Learning is not a linear process. All children develop differently. They make progress at different speeds, at different times and in different ways. There are periods of rapid progress and others of seemingly slower progress, when consolidation takes place. There may be times when learning plateaus, with children seemingly not making any additional progress. These may be followed by periods of rapid improvement and fast progress. For these reasons it is vitally important that parents and teachers avoid making hasty judgements about how capable a child is – especially early on, in the first years of schooling. Some children take longer than others to develop confidence and achieve success – and that’s perfectly normal. They need more time. Conversely, some children get off to a flying start, then their rate of learning slows down. This is also perfectly normal.
At our school, teachers do not use the labels ‘low ability’, ‘middle ability’ or ‘high ability’ as these terms can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Put simply, if an adult continually tells a child they are ‘low ability’ the child is likely to respond accordingly. Instead staff at Barnes use the terms ‘high attaining’, ‘middle attaining’ and ‘lower attaining’ followed by the key phrase ‘currently . . . at this time’. Research shows conclusively that all children perform better when their parents and teacher consistently give them the message that they can and will succeed. This message is communicated in what they say, what they do, even how they look at a child. The message is that every child can and will succeed – for some it may take longer, but it is just a matter of time . . . and effort. This approach works as the consistently very high outcomes for all children demonstrate.
The vast majority of learning at our school involves pupils working in mixed attainment pairs. We seek to create a community of learners – one in which everybody learns from everyone else. In this arrangement the less confident are supported by their more confident peers. Organising learning in this way releases the potential for more teachers to emerge, as more confident pupils help to teach their less confident partners. Does this hold up the progress of higher attaining pupils? Not at all! By explaining something to their partner they consolidate and reinforce their own understanding. Are the higher performing pupils suitably challenged within this arrangement? Our pupil outcomes consistently reveal that this is the case.
What would you see if you entered a classroom? First of all you would notice a lot of talk and discussion. Pupils would be talking just as much as their teacher. Pupils would usually be working in mixed attainment pairs and frequently these pairs would be of mixed gender. We believe that mixed attainment pairs is the optimum learning arrangement. We don’t set children, putting the strongest together and the weakest together, as we believe that this accentuates these differences: the stronger, more confident pupils become stronger still as they work with high attaining peers. Meanwhile the lower attaining pupils struggle. They rely on the teacher as those sitting around them are also finding learning hard.
To be effective learners, children, parents and teachers need to appreciate that making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Errors should be welcomed as they are opportunities to learn. Young learners need a trusting, fair and safe environment, at home and at school, so they feel secure in acknowledging that ‘I do not know’ and are able to accept that making mistakes is okay. It’s important that all adults working with a child continually communicate the message that the child can (and will) succeed. Adults must be careful that what is said and how it is said (including facial expression and body language) does not provide any indication that the child is unable to succeed. For some children success comes quickly; for others it takes a considerable time and an enormous amount of effort. Children need to believe that they can succeed . . . and adults need to do all they can to instill this positive self-efficacy. Mistakes need to be seen by all as valuable learning opportunities.