Social Equality in the Classroom

I saw a comment on Twitter questioning why there is such a high proportion of pupils on free school meals in bottom sets for English & Maths. The tweet prompted a discussion about the merits of setting and mixed ability teaching. While this is an interesting debate and may well be a factor, I couldn’t help feel that something I heard at a recent CPD event might be more pertinent in addressing the question. It certainly challenged my thinking. I’d be very interested in any professional discussion and views from the pedagoo community on the following:

Dylan William at the CPD event was explaining what he called ‘the multiplier effect’. He began illustrating this in the context of Canadian Professional Ice Hockey. Statistically, professional players were four times more likely to be born in January, February & March. The reason?  The cut off dates for beginning training!

Children who reached the required age in the first quarter of the year were older, more likely to be taller and coordinated and so were often selected for teams and training. Those selected received more specialist training and were put up against tougher opposition. The effect being that by having a slight age advantage was multiplied to be a greater advantage over a 10 year period.

Dylan then discussed the same effect in education. Children from more educated / affluent background often know the ‘rules’ of the classroom and the language of learning before they come to school and consequently were better learners from the outset. He illustrated this jokingly by saying you can tell the class of a family by the questions they ask their child in a supermarket.

‘Middle class’ parents tend to ask questions like: “Which is the best price /value? ”

A lower class parent would ask :”‘Do you want a smack?”!

I know the issues are more complex than merely that of money and perceived class but the point was challenging to me. It really brought home to me the importance of teaching children to learn.

He also said that the most effective way to reduce this multiplier effect in a classroom is to use a ‘no hands up’ approach. This way all pupils have to think and contribute and learn the language of learning in the process. With hands up the gulf widens, as the children with their hands up are usually those who know the rules and those who don’t become passive in the process.

Whilst reflecting on this I also realised why I was so uneasy with elitism and competition in schools. I now realise that I am not ‘anti competition’ or opposed to the most talented pupils being selected to represent schools as some colleagues have interpreted my reservations as. However, I feel that I do want to challenge this multiplier effect and the self fulfilling prophecy that often ensues by changing my own practice. I also want to encourage colleagues to reflect on their practice too.

I’m particularly interested in the role of education in social mobility as a result of my own upbringing and background and would welcome comments / views on the issues this raises and other strategies you use to level the playing field for our pupils.

9 thoughts on “Social Equality in the Classroom

  1. Colin Smith

    The book, ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin Books) deals with this issue (may have been a source used in the CPD even). You will probably find it in the popular science section in Waterstones , if you want to look at it before buying. The ice hockey data is discussed in chapter 1 and the (now well known) 10,000 hour rule in chapter 2.

    A different (still readable but an academic rather than journalistic book) take on becoming an expert that may be interesting (particularly for practical subjects) can be found in ‘The Craftsman’ by Richard Sennett (Allen Lane for hardback- may be in Penguin paperback by now).

    The question that, for me , needs checking against research, is as follows. The effect may occur in sports. Sports are generally played less often than groups of pupils work and talk together. So does the effect really exist in classwork? For example, late and early talkers are generally indistinguishable by ages 4 to 5 – presumably late talkers catch up in a language rich world. If the effect does exist in school classes, you seem right to think that intensive interactions and mutual support between pupils and between the pupils and their teachers may well reduce it.

  2. Neil

    I’m not particularly knowledgeable in this area, and what I’m about to say is only anecdotal, but I just wanted to add that the ability to catch up verbally is one I have observed… however, there does not appear to be a similar catching up in reading and writing.

    Is it too trite to suggest, as well, that pupils whose development skills have been hindered by social concerns are then further ostracised because the literacy they do become fluent and able in (online interactions) are looked down on.

    I really appreciate your point about the class set up (hands up Q&A)… this isn’t something I’d thought about before. Food for thought!

  3. Colin Smith

    So, perhaps it does exist in classwork, the lack of catching up in literacy having a knock-on effect through all subjects and curricular areas. I suppose that might be where the intensive support has to be put – through nursery, primary and across all secondary subjects. Heard that before somewhere! Ah, yes, ‘Language Across the Curriculum’ in the late seventies. Circles!! Why do we not see things through in education?

    Interesting comment on some types of literacy being looked down on – comics in my day. There are some, however, who argue that all reading is valuable. Not an area of expertise for me either, though.

  4. Neil

    The current generation read more than any other in human history according to the Stanford Study of Writing. Given the sheer quantity of text they are exposed to through their online activity, this is not really a surprise. The flaw as I see it is that by taking an elitist attitude to anything which hasn’t been ‘printed’ by a publisher, we lose and miss opportunities to engage young people in meaningful discussions about what literacy is.

    I am an avid listener to Kermode and Mayo’s 5Live film reviews (Hello to Jason Isaacs), and something Mark Kermode has said on several occasions is that Avatar is a truly dire film. This is always met by cries of derision by fans of the film, but what I like is Mark Kermode’s promise to sit down and explain exactly why it is such a politically unpleasant film (He regularly calls it ‘Smurfahontas’: a cross between Pocahontas and the Smurfs). This is our job as educators. To explain by challenging and demonstrating and illustrating. We need to engage with learners and lead them, encourage them to ask their own difficult questions, and support them to formulate their own views and opinions. By all means, hold up texts that are ‘worthy’ but don’t decry ‘lesser’ texts and ridicule readers for liking them. Many of those who need the most support in improving their literacy skills are in this position because they don’t come from ‘reading’ homes.

  5. Helen McCafferty Post author

    I agree that enabling pupils from all backgrounds to access learning using texts from within their own frame of reference and experience is very important. Pupils motivation would also be increased I imagine. I’m not an English teacher by trade but would like to raise the following question. Any experts, please feel free to correct me…

    If we really want to close the gap perhaps such texts should be seen as an ‘access point’ and provide a bridge to enabling pupils to apply the same skills to a wider range of texts including some of the more traditional texts. I do agree that texts such as films and social media should not be looked down upon or devalued for pupils. However, I do wonder that if pupils who ‘exit’ their piece of learning at the same point they accessed it could it result in a widening of the gap?

    When writing my original post, I was also thinking about emotional literacy and the hidden messages we convey about learning in our classrooms. Here are a few questions I am wrestling with.
    1. Do I exclude groups of pupils simply through my choice of words?
    2. Do all pupils feel they can access help in my classes?
    3. Do I create a climate where all pupils feel they can make mistakes?
    4. Do I reinforce any social stereotypes with my subconscious reactions?

  6. Colin Smith

    There are issues with people not being able to write professional or academic texts, including reports – an issue to which even teachers are not immune, as I have found when being asked to preview pieces they have been writing for professional studies. However, like everything else, it is some thing that can be learned (and which one never stops learning as long as one is doing it) when the occasion arises and with the right support. What is often overlooked, for example, is the way that academics get support from each other in writing. They seek comments from other on arguments, style and grammar. Even reviewers comments for submitted articles and the chance to rewrite can be a learning process. I think your second paragraph above is onto something – not sure if the skills involved for each type of writing are exactly the same though. An interesting point for further discussion by those who know more about it. Anyway, providing the right support to bridge from texts one is comfortable with to those with which one is not is an important pedagogical issue. I suppose the ideal is that we should be comfortable with as many forms as possible.

    Before I was ‘put out to pasture,’ I was beginning to worry a lot myself about your first question. Use of terms such as ‘task’ or even ‘homework’ (instead of, what?- ‘home study?’ ‘home learning?’ other ideas?) seem to me to give the wrong messages about learning. Learning is not always easy, can require a lot of effort, but at base should not feel like the ‘Labours of Hercules’. Perhaps, the answers to your following questions lie in achieving this first. ‘Task’ implies a correct way of doing things for example.

  7. Michael Roos

    Was interested to read the comments on the relationship between ‘class’ and the language of learning in the recent post Social Equality in the Classroom. I work in a secondary behaviour support service; yeah those horrible kids who don’t give a monkeys about all your fancy interactive, taxonomy driven, extensively planned lessons. Needless to say most of our clientele come from the ‘slap in the supermarket’ end of the social scale and much of our work is focused on ‘gap’ filling, whether that be academic, developmental or skills based, Recently however a colleague and I had a bit of a light bulb moment. Working with a group of S2s, we realised that they never asked for help; none of the usual phrases one might hear in a classroom – “What do you mean?”, “Can you explain that again?”, “I don’t understand this”, “I’m not sure what to do”, “How do you spell…..”.
    Such was the crippling effect of their low self-esteem and confidence within a classroom environment. To ask for help would have been an admission that they didn’t know something thereby reinforcing the feeling that they were stupid. This, we felt, indicated that they didn’t understand the nature of learning; the ‘rules of the game’ if you like. Learning, being not what you already know but the journey to knowing.
    We are in the early stages of developing ‘Strategies for Learning’ where we actually teach, in a very overt way, a language for learning. Listing phrases such as the ones above, on wall displays, in their learning logs and rewarding the students when they use them; whether that be verbal praise or using stickers (yip, even the bad boys love stickers!). Throughout our lessons we continually encourage the students to choose and use an appropriate phrase to access the learning they need.
    These original bunch of ne’er do wells have moved on to our upper school and we have passed on our ‘Strategies for Learning’ phrases to their new teachers. Many of these teachers report that they are hearing these learning phrases from this group of students far more than from other classes and subsequently (although this is anecdotal rather than scientific) making more progress.
    We are building up a healthy list of these phrases. A colleague recently informed me of a new example from one of his students; who looking at him with furrowed brows after a probably too lengthy explanation exclaimed, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I told my colleague that I hoped the student got a happy-face sticker to go with the de-merit for swearing. Every cloud and all that…………….

    1. Helen McCafferty Post author

      Really enjoyed reading your reply to my original post.
      As a mum of a child with an ASD I find that I often have to work out what ‘the hidden rules’ are for different places and situations and teach these explicitly to my child. This has greatly informed and influenced my teaching too. I suspect this way of thinking also prompted some of my questions and interest in this.
      I have had experience of working with mainstream pupils with some emotional and behavioral difficulties and spent time explaining and modelling how to speak to teachers / others to improve situations. So when you described what you did with the pupils you worked with and it’s success I wasn’t very surprised. I’d be interested in seeing the complete list of phrases so I can adapt and use them and share them with colleagues. Maybe we should edit the latest addition a little -although I feel it would lose something in translation!

  8. Colin Smith

    Great. Having language and conceptual tools to think with works for us all. One aspect of professional learning for teachers is finding conceptual tools to help them to to reflect on and see new possibilities for their practice. Teachers share some of these through Pedagoo, so why should it not work with pupils also. In fact, others are sharing things such as the SOLO taxonomy with them. Helping them develop their metacognition (knowledge of their own mental processes) would be a fancy term for this. Was reading recently (but can’t remember where) how those of us (i.e. generally people who are successful in educational terms or who engage in literature and art) who are aware of their mental processes don’t realise that many people are not and live in a more immediate world. Think it might have been in The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist- need to check sometime.

    Developing a professional literature around this might be a good aim for Peadagoo – see Pedagoo book blog above.

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