The good, the bad and…crackers.

Illustration re corporal punishment of s

Conversations about our jobs often pop up around the table at Christmas time, but I didn’t expect a whole family debate on intelligence to rage across the crackers and cranberry sauce, but it did. I came away feeling that intelligence isn’t so much misunderstood, but rather terribly misapplied.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that assessment is my thing, with a particular focus on  factors that promote or prevent formative assessment working well for pupils and teachers.

One of the biggest bees in my teacher bonnet here is mind set and how both pupils and teachers view intelligence or ability. During some action research I carried out a while ago, I was surprised by just how prevalent fixed mind sets are amongst pupils and how far this appeared to prevent them from taking hold of their own learning. Many of us will have read  Carol Dweck’s research into this, but I wanted to see how this might manifest in my setting.

I found that some pupils had created in their minds a kind of pecking order of cleverness within their class and ranked themselves within it so that they could quite literally order themselves and their peers in  intelligence with phrases such as ‘really clever,’ ‘quite clever’, ‘sort of brainy’ and ‘not that smart.’ This was despite a strong emphasis on choice in learning and mixed ability groupings in the class. It seemed that many of the children had long established ideas about intelligence that had not shifted with our work on learning how to learn or collaborative class ethos.

There were undesirable outcomes from these seemingly fixed views of intelligence, not least the palpable fear of revealing misunderstanding or ‘being stuck’. For pupils this meant revealing their ‘ranking’ in the intelligence order compared to everyone else and running the risk of being seen as ‘dumb’ (their words not mine). The result was that when some pupils needed help, or would have benefited from further explanation, they didn’t ask for it and preferred instead to sit ‘surviving’ by either copying or appearing to write lots of ‘stuff’ and look busy. Ring a bell with anyone?

Of course, some of the nifty formative assessment techniques seek to combat this secret survival thing kids do by forcing them to show their hands right there in the lesson. Using things like hinge questions on white boards and generally responsive teaching that will pick out this kind of quiet ‘wallowing’ well before you find the grim evidence in the books later when you mark…and when it’s really too late. Nevertheless, a teacher’s job shouldn’t be about finding out how far children can hide their misunderstanding; in the end, we’re doing our job really well when we teach children to recognise and use their misunderstanding and deal with ‘getting stuck’ positively. After all, that sticky point, that cognitive discomfort (posh word: dissonance) when learning, should be where learning begins, not ends.

It was no coincidence to me that the children who made the most progress in that class were the children who were never happy secretly surviving and actively sought out help whenever they needed it. “I don’t get it?” was and is a sign of a learner going places, as long as something is done about it of course.  That in itself seemed like an ‘ability’ that took the learner far: doing something about feeling challenged, not shrinking or hiding. When I talked to these few children about what they thought about being clever and ‘intelligent’ they seemed to think about this differently. Their ideas about intelligence lent more towards it being something to be built upon and cultivated rather than something endowed and fixed inside. These children weren’t always confident or optimistic or even enthusiastic in every lesson– things we always count as important factors in learning, but instead, they seemed secure in their feelings about learning itself– this was their confidence in effect: that with help and time, they could always improve, even if it seemed impossible at the start. Like this, their identity and self image did not seem attached to the tasks they undertook.

At the same time, these children could talk about another child being more intelligent, but they did this in a way that was more like talking about a journey when someone is ahead rather than about someone who possesses more of something. It seemed to me that these few children understood ability as an active process while many others, most in fact, engaged with it as a finite endowment or a fixed asset, just as Carol Dweck described. Both these ideas also appeared innate in that they were revealed to me mostly by the way the children were when operational in class rather than when they had rational conversations about intelligence.

This brings me back to the beginning and all that debate about ability. What is it then? What is this thing called ability that teachers still call high, low or middle? We’ve talked about it so much in education and for so long surely we must all know? Well, the more I teach and the more I watch children learning I know that views about intelligence are a potent force when it comes to learning. While on the one hand we all know that children learn, brains grow, connections are built and meaning made, we also know that not all children are the same or can do the same things at the same time, but how pupils and importantly teachers interact with this thing called ability really matters. It is all about how we apply our knowledge of these differences.  Without doubt some brains are quicker, synapses work faster and there are stronger connections; however, the salient point is that all healthy brains can build connections: intelligence is an active process not an entity. This means that defining pupils by ability is problematic and threatens to limit their prospects because no matter what we say, humans suck up self image like a sponge; we carry an image of ourselves that is shaped by what we and others think about us. The moment definitions come into play we start pinning them to ourselves. Defining those children who are further ahead as ‘high ability’ limits them because we all start to think of them as ‘children who always succeed’: a terrible burden for everyone. Pinning ‘low ability’ to a child all too often means they and others see them as low achievers for the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for teachers. How can we talk about where children are without pinning these things on to them? And how can we really break down this thing that causes children to feel so self conscious about their image in class? Teaching a few lessons on the growth mind set and telling children they need to challenge themselves just isn’t going to touch instinctive ideas that children have developed and that are confirmed not only outside school in myriad ways, but often in school by peers and also teachers who might talk about growth mind set, but have the most fixed ideas of all. It is imperative that teachers think careful how they talk about children, even in the staff room because mud sticks and labels are hard to shift. We all declare we have high expectations for all children, but do we? Believing that all children can improve and build intelligence is not only essential, but I would say it is as imperative to being a teacher as elegance is to being a dancer.

Over the past few years, since that action research, these are the practices that I can say have made a difference in breaking down some of these problems with image and learning. For many these are probably old hat, but nevertheless, they’re worth noting:

  • Celebrate when pupils ask for help when they need it – deliberately create an ethos where questions are welcomed and enjoyed. Don’t forget that teaching is very much about creating the right atmosphere for learners to thrive – it’s not just transferring skills and knowledge (that would be easy).
  • Model being a learner who makes mistakes yourself – a lot. Scratch your head and get confused sometimes and ask your TA or another adult for help.
  • Be gracious when pupils point out you’ve made a mistake, show gratitude and humility rather than defensiveness – show that everyone is up for errors!
  • Watch how you praise pupils – avoid ‘good boy,’ ‘good girl’ type phrases that tickle the ego rather than focus on learning. Mostly, there’s too much praise of pupils in lessons which creates this image focused atmosphere we need to avoid. Think carefully about what you are praising? It is the ‘finishers’? If so is finishing always the same as achievement? Is it the ‘neat and tidy’ pieces? If so, is all learning neat and tidy? When you stop and check, you’d be surprised what and who you praise and how often. When I’ve checked on myself  – I’ve often cringed! What and how you praise contributes massively to how pupils feel about themselves and their peers. As far as you can, qualify your praise by making it clearly task focused, describing what the child did that  was positive. Remember: when you say things like: ‘excellent work’ or ‘well done’ often children have no idea what was ‘excellent’ or ‘well done’ at all and it just becomes another ego badge.  Stars and smiley faces are out  for me too, sorry! (In fact, I think the whole rewards thing needs a re-think… another blog perhaps.)
  • I know it’s been said before, but use the word ‘yet’ a lot. If I ask a child a question, I encourage them to say ‘I’m not there yet?’ rather than a plain ‘I don’t know’. I use it all the time too, ‘you’re not there yet’. It’s a small word that helps keep the doors open so it’s worth getting it well embedded into the class vocabulary.
  • Ban the phrase, ‘it’s easy,’ which children seem to like to say when they get something and see that others don’t. It’s designed to make children feel inadequate so stamp it out. Look out for all the other little gibes that mean the same thing. Talk about it and discuss these things as a class too – bring the bogey man out the cupboard!
  • Lastly, really drill home that struggling is the first sign of learning. Celebrate cognitive conflict and turn it into something you and children look for and prize. I’m not saying allow kids to sit in utter bewilderment either, that’s too far the other way. Vygotsky was clear that we need to take children to that special place where learning becomes possible and this isn’t a place where it’s easy, because you’ve already learnt it, or a place where it’s too hard for any meaning to be made. Get kids to recognise that place for themselves: not easy and not impossible.  Get them to look for it and want it.

These things have made a big impact on  the children I teach. I don’t always get it right and it’s easy to slip into ‘label talk’ so we need to be mindful of it all the time. It’s taken hundreds of years to embed this concept of ‘praising the good child who gets it right,’ so it will take a while to break it down – remember once it was OK to stick a child who got it wrong in the corner with a dunce hat on; my Nan used to get hit with a ruler for wrong answers. Ethos change needs work, time and reflection, but it’s worth it.

Happy New Year!

To intervene, not extract- what mastery intervention might look like…

practice makes perfect

Ever since I was a goggle eyed NQT, taking children out of core subjects for ‘interventions’ has never made sense to me. Not only has it never seemed right that these children miss what all the other children are doing , thwarting any chance of catching up, but I have always been plagued by how these children must feel leaving what they must know are ‘main course lessons’. None of this is right. On a journey where everyone is meant to arrive at the same destination at the same time, what use is there in taking  the travellers who are further behind and sitting them by the side of the road?

An explanation for this madness has been that these interventions will ‘fill the gaps’ needed to ‘access’ the curriculum.  However for me, the greatest barrier to a curriculum for anyone is not being present when it’s taught.  A school can make all the excuses it likes about timetabling, rotas and staffing, but no child should be taken out of core lessons if they are behind.

If we are serious about mastery in education then we should hook into the idea that all children should have access to the same content, but some might need intensive pre-teaching or follow up over-learning in order to get there like other children. This does not mean that they have a different lesson; this means they are supported to access the lesson before and after the lesson takes place.

Some might argue that this is the same as intervention, isn’t it? And I would agree, but not in that very dated way with ability grouping and those ‘LA’, ‘MA’ and ‘HA,’ or whatever other limiting labels we dished out onto children which meant they had no way of accessing what everyone else was doing. This is intensive intervention around an element of content rather than blasting children over and over again in the same way with a range of earlier content they have missed, which often has no links at all to the in-class learning –  and we wonder why they ‘still don’t get it’.  As Einstein said, madness is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result each time.

No, mastery intervention is different from that old ‘mop up the whole flood’ approach; this is more ‘mop up as we go.’ Here we take whatever it is we want the class to learn – we plan one set of solid, effective lessons and think carefully about the steps required in learning to achieve that. Like this, we break down the learning journey and intervene on those small steps that are required to achieve the learning. This means knowing your children really well and being highly organised so that pre-teaching and over-learning time is planned into the timetable in places where non-core learning takes place. For example, if we want the children to learn to write a set of instructions we think about the children who will find writing an imperative sentence hard work. We then pre-teach a really simple set of imperative sentences, learn them like a parrot, maybe even sing them,  speed write the time connectives, imperative verbs and vocabulary that go with them and set the children  up like this, prepared for the teaching input on instructions.  We might of course do this kind of thing with the whole class over the learning journey, probably a good thing if we do, but some children will need this more intense deliberate practice. It will make a huge difference if these children experience this in short bursts before and following the set of lessons on instructions.

The same can be done for maths topics too. If you want to teach subtraction, give them a chance to practice before hand counting backwards, ordering numbers backwards and jumping back in tens and ones. That silly starter at the beginning of a silly three part lesson doesn’t count, if they don’t know how to count in tens then a five minute whole class starter isn’t the solution.

Now, yes of course this will not solve all ‘catch up’ issues right now because we undoubtedly have a back log of huge gaps that have been left while teachers have just carried on teaching without addressing them because of pressure to meet benchmarks and  ‘cover and move on.’ You might say, how can you pre-teach instructions if they can’t even form letters? Well, that is an extreme example, but yes, sadly that will be the case for some children. And I would say then, is the solution to allow them to miss the instruction lesson for handwriting practice? No, do some handwriting practice another time, but still get that pre-teaching in with all the components for instructions – if they learn to say a good set of instructions and can begin to read them they are well on the way to being able to write them soon, but don’t allow them to miss that instruction lesson. It’s the ‘can do’ approach at all these little turns that counts.

Apologies if all this is completely obvious, which I’m sure it will be to some of my learned friends. However, I think for some teachers they need reminding that learning is all about making links to previous learning. Time is precious in schools so there is no point in a child for example learning number bonds to ten for the hundredth time just before a lesson on multiplication. Much better instead to spend that valuable time counting things in groups and supporting them making the link between repeated addition and multiplying, then they have a chance to hit that multiplication lesson running rather than trying to forget about number bonds all of sudden .  This is then really ‘smart, inclusive, interventionist differentiation’ – there I invented a new piece of educational blurb to go with it as well. I think this approach could make a big difference to the challenges of historic gaps in learning and make a difference to many children’s experiences during lesson time. Give them a chance – fill them with fuel before a lesson rather than give them a ‘lower ability’ task different from the rest. Enable, not disable through differentiation.

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.