Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review: 'The Children of Castle Rock' by Natasha Farrant

‘The Children of Castle Rock’ is a daring new adventure story in the tradition of all good boarding school novels. Lovers of Harry Potter, Malory Towers and The Worst Witch will immediately find something in this new story that they identify with. The boarding school setting allows for the all-important parentlessness that so often sets up the protagonists of children’s books to have rip-roaring escapades that their parents would never allow. Farrant brings Famous Five-style adventure right up to date with mobile phones and various other trappings of modern life.

Except in Natasha Farrant’s latest book it is some mysterious communication from Alice’s largely-absent dad that prompts her and her friends to abscond from school to embark on a crazy adventure across remote areas of Scotland. The fact that the Stormy Loch’s behaviour management ethos doesn’t follow the normal strictness found in other fictional schools makes matters worse… or better… depending on which way you look at it.

The main theme of this book really is children’s relationships with adults: Alice’s mum has died, her dad is pretty useless, and she’s actually closest to her Auntie, the aptly named Patience. Fergus’ parents have split up and are not amicable and Jesse lives in the shadow of his older brothers and is desperate initially to win his parents’ favour with his violin playing. The teachers at the school are a rag tag bunch headed up by the Major who is quirky, to say the least – a rather progressive ex-army man who challenges all stereotypes of head teachers in children’s fiction. The book crescendos with some unexpected outcomes where children’s relationships to adults are concerned – I won’t spoil it, but this isn’t your typical children’s book ending.

The book has a very strong narrator presence making it unlike any other children’s book I’ve read. Farrant often hints at things are to come, referencing future parts of the story that are relevant to events that are happening at the point of narration. The narration is where the playfulness of this story comes leaving the characters largely to get on with the serious business of embarking on their quest to subvert the orienteering challenge in order to transport a secret package to a rendezvous with Barney, Alice’s shady father. Along the way the children experience the joys of wild swimming, fishing and camping, torrential rain and storms, breaking and entering, food poisoning and being chased by proper baddies, not to mention the highs and lows of pre-teen friendship.

The book is aimed fairly and squarely at children of a similar age to the children in the book – upper key stage two and lower key stage three children will love this story. There are some starred out expletives which give it a little edge, and leave little to the imagination – something to consider when using the book in school or recommending it to children. With a diverse set of characters, themes that are relevant to the lives of many children and a main character who loves writing, there is also definite scope for this being used in the classroom as a stimulus for discussion. A recommended read.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

From The @thirdspacetweets Blog: EEF Report Summary: Putting Evidence To Work


My work with Bradford Research School has really turned me on to the work of the EEF. So when they release another a guidance report I'm always keen to read it first to find out what its implications are. The latests one applies to all subjects and all schools but here, in this blog post for Third Space, I outline how I should have used it had it been published in time, and how I will use it in the future to introduce any new changes.

Winds of change blew in the world of primary Maths when the 2014 National Curriculum was introduced. We now had to teach some things sooner, other things later, some things not at all and there were additions too (hello, Roman numerals!). The ‘new’ holy trinity of Maths teaching and learning were introduced: fluency, problem solving and reasoning.

Then the SATs gradually changed. The calculation paper had already been done away with; next to go was the mental Maths test, replaced by the arithmetic test. And the reasoning tests appeared to begin to assess how pupils were doing on the 2014 curriculum ahead of schedule. The two new reasoning papers were perceived by many to be more difficult than before.

And so, up and down the land, Maths leaders and teachers have been making changes to the way the subject is taught in their schools...

Click here to read on: https://thirdspacelearning.com/blog/eef-putting-evidence-work-report-slt-summary/


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Year 11 Hell: Why More, More, MORE Is Not The Answer


Recently a secondary teacher got in touch with me asking if I'd consider sharing something he had written about something that was going on in his school. The following blog post is what I received. It details some worrying practices which appear to be impacting heavily on both student and teacher wellbeing. I echo the author's summary here: there surely is another way. Is this common practice? Are schools tackling the same issues in better ways? I'd love to hear your own experiences of this.

Year 11 students, their teachers and their parents are at breaking point. The most frustrating thing is that we’ve seen this coming for years, and we’ve done nothing about it.

It’s Saturday afternoon. In our house, the major concerns are who will win the race to the bath to warm up after my son’s football match and whether we should prepare the roast to eat before The Voice or during it. I’m wondering whether I can face the pile of odd socks which are glaring at me from the sofa. This is about as stressful as Saturdays get here.

As I write, year 11 are at school. They had English all morning then moved onto Maths. They’re in every Saturday between now and June. The rest of the school finished at 3.25 each day, but Year 11 have an extra hour at the end of each day. Subjects battle for prime positions – Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Science drew the short straw with Fridays – but the students all come, even if it does mean being rounded up and herded from their previous lesson by a pastoral team with apparent infinite patience, who must be clocking at least 30k steps a day as they prowl corridors to check on non-regular coats and chewing gum.

Last year, a respected group of educators put forward the suggestion that core PE should be pulled for Year 11, to give them more time to focus on core subjects. Thousands of schools have gone with this idea, it would seem. So, instead of running around on a field, students are filtered into English, Maths or English AND Maths depending on which week it is where the moon is in its current cycle. Trying to ensure the right students are in the right places depending on the latest half-termly data available is a feat requiring the skills of an aeronautic engineer.

After the mock results came in, the school went into panic. I can’t remember, in my ten year career, this ever not happening. ‘MORE!’ ‘We need MORE!’ MORE resources, MORE time, MORE Walking Talking mocks!’ say the heads of the core subjects. If we don’t, they’ll all fail! The school will be plunged into Special Measures if we don’t throw every spare moment, every resource, every initiative at Year 11.

So, at the end of December, tutor time for Year 11 was replaced by TTI. That’s tutor time intervention to the rest of you. Instead of spending their morning with the form tutor and fellow tutees most of them have known since Year 11, they go to Maths and Science. Instead of having a chance to read a book, finish off a bit of homework or catch up on the news, they are having extra lessons for half an hour each morning. Instead of sharing a joke or having someone who knows them really well checking in on the latest family challenge or holiday plan, their daily dose of English, Maths or Science rises in some cases to over three hours a day.

It’s a Catch 22. All schools are doing it – or at least, that’s the perception. Whatever the rating of your school, you are under pressure to be keeping up. Perish the thought that you might lose your ‘Outstanding’ rating, drop back into RI when you were only recently deemed ‘Good’ or indeed face your entire SLT replaced by a SWAT team of Future Leaders if your school finds itself once again below par. Should you dare to suggest that Year 11 might have one whole holiday without a single day in school, you might slip behind the rest.

I’m not lucky enough to teach a ‘core’ subject. I’m part of the ‘non-core’ as a historian. But I’m better off than the third tier subjects – the arts. My poor colleagues in Drama! Their new written exams are terrifying. It’s no longer a subject for students to demonstrate their creative strengths. They have to be able to analyse stage directions at length – in writing. There was a great opportunity recently to take our students to the battlefields of Northern France recently. It would have been a long weekend – they’d have missed three lessons in total. One of these would have been Science. I may as well have asked for a year off to perfect my crochet skills. Snowball chance in hell. We didn’t go.

We ‘non-core’ subjects have to fight for time with our students. ‘It’s too late!’ we are told when requesting a half day over half term. Maths, English and Science booked theirs in weeks ago! As if we are somehow being granted a huge favour by being allowed to come and work with students during the holiday we too so desperately need.

Now, there are two schools of thought on this, based on the teachers I’ve talked to. Yes, they may be doing 7 lessons a day, but that’s ALL they’re doing, say some – and we can all picture the student who can never take their coat off or get out their pen without being asked about 500 times. The one who could do with a direct intravenous shot of the sense of urgency that the rest of us are feeling. The boys who regress to the age of 5 – happens at this time of year like clockwork. The ones whose parents learn they’ve been communicating using a series of animal noises throughout the school day. The ones who will do ANYTHING to pretend it’s just not happening.

But there’s also this: I don’t go more than a couple of days these days without finding a hitherto quiet and studious student – the kinds whose name you probably wouldn’t know unless you teach them yourself - crying in a corridor. I sit them down, offer them chocolate (it usually does the trick – at least for a few minutes) and ask what’s wrong. ‘I don’t know!’ is almost always the answer. They are overwhelmed, exhausted and their struggles at home funnily enough haven’t diminished to cater for the extra demands of being in Year 11.

And then there are the students who actually love History, have always worked extremely hard, but who literally are unable to find a couple of hours at home to study, because they’re so wrung out from being stuffed like Christmas turkeys with equations, formulae and quotes from Twelfth Night.

Oh, and the teachers. Yes, them. A colleague of mine with two children under 6 at home is on her fourth Saturday at work. We all know she’s dedicated, but she seems to believe that her dedication will come into question if she doesn’t ‘step up’.

I overheard a parent of a Year 11 student telling a mutual friend that she’d like to ‘crawl into a corner and hide’ until it’s all over. The level of hysteria, the level of panic, is quite simply untenable. Only in ten years, I’ve not seen an alternative. At the moment, we are destined to send out into the workforce a generation of highly-strung individuals who have learned through experience that someone else, rather than sending them off to work independently, will always give up weekends and holidays for them, photocopy a rainforest’s worth of resources and put a pen in their hand if they can’t be bothered to root around in their bag. We bang on about building resilience and independence, but our actions – our constant supply of MORE makes these aims laughable.

Vic Goddard said recently, ‘there is always another way’. We need to find it. Now. Because all we’re doing is pouring oil onto the wreckage of the profession we love.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Book Review: 'How To Survive In Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding Or Walking Away' by Dr. Emma Kell

For a book based around the responses to a survey of around 4000 teachers which revealed that 57% wouldn't recommend teaching to a family member or friend, this is a brilliantly positive and optimistic book. In reporting on her findings Dr. Kell might have focused heavily on the negative outcomes of her research (42% are not happy at work, 82% have experienced work-related anxiety) but what she has produced is actually a rousing, reassuring manifesto for how we as a profession move forwards in tackling the issues revealed.

Dr. Kell skilfully presents her findings alongside advice aimed at all strata of education right from where system-wide change is needed down to what teachers can do on a day-to-day basis to not only survive, but to flourish. There are messages here for policy makers, school leaders, teachers and other school staff members; there are even implications for family members of the above.

'How To Survive In Teaching...' is packed full of little nuggets: little gems of advice and acknowledgement. Some of them provide comforting reassurance that the reader is not alone in the difficulties they are experiencing. Others gently encourage the reader that they aren't powerless in the situation they have found themselves in and give practical advice about what to do.

A constant thread that runs through the book provides a reminder that, in amongst the difficulties and the hardships, teaching is actually a brilliant job (even if it is just a job). It manages to remind the reader every so often why they came into the job in the first place, and what is so special about it. If none of the other advice in the book has an impact, chances are this seam of hope will be what encourages teachers on to find a way to tackle the issues they are facing.

The input from Dr. Kell's interviewees brings the advice fairly and squarely into the realities of everyday school life meaning that this book is not divorced from what is actually going on in staff rooms and classrooms across the country. At no point does the author come across as an idealistic opiner who is out of touch with what's really happening in education - she is as realistic and pragmatic as it gets and the whole tone of the book flows out of this.

If you're looking for some advice for how improving your experience as a teacher, then this is the perfect starting place. If you want to be reminded of what the job should be about then this easy and quick read is also for you. Published by Bloomsbury, it's available to buy now: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/how-to-survive-in-teaching-9781472941688/

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Revealed: Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab

Those of you who've been reading my blog and interacting with me on Twitter will know my passion for the transformative power of books. One particularly powerful aspect of books is there ability to develop empathy in the reader.

The new Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab is introduced with these brilliant paragraphs:

"Empathy is a human super-power which helps us all understand each other better. It is also an essential social and emotional skill, crucial if children are to thrive.

"We’re not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – it’s a skill we can learn. Excitingly, new research shows that books are a powerful tool to develop it, because in identifying with book characters, children learn to see things from other points of view. So when you read with children you can build their empathy skills at the same time."

At this year's Reading Rocks conference I ran a workshop entitled 'The More-Ness Of Reading' (click the link for a blog version of it) in which the attendees and I explored how books can help us to become more empathetic. I've also written several blog posts on the matter:

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy
The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

Many of my book reviews focus in on ways that children's books might be used in the classroom to encourage children to develop empathy:

'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson
'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

I'm something of a fan of reading for empathy. So I was excited to find that EmpathyLab have published in their guide a list of 30 books to build children’s empathy and all in good time for Empathy Day on 12th June - we teachers and parents can get reading the selection of books now in time for then.


So far, of this list, I've only read 'Grandad’s Island' by Benji Davies, 'My Name is Not Refugee' by Kate Milner, 'Can I Join your Club?' by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis and 'The Island at the End of Everything' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave although there are a few there I've had my eye on for a while. With having read only 4 out of the 30 so far I've got a lot to be getting on with. I think I will make it my aim to read all the picture books first - hopefully my excellent local library will have them in.

The guide itself contains mini reviews of each of the books, all of which give an idea of how the book might support the development of empathy. The books which have been chosen explore themes of displacement and migration, experiencing and managing emotions and facing challenging circumstances, such as deafness, autism or bereavement.

EmpathyLab Founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: "It’s time to make far more systematic use of books’ power to tackle society’s empathy deficit. This 2018 Read for Empathy Guide is part of an empathy movement to help us understand each other better. We’re seriously delighted to be working with authors, publishers and Peters to launch it in the run up to Empathy Day on 12 June."

Have you read any of the selected books? How would you use them with children to develop empathy?
Which of the selected books are you particularly looking forward to?
I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 5 February 2018

How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making


How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making
In my last blog post on inference-making (Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making) I provided lots of questions which might support inference-making, along with some suggested answer structures for teachers and children to use when answering inference questions. In this blog post we will look at how these questions can be used wisely in lessons so that children's inference-making skills are developed.

Anne Kispal, in her literature review entitled 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', writes: "Underpinning the research reviewed is the assumption that pupils must be explicitly taught the skills they need for comprehension. They cannot be left to pick them up through simple exposure to texts, or through the natural process of maturation." (page 24) It is clear that we should teach children the strategies they need in order to be able to understand what they read - the strategy we are concerned with explicitly teaching here is inference-making.

The questions I shared previously should be used carefully - they are not solely for use in a written comprehension activity which children complete independently. They should also be modelled, discussed, answered orally and asked about aurally-presented texts as well as read texts.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the why, I propose a sequence (flexible, of course) to help use inference questions in the most effective way:
  1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text
  2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text
  3. Teacher provides a summary of the text
  4. Teacher models inference-making (which might include clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge)
  5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration
  6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text
  7. Children read next part of the text themselves
  8. Children summarise text
  9. Children answer inference questions (and any supporting vocabulary, retrieval and background knowledge questions, this could be a written task, or an oral one)
  10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred
  11. Teacher models answers and, if written, children edit their work to improve their answers
Now let's see a break down of why it might be a good idea to roughly follow this sequence when using the inference questions:

1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text

On the Reading Rockets website (a great and accessible online resource) Judith Gold and Akimi Gibson provide an excellent summary of the research on reading aloud:

"Reading aloud is the foundation for literacy development. It is the single most important activity for reading success (Bredekamp, Copple, & Neuman, 2000). It provides children with a demonstration of phrased, fluent reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). It reveals the rewards of reading, and develops the listener's interest in books and desire to be a reader (Mooney, 1990)."

Whether or not you have the children reading along with you is another matter; David Didau, in his blog post 'The Problem With 'Reading Along'', proposes that we don't because the act of listening and reading at the same time can overload the working memory and hinder comprehension of the text. If that is true, then the next step is an important replacement for children reading along.

Note: during this read-through it is best not to stop reading to ask too many questions. Although Kispal summarises that teachers should "practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts" she also provides these cautionary notes on questioning:
  • not to interrupt pupils by asking questions during reading time
  • not to launch into questioning too soon afterwards. The teacher must allow time for consolidation of what has been read as a mental representation
  • practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts

With the first bullet point above in mind Kispal also reports that "the only condition that was found [by Hannon and Daneman (1998)] to significantly encourage inferencing was that of integrating questions into the text combined with allowing longer reading time" (this was in a study of university students rather than young children).

2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text

An end goal of reading instruction is to ensure that children can independently decode and understand something. Once the reading has been modelled it is a good idea for children then to have a go themselves in preparation for times when they won't have an adult to read for them. Typically we might ask children to do this in silence, but this isn't the only way. Re-reading aloud to a partner or to themselves has added benefits.

The Key Stage 2 Literacy Guidance Report from the EEF mentions that one way to improve fluency is for children to read aloud the same text that they have just had read to them. It also summarises research that shows that "fluent reading style supports comprehension because pupils’ limited cognitive resources are freed from focusing on word recognition and can be redirected towards comprehending the text." (page 11)

If re-reading a text develops fluency and fluency supports comprehension of the text then that is definitely something we should be building in to our reading lessons. This time spent re-reading also allows children to consolidate what they have heard and read (see Kispal's cautionary notes above).

3. Teacher provides a summary of the text

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how mental models, or representations, are created by the reader:

"While reading, skilled readers normally develop a text-based model, which is a mental representation of the actual text discourse. The text-based model incorporates propositions extracted from the reading of successive sentences that are sometimes supplemented by inferences that are necessary to make the text more coherent."

I suggest that before a teacher models the inference-making that will lead to the creation of a more complex situation model (more on this in step 5) they should model a summary of the text to help children who have not developed a sufficient enough text-based model from which to begin to draw inferences. Providing summaries of the text for children is known to be a useful strategy to help EAL learners and so might they be for others learning reading comprehension strategies.

4. Teacher models inference-making

Kispal writes that "teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves... Teachers should attempt to find texts rich in inferencing possibilities and to have in mind which inferences they will elicit in discussion."
(page 30)

The literature review then goes on to suggest that to show inference-making in use teachers should "model inferencing by asking relevant questions aloud and answering them" and that they should "think thoughts aloud to show how teacher arrives at an inference." 
(page 51)

Inference-making relies on the reader having done other things with the text such as clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge so these processes may need to be modelled also. When considering the activation of prior knowledge Kispal's review of research makes the following suggestions to take into consideration when discussing questions:
  • pupils generate initial associations 
  • they discuss and clarify their collective knowledge 
  • they reformulate knowledge, clarifying what they now know as a result of discussion

According to Kispal's review of literature, whilst modelling and discussing inference-making teachers should ask "questions about relationships between characters, goals and motivations" and ask "questions that foster comprehension monitoring, such as Is there information that doesn’t agree with what I already know? Are there any ideas that don’t fit together (because of contradictions, ambiguous referents, misleading topic shifts)? Is there any information missing or not clearly explained?" Teachers should always be asking "‘How do you know?’ whenever an inference is generated in discussion of a text." Teachers can also "show examples of how all types of questions can be derived from a text" using the question words (i.e. who, ‘when, why).
(page 38)

Questions that can be used to support systematic and structured teaching of the wide variety of inferences can be downloaded here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/questions-to-support-inference-making-11825987

5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration

In point 3 we looked at how teachers might share a summary of the text for the purpose of aiding the development of a text-based model. Once a text-based model has been created, and further inferences have been made, a situation model can then be developed.

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how situation models (a kind of mental model or representation) are created by the reader:

"In contrast [to text-based models], situation models include elaborative inferences that integrate prior knowledge with text-based information.teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves.

"Thus, the construction of a situation model is a dynamic constructive process that is determined by the interaction of the reader, the text structures, and the semantic content. 

"In constructing a situation model the reader is required to search for coherence at the local and global levels and to infer meanings that are often implied by drawing from their existing background knowledge. While doing this, the reader actively constructs the situation model by using information within the text and also information from stored prior knowledge. Thus, the main difference between text-based and the situation model is assumed to be one of inference making, the text-based model is inferentially light while the situation model is inferentially dense." 

It seems important to reassess the mental models that are created after making new inferences from the text.

6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text

See point 1

7. Children read next part of the text themselves

See point 2

8. Children summarise text

See point 3. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their text-based mental model before they answer any inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

9. Children answer inference questions

This could be with support, without support, in pairs, independently, as a group, as a written task or as an oral task. Children may also need to understand the vocabulary used in the text, retrieve information from the text and link their background knowledge to the text - this could be done through discussion or by a structured sequence of questions (see my idea of scaffolding inference).

Kispal summarises that paired or group work allows pupils share the thought processes that led them to make inferences and that the younger the children, the more aural work they should undertake.
Kispal also writes that research on inference-making suggests that we should "train pupils to acquire the habit of asking themselves why-questions occasionally while they are reading, as these are most supportive of understanding". Another suggested strategy is to ask "pupils [to] generate questions using these question words [who, when, why etc] from a text and group members answer."
(page 38)

10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred

See point 5. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their mental situation model once they have answered the inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

Summary

Whilst structures like the one I've suggested can be useful, it is only there as a suggestion and will need to be adapted according to need. Having said that, this sequence takes into account many research-based practices which aid in the teaching of inference-making and therefore should be a good solid starting point for reading lessons that focus on inference-making (and probably other reading comprehension strategies). Use with discretion not because I said so!

For an example of how this might work with a real class novel, please see my planning for the first 10 chapters of 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond. 5 whole lessons are focused on making inferences about characters' motives and a further 5 lessons focus on making inferences about characters' feelings. In the teachers notes I have not included information about the text summaries but every other part of the sequence is detailed.

Friday, 2 February 2018

General Principles Of Challenge For Higher Prior Attaining Pupils

General Principles Of Challenge For Higher Prior Attaining Pupils

The National Curriculum states that 'teachers should set high expectations for every pupil. They should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard.' My question is: are there general principles that underpin the setting of stretching work?

In this blog post I propose 6 general principles (there may well be more) to consider when thinking about how to challenge higher prior attaining pupils:
  1. More (and More Complex) Knowledge
  2. Provide Opportunities For Children To Demonstrate And Do Something With Their Knowledge
  3. Teach Masterclasses
  4. Remove Scaffolds and Support To Encourage Independence
  5. Communicate High Expectations
  6. Personalise The Challenge
Teachers can often identify the kinds of activity that they provide for pupils who are achieving highly, but it's more difficult to put a finger on identifying the general principles which might be applied when trying to challenge children. It's not too hard to call to mind a particular pupil and then recall the ways in which they've been provided for: writing an alternate viewpoint, encouraging debate in response to texts they've read or solving complex open-ended problems covering a range of maths domains, for example. But are there similarities between the subject-specific challenge activities that children are given? And is it actually all about activity, or something more?

Image taken from ronbassett.com
Bloom's Taxonomy and Knowledge

When teachers' thoughts turn to the general principles that might apply to challenging higher prior attainers (I'm avoiding the other 'a' word), they might often think of Bloom's Taxonomy and the so-called Higher Order Thinking Skills. And it's not a bad starting point; the taxonomy certainly has some implications here. David Didau and Doug Lemov have both written interesting articles about the issues with the taxonomy, particularly in its pyramid form. They both point out that without knowledge at the bottom none of the other skills can be exercised. The pyramid might suggest that reaching the top is the goal but at the same time the fact that the foot of the pyramid (knowledge) is the largest section, the foundation on which the rest is built, points towards the fact that a secure knowledge base is crucial. This in turn points us towards what might be the most important way to challenge higher prior attainers (HPA).

General Principle 1: More (and More Complex) Knowledge

Someone (maybe just a person on the internet) said "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." For those with a thirst for knowledge, this realisation that there is more to know spurs them on to learn more. If you have an HPA who has lapped up all the facts and information you've taught them so far, then surely a simple way to challenge them is to provide them with more information on the subject, or linked to the subject. It might be that this information is harder to understand, or relies on a good understanding of previous information (it will), but that's where the challenge lies for the child. I also think that the second category in the taxonomy should never be separated from the first: knowledge and comprehension should always be hand in hand - what good are facts, information and knowledge if not comprehended?

Contrary to popular belief the National Curriculum does support this principle. For example, in the maths curriculum it says this: 'The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace. However, decisions about when to progress should always be based on the security of pupils’ understanding and their readiness to progress to the next stage.' Although the focus is on NOT teaching more, it does acknowledge that for some children, this is a legitimate way forward. This then becomes an issue of pace - sometimes children will need to accelerate past something they are already capable of doing, other times they will need to work at something more slowly in order to ensure it really is excellent.

Bloom's Taxonomy and 'Higher Order Thinking Skills'

Where knowledge is definitely the keystone of any model relating to different thinking categories, I think it is probably arguable that the other categories don't need to be set out so hierarchically, or at least that children don't need to work through them in a linear fashion in every context. What I wouldn't argue with is that it is a good idea to develop thinking and learning in the other categories; I just don't think they need to be thought of as higher order skills. However, what might make someone a higher order thinker is the ability to demonstrate their knowledge securely across the range of categories in the taxonomy:


Image taken from getsmarter.com
General Principle 2: Provide Opportunities For Children To Demonstrate And Do Something With Their Knowledge

In that heading I mean to sum up the other categories of Bloom's original taxonomy: application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. If knowledge (and comprehension of that knowledge) is what the other categories are built on, then the other categories are all ways of showing that the knowledge is understood. Having said this, when the skills outlined by the rest of the model are exercised there will be additional outcomes - they all provide opportunities for knowing to inform actions.

When it comes to providing opportunities for children to exercise a range of skills in these categories the verb-based revised taxonomy can be quite inspiring when it comes to designing challenging work. Taking just one verb, such as 'dramatise', can spark inspiration in the mind of the teacher who is planning work for HPAs. Every time a child is asked to do something with their knowledge in a different way there is the opportunity to take them out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone (or the optimal performance zone).

In addition to teaching new and more complex knowledge the National Curriculum suggests, in the maths aims section, that 'pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content'. This is an example of this second general principle.

General Principle 3: Teach Masterclasses

Whilst another principle of challenging HPAs might be encouraging greater levels of independence (more about this next), it is very difficult for us to become independent when doing new things. If we are going to provide children with new and more complex knowledge, and if we are going to expect them to do new and varied things with this knowledge, then we will need to teach them more. It might be that we teach either know-what (knowledge) or know-how (knowledge of how to do something, which leads to children learning a new skill) in these masterclasses.

Image taken from What Does This Look Like
In The Classroom? by Robin Macpherson
and Carl Hendrick
In their book Robin Macpherson and Carl Hendrick summarise that 'independence does not seem to be the best way to become independent' and that 'independent learning looks different at different stages, and develops as a continuum rather than having the nature of a spectrum'. They go onto point out that 'independence is something that is achieved and exercised by experts, and our students will have a long way to go to reach this level of ability. What we do as teachers along the way is vital, and requires a lot of scaffolding'. Our HPAs may have attained a certain level of independence (i.e. they may be able to easily do the work that the rest of the class are doing) but will need to be taught the things they need to know in order to become independent at the next level. Becoming independent in one thing does not automatically mean a child will be able to work independently at something more difficult.

General Principle 4: Remove Scaffolds and Support To Encourage Independence

The assessment frameworks for Year 2 and Year 6 use an interesting phrase with regard to our higher prior attaining pupils - they refer to 'working at greater depth within the expected standard'. Where children are still working within the expected standard independence is a good goal for them. They know what they need to know (know-what and know-how) and before being exposed to new material, or even material with some depth, they should be able to work without the aid of adults, scaffolded worksheets and so on. As discussed above, as soon as new knowledge is introduced, they will need scaffolding and support before they reach independence with the new knowledge and skills that they have learned. An analogy: the independent mastery of the making of a boiled egg doesn't mean that the preparation of a carbonara can be achieved independently without some form of instruction. This general principle definitely comes with a health warning: don't throw your HPAs in at the deep end just because they've demonstrated they can take a bath safely.

General Principle 5: Communicate High Expectations

Differentiation by outcome: my old favourite. But can we expect children to produce work of high quality if they don't know what it looks like to produce something that distinguishes it from work produced based on general expectations? No. Even if a child produces an exceptional piece of writing it is probably because they have set high expectations for themselves, expectations which have been defined by high quality literature that they have read themselves. In this example we see that the child has seen an example of how good something might be and have drawn up a set of criteria, albeit subconsciously, that they want to adhere to.

Most of us have to be intentional about producing something that is excellent - children will benefit from having high expectations clearly communicated to them so that they have a standard to work towards. Even if the idea is for them to produce something independently, perhaps especially in this case, it is necessary for them to know what the hallmarks of excellence might be in that piece of work. A model (it should be this good) or a list of criteria (it should contain or demonstrate these things) will probably suffice.

When it comes to high expectations, not only should they be communicated but children should be held accountable to them. Analysis of their own work (e.g. editing and revising) should lead to further improvements - they should not expect to produce excellence in a first draft. Indeed, this process of improving might be one criterion that is communicated to and required of HPAs.

General Principle 6: Personalise The Challenge

We often think of personalisation for lower prior attaining children. The curriculum even prioritises them saying that 'teachers have an even greater obligation to plan lessons for pupils who have low levels of prior attainment'. But we often forget that personalisation, tailoring if you like, might be a great principle for challenging HPAs.

Personalisation can come as a result of assessment - we find out that they know something or can do something already, and adjust their future learning accordingly. But personalisation could be more than this. We could take into account their interests, strengths and weaknesses, personality traits and so on. In order to engage them and encourage them to produce something excellent we might tap into their hobbies and interests. Conversely, in order to challenge them and to encourage them out of their comfort zone, we might not allow children, for example, to write yet another story if they are already demonstrating excellence in this area. In this case the child might be challenged to produce a piece of written work within another genre that they are less comfortable with.

Often, children who are working at greater depth will know what they find easy (and often what they find boring as a result) so it may be worth consulting the child about this in order to determine ways of working that might challenge the child. Sometimes a child might have ideas about how they want to challenge themselves which could be tapped into in classroom work.

Challenge for all

In reading this you may have been struck by the same thought as I had whilst writing it: shouldn't we think about these principles for all pupils? I think the answer is yes - we should seek to challenge all pupils, regardless of levels of prior attainment. With this in mind principle 6 becomes very important: the better we know the children, the better we can challenge them. Robert Bjork refers to desirable difficulty which is what we might think more simply of as pitching work correctly: the correct pitch will mean that work won't be too easy or too hard for the pupil who is attempting it. When work is set at this optimal point children will experience the correct amount of struggle which in turn leads to better retention and higher future performance.

If all we ever do is teach only HPAs new and more complex knowledge or ask them to do a wide variety of tasks when other children are doing similar tasks over and over, there will always be a set number of higher prior attaining pupils (most likely the ones who entered school already at an advantage due to other factors). If we want all pupils to have the chance to attain highly then we should ensure appropriate challenge for all, meaning that all the above principles apply to every child so long as principle 6 is taken into consideration first.

The challenge then for teachers is of course how they do this for each of the 30-or-so pupils in their class without falling into the old trap of three-way differentiation, attempting to provide 30 different activities or just giving up and asking all the children to do the same thing with no thought given to tailoring at all. Ongoing assessment and dynamic grouping is probably the simplest answer here, although within those dynamic (ever-changing) groups it is important to acknowledge that there are differences in need which might be better addressed by differing levels of adult support. This is still a real challenge, one which has workload implications, but taking on this challenge, most of us would agree, is absolutely central to our job as teachers.

Providing challenge for HPAs, and challenge for all children, is the greatest challenge teachers face.