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Stop disadvantaging the disadvantaged // Some practical tips for teaching & learning.

There are no shortcuts or golden tickets. Get teaching right first. [Sir John Dunford]

Education is not just for the elite. It is for everyone regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. In order to ensure students are every background get the same opportunities as everyone else, teachers have to pay meticulous attention to disadvantaged students for it’s those students who stand to gain the most from effective teaching and learning.

‘Get teaching right’ or ‘quality first teaching’ gets mentioned a lot when talking about ‘closing the gap’ between disadvantaged students and their peers but what does this actually mean? Saying these things repeatedly is not overly useful – it doesn’t encourage teachers to change their teaching habits or reflect on their practice. Should teachers be doing things differently for disadvantaged students in lessons day to day? Probably not, but disadvantaged students should be at the top of a teachers thought process when teaching as it’s these students who stand to gain the most from teaching that increases subject knowledge and provides lots of opportunities to bring that information to mind.


What does it mean to be disadvantaged?

Dr Nicholls has a great insight into disadvantaged students here. He talks about the need to disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes for disadvantaged students and has come up with a list (this does not assume all disadvantaged students are affected by these things) that highlights some of the key factors that may identify a young person as disadvantaged…

Another significant factor that relates to learning is that disadvantaged students tend to arrive at secondary school (and primary school) with a lower number of words in their vocabulary and a distinct lack of cultural knowledge (compared to their peers) which restricts their understanding and delays their progress. Joe Kirby makes a great argument for scientific based curriculum design here that would certainly help close the knowledge gap for disadvantaged students.


What can teachers do day to day?

Routines. A lack of routine can disrupt the start of a lesson, waste time handing out books, lead to confusion and a general misunderstanding of expectations in a classroom, all of which will affect learning for students. Consider:

  • How will students enter your classroom and what will they need to do upon being seated? For example what if the expectation was that students had 30 seconds to enter and get seated and then immediately completed a short quiz of 4 or 5 questions that tested their knowledge of lesson content from last week, last month, last term and last year? The accumulative effect of this interleaved approach on learning could increase a students knowledge over time whilst providing a smooth start to the lesson that focuses on learning from the outset.
  • Also consider your routines/expectations for:
    • getting students to be silent.
      • TRY: ‘3,2,1, eye contact’ and explain to students that once you get to 1 all students should have eye contact with you. This is a great way of getting students attention. Be persistent, habits don’t form over night.
    • questioning and how students should respond [see below].
    • handing out books / resources – what’s the most time efficient way to do this? Are students trained in this so that it becomes automatic? Every second counts!
    • circulating the room whilst students are working? Do you check in on disadvantaged students first?
    • working environment during a task – what is the default noise level? Purposeful, directed talk amongst students is useful for developing understanding but when this is not part of the task do students need to talk? A noisy classroom makes it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time.

Directed questioning. No reasonable person would expect a teacher to know every disadvantaged student that they teach (especially with large cohorts) so use your annotated seating plan.

  • TRY:
    • Don’t be afraid to have your seating plan in your hand whilst questioning and use it to ensure disadvantaged students get questioned regularly. I’ve seen teachers use this strategy in my own school to great effect.
    • Use the no opt out strategy from TLAC – don’t allow any students (let alone disadvantaged to simply say ‘I don’t know.’ Give them wait time, let them look over their notes before attempting answer. Circle back to them to ensure they have understood.
    • Use ‘no hands up’ when questioning. This blog from the Learning Scientists highlights the negative affect ‘raising hands’ can have on student performance… Asking students to raise their hand to signal their achievement (when they knew an answer) highlights differences in performance between students, making it more visible. This can lead to students in lower social classes, or with lower familiarity with a task, to perform even worse than they would have.

Frequent quizzing. As already stated this is a great routine for getting students into a class and settled whilst also benefitting their learning. As Joe Kirby suggests in his blog, we have over 100 years of scientific studies that frequent testing is the best way to disrupt the curve of forgetting. The best thing about low stakes quizzing is that teachers don’t need to grade, track or spend hours marking them. They can be self-marked by students as teachers explain the answers and knowledge gaps can be addressed immediately.

  • TRY: For the next six weeks instead of your planned starters try quizzing students at the beginning of each lesson using the ‘last week, last month, last term’ approach. What do you notice about their learning? What if students were quizzed at the beginning of every lesson, every day, every term? Would that help balance out the knowledge deficit? 

Modelling. When teaching it’s important to model what great performance looks like in your subject and even more important that you model the process (meta-cognition) of how to approach problems / tasks. The EEF see meta-cognition as one of the most impactful learning strategies that especially helps disadvantaged students.

Feedback. This is another strategy which the EEF deems to have high impact on student performance. The most important thing about feedback is that students do something with, ideally acting on the teachers feedback to improve their work and consolidate or extend their understanding. How can teachers be more meticulous with their feedback for disadvantaged students?

  • TRY:
    • Marking little and often rather than a whole set of books in one go. I’m not a fan of ‘marking PP books first’ as this suggests that other student books are less important or may receive feedback that is of less quality then the books marked first – which is wrong.
    • Try whole class feedback that addresses common misconceptions.
    • When conducting a feedback lesson have your annotated seating plan in your hand and visit the disadvantaged students frequently to ensure they have understood and are acting upon your feedback.

Read. Encourage students to read lots. Make it part of your lessons and teaching rather than an ‘add on’. As Katie Ashford describes, a good reading lesson should follow these principles…

  1. In any lesson, reading should primarily be for comprehension. Pupils need to understand what they are reading, and so the teacher should pause at appropriate moments and check for understanding.
  2. Reading is an opportunity to improve pupils’ fluency and ability to read with expression. Teachers should therefore model good reading and ask pupils to read aloud (year 7s love this, so get them into that habit then- it’s harder as you go up the school, in my experience).
  3. Reading is an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ vocabulary. Teachers should pause to explain the meaning of key words, and may want to give further examples of new words used in context.

A list of strategies for reading in lessons can be found here.

TRY: As part of explaining a new concept give students a a passage of text to read that explains the concept (perhaps with a diagram if appropriate) to compliment your explanation. This could be read as a class or individually. If this habit is formed over a time it could help increase student vocabulary, fluency and understanding whilst enabling them to read outside of their normal experience (e.g. scientific articles, classical literature, e.t.c.).



Image: @gapingvoid

The thing that does make a difference, not just for disadvantaged students but for all students is effective teaching and learning. The challenge for teachers is ensuring that disadvantaged students get overexposed to this every lesson as it is those students who stand to gain the most. Be bold. Be courageous. Have relentlessly high expectations of all students. Form effective habits and don’t leave anything to chance. We only get one chance to help all students access the opportunities they all deserve.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” [Malcolm Gladwell]

Homework: Is it worth it? Probably.

If homework is ‘a blind act of faith’

If completing homework is different to completing classwork…

If research suggests is has minimal impact on student learning…

Is it worth the hassle?

‘A blind act of faith.’

Tom Bennett eloquently described homework recently as a blind act of faith. Think about that for a moment. It’s probably true. Homework is set and the moment it is teachers are making assumptions that students have the following:

  • time & space at home to complete the work.
  • the necessary resources (i.e. computer / internet access, pens, pencils, e.t.c.).
  • the background knowledge to understand and attempt the task.
  • somebody to help.
  • see the value and have the motivation / desire to attempt the task.

The response to these assumptions will vary from student to student and for some students the responses will vary at different points during the school year. With this in mind it’s hard to anticipate what return on learning teachers and students will get. It’s for these reasons (listed above) that homework tends to be very different to work carried out in class, as teachers can provide / support students to complete tasks. It’s also for these reasons that a gap can open up between students who have these conditions in places and those that don’t.

Homework also has an impact on family time. This is something outside of the schools control. It’s also time that cannot be refunded. If homework is not scheduled by the school across the curriculum it can lead to huge amounts being set all at once followed periods or little or no homework. How does this help student learning and wellbeing?


Twitter poll on the amount of homework students are expected to complete each night.


Tom mentions a couple of bits of research in his post regarding the effectiveness of homework on learning and although some studies suggest a positive impact, it appears to be variable at best. With this in mind why do schools put some much effort into setting / marking homework if there’s little return on student learning? The question to ask is: under what conditions is homework useful, effective, yields some return on student learning?

Quality of homework?

This is something I have fallen foul of early in my teaching career, setting weird and wonderful homework tasks with little regard for student learning. Tom Bennett perfectly sums up the dangers of losing sight of the purpose of homework here:

Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of paper mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.

Discovery homework and tasks that don’t relate directly to student learning are of questionable relevance. Part of the problem here could relate back to a schools homework policy that puts pressure on teachers to set regular homework to meet a frequency target rather than when it’s needed to aid learning. Also, is there an agreed standard for homework or are teachers left to their own devices to set whatever they like under the broad umbrella of ‘homework’? Would less teacher autonomy here actually benefit student learning and decrease teacher workload?

A possible solution?

I’m not against homework and set it regularly, but with it being a blind act of faith what can schools do to improve its return on student learning?

  • Practice. Use homework time for students to practice (quizzing, reading, writing, maths) rather than extensively challenge them (especially when teachers are unable to guarantee conditions / resources for home learning). The information we have from great organisations such as the Learning Scientists suggests that regular retrieval practice (just one example) is really useful for establishing learning and transferring information into long term memory.
  • Routine. Schools could create a homework timetable so that students, teachers & parents are absolutely clear about when homework will be set and when it will be due. I have seen this work well in schools where teachers set homework every week on the same day and have a routine for collecting homework so that it becomes part of the next lesson, which has resulted in very high completion rates from students. Other schools have adopted similar approaches but have applied this across the whole school:

Summary of homework policy / timetable at KingSolomon Academy.


Summary of Michaela Academy homework policy / timetable.

  • Reducing teacher workload. Quizzing is a great method for retrieval practice and there are plenty of systems available such as Show My Homework, Socrates (free), Edmodo (free) that allow teachers to create (and share with colleagues) self marking quizzes. These can be spaced out (and re-used) over weeks and months to aid learning. I’ve used Show My Homework in my department. We collaboratively planned 2 quizzes each per term (takes about 10 minutes to create one) and share them with each other. Show My Homework automatically marks and tracks homework completion / scores for us which enables us to focus on address the gaps in lessons.
  • Homework clubs. How can schools support students who struggle with the time, space and resources to complete homework at home? A simple solution is by offering homework clubs that enable students to access the necessary resources to complete homework.

Is homework worth the hassle? If the quality of homework yields a good return on student learning and it doesn’t create unmanageable workload for teachers, then yes it probably is. Creating a culture where students value deliberate practice is likely to develop good habits that will enable students to be successful.



Reading for CPD: a starting point.

via @GapingVoid

One of the pitfalls of my PGCE course was that I was not encouraged to read much beyond ‘101 ICT starters’. It was not part of the culture of the course. It was not a habit widely encouraged either during the course of in the schools within which I trained.

Since then (mainly through my PLN on Twitter) I have read a number of books that have challenged and made me think about the the way I teach and the strategies I use inside and outside of my classroom (see my reading list). I also have an Amazon wishlist the size of a phone directory! PGCE’s may have changed a bit in the 5 years since I completed mine

I always encourage all teachers I connect with, whether new to the profession or not to read widely. Getting advice and preferences from colleagues within your school is a good starting point, but can be dangerous if you accept it as the status quo without exploring further. If a friend recommended a restaurant to you as ‘the best in town’, you’d probably go and experience it for yourself. And this wouldn’t stop you from trying other restaurants in the area and further afield. Until you extend your network and explore other options it would be impossible to say whether the original recommended restaurant was the best in town.

Teaching can be a bit like this – you get recommended other peoples preferences for doing things which may or may not work for you. The great teachers out there are restless. They have a commitment to exploring their pedagogy. They want to be challenged. They want to be made to think and reflect on what they are doing.

The aim of this post is to provide a starting point for new and experienced teachers to start reading more widely.

I recently posed this question to Twitter…

Reading for CPD.

What came out of the responses was a list of books that seem to be quite popular amongst teachers because they have challenged a way of thinking about teaching and provided enough food for thought for further exploration. In no particular order here are some titles to get you started…

Reading for CPD: A starting point.

Teach like a champion by Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov)

Full on learning by Zoe Elder (@FullOnLearning)

Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie (@VisibleLearning)

An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger (@RonBergerEL)

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T Willingham (@DTWillingham)

Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou (@daisychristo)

The Restless School by Roy Blatchford (@NatEdTrust)

How to teach by Phil Beadle (@PhilBeadle)

Oops! Helping children learn accidentally by Hywel Roberts (@HYWEL_ROBERTS)

The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit explicit by David Didau (@LearningSpy)

There are undoubtedly many more titles out there to explore. This list serves merely as a starting point. Please feel free to recommend more titles in the comments section below. I’d also really appreciate your views on the titles recommended above.

Stay restless!


The network is more powerful than the node.

If you are reading this post there is a good chance you came across it on Twitter. There’s also a good chance that this post may fall into the category of ‘teaching you to suck eggs’ or ‘preaching to the converted.’ If however you are a teacher and new to Twitter / blogging then this post may we’ll be worth the next 5 minutes of your life*.


Picture by @gapingvoid

What’s Twitter all about then?
Twitter is a social network used by millions to spread ideas and start debate. It allows people to interact with current news and create news. In the world of education it is used to share good practice / resources and start conversations about topical issues when generally enables people to become even more reflective in their own practice. Granted, there is no ‘trash’ filter, but for every 10 ‘beans on toast tonight then’ style post you are likely to come across some extremely intriguing posts that will lead you down a path of discovery.

Twitter basics for teachers:


The power of Twitter – an example.
Just over a year ago at the beginning of the summer holidays I began the first of my many summer projects, creating a baseline assessment for KS3 ICT / Computing groups. With the hope of speeding up this process I sent out a lone tweet into the twitter sphere…


This tweet was picked up my Mr Webber (a Computing teacher / developer based in Somerset) and led to the creation of an online KS3 baseline assessment tool. It started with just my school and Mr Webber’s school using it. Then last week I saw this tweet…


Highly unlikely to have happened without the connective powers of Twitter. Twitter is fantastic for connecting with like minded (and non-like-minded(always good to have a good debate)) souls because it makes it so easy to do so! Read more about the project at Mr Webber’s blog here.

Using Twitter to grow your Professional Learning Network (PLN):

Twitter is an excellent tool for growing your Personal Learning Network. The intuitive nature of Twitter makes it easy to search for like minded people, follow trends and stay up to date with the latest developments in education and pedagogy. It will not happen over night though. Patience and perseverance are key to building an effective PLN. Over time you will begin to build your tribe and see your influence spread and grow. The art of gift giving is what makes Twitter so special. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have used resources in my lessons direct from fellow teachers on Twitter who have felt compelled to share their outstanding practice. It’s the generosity of the network (the people) that makes Twitter an excellent platform for sharing and sourcing ideas – “The network is more powerful then the node.”

Tips for getting started:

1. Sign up and create a account. At this stage you may wish to think about branding. Who are likely to see your twitter account? Teachers, students, parents. How do you want to be perceived by these people? Some people come up with interesting learning related names such as ‘learningspy’ or ‘lessonhacker.’ Quite alot of people (myself included) have used their real ‘teacher name’ and added a suffix e.g. Mr O’Callaghan Edu or Mr Gill English. Be careful when choosing your profile picture – remember your audience and who may be looking at your profile.

twitter profile

2. Search for people / topics using the Twitter search tool.

search twitter

3. Organise your twitter feeds using the ‘Lists’ function:


4. Little and often. Twitter could quite easily take over your life! My advice would be to dip into it, little and often. You will never see every tweet or keep up with every conversation.

5. Take part and share. Don’t be afraid to make a point, share a blog post or resource – you have just as much right to do so as anyone else on Twitter. The key here is quality over quantity.

Some people worth following to get your started (remember, have a look at their followers and follow more people):













Safe is risky. Be remarkable and don’t be afraid to share it!


*Sorry – life non-refundable.