Book Review: ‘Making Space for More Able Learners’ published by NACE 2020

NACE Report Review- December 2020 

The title of NACE’s most eagerly-awaited recent research report is very apt indeed- the question remains: do we truly make enough space in our schools for all of our learners to flourish? But what does it really mean to ‘make space’ to allow the highest levels of cognitive challenge in our classrooms? 

For me, ‘making space’ is about ensuring that schools have the tools and expertise to allow all pupils to thrive beyond the restrictions of examination rubrics or mark schemes- for too long, these have been limiting factors in the education of our young people and in the planning and execution of a truly effective curriculum.  

Our real challenge is to work hard to remove the barriers and ceilings where learning has been hemmed in and to allow flexibility of thought and dexterity of expression. That task isn’t easy, given the various accountability measures that feel at times as though they work in opposition to this. It’s imperative that we create and sustain school climates where intellectual curiosity beats the rationing of difficult or challenging work (Mary Myatt put this brilliantly at ResearchEdBrum when she said ‘you don’t give difficult work to get great results, the great results follow the difficult work’).  

This report from the National Association of Able Children in Education gives school leaders at all levels an accessible toolkit for putting some principles of cognitive challenge into practice in their classrooms. It acts as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for neat summaries of key educational research and gives models for how this has been implemented in different settings. The four areas of focus: cognitive challenge, rich and extended talk, design of challenging learning opportunities and curriculum organisation and design highlight the interconnectedness of these factors in a successful education. Each section usefully includes graphics that highlight aspects of key research and there is also a useful summary at the end of chapter.  What’s useful about the write-up is that it considers how schools could/ do go wrong in their implementation of some of these models and effectively warns against common ‘traps’ when trying to make improvements. 

This report is an ideal text to dip into when instigating school improvement or when considering reviewing current practice. The book is a useful compendium of educational research- Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development rightly get a mention, as does the Fisher and Frey model and Rosenshine alongside graphics of findings from NACE’s own research projects. 

Perhaps what’s most useful about the text is the examples from NACE Challenge Award schools which show some of the principles being applied in various contexts. Whilst these may not be for everyone, seeing how these elements have been applied in a range of ways is useful and may give ideas for practical implementation in your own settings. At the back of the book, there’s a list of the schools mentioned and it would be a mistake not to follow up and contact those schools if you felt there was more to be learned about a specific focus. Likewise,  readers could extend some of these contacts through the NACE Research and Development hubs. 

As useful as this text is, the action by school leaders following the reading of this report is what will have the greatest impact. We know there is still so much more to do to address the gaps in research in this area, and schools can certainly contribute to building a more coherent picture by supporting the ongoing research work that NACE is undertaking. 

I would recommend the following actions for school leaders who are considering using this research report as a springboard for school improvement:  

  • Find out where the need is first- will this work for your school, now? It’s no good introducing an initiative if it doesn’t solve a problem that you have (and that you can prove that you have!). NACE has a series of useful self-evaluation frameworks on their website if you are looking for a way to identify the needs of your pupils and staff. It will support you in checking your assumptions and working on improving a real problem. 
  • Use a framework for implementation which will support the adaptations that are taking place. The EEF’s School Implementation Framework is a great tool to support any level of school improvement and supports planning for long-term, sustainable change
  •  Use the models included here critically- there’s a necessity to adapt some of these to suit your purpose and school context
  • Be ambitious for all learners and use the models highlighted in this report to support the implementation positive change in your schools
  • Find strength in the struggle! Whilst it may feel like a time to pause developmental work in school- this is the time where this work and thinking will be its most valuable. Educational sands are shifting rapidly as a result of COVID 19 and our educational landscape could look very different this time next year-  be proactive about what you’d like to see in your classrooms (face-to-face or online!) as we edge into very new and unfamiliar teaching territory.

In summary, this text works hard at bringing key cognitive research into focus and supports schools in filling in the missing gaps in research into improving outcomes for all pupils. It’s an essential guide for anybody working to improve the quality of teaching and learning in a school setting. 

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