On Saturday 8th September 2018 I gave a talk to researchED London about the pupil premium. It was too long for my 40-minute slot, and the written version is similarly far too long for one post. So I am posting my argument in three parts [pt I is here and pt II is here].
I used to think social inequalities in educational outcomes could be substantially reduced by ensuring everyone had equal access to our best schools. That is why I devoted so many years to researching school admissions. Our schools are socially stratified and those serving disadvantaged communities are more likely have unqualified, inexperienced and non-specialist teachers. We should fix this, but even if we do these inequalities in access to experienced teachers are nowhere near stark enough to make a substantial dent on the attainment gap. In a rare paper to address this exact question, Graham Hobbs found just 7% of social class differences in educational achievement at age 11 can be accounted for by differences in the effectiveness of schools attended.
Despite wishing it weren’t true for the past 15 years of my research career, I have to accept that inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom. If you want to argue with me that it doesn’t happen in your own classroom, then I urge you to read the late Graham Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, to appreciate why you are (probably) largely unaware of individual student learning taking place. This makes uncomfortable reading for teachers and presents something of an inconvenience to policy-makers because it gives us few obvious levers to close the attainment gap.
So, what should we do? We could declare it all hopeless because social inequalities in attainment are inevitable. Perhaps they arise through powerful biological and environmental forces that are beyond the capabilities of schools to overcome. If you read a few papers about genetics and IQ it is easy start viewing schools as a ‘bit part’ in the production of intelligence. However, at least for me, there is a ray of hope. For these studies can only tell us how genetic markers are correlated with educational success in the past, without reference to the environmental circumstances that have allowed these relationships to emerge. Similarly, children’s home lives heavily influences attainment, but how we organise our schools and classrooms is an important moderator in how and why that influence emerges. Kris Boulton has written that he now views ‘ability’ as something that determines a child’s sensitivity to methods of instruction; so the question for us should be what classroom instructional approaches help those children most at risk of falling behind.
Having made it this far through my blogs, I suspect you are hoping for an answer as to what we should do about the attainment gap. I don’t have one, but I am sure that if there were any silver bullets – universal advice that works in all subjects across all age ranges – we would have stumbled on them by now. Instead, I’d like to take the final words to persuade you that our developing understanding of the human mind provides teachers with a useful language for thinking about why attainment gaps emerge within their own classrooms. Whether or not they choose to do anything about that is another matter entirely.
Focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status
In earlier blogs I have argued that noting the letters ‘PP’ on seating plans does not provide teachers with useful information for classroom instruction. Labelling students by their educational needs is helpful (and essential for secondary teachers who encounter hundreds of children each week) and I think paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status. Cognitive functions are top-down processes, initiated from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, that are required for deliberate thought processes such as forming goals, planning ahead, carrying out a goal-directed plan, and performing effectively.
The neuroscience of socio-economic status is a new but rapidly growing field and SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention. There is much that is still to be understood about why these inequalities emerge, but for a teacher faced with a class to teach, their origins are not particularly important. What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess.
Implications for the classroom
Unfortunately, translating this knowledge about social inequalities in cognitive function into actionable classroom practice is difficult and rather depends on the subject and age of children you teach. Maths teacher-bloggers find cognitive load theory insightful; other subjects less so. This is because developing strategies to overcome limitations in working memory through crystallised knowledge is more productive in hierarchical knowledge domains (maths, languages, handwriting, etc) where the benefits of accumulating knowledge and fluency in a few key areas spill across the entire curriculum.
That said, I think social inequalities in attention and inhibitory control affect almost all classroom settings. Attention is the ability to focus on particular pieces of information by engaging in a selection process that allows for further processing of incoming stimuli. Again, this is a young field but there are studies (e.g. here and here) that suggest it is a very important mediator in the relationship between socio-economic status and intelligence.
When you see a child who is not paying attention in class, what are they attending to? Graham Nuthall’s New Zealand studies showed how students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom:
They whispered to each other and passed notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organised their after-school social life, continued arguments that started in the playground. They cared more about how their peers evaluated their behaviour than they cared about the teacher’s judgement… Within these standard patterns of whole-class management, students learn how to manage and carry out their own private and social agendas. They learn how and when the teacher will notice them and how to give the appearance of active involvement. They get upset and anxious if they notice that the teacher is keeping more than a passing eye on them.
We tend to assume that attentiveness is an attribute of the child, rather than something it is our job to manipulate. Teacher and psychology researcher, Mike Hobbiss, says we should instead view ‘paying attention’ as the outcome of instruction methods. In a blog post he urges us to create classroom conditions that are likely to engender the effect of focused attention by making our stimuli as attractive as possible and by reducing other distractors. We could do this by having students face the front, by controlling low-level disruption, and by removing mobile phones and fancy stationery materials, and so on. And since attention is limited (and more so in some children than others), he points out that: ‘capturing attention is not in itself the aim. The goal is to provide the optimal conditions so that attention is captured by the exact stimuli that we have identified as most valuable’.
There are a number of very successful schools I have visited where shutting down the choices about what students get to pay attention to during class is clearly the principal instrument for success. I am glad I have visited them, despite the state of cognitive dissonance they induce in me. On the one hand, I am excited to see schools where the quality of student work is beyond anything I thought it was possible to achieve at scale. On the other hand, their culture violates all my preconceptions about what school should be like. Childhood is for living, as well as for learning, and I find it uncomfortable to imagine my own children experiencing anything other than the messy classrooms of educational, social and interpersonal interactions that I did.
However, I do now think that we have to face up to the trade-offs that exist in the way we organise our classrooms. If we care about closing the attainment gap and we accept the relationship between SES and cognitive function, then surely our first port of call should be to create classroom environments and instructional programmes that prioritise the needs of those who are most constrained by their cognitive function? In many respects, we are still working out what this means for the classroom, but I’m pretty sure that being laissez-faire about what students can choose to pay attention to in class is likely to widen the attainment gap.
Graham Nuthall was not particularly optimistic about disrupting the cultural rituals of our classroom practice to improve what children are able to learn. He believed these rituals persist across generations because we learn about what it means to be a teacher through our own schooling as a child. We have deeply embedded values about the kinds of experiences we want our students to have in our classrooms. For him, the cultural values of teachers are the glue that maintains our schooling system as it is, with the consequence that it entrenches the attainment gaps we’ve always had.
The pupil premium, as a bundle of cash that sits outside general school funding with associated monitoring and reporting requirements, isn’t helping us close the attainment gap. We should just roll it into general school funding, preserving the steep social gradient in funding levels that we currently have. When we teach children from households that are educationally disengaged there is a lot we can do to help by way of pastoral and cultural support. This costs money and monitoring test scores isn’t the right way to check this provision is appropriate.
We shouldn’t ring fence funds for pupil premium students, not least because they may not be lowest income or most educationally disadvantaged students in the school. We should stop measuring or monitoring school attainment gaps because it is a largely statistically meaningless exercise that doesn’t help us identify what is and isn’t working in our school. In any case, ‘gaps’ matter little to students from poorer backgrounds; absolute levels of attainment do.
I understand the argument that marking ‘PP’ on a seating plan or generating a ‘PP’ report introduces a language and focus around helping the most disadvantaged in the school. I have argued that this language is of little value if it distorts optimal decision-making and takes the focus away from effective classroom practice. Instead, by focusing on disadvantage in the classroom – that is, cognitive functions that place students at an educational disadvantage – we have the opportunity to better understand how our choice of instructional methods maximises the chances of success for those most at risk of falling behind. I very much doubt it enables us to close the attainment gap, but I like to think it will help us achieve more success than we’ve had so far.
I am not unrealistic about how hard this is: our teachers have amongst the highest contact hours in the OECD and this has to change if they are to have the time to modify how they teach. But more importantly, we have to decide that changing classroom practice is something we want to do, even if it disrupts our long-held cultural ideals of what education should look like.