by age, no ladder through them just distance from ARE and deepening within ARE)

What if.. it is also unhelpful to try to align the Age Related Expectations to GCSE grades or numbers. Whilst you would expect a child working at Age Related Expectations to go on and achieve at least a “good pass” (at least a 5 (1-9)) and that through deepening and pursuing excellence will access 6-9 at GCSE, we should resist placing age related expectations on a graduated scale or flight path across 7-11. Not least because KS3 should be about progress and preparation for life across a broad and balanced curriculum, that learning should spiral and interleave and that assigning a child as an F, G, H in Year 7 is a non-sensical descriptor of their attainment that ignores progression in learning. We should tread carefully if we try to force-fit summative GCSE grading down through to Year 7, even if there is a level of convenience in drawing on GCSE descriptors, questions, mark schemes etc. What if.. a better fit is to base all types of assessment to percentages or standardised scores of 100 and then determine percentage of performance that relates to working at Age Related Expectations? – (banding that can to planned into tests or derived through moderation post-assessment).

What if.. Knowledge is Power and that this should be a key focus for a Age Related Curriculum? What if.. the acquisition of knowledge allows the proximal zone of development to  widen so that progress accelerates as students are more able to assimilate new information/understanding/skill with their existing ability. What if.. this is more important from disadvantaged students who age 3 have half the words of children from professional families? (553 words v 1100 words) What if.. therefore, our KS3 curriculum and Age Related Expectations emphasised the required knowledge and this was made accessible, transparent and secured through quality first teaching .. so that effort (motivation) was the only barrier to acquiring the required age related knowledge?


What if.. instead of levels or grades we were only interested in children working towards Age Related Expectations at KS3 (following the primary model), achieving the AREs and importantly being given the freedom to deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills within these Age Related Expectations? We might describe a child as..

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

(…and we resisted trying to describe any stages before or beyond age related expectations, which would recreate levels)

What if.. these tracked onto the national criteria at KS2?..

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What if.. we tracked both attainment and progress against age related expectations (ARE) using the following?.. for whole cohort (Year group or MAT Year group), groups, subjects, classes etc. … enabling inter and intra Academy and subject and group comparisons.

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What if.. this shows where students enter year 7.. using the KS2 scaled score. (where >100 reflects “Working at Expected Standard” on the x-axis? That in-line with Progress 8 this is the average of Reading and Maths. (53% of students achieved >100 (scaled score) in Reading, Writing and Maths. (SPAG being the fourth area measured at the end of KS2.

What if.. we used blue to identify non-PP, orange to identify PP children, triangles for female and circles for male and that an SEND child is shown by a black border?..AND what if.. as you rolled over each symbol the name and class of the child popped up?

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What if.. we used the y-axis as a 100-scale – most likely to be linked to a summative assessment (percentage) that identified children’s present attainment against Age Related Expectations.. What if.. the measure of a child’s attainment against Age Related Expectations could be given through teacher assessment, practical scores, oral presentation against set criteria?

What if.. the child’s vertical position identified their present attainment or distance from, on or beyond Age Related Expectation? AND that vertical movement up or down is a reflection of progress toward or away from the Age Related Expectation..

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

What if.. we presented this data for each subject? ..or group? ..or class? So that..

  • We were able to track cohort percentages of the attainment of students – e.g. 63% at or above ARE
  • We were able to track the progress of students – e.g. of those starting at ARE and above at the start of Year 7, 40% are gaining ground against ARE, 52% are falling behind
  • We can visually and directly see who is falling behind … and intervene.
  • We can compare the attainment and progress of groups, particularly focused on groups.
  • We can measure the progress of students by class – a class that is moderated across a number of schools – in a student cohort of >1000, across 8 Academies.

What if.. we described progress over time against Age Related Expectations as:

  • Accelerating progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Gaining ground against Age Related Expectations
  • Maintaining progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling behind against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling further behind against Age Related Expectations

And.. these could be used with the attainment against Age Related Expectations: Deepening ARE, At ARE, Yet to be at ARE or At an Earlier stage (as above).

What if.. this allowed very clear identification of the children who are falling behind from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations?.. what if.. this told us about PP or SEND or gender or academy or department or individual? what if.. we did a work scrutiny and student voice for those students falling behind, and actively caught them up?

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AND.. those that are gaining ground from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations.. so that we can grow bright spots, celebrate and share practice that accelerates the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills..

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What if.. our job as educators just became very straight forward … all children regardless of present attainment need to be supported to reach the Age Related Expectations and for those who are secure to deepen and further bring alive and broaden the curriculum. So that the standard deviation shrinks and attainment rises (or deepens!)… seeking this…

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OR more simply.. to get all up to the standard and to deepen within the curriculum to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, writers, readers, sculptors, actors, artists, play writes, composers, biologists, astronauts, comedians and so on? against deepened AREs … and without levels and/or grades.

AND What if.. this just required:

  • a set of rigorous and well crafted Age Related Expectations – cleverly described and accessible…(to students, teachers, leaders and parents) Expectations that develop over time (through moderation and the professional dialogue of subject specialists) to articulate ever more clearly the expected knowledge, understanding and skills?
  • a set of common assessments that are 2/3 times a year sat across all Academies., as well as a suite of other summative and formative assessment techniques?

BUT we need to.. remember that we can also measure whether children are working at age related expectation through teacher assessment, through the quality of books, practicals, presentations, group working etc. After all this should really focus on the quality of formative feedback and importantly how this informs and shapes teacher’s planning.

What if.. the real benefit is that children, teachers, leaders, parents etc. will know much more precisely what they know, what they do not know, understand or can do … and importantly how they can close gaps in their learning. This may help to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks…

“(KS3 needs to…) replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (curriculum and teaching) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if.. ALL OF THIS is compromised if we do not invest time in establishing outstanding Age Related Expectations. AND what if.. even with this we need to support the development of teaching to secure deepening of ARE, the quality go feedback for planning lessons, feedback for children and the ability to broaden the curriculum to inspire and secure a passion for deeper learning.

What if.. we need to become excellent at setting ARE summative Assessments? as well as teacher assessment, coursework, practical assessments etc. to judge children against Age Related Expectations. Where Multi Academy Trusts have scale they become their own Exam Board for KS3 with paper setting, expectation setting, moderation, reporting and feedback. The moderation, CPD, sampling, ARE reporting, ARE data will grow our understanding of ARE over time; clarifying and improving the Age Related Expectations and the quality of Assessment (and feedback).

What if.. the age related expectations are clearly communicated on single sheets that show the specific gaps in what children know, understand and can do? – not dissimilar to PiXL Covey tables or PLC grids…a DTT approach. What if.. deliberate practice approach is then used in lessons, at parents evenings, in reports and through intervention to close gaps.

What if.. this allowed reporting and parents evenings to have the structure of…

  • Your child is gaining ground (or falling behind) in their learning towards age related expectations. (progress)
  • She is presently short of Age Related Expectations (Attainment)
  • What she specifically needs to do to secure Age Related Expectations is … and this … and that … (Targets)
  • And here is the specific Age Related Expectations that I have colour coded to show you where there are gaps and these link to specifically how you (and we) can support your child to go beyond ARE and deepen in these areas…
  • For every subject at KS3.

What if.. this enabled us to plan, teach and intervene to: catch-up those who fall behind, ensuring all achieve ARE, deepen children’s knowledge, understanding and skills within the Age Related Expectations and stretch and challenge all to release their passion for learning within a deep and challenging curriculum – inspiring excellence


What if.. all of this required great teaching … perhaps most importantly emphasising..

  • Feedback that inform planning of lessons against ARE and specifically what students can and cannot yet do. (More reading/marking for planning over marking to the individual)
  • Questioning that secures and deepens key concepts and challenges mis-concepts by age. Focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and application.
  • Deepening and challenging lessons that bring the curriculum to life and to depth to challenge all learners to ARE and to deepen beyond.

What if we then further embed ideas around Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That “by age” we were very clear about what is expected (what competences children need to have or be able to do?)…and that this provides the framework for depth, teaching, questioning etc. as it already does in many classrooms.

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What if we taught to depth around these age related expectations because the necessity to cover lots of content is removed. What if there was a real stickiness around redrafting and re-doing, such that children were challenged to do their best work and this enabled students to spend more time working at Age Related Expectations?

“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 all of this also sought the ethic of excellence, because…

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

What if.. this seeking excellence required an unswerving expectation that all teachers were  purposeful, deliberate and precise around formative feedback and that this was within tasks and lessons and not bolted on. What if.. we judged the quality of feedback much more on the quality of what students produce and less on ticks or comments or forced dialogue in books.

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What if.. the curriculum was interleaved so that the Age Related Expectations are re-visited to embed and secure new knowledge and understanding? What if.. we developed a spiral nature to the curriculum?

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Maybe then we would have an approach to life after levels that..

  • was focused on developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. as identified by subject specialists in our Academies.
  • took control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching against a clear set of Age Related Expectations that importantly allow teaching to deepen and inspire within the expectations.
  • built on the Primary experience of Ager Related Expectations and Mastery and provided a strong foundation across a broad curriculum – including
  • was able to measure attainment and progress to identify those that fall behind.
  • was clear about the precise Age Related Expectations for Year 7 and 8 – so that children understood the knowledge, understanding and skills that they can and cannot do and importantly the gaps in their learning and importantly how to close them.
  • did not recreate levels in a new format or simply use GCSE grades or numbers down through to Year 7. It did not seek to provide any other descriptors other than one set at Year 7 and one at Year 8 – the child is either at an earlier stage, yet to be at ARE, working at ARE, deepening within ARE.
  • took full advantage of Multi Academy Trusts and Collaboratives to own and develop standardised approaches that sought to raise the bar. That charged subject specialists with developing AREs and Common assessments (summative and other) that brought real ownership of what and how knowledge, understanding and skills are secured in our young people.
  • had a sophisticated way of visually showing the attainment and progress of all children, by year, group, class … Academy, department etc. So that progress of a child is identified as accelerating progress, gaining ground, maintaining progress, falling behind or falling further behind.
  • never forgot that it is still the quality of teaching in each lesson every day that is the transformative engine of education regardless of the curriculum.
  • had at its heart a drive to close gaps for the disadvantaged and children on the margins. In fact catching-up all those who are and fall behind.

“An individual is a high-dimensional system evolving over place and time.” (Molenaar, in Rose 2016) “…if we demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success – not on terms of our deviation from average, but on the terms we set for ourselves.” (Rose, 2016)

What if.. it was precisely this opportunity to take control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching that inspired us all to enter Education and seek to make a difference?

Dan Nicholls | August 2016

Thoughts and ideas largely my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the Cabot Learning Federation.

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.

blooms_taxonomysolo-taxonomy-with-verbs

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.

stock-footage-deep-end-deep-end-of-the-pool-a-good-visual-metaphor-to-show-madness-forstock-footage-shallow-end-of-the-pool

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.”

marginal-gains

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.

fit-to-lead

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.

blooms_taxonomysolo-taxonomy-with-verbs

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).

Myelin1

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

Ethic of Excellence | CLF Conference

Slide1

The following supports the “ethic of excellence” workshop at the CLF Conference, 2 November 2015…


It is probably true that:

“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)

It is also probably true that where an ethic of excellence runs through teaching and learning a child’s progress is accelerated and they outperform their peers. This maybe the most important aspect for driving up standards, accelerating progress, securing unusually good outcomes and giving all children a new sense of possibility; enhancing their life chances for the long term.

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


Slide23

What if… an ethic of excellence is measurable and tangible? That it can be judged from a short triangulation of teaching, books and student voice…and that where teachers have a strong ethic of excellence this is likely to be reflective of strong habits and a personal commitment to excellence.

What if… the ethic of excellence is revealed in the attitude of children toward their learning – that low-level disruption is not a feature – it is, in fact, socially unacceptable to not engage and seek to make progress in lessons.

“What if I fail to be the prophecy?” (Peter Pan)

“What if you fail to try?” (Tiger Lily)

(from the film Pan, 2015)

What if… the ethic of excellence is sought through the way the teacher and others inspire and inject passion around content (subject or age related) and learning; using language and praise to reinforce the expectation of excellence. (praise is not cheap).

Slide3

What if… the ethic of excellence is supported by the challenge and stretch that is evident in lessons supports children to reach beyond what they can do now, expecting students to work in their top 10% excellence zone.

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the quality of work and books; showing an  an attention to detail in the…

  • care and precision of presentation
  • quality and depth of writing and working
  • continuity and progression in the work over time that reflects a layered curriculum

What if Ofsted are right and that some of the key evidence of an ethic of excellence is seen in books.

Slide2

What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in a focus on depth rather than breadth and in routinely re-doing and re-drafting; seeking excellence. That teaching uses deliberate practice to inform teaching, so that:

practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
excellence

What if… children do not produce their best work often enough? It might be that although students are capable of excellence we rarely support students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what is possible for that individual. It might be true then that the opportunity to enable students to see what is possible rarely happens as students simply tread water in the mediocre.

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What if… students skewed their work right toward excellence (and teaching prioritised and supported this) and not left where it probably sits at present?

skewed

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.

draft2

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the feedback that is built into tasks/lessons and is specifically targeted at securing concepts and unravelling mis-conceptions…expecting much and targeting specifically where chidden can improve?

feedback

What if… the ethic of excellence supported by assessment (all forms) that is a coherent element of teaching – formatively driving progress and improvement toward excellence? Using mastery to support all children to secure the foundations and core knowledge, skills and understanding that will allow them to be academically and personally successful in and beyond education.

What if… the ethic of excellence is supported where teachers are persistent, and unswerving in raising standards (pass marks etc.) and deliberate in lessons and over-time in catching-up and closing gaps for those students who fall behind?; making a discernible difference to those that fall behind. 

What if… the ethic of excellence is embedded through teacher passion, subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, exam or age-related understanding and an insightful understanding of concepts and mis-concepts that are the foundation for driving children toward excellence? This is also evident in the schemes of work – progression of lessons – and within the layered/spiralled/escalating curriculum. Avoiding the skimming of content and the shallow learning.

What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in questioning that immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintain a high bar and expect 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 excellence.

What if… in seeking an ethic of excellence we borrowed much from Dan Coyle’s insights and establish the conditions for ignition, (moments that inspire an ignition of internal motivation) and provide the feedback of an expert coach from within tasks to breakdown tasks and specifically remove misconceptions and seek accelerated improvement.

“we are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts – that the talented are effortlessly able to perform feats that the rest of us just dream of. This is false. 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 – in fact look at my best work… my near wins).” (Dan Coyle)

What if… the ethic of excellence was reinforced by teachers and others who have an  unswerving ambition for all children and expecting much from all children, every lesson.

What if… the ethic of excellence is reflected across the Academy in all that we do – in our day-to-day expectations? (from uniform to ‘finishing conversations’ to politeness).

What if… an ethic of excellence was allied to growth mindset that sets the conditions and ethos for a class, cohort or Academy to stretch for excellence? (Dweck)

“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.”

What if… we focused more on the journey; on the “near win”?(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)

What if… the ethic of excellence is exemplified by the classroom environment that reflects learning, progress and supports excellence? Display is inspired, the walls are useful, all areas are tidy and reflective of excellence… boards (and IWB) reflect organised and logical presentation of information that is timely and focused on the key learning for the lesson?

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the routines that are shared and owned by all – they are systematic and reflects the desire to make progress and learn?


Maybe then…children would see that they are capable of excellence, that this would change them forever and raise their personal benchmark. They would have a new self-image, a new notion of possibility and an appetite for excellence. Maybe observation and education would value the outcome, the quality, the closeness to excellence and be less fixated on observed practice.

“If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well. You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it” (Ron Berger)

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

Failure is not an option… attitude matters…

“Leaders (and teachers) who know what they are doing will aim for the heart. They connect to the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. They make the business case come alive with human experience; they engage the senses, create messages that are simple and imaginative, and call people to aspire.” John Kotter

It is probably true that attitude matters…possibly the most. It is also probably true that this determines our belief in what is possible, determines the questions we ask and the quests that we embark upon. Attitude is everywhere; it determines our limits and those that we expect of others…it is the underlying attitudes that determine the outcomes and progress of students in classrooms and schools/academies.  It is also probably true that urgency, purpose, emotional connection and ownership are key for developing, fostering and motivating positive and focused attitudes that are aligned to the ambitions of the individual, class or organisation.


…Urgency is often the key to aligning and propagating attitudes – attitudes that can transform and create unusually positive outcomes. The compelling urgency for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts is a neat example of how attitude sets the challenge unwaveringly and achieves what appeared to be a miraculous return to Earth… taken from the script of Apollo 13 (edited)…(click picture for the video clip)… maxresdefault

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – So you’re telling me you can only give our guys 45 hours. It brings them to about there… Gentlemen, that’s not an option.

(the use of the visual on the blackboard here is key – people need to see and feel a problem  – only then are they likely to be moved to action.) 

MOCR ENGINEER – Gene, Gene. We gotta talk about power here… 

CONTROL – Without it they don’t talk to us, they don’t correct their trajectory, they don’t turn the heatshield around… we gotta turn everything off. Now. They’re not gonna make it to re-entry…With everything on the LM draws 60 amps. At that rate in sixteen hours the batteries are dead, not 45. And so is the crew. We gotta get them down to 12 amps. 

MOCR ENGINEER – Whoa. 12 amps! – How many? – You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps, John. 

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – Well, we’re gonna have to figure it out. I want people in our simulators working re-entry scenarios. I want you guys to find every engineer who designed, every switch, every circuit, every transistor and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy in the assembly line who had actually built the thing. Find out how to squeeze every amp out of both of these goddamn machines. I want this mark all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch!. Failure is not an option!

(the attitude here compels action, it expects much and takes a “whatever it takes” approached to a well defined and clear, compellingly urgent problem. How far does this type of attitude permeate our classrooms and academies?)

…and from Star Wars… (the importance of certainty and purpose of moving to action –  committing to a key internal decision to do something..)

Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try. Yoda: No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try. 

Yoda-do

Luke: I don’t, I don’t believe it.  Yoda: That is why you fail.


All of which begs to question how do we recognise, use and provoke great attitudes, that make everything possible and does whatever it takes in our academies and classrooms?


What if we understood how our attitude and that of others around us interact to achieve our ambitions or hold us back? Consider your colleagues and students … are they drains (takers of energy) or radiators (givers of energy)? Street_Drain_w_Double_Yellas_by_BewildaBeast8radiator What if we also considered Adam Grant’s great book, “Give and Take,” which provides greater insight and highlights that there are three types of people: Givers, Matchers and Takers. Takers only seek to gain from others, these add little or hold organisations back. Matchers, match what they give with what they have received. However, he argues that the Givers are the most and least successful…

“This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” ― (Adam Grant)

Question: how do we create the conditions in our organisations that reward and support Givers?

What if we realised that establishing the WHY (Sinek), the PURPOSE (Pink) and aiming for the heart (Kotter) is key to motivating and harnessing buy-in. This has a direct impact on attitude and on mobilising the inner drive to improve and succeed. It is interesting how these ideas line-up. Simon Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it … Dan Pink identifies three things that are important for people to feel/achieve success – a motivating purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery. Allied to John Kotter’s thoughts around aiming for the heart, we have the recipe to secure and maintain individuals attitudes and for keeping these aligned to the organisational, class or individual ambitions.

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What if we realised that as teachers and leaders in addition to securing the why, we must also give autonomy and ownership of the how? This is important because to maintain a “whatever it takes attitude” there needs to be ownership and a freedom to determine the what and the search for mastery. This must also involve pushing the decision making closer to the action (David Marquet). What if we understood the motivating power there is in ensuring the attitudes and approaches value the near-win and the journey toward mastery? How do we reward the near win with our colleagues and students? As Sarah Lewis discusses, those seeking mastery have an attitude that drives them to strive and feel success in the near wins…

Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. …. We see it … in the life of the indomitable Arctic explorer Ben Saunders, who tells me that his triumphs are not merely the result of a grand achievement, but of the propulsion of a lineage of near wins.

We thrive when we stay at our own leading edge. It’s a wisdom understood by Duke Ellington, who said that his favorite song out of his repertoire was always the next one, always the one he had yet to compose. Part of the reason that the near win is inbuilt to mastery is because the greater our proficiency, the more clearly we might see that we don’t know all that we thought we did. It’s called the Dunning–Kruger effect… “You learn how little you know.” (Sarah Lewis)

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Click picture to see Sarah Lewis: Embrace the near win

What if we realised that by keeping the moral purpose at the centre, investing time on the why, reaffirming the purpose and by appealing to the emotional drivers we maintain high urgency in the system – be it at individual or organisational level. It is this owned inner drive, the intrinsic motivation that will compel toward action and keep attitudes aligned with the ambition. Chip and Dan Heath highlight the key is to motivate the elephant as well as the rider…

  • Find the feeling (WHY/Purpose) – make people feel something
  • Shrink the change (How) – shrink change so that it does not spook the elephant
  • Grow your people – instil a growth mindset – attitude

howtomakeaswitch

(taken from Switch, Chip and Dan Heath)

What if attitude is about feelings and that stories are uniquely placed to motivate and develop attitudes that align with the ambition? As John Kotter highlights…(how often do we use stories … particularly those that tell of a preferred future?)

“Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics.” (John Kotter)

What if we also understood that positive attitudes stem from a growth mindset? (Carol Dweck)

growth-mindset

What if we also understood that we need to develop attitudes in line with being deliberate? (Malcolm Gladwell) Leaders, teachers and students whose attitude drive them to…

1. …be motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …seek and receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks towards near wins…mastery.

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if attitude is dependent on ignition? and we should seek to increase students and colleagues opportunities to be ignited by an experience, thought, fact, opportunity etc…

“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)

For Albert Einstein, that moment happened when his father brought him a compass.

“Einstein later recalled being so excited as he examined its mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold…. [Einstein wrote] “I can still remember – or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

What if we recruited much more on attitude, understanding that skills and knowledge gaps are easier to close?  Particularly because getting the right people on the bus is the key to great organisations (Jim Collins).

What if we realise that asking challenging questions and setting expectations high can  instil desired attitudes? If we ask ridiculous questions we prompt different possibilities and perspectives. (Questions must be based on the brutal truth of the present reality.)

  • “If your life depended on it what would you do?”
  • “What would we do if the target was 100%?”
  • “What do we need to do now, such that everything else is either easier or no longer required?” (Keller)

It is often the second question that really makes the difference – having attitudes and approaches that dig deep to understand problems and to find solutions that aren’t immediately apparent. What if we also realised that this is about getting the right people in the room – those best placed to ask the right question and not so many to complicate the answer. Steve Jobs only met with 3-4 people – any additions were removed.


Maybe then we would pay much more attention to the attitude of leaders, teachers, staff and students …and seek to create the conditions that foster positive and aligned attitudes.

Maybe then we would also look to other examples like the Apollo 13 mission and learn that attitude rarely exists without purpose and urgency – it does not happen in a vacuum. We might work harder to engage the emotions to drive attitudes and approaches.

Maybe then we would work harder to create the conditions necessary to ensure healthy and positive attitudes.

Maybe then we would work harder to generate or communicate urgency and that this needs to be born out of a clear moral purpose and that this is best aimed at the heart.

Maybe then we would find more ways to reward attitudes that drive us toward success.

Maybe then we would be more attuned to understanding the importance of and the need to create conditions for ignition … to ignite a passion in a colleague or our students … that will propagate attitudes than align with our ambition.

Maybe then we would recognise the importance of attitude and stance when recruiting – getting the right people on the bus.

Maybe then we would understand that autonomy and ownership of the how and what are key to generating the motivation required to propagate great attitudes

Maybe then we would create organisations and classrooms where attitude is understood, fostered and grown – because attitude matters and failure is not an option.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Samuel Beckett)


April 2015

To grade or not to grade… is probably not the question?

obs in time

“Whether we grade observations or not, we need to ensure teaching is increasingly progress-orientated and outcome-orientated – concentrating the strategies that provoke progress and secure outcomes for students.”

It is probably true that we should not determine the quality of teaching based on short lesson observations, but use a triangulation of evidence that identifies the typical quality of teaching; evaluating the effectiveness of teaching for securing progress-over-time and its success in securing strong outcomes for students. (outcomes in a broad sense as well as”attainment”) 

It is also true that we need to ensure and support teachers to find their way to great progress/outcome-orientated teaching that has a deep impact on students life chances. It is this autonomy that secures the motivation and ownership to reflect and stretch toward mastery.


We should, however, explore the assumption that grading teaching denies formative development; understanding that it perhaps provides the framework for improvement. Without a descriptive continuum of effective practices there is a danger of mediocrity. Particularly as…

“Not all approaches aimed at securing progress over time are equally effective or equally well delivered”

So this begs the question how do we develop a deep understanding of what secures progress, how do we measure the quality of teaching and how do we ensure that feedback to teachers is precise, owned and liberating, such that it sparks deliberate improvement, debate and improvement? It is difficult to see how we do this without a  descriptive continuum of what matters. We can rename the continuum, but when we consider progress-over-time and outcome-orientated teaching not everything is equal…or equally well delivered. Slide1


What if we fully understood how we move from this…Slide8To this… (where teaching is progress and outcome-orientated?… and that it is this that is rewarded and developed?)

Slide16

What if we understood that measuring quality of teaching through observation alone only measures a teacher’s ability to perform a lesson by tumbling and jumping between different teaching and learning strategies to tick enough of the criteria to get them over the Good line? What if we understand the limited sample that a lesson observation provides?…(shown as the vertical line below)

jumpy progress What if we firmly framed any episode of learning or scrutiny in the context of student progress, in the past and into to the future as the measure of the typicality of teaching?… such that it becomes a measure of how:

  1. Progress-orientated the teaching has been, such that students have made good progress over time.
  2. Outcome-orientated the teaching is, such that students achieve in the future.

What if we viewed the window of observation as an opportunity to measure progress over time and future progress?… obs in time


What if we examine, reward and measure the conditions, teaching habits and approaches in lessons that give us evidence that students are making progress over time and are aimed at achieving worthwhile outcomes?

What if this involved us recognising and identifying poor proxies for learning and being smarter at evaluating what we see? (from Robert Coe)… Slide21

“every child a powerful learner” (Steve Mundy, 2015)

So given that not all approaches/strategies are equally able to leverage progress over time and that some proxies are compelling, even blinding, what should be valued to ensure that every child is a powerful learner? What if progress-orientated and outcome-orientated teaching was revealed in…

  • The quality of teacher subject knowledge, concept (and misconception) understanding as well as pedagogy understanding.
  • and that this was revealed in the quality of direct instruction and the ability to impart knowledge and to understand how students learn and make progress in their subject
  • and that this was expertly revealed in the quality of questioning that accelerates learning and unlocks understanding (perhaps the most efficacious part of the learning for progress?)
  • and that this has had the impact of increasing the quality of students answers and oracy that is beyond age-related expectation and directly improving writing.
  • and that through embedded formative assessment (within not after) – teaching plans, differentiates and intervenes to enable all abilities to make progress.
  • and that there is real clarity on the end point – students are well set to perform unusually well in assessment or exams as a result of outcome-orientated teaching.
  • and that teaching shows ambition, warmth and drive to secure progress for all; setting ambitious expectations for all students.
  • and that this is also revealed in the quality of work in books.
  • and that these highlight an appropriate amount and depth of learning as a consequence of time spent in lessons focused on writing and demonstrating learning.
  • and that teaching dwells and goes to depth at the expense of skimming content.
  • and that is informed by on-going feedback that is within and not bolt-on in lessons. And that time is committed in lessons to respond to feedback and make progress. What if we rewarded and looked for actual improvement in books from the front to back as evidence of ongoing feedback … and much less impressed by regularity of feedback sheet or dialogue that does little to improve the work?

Slide2

  • and that there is clear evidence of an ethic of excellence where students re-do and redraft work, so that they produce their very best work that they have ever done more often – something that diminishes as they progress from 3-19. Primary children often produce their best ever piece of work.

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  • and that leads to students attitudes and approaches that demonstrate a thirst for knowledge, enquiring and knowledgeable questions.
  • …and because teaching has imparted inspiring knowledge and achieved progress over time – learning takes on its own momentum.

What if we also realised that the greatest teachers have these as habits…consistent approaches and abilities to teach with purpose, precision and consistency.

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What if the importance of progress over time and having the end in mind was rewarded and that observation is seen as just one part of evaluating whether the conditions are present to secure progress? What if we triangulated with data, outcomes, planning, student voice, books and other evidence? Perhaps then we would measure the quality of teaching in this way…(apologies for the grading – but not everything is equal or equally well delivered)

Slide2 …by ignoring observed performance, we reward teaching habits and approaches that have created and secured the conditions for progress and outcomes. if there is no evidence of progress over time, historic good outcomes and/or evidence of outcome-orientated teaching then teaching cannot be typically good.

What if this meant that evidence over time led to a view of the typicality of teaching and that this is stickier than when judgements are based on one-off observations? Any observed episode then simply adds to what is already known about the typical quality of teaching to secure progress and outcomes.


What if we ensured that ownership for improvement was located with individual teachers – understanding that there is also an element of earned autonomy to this freedom… Not least because you…

“Prescribe adequacy, (but) unleash greatness…”

What if this empowered teachers who then have greater freedom to explore progress-orientated and outcome-orientated approaches to teaching…

  • Purpose (secure student progress to give them a better chance in life)
  • Autonomy (you decide how you secure student progress)
  • Mastery (it is a craft not a science, be creative and innovative – seek mastery in teaching to drive progress and secure outcomes) (Dan Pink)
“We know we are in a good school when the four following things happen: Teachers talk about teaching and learning; Teachers observe each other’s practice; Teachers plan, organise, deliver, monitor and evaluate their work together; Teachers teach each other” Judith Warren, Little The Power of Organisational Setting (1981)
What if we applied our understanding of deliberate practice to support teachers to improve…deliberate practice occurs when teachers…

1. …are motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

So that…

practice (is) 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 observers engaged with teachers in real time, so that observers support improvement, reflection and learning during lessons?


Maybe then we would…

  • …ensure that teaching is progress-orientated and outcome-orientated.
  • ….not use short observations alone to assess quality of teaching and instead triangulate observation that evaluates progress over time and the effectiveness of the teaching to deliver outcomes.
  • …tread carefully when considering removing grades as this may reduce our ability to understand what makes the difference and to show direction of travel for teaching improvement…even without grading a descriptive continuum is required – probably divided four ways… (beginning, embedding, effective, transferrable)(or 4,3,2,1)
  • …understand that not all strategies and approaches are equal or equally well delivered.
  • …understand that the efficiency and efficacy of teaching for progress and outcomes is what matters.
  • ..release teachers to own their improvement and to consider what we know about deliberate practice as a framework/continuum to enable teachers to receive immediate feedback that informs focused, repetitious improvement.
  • …realise that what maybe considered as traditional teaching is often the most effective at securing progress over time.

March, 2015