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Mind The Gap

Closing the attainment and achievement gap has become a key focus for schools and education systems around the world. How do we stop the gap between our highest attainers and our lowest attainers from growing? How can we best support all our learners, but especially those who are most disadvantaged by their home or social backgrounds? Are two vexed questions being considered and debated across the globe.

Obviously, what goes on within our schools and education systems will form a vital component in addressing these issues, but they should not be seen as the only ones. We in education cannot deliver all that is required on our own. We need support from Government, other agencies, parents and society as a whole. Everyone has a part to play in achieving our objectives and we need commitment and understanding at all levels to be able to really deliver.

Assuming everything else is in place, what is it that schools need to do in order to deliver on their responsibilities?

I would suggest that three things need to happen.

The first is that schools need to stop being so mindlessly busy. I don't know about you, but I don't come across many schools that are not incredibly busy. They embrace the mantra of 'change' implementing one initiative, or new 'thing' after another in an earnest desire to improve what they do, or to be seen as trying to improve what they do. This has been the case for many years but would seem to have been even more prevalent over the last 20 years, or so. School development plans have been filled with busyness and new initiatives, and were expected to be so, all with the best of intentions. The question that we now need to ask is, ' what has been the impact of all this busyness for our learners, and for our teachers in developing their understanding and their practice?' A whole raft of local, national and international data is telling us that the rather dispiriting answer to these fundamental questions is 'not much!' In Scotland, where I work, the gap between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged has continued to grow. This in spite of a relentless agenda of change and 'improvement'. Unfortunately, this picture has been replicated in other countries and systems across the world and, quite rightly, is a matter of some concern.

A common picture has been one where schools have embraced one change after another, year after year, but with little thought or time being given, or allowed, between each one in order to embed, and adjust, changes made into classroom practice. Little sustainability has been, or can be, achieved with such an approach, so that very quickly practices return to the familiar and the comfortable. We need to break this model. A maxim in my own schools has been 'that if changes have not been embedded and sustained, then they have not happened.' All that you have done is waste precious time and doomed our learners to more of the same experiences. Who was it who said ' madness lies in always doing the same and expecting to get different results'?

So we really need to stop just being busy and focus more on being busy for a purpose. That purpose should be to produce positive impacts for all our learners through improving our understandings and our practice. Importantly we also need to be able provide data and evidence to demonstrate the impact of such developments over time.

My second strategy that needs to happen is that we really need to focus on the depth of understanding around teaching and learning in all our schools, and in every classroom. Everyone needs to recognise this as the core business of the school, and the aspect that is going to make the difference for our learners. To begin with we really have to understand, supported by robust evidence, where individuals and schools are in terms of their understanding of learning and how teachers, and teaching, impacts on this. Therefore robust and holistic systems of self evaluation need to be in place by individuals, establishments and systems. Everyone needs to be clear about where they are in terms of development. Every journey starts with a first step, but you really do need to know where you are starting from. Impact for learners and sustainability should be key measures.
We have talked about learning ever since education and schools began. But, how many of us really deeply understand how children learn, and how to identify and overcome barriers to learning? Does everyone truly understand learning or are they just subject specific experts? Can all our teachers, and school leaders, deconstruct learning for all learners in order to facilitate and mediate learning experiences that are matched and appropriate for all learners? Is our practice based on sound evidence and research, or are we still involved in activities because 'that's what we've always done'? My own experiences show that these are difficult questions to ask, as are the answers,if we are being truly honest. They are difficult and perhaps uncomfortable for individual teachers as well as headteachers and system leaders. Let's face it, if we don't deeply understand learning, and our impact on this, we really are going to struggle to close that pesky gap. This is not to say that all that we have done before  is necessarily bad or deficient. It isn't. Much of it was a product of its time and where we stood in terms of our knowledge and understanding of cognitive development and learning. However, times change as does our understanding, knowledge and research. We now have access to more research and evidence from across the world of what actually impacts on learning, and how learning takes place. So much so that we would be failing in our professional responsibilities were we to ignore all this and just continues as we always have done. We would also be letting down so many of our learners by such an approach.

The final element I would like to propose would be that all schools and teachers should embrace and adopt enquiry based approaches to professional development. Everyone needs to see professional development as a career-long and continuous responsibility. This process should involve practitioners in continually looking closely at aspects of their own practice, in an informed and evidence rich way. Individuals and schools needs to recognise that there are no 'quick fixes', no 'magic bullets' and no 'one size fits all' that are going to bring about the improvements we seek. Rather it is a commitment to a relentless and progressive desire to improve and get better at what we do, that will make the difference. What works is a step by step forward direction of travel, at a pace that allows new knowledge, understanding and practice to become embedded in what we do.
There is a host of evidence from around the world that such enquiry based approaches  work. Helen Timperley and colleagues in Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated this across schools and systems. A key feature of her work has been the positive impact such approaches have had for the lowest 20% of attainers. Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves have demonstrated the efficacy of enquiry in schools in Canada, USA, Australia and Europe. Marilyn Cochran Smith in Boston the USA and elsewhere is another who has demonstrated to impact of enquiry to teachers and schools professional development and practice. In Scotland we currently have work happening in schools and partner universities, including Edinburgh, Stirling, Aberdeen and more that are producing more evidence and positive impacts. Enquiry is recognised as so important to professional development that it is included in Graham Donaldson's 'Teaching Scotland's Future' of 2012 and in the GTCS new professional standards for teachers and school leaders.
My own experience of the impact of such approaches over the last four years has also demonstrated very strong and positive results for all our teachers and all our learners. We too are beginning to see hard and soft evidence of the positive impacts for all learners, but especially for our lowest attainers. If you have teachers who better understand learning, their impact on learning, are able to identify exactly where pupils are and the barriers they face in their learning, and how to address these, positive impacts for learners can be the only result.

There it is then:
Stop being mindlessly busy
Deeply understand learning
Adopt enquiry based professional development
and let's close that gap and allow all our pupils to reach their potential, whatever their circumstances or background.

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