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Fish on Friday – or – let’s change our teaching and assessment diet!

Posted on: July 10th, 2015


Dr Nicholas Capstick

CEO, The White Horse Federation

Fish on Friday – or – let’s change our teaching and assessment diet!

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I come from humble roots. The second son of a low-ranking naval officer, who, by his admission was, for many years, a fairly ill-educated and badly behaved NCO. We travelled a great deal; 6 Primary schools and 3 Secondary meant for a nomadic, unpredictable life, except for where food was concerned which was very predictable. Dinner on a Sunday was always a roast, Monday cold cuts of roasted meat and chips, Tuesday corned beef or luncheon meat and mashed potatoes, Wednesday either a chop or liver accompanied by boiled potatoes, veg and gravy, Thursday, as the money began to run out, was Cheese on Toast with scalloped potatoes (circular chips but called scallops because we had aspirations) and always fish on a Friday!

I mention this not out of nostalgia as I didn’t like the food back then but because it reminds me of the bland, uninspired diet served up each and every day that I was expected to consume. Not for me a pizza in those days, (“best left to our Mediterranean cousins” my mother would say) not for me a curry or touch of the old chilli con carne, (“bit too spicy for our western palette” she would suggest).

When asked why we didn’t venture into the exotic I would be reminded that “our stomachs weren’t designed for such things…. We should stick to what has served us well for all these years… It hasn’t done us any harm… All good in the hood…” (She didn’t really say that last bit, but I just put it in to see if you were still with me).

What my mother was really saying was that she was scared, worried about stepping outside her comfort zone for those that she loved because the diet on which she had filled our tummies was good enough. It was safe! Sure it would never create world-class athletes of us but if it was good enough for “Alf Tupper – Tough of the Track”- my all-time childhood hero, (youngsters Google it and you might learn something of comic-book history) it was good enough for us. But was it? What could I have been if my diet had been more adventurous and she’d taken the time to understand the breadth of my culinary yearning? Unfortunately, I lacked the wherewithal to explain, and she lacked the insight to dig any deeper.

And so it was that when I was aged nine the first man landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong, “…one small step…” and all of that! An Irish American he’d ventured across the tracks of Brooklyn in New York to the Bronx and sampled the lasagne. Look at him now! On the moon with all of its rocks and space dust! Migrant workers from the Caribbean were abundant in the part of Bristol where I lived at the time, filling vital jobs in places of work such as our hospitals and on Bristol buses and potentially filling our bellies with fragrant foods from afar. But not for me, it was always fish on a Friday.

And so it is in many of our schools, a bland, safe diet of pedagogy on which most might and probably will survive and only a few will thrive.

But more and more recently I am beginning to realise in other ways that I am getting truly old! This is an essential truth to which we must all admit sooner or later and lo and behold it’s now my time. I am definitely getting old! I know this to be true not because of the face that returns my stare each morning when I look into the mirror to shave. My skin lacks the elasticity of youth meaning I need to stretch my neck longer than a Christmas turkey to ensure I don’t miss a hair when the blade slides along my gizzard. And it’s not the cavernous ruts that now envelope my eyes that used to be the merest whisper of crow’s feet in recent years that informs me of my impending retirement. It’s a single truth that recently constantly nags at me which tells me that I am getting old, and this is it; I can remember “life before levels” and literally nobody died because of their absence.

So! In this article, I want to explore and expand my thinking from my last blog in which I delved into the murky world of post “Levels” panic and confusion and share, I hope, a little bit more clearly my further thinking around “life after levels and the intelligence of the child” and then move on to in a little more depth some of my thoughts around the area of “Mastery”, the pedagogy of embedding learning to create agility and ease in using taught and then learned skills, knowledge and understanding by applying them in a range of contexts.

Don’t worry, it’s not entirely more of the same as before and, I promise, that this time I have used pretty pictures to aid me in my story telling and thoughts. I do this not because as I age I am returning to my infancy of thought but because I am a multi-sensual learner who needs to see it, look at the pictures and increasingly in my oncoming dotage use my finger and a large magnifying glass to follow each word along the page.

Although not a fan of “Levels” I think it’s worth noting that they were not without some merit, and they did offer a degree of universality, i.e. they had the quality of being universal, existing everywhere, which genuinely helped in a number of ways.

  • Communication/common language – “Levels” offered us a shared vocabulary and sought to offer clarity through definition. In any system, in any walk of life it is necessary to have a shared language and a common parlance. Physicists when communicating with each other have a way of doing so, as does the medical or legal profession, each within the profession can talk the same talk. It’s the same in most spheres, musicians in a brass band talking to each other about embrasures or double or triple tonguing might be speaking an alien language to most but as a member of the Stanshaw Silver Band in my youth it gave us a unifying essence. “Levels” gave us this.
  • Standardisation – We all used the same tool wherever we were in the country and, therefore, could talk to each other across geographical or Local Authority boundaries;”Levels” gave us this.
  • Calibration/currency – It was a tool that had standardised gradations that were incremental and which allowed a linear progression rote. One Head teacher I spoke to recently suggested that it gave us “…the next steps, we knew what the next stage was…”. “Levels” gave us this.
  • Ease of transition – between schools in a locality, region or even across the country and between Key Stages and phases of a young person’s educational journey.
  • Ofsted Friendly? It enabled us to talk with Ofsted around a common theme and focus. “Levels” gave us this.

Most striking in its failure and what “Levels” didn’t do for me was to guarantee that any learner had learned anything. It didn’t offer any flexibility. It told us more of what they had experienced and were capable of being able to show competency in at a given point in time rather than at any given time on demand. The “what” therefore without the “how” is an empty vessel, it has the capacity to make much noise but is hollow and tells us very little about the child. For me “Levels” were all about comparisons, not about assessment or pupils making progress in their learning. They were more about teachers and schools potentially failing because of a fixation on historical data which focused around an end of year memory test, which formed the basis of planning for intervention in the forthcoming year because they were used as a league table comparator rather than enabling students to better achieve through a better understanding of their needs.

True professionals, however, do not dabble in absolutes to ensure progression. Theirs is a world of nuance and subtlety, inference and deduction, targeted assumption to be road tested in the realities of their professional lives. The small steps in understanding they achieve, enable the larger strides of progress to be trodden with greater ease.

So, without wanting to repeat myself too much from my last blog let’s look at a slightly more refined model, a more sophisticated menu of understanding our pupils learning journey to promote progression. Last time I suggested the following model;

It was an intelligence toolkit based on the following;

  • It’s about observing and understanding learning behaviours of a learner – how do they engage with learning and how can we best enable this.
  • It’s about understanding what work scrutiny is telling us with regard to pace, precision, thought and developmental processes over time. It’s how we start to measure progress between point A and B
  • It’s about statistical data the benchmarking against national norms that tell us if a child is working within age-related expectations. This for me is the weakest measurement tool in the toolkit but only due to the wide breadth of the age-related bands.
  • It’s about understanding the emotional intelligence of the learner, the personal attributes that help us to focus the learning experiences to gain maximum output. The resilience and tenacity of the learner.
  • It’s about mapping curriculum coverage, understanding if the learning deficit is because of an inability to understand or an act of omission in the curriculum previously taught.
  • It’s about the agility of transference, how well is a student/pupil able to transfer prior learning by being a discerning and discriminating user of that which they know. Discerning in knowing what to do and when i.e. do I make a short shopping list on the back of an envelope or crank up my word processor and make a beautifully scripted list that takes four times as long. Discriminating in knowing what prior knowledge, skills and understanding I can bring to a situation to resolve a new curiosity or problem

It crudely looked like this;

Picture 1

I called the model above my “starter for ten” and in basic terms the core elements of my thinking about the intelligence of the child has not changed, it still has the six core elements identified above, it just looks a little differently now and it doesn’t have “Mastery” sitting on top of it


What has changed is my thinking regarding the weighting or the emphasis on each of the “intelligence petals” as a child progresses through their school life. By better understanding this weighting more fully, I think we should be better able to focus or influence factors for learning at any given time during a child’s school career. For example, would our knowledge and understanding of the Learning Behaviours of a Reception child be as sophisticated as that of a Year 8 or 9 student? Similarly, we would not have as extensive an evidence base of previously taught curricula in Year 1 as we might in Year 6 but we might understand clearly that the social/emotional behaviours, a child’s invitation to learn and eagerness to engage, might be more significantly influenced in its early years of education than in later stages of their school career. It’s important, therefore, to be able to catalogue or articulate the differences at each stage/age appropriate step of a child’s education as they progress and develop. It might look something like this if we could put it into an electronic format:


It seems sensible, therefore, to me that we start a debate to help us to exemplify and articulate

the weighting behind each intelligence petal for each year group in a young person’s school life. By exemplifying and understanding the weighting for each petal at each age banding we will have an even greater understanding of how each child/pupil/student might optimally learn and we will be able to plan for progression and optimal learning. Ideally we should be able to create a year on year profile for each petal for each and every child and subtly change the nuances of next stage learning.

So what might we do with all of this disparate intelligence or information that we have about a child at each significant assessment point of their learning? Well, for me it’s a bit like a journey and as such (and to continue the promise of more pictures) it might look something like this:


So how does this now start to influence our understanding of mastery? Well, first I guess we, or I as it’s my blog, need to try and define what we see mastery as being. How can we recognise it if we don’t know what to look for? I don’t pretend my definition is particularly clever, and I am quite sure any number of people will be able to pick holes in my thinking but here goes: Mastery for me is:

“… the ability to perfect, apply and habitualise previous learning with fluency and ease… it is about the journey from dependence to autonomy in applying that which has been previously taught and understood with effortless ease…”

There are key words for me in this definition, it’s about perfecting, habitualising and applying the knowledge, skills and understanding that we already have, but it also has something to do with being able to do these things with a high degree of independence. You will also notice the emphasis on fluency and ease and that there is an implied emphasis on pace, not necessarily speed.

Let’s take two Olympic athletes Nadia Comăneci and more latterly Louis Smith as good examples of people who have mastered their art. I love gymnastics and the disciplines it exhibits; it started with Nadia Comăneci and the 1976 Olympic Games. Nadia is a Romanian former gymnast, winner of three Olympic gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event. A perfect 10, imagine that! More recently and to bring things into this decade let’s focus on Louis Smith.


When winning his Olympic silver medal, Louis Smith in 2012 didn’t have his coach, any notes, diagrams or learning prompts to enable him to demonstrate his mastery. Instead, he called upon previous learning, known routines, ingrained and subconscious well-trodden paths to success which he was able to put to excellent use in the gymnastics arena. His display was polished, accomplished with fluency and ease and nuanced according to the climatic and atmospheric conditions in the stadium. His coach and the supporting team of technical experts, nutritionists and his sports psychologist were nowhere to be found. He was totally autonomous in his demonstration of pommel horse perfection.

This then leads me into thinking that once something has been taught and potentially technically learned there is a journey from dependence to autonomy before one can show mastery in any given field. For me, and at the current place of my thinking, there are about five stages post teaching which enables the learner in any particular forum to move from pupil to master (or mistress) of their art.

Dependence- Co-dependence- Inter-dependence- Independence- The discerning and discriminating use of autonomous practices
Strong dependence on adults for direction and support Lighter but frequent dependence on adults and now peers. Collaboration for mastery Low dependence on adults and peers mainly for confirmation Little or no dependence others who are used only for confirmation. Ability to support others articulately

So what do I mean by being a discerning and discriminating user of autonomous practices? Well, its simple, it’s about using the most effective, combined with the most efficient, way of doing something or solving a problem. Let’s take list making: if I want to buy six items from the shops on a Saturday the back of an envelope and any old scratchy pen will do, I may or may not use bullet points etc. If I want to create a list for a PowerPoint presentation for a wider audience to use and view, the tools and techniques I use will be more sophisticated, they will be more polished. As such, I have learned and probably have habitualised the processes and outcomes required to create a variety of lists in a variety of contexts for a variety of audiences. In choosing which is right in each context I have mastered list taking.

Underlying the above stages of dependence are six steps or stepping stones which one might move along to get to the mastery state of being a discerning and discriminating user of autonomous practices. These stepping stones are the pathway to mastery that we tread through our journey from dependence to autonomy.

  • Step 1 – Approaching Mastery – this the first step where you have no masterly practices but are willing to engage on the journey. This step is aligned with the first stage of dependence shown above.
  • Step 2 – Engaging with mastery practices – This step falls somewhere between Dependence and Co-dependence as is likely to be a collaborative effort with peers and adults which improves or enhances outcome as a result.
  • Step 3 – Emergent mastery – this step eclipses the co-dependent stage and drifts into the stage of Interdependence. Our mastery practices are emerging but still have the stabilisers on and we require a steadying hand at times to stop us falling off.
  • Step 4 – Embracing mastery – this is where we start to enjoy using mastery practices because it improves the outcomes of what we can do noticeably or we do it more efficiently. This step sits firmly between interdependence and independence stages.
  • Step 5 – Enhancing through mastery – When we get to the independent stage our work is improved or enhanced significantly by mastery practices.
  • Step 6 – Mastery – By the time we get to autonomous stage we have absolutely grasped what we need to do and how. We have the the ability to use without effort and to a high level of quality that which has been previously taught and refined.

So what might this look like if we put it all together? My guess is that it’ll be something like this;

arrow ppt

If I’m honest I am not sure that this model actually works when we start to understand a bit more about liminal learning. Remember these from last time?

the myth of progress



So the model in fact might look a bit more like this.

Liminal pic mastery

If you’ve got this far, then bless: been a long old haul hasn’t it? One final word though, what does this mean for teachers’ day in day out who want to develop mastery across their curriculum? A couple of key points are, I think, important;

  1. Mastery is incremental and based on what has been previously mastered not just encountered, e.g. fractions taught in Year 2 can only be taught and mastered if mastery was achieved in previous fractions learning in Year 1 at a Year 1 standard.
  2. Mastery is all about filling an age appropriate bucket once but with such depth and with no holes in it so that it never has to be filled again at that age appropriate point. Is it better to fill the knowledge, understanding and skills bucket once but only to 75% capacity at an age appropriate level or do we keep refilling a leaky bucket throughout a pupils school life with the same knowledge, understanding and skills that they have previously encountered? (Is this why Year 6 teachers lament the fact that “…their pupils can’t even use full stops and capital letters despite being taught it every year previously…”?)
  3. As a consequence we might have to do a slightly reduced curriculum.
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