Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Romance of the Poor but Bright

Last year I attended the Evening Standard’s debate on the future of London Schools. I can’t remember much about the evening, but one phrase sticks in my mind. “The romance of the poor but bright”*.

Education is a marvellous sector. It is full of innovation and entrepreneurship: with schools, charities and social enterprises popping up all over. New solutions to old problems emerge almost like clockwork; but there is a worrying pattern. Our effort and resources, of schools but particularly of business and charitable enterprise, are directed disproportionately at students who are already high achieving – the poor but bright.

Huge effort is expended on access to the top universities, with great sums being spent to make marginal improvements to a small set of students at the top of the disadvantaged spectrum. They cite the gap in entry, often to Oxbridge, as a significant problem that blights our society.

But the gap in Oxbridge entry is the pretty face of the problem. The far uglier face is the gap in life outcomes for those who take least well to education. With rich parents they may go to a non-Russell Group university. With poor parents they go to prison or the job centre. It is this face of the problem we most urgently need to confront.

Popular discourse is easily caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. It’s such a great story – the brilliant child shackled by poverty, just waiting to be set free by a summer school or inspirational speech. This story has so captivated education that we end up ignoring the more pressing problem – of students for whom our efforts will determine whether or not they will ever have a job or contribute to society. We hear about the poor but bright all the time. When did you last here someone advocate for the poor but dim?**

Here is my attempt. The gap most damaging to society is in life outcomes for the children who perform least well at school. They are most at risk of not being able to engage with society – of not having the real or paper qualifications needed to enter meaningful employment. There would be a phenomenally positive impact on business, public services and communities if all those children who fall through school now were instead supported to exceed basic standards and find fulfilling futures.

For education to have a real impact on society and the economy we need to focus on the tail***, not just the top. I’d begin this by looking at three areas:

1. Alternative provision
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school have complex behavioural needs. Often these have been built up by a long period of underperformance, coupled with very challenging environments. Teachers lack the time and expertise to best support these students. They do their very best, and often make great headway, but they are not trained or equipped for dealing with complex psychological needs. This is why we have alternative provision. Unfortunately this sector operates as a shadow school system, largely unknown and wholly under appreciated. Developing a national network of high-quality alternative provision that works closely with schools to support students at risk of exclusion must be a priority if we are to close the gap at the bottom.

2. Consistency in SEN support
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school also have special educational needs. Once again schools are often ill equipped to cope with these, and often manage only because of the extraordinary effort of dedicated staff. The inconsistency in funding and support between local authorities is well known, and means that a student in a less generous (or more stretched) council area will receive far less support than they deserve.

3. Rigorous gateways in assessment
Too often underachievement is allowed to settle and persist because it can be dealt with later. This is incredibly dangerous – as knowledge accumulates in a compound way, falling behind early makes for an ever bigger gap. One way to help stop this attitude of putting off catching up is to have clearer assessments where basic skills act as a gateway. The present assessment regime, for example, allows students to achieve a Level 4 at KS2 by compensating for poor performance in the basics with higher performance on easier, less fundamental skills. Reforming assessment so that a student could not appear to be performing well unless they have mastered the basics would send a clearer message where gaps exist. Proficient use of each of the four operations, for example, could be a gateway for maths assessment, and clarify the importance of solidifying these foundational skills.

Any student failing to meet their potential is a dreadful thing, even worse when it happens due to factors totally outside of their control. This is not just the case for the poor but bright, the students with whom we so easily sympathise, and are so quick to support. It matters too for the student with incredibly challenging behaviour, but who is absolutely capable of achieving academically. It matters for the student with complex special needs, who is not a potential Oxbridge applicant but who does have a tremendous amount to offer society. Their successes have the power to change the British economy, far more so than those of their brighter peers.

Don’t just get caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. The other students need our investment too.

*I believe it was used by Lucy Heller.
**I do not believe in either bright or dim, only differences in epigenetic coding or accumulated lifetime practice, but that is a discussion for another day. Here I use dim as the logically necessary opposite to bright, as popularly used in discussions about education.
***This term is borrowed from the book Paul Marshall edited on outcomes for the bottom 20% of students.

Oi! What’s wrong with you?!

Many of the most significant incidents of poor behaviour in schools are in fact caused by students responding badly to the consequences of a prior, and much lesser, misdemeanour. We can all picture the scene – a student who when picked up for horsing around in a corridor decides to argue their case, walk off, or explode with anger. It is these situations that create so many behaviour problems for schools. And they can often be avoided.

It comes down to the difference between challenge and confrontation. Challenge corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation offends poorly behaving students. When we confront instead of challenging we get escalation, anger, and seriously bad behaviour.

The nature of a confrontation is that you respond to it. A confrontation is combative, and invites retaliation. It provokes the fight or flight reflexes so ingrained in us, which is why they lead to students either walking off or fighting back. The nature of challenge is that you rise to it. A challenge is a statement of higher expectations, and an invitation to reach them.

By learning to challenge instead of confront we can significantly reduce the number of behaviour incidents in our schools. Here are three key differences between confrontation and challenge:

Challenge is directed at the problem, confrontation is directed at the person
Challenge is clear and direct. It states the problem precisely and concisely, leaving no room for misunderstanding. Confrontation, on the other hand, is often vague and frequently personal. Stating that “you are running inside” is precise. Asking “what’s wrong with you?”, or making a claim like “your behaviour is awful”, is vague. This is dangerous, because comments like that allow students to project their own narrative onto your words. They can perceive it as a personal attack against which they must defend themselves, or an unjust statement they need to correct. Successful challenge avoids this risk by being 100% clear about the problem.

Challenge is respectful of the person, confrontation is dehumanising
The tone of a challenge is calm, assertive and respectful. It cares about the person being challenged, but will not compromise on their expectation of good behaviour. The tone of a confrontation is angry and disrespectful. Choosing a tone that cares is often enough to signify that you are challenging and not confronting. My acid test is whether I would speak to an adult that way if they were exhibiting the same behaviour. If not, I’ve erred into confronting.

Challenge is correcting, confrontation is damning
The essence of challenge is that you expect better. Challenge does not simply highlight poor behaviour, it corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation has given up. Clearly correcting behaviour and telling a student how they should act demonstrates that you believe they will. Merely chastising them for misbehaviour suggests that they’re not worth correcting.

When we catch students misbehaving we have a choice: to confront, or to challenge. If we confront, we invite combat and retaliation by offending the student and invoking their fight or flight reflex. Confrontation betrays low expectations of behaviour, and can make a student feel that they’ve been written off. If we challenge, we invite them to rise to that challenge. Our respectful tone and correcting instructions show them our high expectations, and make them feel valued.

May “Oi! What’s wrong with you?!” never be heard again.

In defence of mastery learning

This defence of mastery learning was written in response to this article by Steve Chinn, and is published below it here.


Mastery learning is the belief that students should master a skill before moving on to learn a new one. In contrast to the classic spiral curriculum, where students raced between topics without properly learning any of them, a mastery curriculum gives students the space to learn a skill, understand it conceptually, and practise until it’s automatic.

This approach matters because of its effect on working memory. Students who have mastered previous skills have their working memory freed to learn new ones, while students who haven’t get bogged down in the basics and don’t have the working memory space to learn something new.

There are some important subtleties of definition that Steve Chinn picks up on. What it means to have mastered a topic must be clearly defined from the outset, or confusion will ensue. As understanding improves when students develop their conceptual map of maths and draw links between topics, we know that mastery early in school will not mean perfection. For me, mastery means two things:

  1. The student can demonstrate or explain the concept orally, concretely, visually and abstractly.
  2. The student can apply the concept automatically, so that it is not dominating their working memory.

Chinn does not engage with these fundamentals of mastery learning.

His first criticism is that mastery learning  will not help children catch up, and that they should instead be taught with an emphasis “on understanding maths concepts”. Given that Singapore Maths and its mastery model is renowned for its focus on developing understanding, this seems like an odd criticism. Conceptual understanding is at the heart of mastery learning, especially of Singapore Maths and its concrete-pictorial-abstract model of learning mathematical concepts.

His second criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because the ordering of skills for teaching is imperfect. This is true – there is no universally accepted hierarchy of all skills. This does not detract from the obvious fact that some skills are dependent on others, and that these dependencies are important for the order in which we teach. Adding fractions requires a knowledge of lowest common multiples, which requires a knowledge of times tables. We may disagree on whether we should teach names of shapes or bar charts first in the gap between them, but we know they have to come in that order.

The next criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because some people, for unknown reasons, appear to learn things differently. Even if we accept this argument, I cannot see where it leads. Is the implication that we therefore don’t need to care about the order in which we teach topics, and should pull them from a hat? If order doesn’t matter for some people, why deprive the others of being taught in a logical sequence?

It is particularly dangerous to support such arguments with anecdotal success stories like the dyslexic maths student whose times table recall was not perfect. Anecdotes do not a policy make. This anecdote seems compelling precisely because it is so rare, and it is so rare because it is an exception to a large body of well established research. This student succeeded in spite of imperfect times tables, not because of them. That they succeeded against the odds is not a reason for us to stack the odds against everybody else.

Strong Soft

Last year I got together with a group of colleagues and friends from outside of teaching to try and establish what the most important non-cognitive skills for our students were. We began by all privately making a list of the things we thought had been influential in determining our own success. Most responses were expected – resilience, curiosity, etc. But there was one thing that came up in all of our lists, which none of us had heard or read about before.

I described it as “the ability to assertively but politely disagree”. As a group we struggled for a good name. Then someone proposed we call it “strong soft”.

Strong soft is the skill of making a point both strongly and softly enough to be heard. Too strong and you’re written off as rude. Too soft and you’re ignored. Strong soft gets the balance right.

And I think it’s the most important skill we don’t teach at school.

Think of the rhetoric schools use when students, who don’t know any better, try to argue about a behaviour consequence or other instruction they think is unfair.

“Keep quiet”
“Don’t answer back”
“Don’t argue”

We’re telling them to keep it zipped and say nothing, but just to accept potential injustice.

The problem is that’s not what we actually mean! What we mean is something more like “I understand you think that this is unfair, and I’m more than happy to explain my decision-making to you and hear your view, but we’ll have to do that at a more appropriate time because right now I’m teaching and you’re learning”. But that just doesn’t roll off the tongue. The consequence of this is that we’re accidentally teaching students that they never have the right to complain or challenge authority, and unsurprisingly this is a teaching they often rebel against.

Instead of teaching this, we need to teach them strong soft. They need to learn how to challenge authority, but in a polite and appropriate manner. If they get into a habit of this at school, then (a) we have less disruption to learning, and (b) our students will be more successful adults, who don’t get taken for a ride but do get respected by their peers.

Here are the three components of strong soft to build into our students’ habits.

Choose a winning time
When the other person isn’t busy with an immediately pressing task, and generally when there’s no audience. If you challenge someone when they’re doing something more important then you’ll simply be ignored. If you do it in front of others then they won’t back down. Strong soft chooses a winning time, when the case will be heard and will get a fair hearing.

Choose a strong reason
The strength comes from clarity. Put your problem into one sentence. Clearly stating the issue and staying on topic forces the other person to respond directly to your point, and ensures the most important thing gets listened to.

Choose a soft tone
Too strong a tone makes you seem rude, and rude people have their arguments ignored. Instead of listening to your point, the listener concentrates on your tone and how it makes them feel. Instead, choose a calm and soft tone that works hard to be as polite as possible. This will impress your listener.

Strong soft comes down to: time, reason and tone. Strength comes from the reason, softness from the tone. If we train students in using strong soft when they need to question or challenge, we will significantly reduce the amount of disruption to lessons, and the trouble they get into. We’ll also be setting them up with the habits they need for adulthood.

Build strong soft into a habit by using the time, reason and tone mantra for the habit routine. Sentence starters like “This feels unfair to me because…” will also make the routine easier. The reward is being listened to – for many students often the first time they have been listened to when challenging authority.

It’s been missing for too long
During the holidays I was talking to a group of Year 11 boys during a break from revision. They were complaining that if a teacher upsets them then they get told to sit there and keep quiet. Surely this is hypocritical – the teachers can’t just sit there and take it if their boss does something unfair to them? Teachers write in the newspapers and go on strike, so why do they tell students to never question authority?

This was a lightbulb moment for me. They just didn’t get strong soft. They’d never seen it modelled by adults around them, and so didn’t understand how to politely disagree. We spent 10 minutes discussing how to challenge authority in a professional manner that gets you listened to, and they lapped up every word.

Strong soft is the most important skill we don’t teach at school. Right time, strong reasons, soft tone.