I slide I used in a presentation on the ideas in my book, Making Kids Cleverer has been getting a bit of love on Twitter, with New Zealand school principal referring to it as containing what might be “the three best sentences in education”.

Apart from the missing apostrophe in the second statement, this is obviously very gratifying, and I thought it would be useful to add some context and clarification.

The most advantaged will succeed despite what schools do.

This is a probabilistic statement. I’m not suggesting social advantage automatically confers academic success or that nothing that schools do makes any difference to the success of these children. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that because children from more socially advantaged backgrounds are also likely to come to school knowing more about the world, their academic success is less dependent on what happens in school. As a result, schools are systematically biased in favour of the most advantaged. We are geared up to give children from affluent backgrounds even more of what they come to us with, whereas children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be proportionately further disadvantaged by their encounters with education. This is the Matthew Effect. Often, we look at the progress data of students from affluent backgrounds and assume their success is down to us. We then use this to justify the efficacy or whatever it is we happen to believe is the best approach to education. However, if these students are statistically more likely to succeed regardless of what happens in school, then it might very well be true that their success is despite our actions.

To know if you’re successful, only look at data on the most disadvantaged students’ performance.

In contrast, children from less advantaged backgrounds are going to be more dependent on schools and teachers to be academically successful so we can be more certain that their success is due to our actions.Of course this is not always true – there are definitely children who are lucky in other ways – more intelligent, harder working, more resilient, etc. – but, again, this is a probabilistic claim. If we want to get a clearer sense of whether what we’re doing is ‘working’ then we need to look first at the performance of those who are disadvantaged. If there is a significant gap between the performance of the most advantaged and most disadvantaged students then we really shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves that our chosen approaches ‘works’ for those with most – their success may be in spite of us. However, if the most disadvantaged are doing as well as their more advantaged peers then that is likely to be because of our choices and actions. This way it is harder to fool ourselves.

What works best for the most disadvantaged students works best for all. 

The strategies that are most likely to lead to disadvantaged students being academically successful are strategies that prioritise learning over current performance. We know that it’s perfectly possible for children to successfully solve problems in the classroom yet not remember how to solve them elsewhere or later. We know that children can expend their limited cognitive reserves completing engaging activities as well as on activities that contribute to building increasingly automatic schema. But if the tasks we give children are too complex they can’t do both at once. Similarly, we know that possessing culturally rich, shared knowledge makes it far more likely that children will be able to comprehend a wider range of reading material and therefore more likely to understand and be able to think creatively and critically about the information they encounter. Ensuring that all children are taught culturally rich shared knowledge using instructional practices that take into consideration the limitation of human thought and memory means that all children are more likely to be academically successful. Everybody benefits. But, because the most disadvantaged are more dependent on schools in order to get access to this knowledge, it disproportionately benefits those with least. We may never close the gap between those with most and those with least but we can at least prevent it from being widened further by students’ educational experiences.