#LearningFirst Number 2!

I was lucky enough to attend the second #LearningFirst conference on Thursday 22nd September 2016 and, as with the first, I returned inspired and keen to consolidate all I had heard. It also seemed plain to me that when something is right, people just know it; it makes them nod, clap, cheer and celebrate, especially when it’s been a long time coming.

Here’s a synopsis of the main themes and some of the points made. Please note that this is an interpretation. I can’t claim to know what’s in the mind of these skillful people; I can only interpret what they say. In short, this is what I think they meant…

Tim Oates began the conference reminding us of the reasons why we had to leave levels, but also expressing his misgivings at the many schools who have simply changed the labels while repeating all the old mistakes with levels. He reminded us that all too often with levels, the labels,  level 3 for example, meant different things to different people, and this discrepancy was simply ‘no good for assessment.’ The reason levels lacked this common understanding was because they were the result of a ‘best fit’ approach to assessment. We signed children off on parts of the curriculum when they had secured perhaps only 60 %, and this percentage might have been for different criteria for different pupils meaning that Jonny’s level 3 would be different from Jane’s level 3. Add to this, teachers having higher or lower thresholds for quality regarding specific outcomes and you had arbitrary, unreliable assessment that let children down.

With this in mind,  we need to catch ourselves running into the same trap with any new system. Check up if you’re ‘best fitting’ and shoe horning children into something they aren’t, just for the sake of numbers. Make expectations crystal clear to teachers so they speak the same language too, or as one speaker said – ensure there is ‘validation,’ (I think I like that word better than moderation now). In fact, I predict that understanding quality so that the descriptions of learning mean the same thing to different people will be the glue that will make of all this succeed or fail.

Mr Oates also highlighted the importance of children being ‘uncomfortable’ in their learning. For too long teachers have pulled back when a child is uncomfortable, when that’s the exact time to leave a child to think rather than us diving in and explaining.  As Tim said, for Vygotsky, ‘that’s the place to go,’ not shy away from. I vouch for this, as I remember when I first started teaching being marked down in observations because this child or that child was ‘struggling’.  When I look back, we were actually encouraged to ensure children didn’t feel challenged at all, but instead wallowed around in the cosy embrace of their prior learning.  It was also a custom to ‘just teach’ and get through content without making the slightest assumption regarding prior learning at all. How I cringe now…

Tim also made no apologies for uttering his judicious war cry, ‘fewer things in greater depth.’ Reminding us that the new curriculum has meant more than a shift in content, but rather a focus on constructs, ensuring that objectives are specific and cover the key things children need to know and build upon throughout their education.   He maintained that practice is possible when there are fewer things in greater depth, because there is space to apply these building blocks of key concepts again and again rather than trying to skim over expansive content. In this way, there should be ‘high production’ with children saying and doing much, being given the chance to reflect on their learning often. If schools do this, then they have to rely less on data because there is a wealth of evidence for attainment and progress actually in classrooms. One of the terrible mistakes made with the levels era was that numbers often replaced authentic knowledge about learners and learning.

In addition, children should also be ‘exposed’ to simple concepts early in their education so that these act as the building blocks of key concepts, with rich questions and answers being an everyday feature of classrooms.  Assessment then needs to be ‘granular’ and ‘analytical’ rather than a general amalgamation, which we know results in evaluations of learning that overlook deficits. Certainly, when Tim  finished with the immortal words ‘it’s the stuff that counts,’ he reminded us that we need to make sure we are clear about the ‘stuff’ all the way along.

Next was Mary Myatt, who continued the theme by declaring that ‘numbers are only numbers,’ as so many leaders still forget it seems. She maintained that any numbers should always be ‘triangulated with children’s work in books and with what they say’.  And it’s true that Ofsted now follow this line of enquiry during inspections it seems.

In addition, teachers need to recognise the ‘difference between the work and the learning’ so that ‘completing a piece of work’ is not confused with ‘the work’ itself – ‘doing the work is the work!’  Indeed there are, as Mary put it, too many ‘quick sign offs’ simply because a child has been seen to ‘finish’ the task. Cringe…how many times have we told a child to ‘hurry up and finish,’ like we’re all there on a little running track. Is going fast or faster the same as learning deeply? No! For me, this is also partly fuelled by ineffective book monitoring by leaders who chastise teachers for ‘unfinished work’ without understand the learning that might have been going on around that unfinished piece. Moreover, Mary related this to what she called ‘editing cheap praise’ in classrooms so that children aren’t praised for finishing or putting their heads down and getting on with it, but praised for their real efforts in learning instead.  Certainly, when content coverage ‘trumps learning  it is rubbish,’ resulting in ‘loads of dots that are never joined up’.

Certainly, as teachers we need to ‘dig deep’ in how we teach and how we question children, avoiding ‘superficial responses’ to signal when to move on,  and being ‘operational instead of educational’.  There were without doubt some pithy gems in Mary’s talk that teachers and leaders need to heed. Mary finished with predicting that labelling and ability is still an issue that requires considerable redress – we should not be calling children ‘lower ability,’ but rather talk about children with ‘low prior attainment.’  I can only agree with her prediction that the discourse on ability might one day be looked upon in the same way as the discourse on sexism and racism, after all marginalisation, is marginalisation.

After this, Chris Chivers shared his years of wisdom as an educationalist, reminding us to pay attention to the transitions in school and between schools and also to see just how valuable our relationship with parents is and how we should  work hard to include them in our decision making. I can say that I spent six months on secondment last year and noticed the difference having parents on board can make. I also know that poorer parents will have just the same care and aspirations for their children as more affluent families, but ten times the amount of barriers to fulfilling those intentions.  This is not the same as not caring.

Then for the main part of the day we moved through presentations of various people’s journeys through assessment. What was striking was the humility and honesty of everyone who spoke. What a relief to know everyone else has made mistakes trying to get things right for their children! Quite a few people admitted to starting systems that were just like levels again and having to abandon ship and start all over again. Nearly everyone admitted that there was still much more to do and more to tweak. There was consensus that numbers were needed, but also agreement that it was everything behind the numbers that counted. As Tim Oates said, ‘it’s the stuff that counts!’

One of the most inspirational talks was from Ruchi Sabharwal, about how she had tackled pupils’ own entrenched ideas about themselves as learners using Solo Taxonomy. She explained how she’d used this to continue to lift the lid on learning.  It certainly flagged up the care we must take to ensure any name or label is pinned to the task and not to the child. As educators we must be so mindful of the propensity for humans to use labels to form images of themselves and create stuck identities. This is why Carol Dweck’s work is so important to study and understand too. Teachers might offer free differentiated choice in a mixed ability setting, but if children pick the same ‘labels’ each time, is that because they’ve attached themselves to a label or that they really are making informed learning choices?

Lastly, James Pembroke leapt onto stage attacking ‘progress measures’ with his witty and concise delivery. Yes, he was completely right, ‘sometimes progress is simply consolidation’ so how will that show up on the progress measures?  I know that a teacher can make considerable progress on pupils’ learning behaviour with little effect on actual ‘data’ until perhaps the next year when all that hard work has been synthesized and then they have a new teacher.  How will that be measured? Maybe share the data increase between the teachers?  See how silly it all is.  That’s why tracking should be based on conversations between professionals more than an exercise in corporate accountability.

James was also completely right to say that we might track and monitor progress, but should we be measuring it? After all, progress isn’t always measurable! Certainly, the idea of a linear progression is, as he put it, ‘a fallacy,’ and I would agree. Interestingly, only 1 in 10 children follow what we all consider the typical trajectory anyway, so this concept of zooming from A to B applies mostly to no one! All it really does is ‘encourage pace at the expense of depth’ and as James reminded us too, ‘in any healthy system numbers will go up as well as down’.  For James then, ‘progress is: catching up, filling gaps, deepening understanding and overcoming barriers’ so if it is all these – then what is expected progress and could that ever be expressed as a score? See, it’s silly!  He finished by advising us all to ‘do more with less’ because ‘the less we carry, the further we go.’ Priceless!

Priceless all round.

Mastering the ability concept


Schools and teachers exist to ensure that children enter adulthood endowed with the knowledge and skills to add to their own and society’s well-being.  Schools want the best for their pupils – whether they be fancy private schools, leafy suburban schools or urban state schools – schools and teachers want the best for their pupils. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want this, although some have not always gone about it in the right way. We also know that education matters; it matters because if you have a decent one the chances are you will be healthier and live longer than if you hadn’t. In so many ways, education has a profound significance to people’s lives.

This is why it surprises me that still today some schools and teachers are still grouping children by their ability at a very early age, seemingly unaware of the profound effect this rubber stamping has on children and their futures. It surprises me even more that some teachers and school leaders seem unable to see the causal relationship between creating lower ability groups, largely populated by poorer children from less privileged backgrounds, and the national trend for poorer children to do less well in education. Clearly, putting children into groups is not working if our aim to serve all children well and break the cycle of poverty and low attainment.

Many teachers still appear to understand intelligence as innate, like an endowment from birth  meaning that some pupils are intelligent while some just aren’t. This ignores so much that we know about the causes for high achievement in education that this viewpoint must be a very deeply ingrained idea that has been established in culture and society over many years; pat every turn this idea of ‘inborn intelligence’ is confirmed rather than upturned. It is almost comical that many assume a child born into a stable, affluent family, surrounded by a culture of achievement might be ‘bright’ despite these things and not largely because of them. Conceptually, we know that stability, money and background help a child to do well, but fail to link this understanding  to the idea of  intelligence being constructed and not inherent.

We reinforce these concepts everyday in the way we talk about pupils too. We talk about certain children being ‘clever, talented, artistic, gifted, high ability, or exceptional,’ the list goes on.  Parents do it too; I have been guilty of this. However, every day this feeds the idea that intelligence is a fixed endowment rather than incremental, supple and capable of great change. We easily forget all those factors that help children to learn well, like ‘affluence, good teaching, deliberate practice, effort and enthusiasm and parental support.’ Everywhere we look we can see evidence that intelligence is not innate, but cultivated. No doubt, there is a physiological dimension, connections between synapses can be faster in some people, of course, but in most healthy brains, connections can be increased and intelligence built. I would never agree that all children are the same, they aren’t, or that some children are not more knowledgeable and skilled than others, but that’s because they got there, not because it was all there in the first place. Neither am I elevating nurture over nature because we know genetics matters and it would be wrong to discount biology. However, a propensity is just that: a tendency, a proclivity, it is not the end result; an apple seed is not an apple. Our world is still so governed by the historically embedded concepts of birthright and heritage that our expectations of others are heavily influenced by where they’re from and ‘who their people are’ rather than seeing people just as they are.  Education is no different. It’s time to shrug off our implicit fixation on what might appear ‘natural’ and think nurture.

The work of Professor Carol Dweck has looked into this in great detail and her work shows that fixed attitudes to intelligence and ability by teachers, parents and pupils are detrimental to learning. Unfortunately, her work has been widely misused by many educators who have turned her ideas into little more than motivational jingles without understanding the depth of these important theories about the self. How learners think about themselves and other learners, and importantly how teachers view their pupils, might just be the most profound and largely overlooked aspect of education. If existence is fashioned by anything at all, it is mostly by how people view themselves and others.

When pupils consider themselves to be ‘clever,’ they often shy away from challenge because after all, if you’re clever then you shouldn’t misunderstand anything, right? Fixed conceptions of ability generally cause pupils to avoid possible failure for this same reason. Alternatively, when children have a more fluid conception of intelligence, then failure doesn’t matter so much because you can  build on the knowledge and understanding and eventually get it right. What you need most of all is effort and practice. When pupils and teachers have this attitude, Dweck calls this a ‘growth mind set’. Like this, attitudes to intelligence or ‘mind sets’ matter in learning a great deal. However, as said, too many schools have used her work as a blunt motivational instrument and approaches to classroom practice have not changed. Differentiation is still defined by ability groupings, attainment and achievement by data and deliberate practice and redrafting are not key features of classroom practice, but are instead suffocated by curriculum coverage and that dreadful thing called ‘pace’. What has not followed the general appreciation of Dweck’s extensive work on ability and intelligence is a change in educational practice. Still schools and teachers are labeling and grouping pupils by ability despite all the evidence that it is not beneficial for learning.

So many schools have misunderstood the growth mind set idea by conceptualising it as referring to a pupil’s attitude to learning without understanding that a pupil’s attitude to learning also comes from the school’s own ethos. The irony of some schools declaring that ‘at our school we have a growth mind set’ yet allowing some pupils to toddle off to a ‘top maths set’ day in, day out, seems palpable.

Yet, many teachers first reaction to ability grouping is to raise concerns about differentiation and meeting children’s needs, legitimate arguments you might feel, after all how do you teach children at such disparate levels of understanding? Well, the disparity in achievement of pupil groups will never change if you keep the groups in place! Sheep in a field will never move to new pastures if the gates are always closed. (See this clip for a perfect analogy of ‘lifting the lid’).  The achievement gap between pupils will never narrow if barriers to achievement are kept in place.

In reality, when children are put into ability groups they rarely move from these groups;  these groups are largely populated by poorer, less affluent children also. This means that the cycle of poverty and low attainment is kept in place by education rather than broken by it. It is likely then that when poorer kids make it in life, it is despite education and not because of it. If you’re a child put into a lower ability set, when will you ever have the chance to see or try the things the children in the top are doing? When will you ever be allowed to catch up? The chances are never, because such is the nature of this kind of system.

Now, the answer is not a big soup of bland education taught to the middle. The answer is to free up avenues of learning and to make the growth mind set a reality for pupils. The answer is to group and label activities rather than the children; take the emphasis away from personal traits and put it onto the action. I can say this as a teacher who has done this, is doing this and has closed the achievement gap because of it. Every good teacher must differentiate learning activities to suit where pupils are in the process of learning, but why limit pupils’ potential by limiting the scope of what they can do? Ceasing labeling children by ability supports the understanding of intelligence as malleable and able to be built upon. It fosters an ethos of ‘doors open for everyone’. Children begin to push themselves further and try things they would have never have had the chance to. Pupils who are further ahead support those who are working on activities further back down the learning progression; this supports those further ahead to understand what they know and build on that further – let’s face it, there’s nothing like teaching someone else to make you understand what you know and don’t know. Contrary to traditional ideas, pupils are a great resource for each other that has been left untapped because old ideas about the teachers being the only knowledgeable person in the room die hard. Through this smarter differentiation of learning, labels begin to become softer round the edges.

In the same way that labeling children by ability does not serve pupils well, misconceptions about of the concept of mastery are also in danger of being harmful to ensuring ‘the best for all, all of the time.’  Some schools now mistakenly consider ‘mastery’ as the preserve of only ‘high ability’ children, or the ‘gifted and talented’ (a counter-productive term for children who have so far learned more than others).  However, if mastering means what it implies: to gain comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or activity, then those assigning mastery to only a select group of pupils are in effect saying that all the other children will gain only part of these comprehensive knowledge and skills. In effect, most children will then remain ‘half taught’ while the ‘top children’ will be fully taught. In reality, this would also mean that children from less affluent families would be more likely to be taught this ‘partial curriculum’ than the ‘comprehensive mastery curriculum’ reserved for the elite children on top. This could not be further from the original intention of the changes in curriculum and assessment.

The mastery model means that all children should gain comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or activity, before moving on to new learning. This is counter to the performance model curriculum where children where rushed through content to cross level thresholds. Offering a specialised mastery curriculum alongside a ‘normal curriculum’ is at best misguided and at worst completely pedagogically unsound. What should happen is that once knowledge is mastered, pupils move on to the next progressive step in learning and all children follow the same trajectory. They may not all get to the same point at the same time; they won’t, but we do a terrible injustice to the majority of children if we offer ‘mastery’ to only a few. In the same way that children had to master how to walk before they ran, we should expect all children to master the curriculum.

To end, educators must delve deep into themselves and reflect on these things. We are beginning a new era in education because people like Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black, Carol Dweck and John Hattie have taken the time to ask and investigate why education hasn’t worked for large numbers of children.  For too long, schools have blamed all sorts of things: government, parents, society, poverty, all manner of things, while overlooking that the most profound changes lie in how teachers view their pupils and importantly how pupils are encouraged to view themselves.