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Why do we need to close the achievement gap? - A guest blog

Why do we need to close the achievement gap? - A guest blog

‘Education can have a transformative effect on the life chances of young people, enabling them to fulfil their potential, have successful careers and grasp opportunities. As well as having a positive impact on the life of the individual, good quality education and child wellbeing also promotes enormous productivity and a cohesive society.’ Education Policy Institute. 

The long tail of low performance is highly correlated with poverty, SEND, and some aspects of ethnicity. Progress had started to stall before the pandemic and COVID is having a particularly adverse effect on these poor and vulnerable families.

The gap will never change without systemic change. So, in the meantime what can we do in our classrooms to mitigate these effects?

The Education Endowment Foundation has produced a toolkit of resources focused on this urgent problem. They have evaluated numerous strategies and the most effective measured in months of improvement are:

Collaborative Learning +5 months improvement 

Metacognition and Self-regulation +7 months improvement

Feedback +8 months improvement

Here are some learning ideas and activities for each of these three strategies:

Collaborative Learning Ideas

Collaborative Learning Ideas
Students working collaboratively

Jigsaw: This strategy helps students create their own learning. Teachers arrange students in groups. Each group member is assigned a different piece of information. Group members then join with members of other groups assigned the same piece of information, and research and/or share ideas about the information. Eventually, students return to their original groups to try to “piece together” a clear picture of the topic at hand. For more detailed information, visit The Teacher Toolkit.

Think Pair Share: This discussion technique gives students the opportunity to respond to questions before engaging in meaningful conversation with other students. Asking students to write and/or discuss ideas with a partner before sharing with the larger group builds confidence, encourages greater participation, and results in more thoughtful discussions.

Brainwriting: This is a simple strategy to encourage students to generate ideas before a discussion, and ensures everyone has a chance for thoughtful participation in the topic.

Daily discussion: Open-ended questions are posted to promote divergent thinking. Small break-out groups can be used to encourage the less confident members of the group to participate and have their voices heard.

Role-play/Hot seating: One student goes up in front of the class and assumes the role of a character or a famous person while the audience/ players interrogate him/her.

Peer Review: In peer review sessions, students must field questions about their writing. They must explain and sometimes defend their writing strategies. Collaboration helps students to understand writing as a process, and to increase their sense of mastery of what is often a complex and difficult task. The best way to learn something is to teach it. When instructing their peers, students learn how to improve their own prose.

Metacognition and self-reflection

Metacognition helps students to be aware of themselves as learners. It helps them to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning in a step-by-step process from activating prior learning to guided practise to independent practise to structured reflection.

The teacher is the best model for this by speaking out loud their own thinking like a running commentary:

  • ‘What do I know about problems like this?’
  • ‘How have I solved problems like this before?’
  • ‘I think I should do this first.’

Teachers can also aid pupils metacognition and self-reflection by setting appropriately challenging tasks, encouraging metacognitive discussion in class, and explicitly teaching pupils how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently.


Teacher feedback
A teacher giving feedback

Providing effective feedback is challenging. It should be specific, accurate and clear, and focus on the process and the effort involved.

‘I can see you have been focused on…..because this draft is much better as you have used….correctly; you have put a lot of effort into that.’

Feedback can come from peers but be sure to give them some training first! I used to coach my Drama classes to use the feedback sandwich:

  1. Something positive: ‘I like how you used the freeze frame there.’ (Slice of bread)
  2. Something to build on: ‘Just remember to keep your eyes still in a freeze.’ (Filling/learning)
  3. Something positive: ‘I like how you made good use of levels.’ (Slice of bread)

I passionately believe there is no one strategy to bridge this chasm. There are many solutions and the teacher’s task is to find the strategies that best suit their students, their school and their strengths.

Tom Sherrington’s Kitchen Pedagogy

Tom Sherrington started teaching in 1987 and has had a 30-year career in education. He has a different message in his Kitchen Pedagogy videos: ‘Teach everyone better!’

He focuses on 6 areas.

1. Teacher’s Mindset

    It is exceedingly difficult in a large class to check on everyone’s progress…although as a Drama specialist I question this! It is perfectly feasible and desirable to scan your class and make eye contact with them all. A student’s eyes tell you all you want to know. If they are sparkling…they have got it and are excited about their new learning. If they will not make eye contact they are still unsure so circle back. Structure your lessons so that ALL students learn ALL the material and achieve ALL the learning aims.

    Move away from: ‘Does anyone know……?’ to ‘Does everyone know the answer?’

    From ‘Can anyone tell me the answer?’ to ‘Can everyone tell me the answer?’

    ‘Let’s find out who still can’t do it and help them out.’

    Make ‘ALL knowing ALL’ the explicit goal. Focus on the errors in classroom discussion.


    2. Testing routines

    Can you be sure that all the students got all the answers right? Ask explicitly who got 3/5 or 4/10 etc. Then you can focus the discussion on the errors or the gaps in the learning and understanding.

    ‘I am testing you to see what you still need help with.’

    3. Exposition without checking in 

    Be wary of getting carried away with your own flow. Check-in every now and then to make sure they are ALL still with you. Check the message is being heard.

    ‘Can you explain in your own words what I have just taught you?’

    Remember to check their eyes!


    4. Weak question and response techniques

    If you always use: ‘Hands up!’ the same confident students may dominate the class…. especially with a less-experienced teacher. Try Cold Calling instead. No hands up; you just pick the students you wish to answer. That keeps everyone on their toes! To make sure you call on everyone in the class, you can use the high-tech solution of all your students’ names on lolly sticks. When a student answers a question or participates in some way, you remove the lolly stick with their name from one tin and pop it in another one. The teacher should always orchestrate the questioning and answering.

    You can tell them before you start the exposition that you will be asking such and such a question so be listening out for the information you need.


    5. Excessive scaffolding

    Do not make the task too easy by having too many prompts.

    Examples of too many prompts include:

    ‘Here’s how to do it.’

    ‘Let me show you how I would tackle this problem.’

    Examples of reduced scaffolding include:

    ‘Now close your books and see if you can remember the steps to do it by yourself.’

    ‘Can you explain it to me in your own words?’


    6. Vocabulary

    By 3 years of age, there is a 30-million-word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. A recent study shows that a vocabulary gap becomes evident in children from the wealthiest and poorest families by 18 months of age. (Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder 2013)


    Develop language skills and build vocabulary
    Developing vocabulary is very important

    Teach subject-specific vocabulary explicitly; have the students say the new words. Construct activities where they must use the vocabulary.

    My own solution was to be a teacher-coach in my classroom. I always encouraged my students to recognise their strengths; to maintain a resourceful state of mind and to raise their self-awareness. I taught my classes explicitly about Fixed and Growth Mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s ideas around Grit.

    I emphasised that we were learning together. We used concrete examples of where they could use these new ways of thinking to improve their learning and thus develop their self-esteem.

    We touched on basic neuroscience. I explained that their brains were malleable; they are designed to grow and develop. They loved hearing about the London cabbies’ brains and how their hippocampi grew as they committed to memory all those thousands of routes through London known as ‘being on The Knowledge.’ I convinced them that their brains were like any other kind of muscle, the more you use it and train it, the better and more efficient it gets.

    On reflection, I see how my coaching way of being naturally ticked those boxes of collaborative learning, metacognition, self-regulation and feedback as recommended by Education Endowment Funds’ research.

    We were giving everybody the chance to succeed and to ‘Get into the corners of the room.’

    This guest blog has been written by Jean Ramsey, an experienced teacher, tutor at Oxford Hub, education coach and author. She is passionate about introducing the benefits of a coaching culture to every classroom.

    Oxford Hub runs a range of volunteering programmes across Oxford that support the local community. Their flagship programme, Schools Plus, aims to tackle educational inequality by providing free tutoring and academic support for children. 


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