Laura March, Hub Lead of the NACE R&D Hub at Southend High School for Boys, shares eight key issues discussed at the Hub’s inaugural meeting earlier this term.
Our inaugural NACE R&D Hub meeting was attended by colleagues from 12 schools, spanning a range of phases and subject areas. Ensuring the Hub meetings are focused on evidence and research allows us to respond to the masses of misinformation presented to us. A collaborative approach to understanding the needs of more able and talented (MAT) learners, and how to support them, enables colleagues to become more open and reflective in their discussions.
We started the meeting by sharing our own experience at Southend High School for Boys (SHSB), exploring our work towards gaining and maintaining the NACE Challenge Award over the last 15 years, and what strategies have had the biggest impact.
In the following discussion, it was interesting to explore what ‘differentiation’ means to different colleagues and key issues raised about what constitutes ‘good’ practice. It was also useful for colleagues from different fields – science, MFL, primary, physics, English and RE – to share approaches to developing writing skills, such as using ‘structure strips’, visualisers to model work, or tiered approaches to subject vocabulary. Finally, some questions were raised about communicating more able needs with parents; what should be included in the school’s more able policy; and how to monitor the impact of strategies on more able learners.
Here are eight key areas discussed during the meeting:
1. Strengthening monitoring and evaluation
This had been identified as an area for development at SHSB. MAT Coordinators and Subject Leaders are responsible for completing an audit to review their previous targets for more able learners and to outline opportunities, trips, competitions, resources and targets for the new academic year. This enables the MAT Lead to identify areas for pedagogical development so that targeted support can be put in place, as well as any budget requirements to purchase new resources.
2. Engaging with parents and carers
We shared the example of our parent support sheet. Not only are we bridging the gap between academic research and classroom practice, we aim to encourage a positive dialogue with parents by sharing the latest research on memory and strategies of how to stretch and challenge their sons and daughters at home. This has been very positive during parents’ evenings, with departments recommending extended reading; apps for effective revision such as Quizlet and Seneca; and You Tube videos for specific topics.
3. The zone of proximal development
As part of the Department for Education Teachers’ Standards, teachers must adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils. This includes knowing when and how to differentiate appropriately and using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively (Department for Education, 2011). We looked at the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) and how we ensure pupils avoid the ‘panic zone’.
As Martin Robinson (2013) says: “We are empowered by knowing things and this cannot be left to chance”. We cannot assume that more able learners know it all and simply leave them to their own devices in lessons. In contrast, we must avoid providing work that they are too comfortable with, resulting in easy learning and limited progress.
4. Myths and misconceptions
We looked at common myths surrounding more able learners and agreed that many of these are unfounded and untrue. Not all more able pupils are easy to identify because the opportunities are not always provided for talents to emerge. Likewise, SEN can mask multi-exceptionalities and we should ensure we have measures in place to identify these. We are also aware that the more able learners are not always the most popular or confident; many will suffer from ‘tall poppy syndrome’ or ‘imposter syndrome’.
5. High expectations for all
The key message is ensuring all learners have high aspirations and expectations and are provided with different routes to meet these. The research indicates that good differentiation is setting high-challenge learning objectives defined in detail with steps to success mapped out. It includes looking at the variety of ways teachers support and scaffold students to reach ambitious goals over time. We should avoid using language that sends a message to students that this part of the curriculum is not for them and that high expectations are only for ‘some’. We know that teaching to the top will raise aspirations for all learners.
“Effective differentiation is about ensuring every pupil, no matter their background and starting point, is headed towards the same destination, albeit their route and pace may differ. In other words, we should not ‘dumb down’ and expect less of some pupils, but should have high expectations of every pupil.” – Matt Bromley (SecEd, April 2019)
6. Developing literacy and writing skills
As part of our School Improvement Plan, we have a renewed focus on disciplinary literacy. Embedding this in lessons is a key way to ensure all pupils are able to express themselves within their subject domain.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
The range of writing we ask students to do is broad: analytical, evaluative, descriptive, explanatory, persuasive. Expecting them to shift between these without a clear structure is understandably going to create problems, so good modelling is essential. To support this, our MAT Coordinators have been using visualisers to model how to use key words in writing and to close the ‘knowing and doing gap’.
Externalising our thinking aloud enables pupils to improve metacognition. This is an essential skill in critical thinking and self-regulated, lifelong learning. It is important for learners to have skills in metacognition because they are used to monitor and regulate reasoning, comprehension, and problem-solving, which are fundamental components of effective learning.
8. Curriculum planning
We finished our meeting by looking at the new education inspection framework, specifically the guidance on subject curriculum content. Does it emphasise ‘enabling knowledge’ to ensure that it is remembered? Is the subject content sequenced so pupils build useful and increasingly complex schemata?
Our next Hub meeting will focus on the most effective ways to build up pupils’ store of knowledge in long-term memory.
Before you buy… For discounts of up to 30% from a range of education publishers, view the list of current NACE member offers (login required).
Join your nearest NACE R&D Hub
NACE’s Research and Development (R&D) Hubs offer regional opportunities for NACE members to exchange effective practice, develop in-school research skills and collaborate on enquiry-based projects. Each Hub is led by a Challenge Award-accredited school, bringing together members from all phases, sectors and contexts. Participation is free for staff at NACE member schools. Find out more.