As educationalists we still have an urgent, deeper problem; one that may already be irreversibly entrenched by a pandemic whose impact has not been felt evenly. It is more important than ever for us to work together to deliberately and systematically address deep-seated inequality and act now to slow the growing gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged children; so that children are not permanently defined by the pandemic, because they have the tools to choose what they become…
To give the power of choice is deeply embedded in our values as educators, but we will require the bravery to step into the light of the new normal and be the change that is needed, if only we’re brave enough to be it…
“When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Amanda Gorman, 2021)
Ten months after writing Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage we find ourselves still in the midst of a Pandemic, one which has touched our lives. The sad truth is that the stark asymmetry of society, education and opportunity, embarrassingly revealed by the pandemic, still dominates, condemns and limits the lives of disadvantaged children. It is very hard to under-play the steepness of the challenge that we as educators face.
“We must have a bold and comprehensive plan … a long-term strategy, fully funded, planned by educationalists with cross party consensus, that looks forward for the next five years to support those most impacted by COVID-19 over their educational lifetime.” (Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner, 2021)
There is increasing hope as we extricate ourselves from the pandemic, but the sickening reality remains, the impact of the pandemic and the deep economic and social cost will burden communities and individuals into the middle of this century. This piece of writing, however, is born out of optimism not pessimism, hope not futility. It offers a framework for understanding how we can support all individual disadvantaged children to thrive in our increasingly asymmetric society and acceleratingly complex future.
Accumulating disadvantage, the past, present and future | the asymmetry of life
“…what future?” (Enola Holmes) “There are two paths that you can take Enola, yours or the path others choose for you…” (Eudoria Holmes) “Our future is up to us!” (Enola Holmes, Film, 2020)
Accumulating disadvantage and advantage is founded in early life and is perpetuated through education to fundamentally influence and determine the opportunities that are available through adulthood. This accumulation cements and calcifies the asymmetries that are hard wired into our society and education system. The interaction and compounding impact of the factors that accumulate disadvantage and advantage are detailed below: (the table contrasts key factors that influence disadvantaged and advantaged children in the past and into their future)
“…with each new thing you learn, the better you’re able to absorb the next related fact.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Life as a series of opportunities | those that we take and those we miss
Between life and death there are opportunities that we play going forwards through childhood and adulthood. For some this is a a joyous stroll through a land full of possibility for others it is a world that happens to them, a life that limits their opportunity to try another life…
“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices. Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” (Matt Haig, The Midnight Library, 2020)
Considering life as a one way journey along routes punctuated by opportunities helps our understanding of disadvantage by pushing us to look forward and not just backwards to support disadvantaged children.
“…you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to (or the experiences you have) send you down a particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Early experience and opportunity lay the ground (load the deck, build the foundation) for the future. Some individuals accumulate knowledge, understanding, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief, a set of tools that open doors and routes in their future (not initially foreseeable); the foundation for self-agency; picking and choosing and playing with opportunities as they present themselves.
The reverse is also true, if we consider life as a set of opportunities, disadvantaged children and individuals have had fewer opportunities in the past, now and in their future. Disadvantaged are, therefore, more likely to…
- … have fewer opportunities (recognised or not) now and in the future, those that appear and those that are self-created.
- … are far less likely to step forward when opportunities present; more likely to self-de-select themselves and step back.
- … and have fewer tools to use, previous experiences or self-belief to exploit each opportunity.
Tackling our disadvantaged problem forwards (as well as backwards)
We remain very uncomfortable with the truth that…. however effective we believe our present education system is, it fails, year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers, and worse still “…we could be at a turning point .. we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)
Whilst we need to assess the deficits in learning of disadvantaged children by looking back at what is missed or insecure (literacy, language being key levers), we should also look forward into their future and consider how we can load their dice and increase their (life) chances. Increasing the child’s chance of recognising, creating, stepping into opportunities in their future with a set of personal and academic tools and keys that will exploit the opportunities that life throws up.
How far do we consider the future and the specific tools that individuals need to thrive and make the most of opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged to be competitive?
A personalised approach that may also consider how best we build specialisms, areas of competence to accumulate advantage so that they are competitive with their more advantaged peers may prove a useful enablers for individuals. Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)
“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)
Present level of attainment, delayed attainment and attainment mobility
We must work harder to recognise a child’s present level of attainment as just that the present level of attainment. This understanding of attainment removes assumptions, language (either conscious or unconscious) that attainment or ability is fixed. It usefully opens the door to discussions about delayed attainment (particularly pertinent now) and to attainment mobility the ability for children to progress from low to high attaining compared to peers (something that education does not achieve well). In this sense learning is a way of creating abilities; how far can we support disadvantaged to create their own potential...
“Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Eriksson)
… it is also helpful not to be fooled into believing disadvantaged children are less ambitious and aspirational. This maybe how they present, but often the opposite is true, not having the means and being deeply influenced by our lived experience may tell a different story.
Talent identified in hindsight as the consequence of effort and practice over time
Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.
What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?
Life chances turn on small things, moments and chance | an opportunity to sow seeds and load the dice for the future
“..we are each made up of numerous possibilities.. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” (Herminia Ibarra, quoted by David Epstein, 2019)
The thing with disadvantage is that regardless of the present level of disadvantage we can accumulate advantage over time, at anytime, it is not something that starts when disadvantage is removed and it may well turn on small things as well as complex things, in seconds or years. How do we support children to fall helplessly in love with their future passion, perhaps in brief powerful encounters?
“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion. … Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” (Dan Coyle)
The path we take through life is influenced in complex ways as a journey of loaded chance and opportunity. How accessible the opportunities are depends on the level of advantage or disadvantage. The way that opportunities playout over a lifetime, in often unpredictable ways, means that increasing the future chances of success and accumulating advantage can arise in even the smallest conversation, some praise, meeting them there, asking how things went, building confidence, knowledge and understanding all have the ability to build a can-do identity and increase agency that unlocks opportunities. As educators we cannot see the future, but we can increase the chances of disadvantaged by creating a broader toolbox for these future opportunities and experimentation:
“… mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.” (David Epstein , 2019)
We are all responsible, there is no opt out | It is everyone’s problem
As educators we have significant influence on all individuals that we interact with; we leak our expectations and attitudes. Some of these will be inconsequential, but others may be life changing.
“Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman, 2020)
The good and the bad news is that every interaction along life’s journey has an impact on us and informs our sense of self and our self identity. The good is that everyday there are multiple ways to influence those around us. The impact can be fundamental and is likely to bear little relation to the amount of time or investment it takes. Because we live life forwards there is no telling the impact the educators have on children on their journey through childhood into adulthood. Applying this underlines the importance of culture, the importance that it is everyone’s job, that we should not partition our disadvantaged work into time-limited strategies – it is an all the time thing. And we are all responsible.
“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
The bad is that everyday in every interaction between educator and child we will consciously or unconsciously do one (or a mix) of the following. Underlining the complexity of addressing disadvantage we need to consider how far our culture, curriculum, teaching, culture, rules, routines, language, our assumptions, bias – condemns, confers, colludes, mitigates, or removes disadvantage?
- Condemn: to assume fixed attainment and capability making disadvantage the defining feature of an individual. “That child’s disadvantage is permanent.”
- Confer: to give someone the identity of disadvantaged. Applying all of the damaging stereotypes and generalities of disadvantage. “Yes, you are disadvantaged”
- Collude: to act together in order to deceive through agreeing the extent and on going impact of disadvantage. “Yes, life is difficult because you are disadvantaged”
- Mitigate: to support and reduce the impact of disadvantage “No, you have agency over what you do and where you go”
- Remove: to undo disadvantage by accumulating advantage “This does not define you or pre-determine your future.” (could have been ‘reverse‘, but this does not fit with choices made going forward, and may inadvertently suggest unpicking the past, rather than adding to a character and competence toolbox that takes advantage of opportunities in the future, further this might be better termed as ‘adding advantage or accumulating advantage‘
Educators are not consciously the creators of disadvantage, but we do make choices, minute by minute, that can limit the impact of disadvantage on a child’s future, so that collectively, consciously, together, we enable our disadvantaged children to write their own stories, to grasp, shape and wrestle with their own future. Giving them access to the game and the rules and the tactics and the confidence and self-identity to have agency.
“It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future … believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart …and that will make all the difference.” (Steve Jobs)
Keeping the main thing the main thing | Teaching as the key lever for accumulating advantage
One of the biggest levers for accumulating advantage for disadvantaged is to invest deeply in supporting and developing professionals to teach well; professional development that focuses on:
- the key spine of what matters most in the curriculum, delivered with purpose and passion; making it unavoidable and compelling. Build curiosity and questioning in all children to secure their ability to make decisions, take chances and have agency now and in the future.
- direct instruction, explanation, modelling. Investing deeply in explanation so that we scaffold understanding, based on a progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of the most relevant and compelling knowledge. Building schema that provides the foundation and touch points that will come easier to advantaged children.
- deliberate practice. To build confidence and success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
- diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback. The biggest advantage that advantaged children have had and have are rapid, high quality feedback loops. From a young age advantaged children are corrected and encouraged; this matures into a self-directed search for feedback as a positive mechanism for growth and improvement. For disadvantaged it can be something that exposes, humiliates or offers confirmation that the world happens to them. Feedback has the potential to be transformational and comes in all forms, a glance, a smile, a comment, conversation, caring, valuing the person, simply repeating what has been said, questioning, pausing, motivating, (written feedback), comparison, modelling… again revealing the importance of human connection
- Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage. All teachers and wider colleagues have a role in both literacy (all aspects) and language (including vocabulary). Particular focus on oracy is leveraging for disadvantaged; again this is precisely what happens in the homes of the advantaged from an early age.
Teaching that has a strong narrative that is conceptually strong, relevant and feels important so that learning is irresistible supports the likelihood that we will accumulate advantage in disadvantaged students. Particularly where we are able to cumulatively support and expect individuals to complete meaningful and challenging work; building self-belief, self esteem and igniting the curiosity present in us all.
“This change-only-when-relevant feature reminds us that the brain is not simply a blank slate upon which the world scrawls all its stories. .. Experiences turn into memories when they are germane (to our lives).” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Teachers who, “foster rethinking cycles by instilling intellectual humility, disseminating doubt and cultivating curiosity,” (Adam Grant, 2021) are more likely to equip students for their future; to know what to do when they do not know what to do.
“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)
What if our connection with Education is elasticated to the point of failure?
In middle and long distance races athletes describe the rubber band that exists between themselves and the runner(s) in front. Once this extends too far there is a point of no return, the band snaps and it is impossible to catch-up.
Sadly this may also be true for disadvantaged children over time (and accelerated during the pandemic). There is a point when disadvantaged children increasingly self-deselect themselves from engaging, attending and trying; they become disenfranchised from education. The elastic snapping and the checking-out of education may sadly be the case for an eye-wateringly high number of disadvantaged children. Our challenge, for these individuals, will not be simply to close gaps, but to prove to those who are no longer in the game that education, itself, is worthwhile.
What you have (or have not) in your locker counts (you in or counts you out)
When advantaged children get good at something they stack their internal locker with evidence of success (their sense of identity or self). Numerous affirmations build up in their locker to reaffirm their ability and alter, enhance their self belief and agency. The number of affirmations and the amount of evidence is not compromised by odd failures or negative comments; their sense of self (worth) is unwounded and their agency undiminished.
For disadvantage, their lived experience can leave their locker for a range of aspects of their life sparse. This leads to a propensity to not try again and risk further weakening the locker that may lower self-agency and give a suffocating sense that the world happens to them. The downward spiral of which leads to on-going self de-selection from trying, risking failure, (that their locker will not resist). New opportunities are not seen as such (in fact the opposite) and the disadvantaged step back, not forward, further accumulating disadvantage.
The disproportionate impact of achieving meaningful and challenging work
Disadvantaged individuals (and all children) need to have the opportunity to wrestle with and succeed at meaningful and challenging work. This speaks directly to their identity as a learner. It gives a new sense of achievement, alters the self identity, contributes to their self-belief locker, accumulates advantage, loads the dice for the future, decreases the likelihood of self de-selection and strengthens agency. Bit by bit the more we, as educators, build these opportunities the more we mitigate disadvantage and accumulate advantage.
“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)
For a disadvantaged strategy, look within as much as out for answers, think in years not terms, reject initiatives, think systemic change, build culture not working groups
The scale of our disadvantaged problem is too big for short term strategy, initiative and short term interventions, it requires something deeper and systemic; our approach needs to become what we do (without trying), because it is in the culture, in the approach, owned by all. So…
- … do look outside for inspiration, but build your approach on what you learn about disadvantage in your context; the answers and approach lie within you and your community; strategies do not travel well. Thinking deeply about disadvantage and context and ownership with strong execution matters.
- … do not seek initiatives and short term interventions. Systemic change is required that is irreversible (not least because disadvantage holds on to individuals over time).
- … plan to address disadvantage in the long term, think 3 to 5 to 10 years in terms of timeline. Resist the one year plan punctuated by short term interventions.
- … do not think of disadvantage as one homogenous group; this issue is only understood by fully understanding each individual disadvantaged child and how best to accumulate advantage for them.
- … do not just fixate on the past and gaps that exist, also consider the future for disadvantaged students, what do they need to thrive?
- … do invest in teaching (the every lesson, everyday lever) and culture to accumulate advantage through the lens of competence and character (particularly self-belief and self-esteem) to give self-agency.
“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
This is personal | the need for human to human contact | post-pandemic rocket fuel
Children typically think in the now. Emphasising human contact and quality interaction between and adult and learner in the magical places we call schools may well be the best recovery from the pandemic. Dwelling and colluding on the impact may not serve children well; keeping the Main Event, every lesson, everyday as the focus will likely best serve disadvantaged children.
“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)
Human connection is perhaps the most important contributor to accumulating advantage; it is perhaps the key ingredient in early advantage before the age of 4. The pandemic significantly reduced socialisation and human connection; reducing the staggering amount of information that is socially transmitted. We all bear this responsibility, that young people watch, imitate and learn from us and that this shapes them over time. This human connection may be the biggest loss during the pandemic, but may well prove our greatest super power in the post pandemic.
“We have to see to be able to do. … You play a role in passing on cultural norms and nuances. …people who we connect with, who we trust and who we are exposed to. These are the three fundamental factors that underpin who we learn from or imitate … shaping us at each and every moment of our lives.” (Fiona Murden, 2020)
Seeking equity | giving disadvantaged what they need
“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)
We should not consider disadvantaged as a single homogenous group; considering them as a group has significant negative consequences and troublesome stereotypes that will mis-serve disadvantaged children. We must maintain the view that disadvantaged children are individuals and as such we should not confer or label as disadvantage, but understand each child and give them what they need; seek equity give individuals what they need.
But what about the post-pandemic? | gifts for disadvantage from the pandemic?
- The advancement of and use of technology to support learning has the opportunity to supplement the main event (every lesson, everyday) to support learning and to deepen learning. There is also significant opportunity to democratise learning and increase accessibility to teaching and learning 24/7. Securing accessibility to technology needs to remain a key priority post pandemic.
- Starker understanding of the role of assessment in leaning and the need for feedback to support progress; the significantly weakened or limited in distance learning.
- Disadvantaged individuals are likely to have weakened their present level of attainment relative to more affluent, advantaged peers. We should avoid demoting disadvantaged down set or to allow the new attainment level to limit our expectation of them. Before our situational blindness kicks in and the new level becomes defining; we need to seek equity alongside teaching the Main Event (every lesson, everyday)
- We need to understand the impact of the pandemic on the self-identity/self-esteem locker of each child. Actively encourage and secure early success on meaningful and challenging work; building self-esteem, filling their lockers and ensuring they increasingly step forward, not back.
- The deeper connections with family that have developed through the pandemic provide a significant opportunity to support disadvantaged children: whilst children spend c.950 hours in classroom and well over c.1200 hours in school each year, accounting for sleeping, they spend closer to 4000 hours per year with parents and carers.
The So What? | How far are we meeting the following challenges?
The following is offered as a set of challenging questions for us to consider how we are accumulating advantage for individual disadvantaged children, so that they feel and are more successful now and in adulthood; how best do we gift each child with the self-agency that allow them to make choices, seize opportunities and thrive in life.
- How far do we know, at an individual level, the nature of disadvantage in our context: how it accumulates over time to limit opportunity generally and specifically in our community?
- How far are we able to recognise “present level of attainment” and “delayed attainment” so that we do not inadvertently assume fixed ability and reduce attainment mobility?
- How far is addressing our disadvantaged problem everyone’s business? Understanding that we are all responsible and leak our expectations all of the time.
- do we condemn, confer, collude, mitigate or remove disadvantage?
- do we focus on our language, actual and body language?
- How far do we believe and invest in human connection as the key to accumulating advantage. The lack of human connection may have done the most damage in the pandemic, by contrast it is likely to be our superpower to influence and gift choice to our disadvantaged children in the post-pandemic.
- How far do we know that this needs to be an investment over the longer term, aimed at system change (teaching and culture). Initiatives and intervention are poor substitutes for systemic, irreversible change that influences how we educate over time to accumulate advantage?
- How far do we focus on the main thing as the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
- what matters most, building curiosity and questioning in all children,
- direct instruction, explanation, modelling; progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge.
- deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
- diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback: rapid, high quality feedback loops.
- Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.
- How far are we looking not to just to fill the past gaps for disadvantaged, but equally seek to load the dice for disadvantaged children by looking into the future and equipping them with the tools required to recognise and step forward for opportunities with competence and character that allow them to thrive and influence their world (building self agency)?
- How well do we prepare disadvantaged students to:
- recognise and create opportunities for themselves? (including being curious and asking question)
- have the agency to step forward for opportunities?
- have the tools to be able to exploit their opportunities?
- How far have we really considered what it is that allows individuals to thrive now and in the future? How far does the present education system set individuals up for success? How do we tip the balance, load the dice to give disadvantaged access to life and the rules?
- How far do we understand that an individual’s self identity and motivation to continue is determined by their sense of self and what they have in the locker? How far do we build in affirmations and evidence of success for children to actively build this confidence?
- How far are we exploiting the opportunities afforded by our deeper connection with families and communities and our use of technology to democratise learning?
- How far would addressing the above make everything else in education either less important or not required?
We should remain optimistic and hopeful for the future; we have remarkable educators in all areas of our sector; with the right focus we can help all children to make something of their lives in a future that is unlikely to be dull.
“Our task is to educate their whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.” (Ken Robinson)
Dr Dan Nicholls