The Dark Side of the Achievement Gap

“Fear is the path to the dark side; Fear leads to anger; Anger leads to hate; Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

I spend much of my working time pouring over data, comparing school's eFSM performance across the region, searching for the elixir, or the hidden pedagogical strategy that will have the greatest impact on eFSM learner’s performance and hence close the gap. However I am yet to find the answer in numbers, spreadsheets or toolkits. Perhaps this article should instead begin “a long time ago, in a galaxy (or regional consortia) far away?” As I have come to the conclusion that the achievement gap could be the result of a mindset. A mindset that is caused by fear, which as Yoda explains, leads only to the dark side of force (in our case education). Let me explain.

In a recent INSET session entitled “Teacher as coach and guide, coaching in the classroom to close the gap”, I tried to share the power of the teacher as coach and guide, rather than teacher as expert/consultant, and its impact on disadvantaged learners. I did this by examining the teaching style of Yoda, the ancient Jedi teacher who best embodies these values. This may sound bizarre, but there was clear method to my madness. My first mistake was assuming that everyone, universally, must have seen these films. It appears that this is not the case! On this occasion even the drama teacher mocked me for my lowbrow film metaphor. However for one moment, please indulge my inner geek. I am sure if Yoda was recruited to my staff, the attainment of eFSM pupils would improve, and so would standards. Why? Because Yoda embodies the following values:

“In a dark place we find ourselves and a little more knowledge lights our way”

Experiential learning and discovery: Without a lesson plan, interactive whiteboard, learning objective or success criteria, Yoda creates the experiences that allow his students to learn. There is much to be taken from this. Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the life experiences and opportunities for discovery that many of their peers have had. An ordinary classroom, with tables and a white board, structured lessons only limits their progress. Surely they must be given the chance to experience and learn through discovery?

“ Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.”

Seeing Potential: Yoda recognised potential in all his students, even when they didn’t see it in themselves. Many disadvantaged learners have very poor self-talk, low self-esteem and refuse to see their own potential. This is not necessarily linked to their grades. The teacher as coach and guide develops and believes in the potential of all learners, and allows them to find and own their own success through good listening skills and effective questioning to challenge performance.

“ Do or do not. There is no try.”

Building Resilience: Yoda understood the need for learners to struggle, and built challenge into all his teaching experiences. When Luke explains he will try, Yoda replies, “do or do not, there is no try”. Many students in schools lack resilience and would rather opt out than flounder, fail and try again. This is how we develop true grit. Likewise many teachers avoid challenging students for fear they might lose control of the lesson, lose the learners interest or end up with behaviour issues. The best learning environments are supportive, but filled with challenge. Learning is after all, hard. The teacher as coach gets out of the way, and allows the learner to thrive.

“Patience you must have my young padwan”

Building Character: Instead of seeing education as the acquisition of knowledge, Yoda focused on developing the character of the Jedi, who had a deep understanding of the force. The teachers that close the gap most successfully are well aware of this fact and teacher as coach focuses on developing: self regulating, restorative approaches; emotional awareness; metacognition and; learning to learn skills. All of which are identified in the Educational Endowment Trust's toolkit as having most impact on disadvantaged learner’s progress.

“ Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”

Compassion and humility: So what stops teachers adopting this coaching style? Put simply fear; fear of judgment; fear of failure; fear of falling standards; fear of losing control and; fear of change - I often see lessons where colleagues become more Sith than Jedi. Attempting to control behavior, telling students how to complete questions. Engagement and enquiry are disposed of in favour of tick box mentality, content and success criteria. Learners become dependent droids, programmed to pass exams, rather than independent enquirers. And it is those disadvantaged learners that suffer the most. This is the dark side of the achievement gap.

Is there is a new hope? With all of my blatant, and at times tenuous, Star Wars puns used up, I do feel there is much hope in education in Wales. With the Donaldson report, and pioneer schools, as well as the Digtal Competence Framework we have much to look forward to. However all of this is will be in vein if we do not heed the teachings of Yoda. It is after all teachers that make the greatest difference to their student’s lives.

May the force be with you!  
Huw Duggan

Huw Duggan

Strategic Adviser for Closing the Gap at Central South Consortium
Huw Duggan
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One thought on “The Dark Side of the Achievement Gap

  1. The force is awareness and particularly self awareness. Once you begin to ask yourself thought provoking questions your awareness is raised then you are in a position to respond to the world in a resourceful positive way
    Great teaching is really synonymous with great coaching the Socratic method of asking questions that encourage thinking
    This is a powerful way of engaging children in their own learning journey
    May the force be with you!!

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