Survive or thrive: Challenge and engagement in the classroom

Rowlands analogy (below), written in his 2017 book entitled ‘Learning Without Labels: Improving outcomes for vulnerable pupils,’ is certainly poignant in today’s education system. Not only does it highlight the strengths of one of the most basic living organisms, but also the overwhelming power that entities can wield over them.

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“Fleas are amazing creatures, they can jump 100 times their own height, which is the equivalent of a 6ft human leaping a 30 storey building, but if you put them in a jar with a lid, within three days of jumping against this imposed ceiling this feat will no longer be achievable. Even when the lid is removed, the fleas will have learnt to jump no higher than where the lid was placed. What is even more amazing is that their offspring will also be able to jump no higher, having followed the example of their parents.”

(Rowland: 2017, 48)

As teachers, we have an undoubtedly influential role in a child’s life. We have the ability to transform the world of a young person – albeit with limited time and resources – by breaking down barriers, challenging ideas and by building understanding. We, in many cases, dictate where their ‘ceiling’ is or, indeed, if there is even one at all. But what happens when a ceiling has already been put into place? Is there a way to lift it and help students jump higher?

Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ theory suggests that transforming the way we think about ourselves can have a progressive impact on intelligence. She asks “what are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”

The issue with limiting learning, although arguably teaching is constrained by assessment frameworks and time, is that we encourage a ‘win or lose’ mindset wherein students can either fail or succeed to fit in. Dweck writes:

two mindsets

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves— in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

For many students, this is a difficult context to work within. And it’s even more so for students who are disadvantaged, who find this ‘win or lose’ culture more stressful and inhospitable. For many disadvantaged students, whether they know they are yet, they are already losing that battle.

In education, all knowledge is empirical meaning that is it derived from experience (Vygotsky 1978, 57). In this sense, experience does not refer to the extreme or different but merely to any situation that allows a person to experience something new, be it a lecture, reading a book, talking to someone, watching a film, and so on.  This notion, reinforced by Locke and Ferrier, hypothesises that ideas come from sensation, for example the senses offer mankind a distinct perception of the things in our surroundings. If enabling experiences are limited, ergo you come from a disadvantaged background, knowledge may also be limited. For meaningful learning to take place there must be a process whereby a person can cognitively analyse what they already know, relating it to new knowledge and how these can work together to create new meaning (Ausubel 2000, 5). For us, this process can only be effectively achieved when the educator has an understanding of the student’s current knowledge, the pedagogy needed to engage the learner and how new material is relevant.

For effective differentiation, is it not vital to have a clear understanding of the limiting factors preventing your students from making progress? These factors could be a result of economical, behavioural, social, mental or emotional constraints – or any combination of these things. This short YouTube clip clearly demonstrates the impact that disadvantage has on the potential for someone to succeed.

When you reflect upon your own upbringing, are you one of the students that started the race at the back or at the front? Are you someone who has never known there to be a cap on what you can achieve? Or are you someone who has been fighting to jump past your imposed ceiling? You might be someone who doesn’t even realise you have been confined, restrained or held back. Disadvantage lurks in all corners and in every classroom. Disadvantage can be fixed in diagnosis or it can transient, temporary or conditional.

In recent weeks, we in the English Department have been implementing an idea called ‘Class On A Page’ (COAP; found here Class on a Page KS3 template and Class on a Page KS4 Template) This strategy is about recording the barriers to learning students in a particular class have and how the teacher manages with them in a day-to-day way. Such a document allows teachers to remain focused on the needs of the students consistently, through their classroom routines, summative and formative assessments. The document allows teachers to track and monitor the context of the classroom and correlate it to student progress. It is a dynamic document that should be updated regularly throughout the year and can passed from one teacher to the next.

So, if you do not already have a strategy in place in your department, why not give this one a try?

A forewarning: a little bit of self-reflection about your teaching practice will be required!

Mrs Shelley Devine

Teacher of English

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This blog is a designed for easy sharing of some of the more popular recent blogs from this site to help teachers reflect on their practice and to access some key research papers. 1. Read the Research Teaching and Learning Research Summaries: A collection for easy access. This post links to several online pdfs that […]

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