Knowing me, Knowing You

The very recent, very late-night debate between Messrs David Didau @LearningSpy and David Wray @DavidWray focussed on the centrality or otherwise of  Pedagogical Content Knowledge (or subject knowledge).  The debate is summarised in David Didau’s post ‘Can a good teacher teach anything well?’ a comment issued so contemporaneously that it almost took the form of a bootleg, uploaded even before the band had even got back to the dressing room.

My own three-minute punk contribution was

To this, David Wray responded:

Now, I’m sorry, David Wray, but your late-night braggadocio still hasn’t convinced me in the time I’ve had to reflect upon it.  I retain my conviction that pedagogic skills, a variety of teaching method, a variety of learning method and everything and anything else that constitute part of my professional make-up derive ultimately and irrefutably from my specialist subject knowledge.  I’d like to explore briefly four acrostic strands in the debate, acrostic, because it’s December and I’m being frivolous (see my last post) and I’ll do it until someone tells me to stop/grow up/start listening to Tales from Topographic Oceans…


Anecdotal evidence:  quite a few of the tweets and replies to David Didau’s blog addressed, quite reasonably, the experience of trying to teach a skill or a subject without having sufficient, necessary expert knowledge.  I agree entirely.  I love drama and have put on school plays, but my attempts to teach it  as an activity with Yr 7 were cringeworthy.  I had passion and behaviour management skills but the expertise of a novice, and it hurt.  Conversely, I have a PhD in medieval history, so you may think that I can handle an A2 course on The Crusades with aplomb, and in many ways I can. But what’s made me passably competent in doing so is not the direct application of my postgraduate skills but the acquisition of parallel, A-Level-specific skills supported by a lot of reading, hard work, tweaking, refining, mistake-making and re-thinking, not to mention sharing ideas and resources with first-rate colleagues.  To caricature, had I taken the view that as a university-educated medievalist I could teach anything pre-1500 with a casual glance through my pince-nez at a syllabus, leaving the students to trail in my academic-manque wake, I’d have done myself, the subject itself and most importantly the students themselves a huge disservice.  My expert, subject-based knowledge is my bedrock.  This isn’t just the nuts-and-bolts of dates, events, bulls and encyclicals, it’s the second-order concepts such as change and continuity, diversity, and significance; I was using these in my PhD before they’d been invented, or popularised, but now I have to really use them, explain them, model them, critique them, and sometimes that’s hard.  History is a hard subject, as multi-layered and polished as an Abba single:  beyond the apparent simplicity and catchiness there’s a craft and  complexity as rich as a Dundee cake. Discuss.

But what about the learners, I hear you ask? This was the missing element of the Didau-Wray tweetfest, to some degree, and one I wanted to raise with a Gifted and Talented focus.  Quite simply, it stems from the second part of my tweet above.  If I don’t know my subject from a learner’s perspective, in so far as I ever can, identifying the best parts (Richard I v Saladin!) and the harder material, the common pitfalls (surely we’re not confusing our analysis of significance across time and over time again?) and the techniques necessary to likely success, then how can my students?  Given that we all teach able students, how can we maintain an integrity in doing so if we are not much more than a Johnny-Come-Lately armed with a textbook hoping to stay a chapter ahead?  Do we imagine that our talented, or able, or high-attaining students, whatever we choose to call them, won’t see through our bravado?  Schools and colleges are imperfect places and subject experts can’t always be found to teach the subject, let alone a specific course for a specific exam board, but there are compensations that can be put in place for this and other strategies adopted.  Able students, no more but no less than all other students, deserve the very best that we can give them. if we don’t know our subjects, we don’t know what our students know and we don’t know what they don’t know.  Without subject knowledge, we’ll all be facing our Waterloo.

But what about the research?  David Wray referred to Shulman and his research, which I must confess to knowing nothing about.  I’m not going to dwell on John Hattie here because his findings are well-known.  Whether on YouTube  or in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) Hattie puts teachers centre-stage, and it would be a misrepresentation on my part to suggest that his findings champion knowledge over skills. It does seem to me, however, that his argument that learning is effective when teachers know when students are not progressing, or when we provide effective feedback, or act as evaluators, or adopt a range of learning strategies, to take a few of his examples,  are predicated upon Pedagogical Content Knowledge of a high order.

Expert teachers have high levels of knowledge and understanding of the subjects that they teach, can guide learning to desirable surface and deep outcomes, can successfully monitor learning and provide feedback that assists students to progress, can attend to the more attitudinal aspects of learning …and can provide defensible evidence of positive impacts of the teaching on student learning.’ (Hattie, Visible Learning p24).

On the next page Hattie talks about the way in which expert teachers can make lessons uniquely their own by adapting their lessons according to their students’ needs, as opposed to ‘experienced’ teachers who may just know a lot.  This brings us back to my PhD point above.  David Wray is right to point out that pedagogic skills matter, and none of what I’m suggesting here denies a role for the expert practitioner in his or her own right, but I can’t read Hattie’s high effect size for Instructional Quality or Teacher Credibility as being divorced from PCK.  We should be doing better than saying to students, Take A Chance on Me.

Aha!  A good teacher can teach anything?  There may be a few who can.  But it’s undesirable, in my opinion, that many of us should try, certainly not with exam classes.  It takes years of small venues, cramped dressing rooms and dodgy sets before you hone your sound, grab your audience and find your own voice.  Only then can you say Thank You for the Music.


Santa Claus is coming to town

santaSo, there I was in school with my eight-year-old son.  The scene:  imagine an impressive Christmas tree in the entrance hall with ‘presents’ beneath it in boxes satisfyingly large, boxes wrapped with a consummate professionalism, boxes artfully arranged at the tree base.  My first thought was of Minecraft blocks – by the way, if any of you can unlock the secret of Minecraft addiction, then educational fame and fortune surely await you,  gentle reader, since my boy applies a level of concentration and application to this game hitherto unmatched in his learning.The boxes were empty.  The ‘presents’ had no future.  Promising, enticing, illusory, they defrauded my son with a Fool’s Gold promise.  I’m pushing the metaphor outrageously in this post, but let me unwrap it a little further and get to the point.

Schools have come a long way in the last twenty years in recognising the needs of able, gifted and talented students.  We now have whole-school policies in place, together with faculty and departmental guidance on provision for able students; CPD sessions have been run and we are all professionally much better informed about the learning needs of a huge range of children than ever before.  Yet, unease remains.  Who exactly are our gifted students (see my previous post) and, once we’ve solved that tricky little conundrum, what do we do with them?  Here’s where we start to unpack the box.

The box itself won’t fool any Non-Specialist Observer.  My son, once bitten, may now look on the faux-wonderland of public-space Christmas decoration with a more critical eye.  We can construct and review our sparkling, shiny and seductive G and T policies, revised and laden with CPD updates and blog links until they reflect back to us exactly what we want to see, like horrible shiny foil gift wrap.  Which is us, looking slightly too pleased with ourselves, if we’re not too careful.  Many schools now have an SLT member whose role will include the shaking, unwrapping and inspection of the box contents, as a Non Specialist Observer or hyper-critical eight-year-old seeking, I hope, to find good provision in order  to praise it and share it.  Christmas tat, Secret Santas and cardboard containers won’t cut it.

Gifted is for life, not for Christmas.  I’m not here to tell you what to do, but here are some festively acrostic thoughts about what I’m going to be trying in 2014 to build sustained interest in learning for the academically talented, sportingly gifted and musically magnificent students for whom I have some responsibility.  Feel free to steal, disagree or ignore.

School Library-a precious but still underused resource.  I want to track my Scholars’ lending habits (quite openly) and see what that tells me.  You are what you read…
A Game of Chess.  I’ve read a suggestion that chess may have therapeutic qualities for some very able students quite apart from the development of thinking skills we would expect.
New qualifications:  in our school, the EPQ has been a big success, offering genuine stretch-and challenge outside the conventional A Level curriculum.  There are now ‘mini EPQs’ for KS3 and 4 which may well be worth a look – and if that’s too formal I may go with an in-house project or enquiry to foster independence and breadth
The Day – our Library has a subscription to this online newspaper.  It’s no good just  telling students to watch the news or develop an interest in current affairs if we don’t give them the simple and direct means to do so
And most excitingly of all, MOOCS – several of my students are already looking at these with interest.  Free, online high-level courses, and doubtless a mixed bag, but what better way to find out than have students sign up?  And to have a go at one myself.

Those are all cheap or free suggestions, with the exception of the subscription newspaper.

Inside the classroom is still where G and T provision matters most, though:  every day, every lesson.  ‘SANTA’ is bolt-on; ‘CLAUS’ does the gripping:

Challenge, challenge, challenge in questioning, in written work, in behaviour.  Rigour essential, aiming high natural, teaching to the top while supporting at the bottom de rigueur.

Link.  ‘Only connect’, as E.M Forster said.  Geography doesn’t exist in French schools without History:  it’s Histoire-Geo.  Nothing exists without Philosophy (discuss!).  Teaching any subject without bringing in numeracy and economics doesn’t add up.  Everything connects to everything else, and RS departments take a lead here which we can all follow.

Assessment does at least some of the differentiation for me – never miss a chance to ask a question when marking and push it to the next level.

Unconditional Positive Regard is my biggest challenge.  @vicgoddard says it’s the bedrock for all students, and he’s right.  That includes our very best students, who need it just like everyone else. Tough for me to show, and I need to work on it.

Support.  As Deborah Orr says, it shouldn’t surprise us that very able students may need careful pastoral care, but it still seems to surprise some teachers, and it shouldn’t.

So, there we have it:   a SANTA CLAUS of stocking-fillers or early New Year’s Resolutions on G and T learning for my own amusement and delectation for 2014, and perhaps for yours. When he was younger my boy had one of those stacking box sets.  Each box on its own seemed rather flimsy, but when neatly stacked inside each other they proved surprisingly robust. Maybe that’s telling me something. His experience in my school’s entrance hall doesn’t seem to have scarred him too deeply, if his enthusiasm for Santa’s Grotto yesterday afternoon was anything to go by, so the wonder of learning which should be integral to any 8 year old, or indeed any child in our personal or professional care, is alive and well.

Gifted and Talented: what’s in a name?

So what do you call the highest-attaining students in  your school or college?  We call ours Scholars, which may sound rather grand, but does the job for us of identifying pupils who are strong sports all-rounders (Sports Scholars) or  talented musicians (Music Scholars) or, in Years-7-11, the academic all-rounders are simply identified as Scholars.  The name suits us as an independent school, and I know of at least one other using the same label.

Our OFSTED equivalent is the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate, and ISI criteria define talented pupils as those excelling in a specific area eg music, art, design, drama, dance or sport.  Gifted pupils may have ‘special abilities in one or more subjects’.  No surprises there, and many schools do of course routinely use ‘gifted and talented’ as a generic label for a cohort of students who are recognised as having particular learning needs.  The waters cloud a little, however, with the addition of the term ‘able’. An able pupil is defined as ‘one who achieves, or has the ability to achieve, at a level significantly higher than his or her peer group in the school.’  So presumably ‘able’ is the generic, overarching umbrella term under which shelter ‘gifted’, ‘talented’ ‘very bright’ and lots of others.  Fine, but how do we as teachers define ‘able’ or its comparative cousin ‘more able pupil’ or its superlative sibling ‘most able pupil’?  What is ability, and what is potential?  How do we measure ‘significantly higher’ and what, indeed, is the ability profile of a majority of a peer group -which might be a class, a set,  or a year group, among other possible cohorts?

The ISI and DfE use the notional figure of 5% as a measure for gifted pupils nationally.  Within our school we reckon the figure to be closer to 30% in Years 7-11 and 20% in the Sixth Form; these figures are calculated from MIDYIS, YELLIS and ALIS data.

Schools use many different calculations and the data can be pushed this way and that but for me, the notion that up to a third of any class I teach merits stretch and challenge questioning, tasks and activities gives pause for thought.  It kicks into touch any sense of having two or three very sharp students who, in my case, will know more History than I do in terms of factual detail and, much more importantly, that they can see angles, make connections and read the past better than I can, or could ever do.  I’ve never had too much difficulty with that.  What does cause me to sit up and think is the idea that so many students in any class could do this, and should be routinely doing it, if I can find the means to help unlock that potential. Really, a third?

These are some of the questions with which I am grappling in a role which gives me responsibility for our gifted and talented students across Years 7-13, with the addition of supporting existing provision in our Junior School.  I’m struck by the paucity of literature and advice out there.

My first port of call, as so often, is Tom Sherrington.  His post champions the need to stretch and challenge all students in what he terms a ‘total philosophy’:  open-ended tasks, depth and rigour to all content, problem-solving; teaching to the top and supporting at the bottom, not ‘differentiating upwards’:

This month Tom brought us his latest thoughts on stretch and challenge in his version of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a Kitchen Video:

In terms of the sheer number of nods of the head as I read and re-read  his wise words, Tom’s blog serves as my benchmark against which I can assess other contributions to the discussion.  Perhaps I’m missing a trick, but I’m not impressed by either the quality or the quantity of suggestions out there about how best to provide for our most able students, but more on that another time.

Testing some of these ideas in  a wider forum, I went on an Optimus Gifted and Talented course in the impressive surroundings of The Oval in London recently.  There must have been over 300 teachers there; it was a huge event.  Just to focus on the point of definition, Ruth Powley spoke persuasively about the problem of schools data-crunching their statutory 5% of ‘g and t’ students.  What about, she quite rightly asked, the 95%?  The 5% may want to mask their achievements anyway.  She suggested self-selection, an intriguing idea which some schools seem to be using.  Not least, this gives you a higher percentage of free school meal children.  Ruth also suggested using the terms ‘able and ambitious’.  Does your school have an Ambition Plan?

At the same conference, Carmen Rodney HMI gave the OFSTED perspective.  She asked if you can show that all students are being stretched.  Inspectors will ask students if the classwork is sufficiently challenging, and  likewise homework, and marking.  ISI Inspectors will want to see the same things.  They fully acknowledge that different schools will have different names and labels for those whom they identify as their best drama students, mathematicians and linguists.  What matters is not the name but the learning, not the label but the attitudes it fosters.

Finally for the moment, no discussion of labelling and naming and its manifold implications for measuring progress, among many others would be complete without recommendation of the Gifted Phoenix blog, a remarkable body of work in its own right.

His forensic skills have dissected official literature and left the body parts exposed:

He tells us that there is, in late 2013, a disparity between the OFSTED Inspection Guidance with its references to ‘most able’ pupils and School Performance Tables which refer to ‘highest attainers’.  If the former is taken as a benchmark, many of the learners in many of our schools will be deemed to be ‘high attainers’.  They will be starting Yr 7 at L5 or having the potential to attain L5 in English and/or Maths at the end of KS2.  In the School Inspection Handbook there are references to the ‘highest attaining students’ rather than the ‘most able’.  Confusing, n’est-ce pas?


  • It’s not encouraging that several gifted bloggers and commentators have identified terminological inexactitudes and definitional blurring in official literature
  • Nevertheless what matters on the ground is settling on names and labels that we can live with in our school, and which our students, colleagues and parents can understand
  • My challenge is to keep my school’s ‘gifted and talented’ provision open and accesible because students don’t make progress in straight lines.  Students  can therefore become Scholars at any point.  We’ll keep the idea of self-selection under review, though
  • The numbers and abilities of the students whom I face every day who need ‘stretch and challenge’ is higher than my fixed mindset believes, so I need to grow a little…
  • But what about the high ability students who never quite produce the best  History essay or Maths solution?  If I teach to the top, challenge but support, I may help them get there.  They are simply not there yet, as John Tomsett reminds us. A former colleagues used to call these ‘the middle third’ of our classes because they are rarely in trouble, can easily go unnoticed but may have some, many or all of the attributes of our highest attainers.  They deserve better.

Comments, thoughts very welcome