Children Who Fly Below the School Radar


Six years ago, when I was based in the UAE,  I was invited to share my thoughts on key educational issues through a series of seven articles that I wrote. I recently read back through those articles and was especially worried to find them still so relevant today, the issues raised still largely unaddressed. When it comes to reforming and changing education there has to be atime when we stop debating what needs to change and get on and make it happen. To do that, we have to sometimes ask some tough and uncomfortable questions about who benefits from maintenance of the status quo and what needs to happen to break down those entrenched positions.

Here, below is the first of those articles that dealt with education’s obsessive interest with the ‘outliers’ and non-conforming students (under and over-achievers) that meant that little was happening to ensure that the children in the middle get a fair and reasonable, personalised learning experience.


(Click on the two links above to open the two paged article in pdf form. it should open as a separate tab or page in your browser)

Learning Styles

The concept of ‘learning styles’ or ‘preferred learning styles’ has been with us for quite a long time and has become thoroughly built in to so many concepts of what are consdiered to be the most effective Twenty First Century teaching methodologies. For example, it forms a fundamental part of the concept of differentiation – the idea being that a teacher should determine from clues and classroom evidence what is the preferred learning style of each student in the room, and then should tailor the learning experiences for the different learners to match with their preferred style.

As the article shared here (link below) clearly states – the vast majority of both educators and students believe in the idea and don’t question it. There is therefore some degree of disquiet when educators are confronted with the reality – science can’t prove a causal link between matching preferred learning styles and effective learning.

Here’s the article;

British Psychological Society – Research Digest – Preferred Learning Style

The article goes on to share the outcomes of an interesting, though modest sized, research activity that suggested that we believe we have learned better when exposed to learning material through our preferred learning style, even though it actually makes no difference. It’s hardly the first piece of research suggesting that our expectations can play tricks with our minds.

However, it’s most certainly not time to throw out all the ideas of differentiation or the hard work that teachers put in to figure out learning styles of the students in their classrooms and to design and create different types of learning experiences to meet the needs of the variety of learning styles.

Two strong possibilities immediately come to my mind that mean we should still not abandon our ideas;

1) learning material presented and developed with different learning styles in mind (rather than just all the material delivered according to one style – probably the preferred style of the teacher) may well carry benefits for all learners simply because of the benefits of variety, change and avoidance of boredom.

2) Secondly – this was a simple piece of research with a small cohort of students on a short term memorizing activity. This doesn’t automatically correlate to anything related to long term learning (and that’s what we’re far more interested in in an educational context). For one thing, the extra motivation that flows from receiving learning in the preferred style might carry real long term benefits. In addition, as this article highlights – the belief that we’re learning better in the preferred style might be a self-fulfilling experience over a longer period of time.

To conclude, I believe there are still many reasons why teachers should incorporate material in to students’ learning that carries variety, originality and fuses elements of different learning style preferences.

Student Engagement

Student engagement can be considered the opposite of ‘bored students’, though I believe our aims should go higher than simply trying to prevent children from being bored. As educators, we should aspire that every student in our care develops the habits and inclinations of a lifelong learner.

This is a phrase so glibly batted around in the education environment today with little regard to what it truly means or why it matters. To me, to be a lifelong learner means;

a) A person has the inclination to continually learn throughout life, in both formal and informal ways. Too many adults let themselves off the hook by saying – ” I learn from the people around me and my experiences. That’s lifelong learning.” In the meantime, those people never pick up a book or a journal related to their professional field while slowly they and their peers slide slowly in to irrelevance. That’s no different to what all but the worst have done in workplaces since the industrial revolution (and even before that). This is something way more than that – it’s about being what I call a ‘learnivore’, hungry to acquire new knowledge directly and indirectly related to one’s professional field.
b) The person’s open and flexible to ‘unlearn’ and doesn’t cling on to old dogmas,
c) The person sees learning as a ‘pull process. They’re not waiting for someone to ‘do learning to them.’ There are telling examples here when you see the reactions of some teachers to new information technology. When you put new hardware or software in to the hands of a youngster, they experiment in order to figure out how they can use it and what it can do for them. When you put it in the hands of a teacher, all too often you hear, “when am I going to get a training programme on this?” Of course, part of the reason for this is an unconscious need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and to always know more than the students.
d) Related to that, lifelong learners are prepared to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know enough about and to seek out new knowledge from wherever they can find it. They don’t just try to bluff their way out or avoid.
e) Lifelong learners leave clues – they read, they consume high quality media (e.g. TED lectures, online educator debate forums etc.)
f) Lifelong learners actually relish and enjoy the learning process, in fact, so much so that sometimes they may need to place restrictions and some restraint on themselves regarding how much time they devote to furthering their learning.
g) They have developed the skills and the wherewithal to learn, to reflect on their own learning and to plan a course of learning for themselves that never ends, but always moves them forward.

Returning to the issues of children in school – if that’s the ideal of the adult lifelong learner, then what do we need to be doing in school to provide the right climate and environment to create lifelong learners. This is not just a side issue. Vast numbers of schools today proudly declare lifelong learning as a core value and principle of their school.

First – we must start off remembering that every child starts out innately in love with learning, fascinated in the world around them, ever curious and inquisitive. Too often, the poorest educators destroy that love so totally that the student will never get it back. Moving beyond ‘do no harm,’ educators need to work to keep each child connected with that part of themselves and to give them all the reasons to apply that love to the syllabus learning and beyond.

Secondly, I believe, in age appropriate ways they invest significant time in helping children to develop the habits and skills of learning, to understand their own learning, to reflect on it and to plan for future learning towards desired knowledge goals. In other words, there’s attention to the process of learning as well as the content and the end goals.

Thirdly, the educators exhibit being lifelong learners themselves, including showing vulnerability when things come up where the students may know more than them.

Next, teachers are courageous and bold in planning lessons. This does mean that some of them won’t come off – and that’s OK. They will also build genuine differentiation in to their lesson planning, supporting each student in the appropriate way. This means avoiding the traps of simplistic categorisation and pigeon-holing of their pupils. They will also invest considerable effort in knowing the pupils (not just those who actively speak up and volunteer information during classroom discussions. Perhaps more teachers would be sitting down to lunch more often with their pupils.

Student motivation is a critical factor. Attention to it should be built in to the agenda of the whole school and every member of staff from the Principal down. This also touches upon issues of student voice, agency and continually monitoring real engagement. On the latter topic, I recently came across an interesting article that highlighted the need to go below the surface to explore genuine engagement – not to get lulled or fooled by pseudo-engagement;

KQED – Mindshift – Are Your Students Engaged? Don’t Be So Sure

The article makes very clear why, and the extent to which, engagement matters. Engagement levels carry direct clues to future potential and achievements. It goes on to dissect some of the dangerous myths regarding engagement and especially the false evidence that can lead a teacher to believe a student is engaged. Pupils know their teacher wants to see engagement. As a result, many have learned strategies to ‘fake it’ within wider school cultures that motivate them to give as little as they can get away with – the path of least effort.

Quite rightly, it also points out that a classroom where everyone’s having carefree fun and a good laugh isn’t a substitute for engaged learning. As it says – there’s real effort involved – rigor, relevance and stretch – what Angela Duckworth termed called ‘grit’. Children aren’t afraid to sweat in athletics or other sports training – if they’re not ready to ‘sweat’ a bit in their classroom learning, we’re still doing things wrong.

Myths in Education

Every profession has its megaliths – giant great boulders that are considered immovable. These are beliefs or assumptions that have been accepted as truisms for so long that virtually all have ceased to question, challenge or at least ask for the evidence.

The education profession is no exception and one such belief is the one about ‘preferred learning styles’. There have been so many articles and books based upon this belief, sharing all sorts of ideas about how educators can ensure that they tailor the learning experience according to the preferred learning styles of the learners.

Here is an article that does question that belief, at least from the perspective that there is little or no scientific proof to substantiate it; – One of the Greatest Neoroscience Myths

What’s quite startling is the massive level of belief in the significance of learning styles – evidence that very few educators have really been challenging the myth, or have been aware of the lack of scientific basis for it. The myth simply gets passed on from one to the next.

Ironically, I suspect that the effects of this myth have not been all bad. If it caused more to teachers to question the way they taught, to reflect on the learners’ experiences of their lessons and classes, to apply more different types of skills and to have lessons with greater variety of activities, then it probably contributed to better learning opportunities for all pupils.

There have been many who have sought to suggest that this visual, kinaesthetic, auditory split in learning styles was at the root of the purpose of differentiation. However, for those who’ve particularly studied the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson on the subject know this was always a gross simplification.

As I highlighted in an article yesterday, maybe of far greater importance is exposing students, as they get older, to the evidence of how we learn, what works for all (regardless of sensory preferences) and coaching them to refine their learning skills. Students with greater mastery of learning skills will extract and retain better learning from their school and college experiences.

Do We All Mean the Same Thing When We Refer To ‘Personalization’?

The simple answer to that question is – no we don’t. For pure profit motives this term which means a perfectly laudable aim and intention in progressive education has been latched on to, corrupted and made to mean something else when used by the EdTech companies when they come peddling their latest snake oils, charms and amulets.

This article sets out well the confusion that has been caused by the mangling distortions of the word. Plainly, to me, the definition used by progressive teachers that emphasises creativity and freedom of learning paths is the most appropriate use of the word.

Mindshift – Big Ideas Article

One interesting aspect of the article is the reference to current educational testing goals being incompatible with personalisation. I’m really not sure this is necessarily the case. I see personalisation as being very closely entwined with differentiation (not mentioned in the article). As one of the comments below the article points out, school systems will and probably should all have common end goals for every pupil. For example, every student should acquire the skills to carry out algebraic equations to a certain level of competency. However, differentiation and personalisation offer the idea that whilst the eventual end goals may be the same for different pupils, modern educational methods (including those that harness the benefits of IT) enable different students to take different paths to the same destination.

Even differentiation gets subjected to a lot of abusive corruption where it often appears to be a simplistic process of setting students in to different ability groups and then adopting different paths with each group that almost always pre-suppose different levels of eventual outcome (high, medium and low end goal expectations). Instead, I see differentiation and persoanalisation as harnessing all the tools available to educators (include ICT) to enable different students to take different paths, different sequences of units and activities, different pacing and methods, but with THE SAME level of end expectations and goals.

In this way, personalisation isn’t incompatible with common end tests and exams.

Differentiating for Introverts in the Classroom

I’ve written before about the book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain and the ways that it made me rethink some of my (extrovert) perceptions about how we should do things in schools. I’ve increasingly come to the view that our schools and classrooms begin the process of stigmatizing introversion. We begin the process that forces introvert children to believe that if they are to have any chance of succeeding in the world, then they must learn to ‘fake it’ and must overcome the added stress and uncomfortable emotions that a crazy, manic extrovert environment causes for them.

The process is so prevalent that parents of introverted children add to the levels of anxiety and sometimes even pressure teachers to do more to ‘convert’ their child – to make them act and behave in ways that will ‘fit in’ with an extrovert oriented world.

One of my favourite elements from Susan Cain’s book was when she talked of the ways in which introverts perceive extroverts – as doing their thinking out loud before taking the time to get their thoughts clear inside their own heads. maybe, that could be how we finished up with schools and classrooms, teaching methodologies, processes, timetables etc. that are so stacked in favour of the extroverts and against the introverts.

With all these thoughts in mind I was delighted to come across this insightful interview with Susan Cain that explores in greater depth her viewpoints and perspectives about education. In it, she shares lots of ideas about how as educators and parents we can begin to make the adjustments that create environments which are fairer and far more sensitive to the needs of the introvert child.

How to Teach a Young Introvert – Susan Cain Interview
(Click on the link above to read the article)

Big take-aways for me from the article were Cain’s endorsement of ‘the flipped model’, rethinking how we design and lay out schools and classrooms (something I feel strongly about and will be writing on soon) and the use of online communication methods to bring in participation from a wider spectrum of children than those normally inclined to speak openly in class.

In ‘Asian Model’ schools we have even more challenges to address. Cain is writing from the perspective of the average American school. One very big difference is that those schools typically cater to a much smaller number of students, often smaller class sizes and a narrower range of ages. We contend with schools with typically more than 2,000 students, all the way from Kindergarten to Class 12 in classes of at least 30 children. For these reasons alone the issues are more pressing and we need to harness the most creative minds in education (and beyond) to break out of the temptations to organise these schools according to our convenience and the ‘mass consumption’ models that have held sway.

Educators today are ready to talk a lot about differentiation when it comes to learning styles etc. We need a more systemic kind of differentiation to acknowledge the varying temperaments of our children if we are to fulfil objectives of meeting each child where they are and enabling each child to fulfil their potential through education.


Here’s a share that’s likely to be of most interest to teachers and fellow educators. It’s a sample video of an online M.Ed programme from the US in which the leading expert on differentiation, Dr Carol Ann Tomlinson shares thoughts on the subject:

Differentiation is the root of any attempt to move away from 'one size fits all' to personalised educational experiences.

Gulf News – Article Number One

Following my interview, published a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to write a series of 7 weekly articles for the Gulf News newspaper Education Supplement looking at various aspects related to education today.

The first of those articles was published today. Here it is. I would love to hear what people think, reflections on the issues I’ve raised and what we do about them. From the second article onwards, I have been requested to tailor them specifically to older students (Class 9 and upwards), so that will reflect in the content of the other articles.

To read this, you will need to right click on the attachments, download them and then they should be readable:

Page 1

Page 2

Changing Attitudes to Early Years Education

I wrote less than two weeks ago about the influence of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘The Outliers’ and how it was influencing the choices parents were making when it came to their children’s education.

Here’s another article that reinforces this impact, this time showing how increasing numbers of US parents are deliberately choosing to put their child in to school late, so as to avoid being the youngest/ smallest in the class.

New York Times Redshirt article

Whilst my sympathy lies wholeheartedly with the parents who are choosing to ‘redshirt’ their child I am concerned that the current scenario doesn’t remove ‘victims’ or those disadvantaged from the system – it just changes which child in the class gets disadvantaged. Also, much of the motivation appears to be a drive for competitive advantage in standardised state education tests that are required almost annually in the US education system.

My feeling is that there’s enough evidence from places like Finland that there is big advantage in having all the children start school later rather than earlier. Then, I believe that differentiation of the learning experience by teachers, accompanied by careful analysis of the strengths, development needs and character of each child offer the best opportunity to ensure each child fulfils their learning potential in the classroom. This also needs to be accompanied by healthy, disciplined and supportive classroom environments with high expectations of each child, clearly articulated and monitored and learning treated as a cooperative endeavour.

Gifted Children & How To Meet Their Needs

This is a fascinating article that. to me, raises far more questions than it answers. The main thrust of the piece starts from the fact that New York seeks to identify ‘Gifted’ children, then seeks to separate them in to special separate learning environments. It turns out that after they’ve done this separation process they finish up with 1 1/2 times as many girls as boys.

New York Times Article – Gifted Children

Questions raised in my mind;

a) Do we have real, legitimate ways to define what so called ‘giftedness’ is?
b) Where definitions exist and are applied are they too focussed upon the basic ‘traditional’ skills that schools have favoured in the past; numerical, literacy etc. (see Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences approach)
c) Has ‘giftedness’ become another high status item to be coveted by helicopter parents (makes a great boast at parties if you can say your child is in a ‘giftedness’ programme). The result – parental pressure on teachers to see the unseeable or give a child this sought after ‘label’.
d) Should attempts be made to put labels on children so early in life? What is the perceived rush?
e) Even if we could effectively identify children who are ‘gifted’ do we have to do anything with that knowledge? Most particularly, should we be separating such children from their peers?

Personally, I believe that the evidence from these New York schools points strongly to the fact that artificial pre-suppositions are causing these children to be separated for the wrong reasons, with the wrong objectives. I also believe that it comes from a paradigm that perceives the average school as lacking the flexibility, skills or inclination to truly differentiate the learning experience for each child in the classroom.

It is true that in the past too many schools followed a faulty model of ‘one size fits all’ education, where the intent was every child doing the same things, in the same ways, at the same time, roughly to the same extent. However, today’s best teachers and schools are committed to personalising the learning experience, bringing about differentiation, particularly based upon the concept of multiple intelligences.

In my view, it is far better to provide an enriched, differentiated learning experience for all children together, rather than separating these children in to some sort of elitist hothouses to be nurtured as ‘different’ – thereby separating them (potentially for life) from other children.

To me, the ideal to be worked towards is the most full and complete differentiation supporting the individual learning needs of each child within a shared, common domain, utilising IT support when necessary. We all have a long journey ahead to achieve this, but I believe it’s a goal worth working for.