‘Teaching to the Top’: A challenge collection.

26 Jan 2018

“The struggle you’re in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow.” Robert Tew.

Outside of the every daily variety of life in the classroom, one of the things I have particularly enjoyed about this academic year is setting up a CPD group called ‘Teacher Advocates’ with Zoe Taylor (who runs this excellent blog for English teachers) in our school. The idea is that a group around eighteen teachers (with a representative from each department in the school) meet for around ninety minutes on a half termly basis to explore an aspect of teaching and learning.

We are predominantly teachers on full timetables who are interested in developing more of an understanding of teaching strategies. Importantly, it gives teachers space outside of the busy classroom life to learn and take stock of our teaching. We are lucky in that we have a supportive Senior management team who make sure that the ‘Advocates’ are given time in department meetings to feedback and disseminate best practice from these meetings.

At the end of each session we create a collection of ten teaching takeaways that are then shared with staff and the basis for a teaching and learning focus over the next half term. The ‘Advocates’ then ask for feedback from staff about how they are using them to hone and develop that particular teaching technique and we try to share best practice.

So far we have unpicked question, oracy in the classroom and teaching for retention. Next week we will be looking at the level of challenge in classrooms, and exploring the ‘Teaching to the Top’ philosophy. One of the things we are engaging with is educational research and reading, so this post is a summary of some of the reading and thinking we will be looking at in regards to next week’s session.

Tom Sherrington’s book ‘The Learning Rainforest‘ is an essential read on many levels, particularly in the wealth of content that can be practically implemented in the classroom. The Learning Rainforest metaphor is particularly interesting, as Sherrington distils his thoughts on teaching and learning through different aspects of the rainforest. There is a huge breadth of ideas and strategies in it, and I have been dipping into it throughout this term for ideas and for strategies. One of those important aspects is on ‘Establishing the Conditions’, the basic influential factors that will influence the quality of learning in the classroom. His summary of ‘Teaching to the Top’ is helpful in crystallising exactly what the principles of this philosophy is:

“Do you plan to teach to the middle and then try to push the very top end with some extras? No. I’ve always found that it is a win-win to cater explicitly for the highest attaining students in any groups; to ‘teach to the top’, pitching every lesson and the general thrust of every unit of work to stretch them.” (pg 156)

In very simple terms it is about ensuring students are being pushed to achieve their ‘top’: the very best they can. This has to be carefully managed to ensure that students are not overwhelmed with cognitive overload, but rather thinking hard in an environment that is studious and supportive. Sherrington then gives a range of practical ways in which you can “Take the lid off and see what happens”. They include elaborating on each of the following: inspiring joy, awe and wonder (great quotation: “life is short; there is probably enough drudgery in the world to drown us all if we let it; so let’s not add to it with our teaching’.); sharing your passion; adopting strategies that couple rigour with intrinsic motivation; celebrate achievement; inspire awe and wonder.

He also writes extensively on the importance of rigour in this mission to challenge. Again he provides a clear and streamlined guide to how this might be achieved, elaborating on each of the following: pitch of material; command of subject knowledge; teacher led discussion; precise and extended student answers; subject specific terminology used throughout and much more. He also explores the use of the curriculum in ensuring that we ‘pitch it up’. His excellent blog has a range of posts on this, collected here.

As Sherrington highlights, if we are to truly push our students forward then we need to have  a clear conception of what excellence really is within our subjects. This is a clear focus for curriculum teams: what is each year group really capable of achieving through their trajectory in the school? Then we need to plan out in teams how we get them there, what strategies should be used in lessons? Once there is this sense of clarity then we can maintain an upward trajectory and prevent the plateau that can often impact year groups. I have written a summary of strategies for this for a Masters research project on transition. In this Susan Strachan gives an excellent overview of what those strategies could be, with a a comprehensive list of ideas that will help us to go “beyond the narrow constraints of the specification” in our every day practice. The list she provides would be a fascinating accompaniment to department meetings: how much of this is a regular feature of our teaching practice?

Mark Enser has written extensively on this and rigour is one of the foundations of his blog at https://teachreal.wordpress.com. This article on creating a culture of expectations on school is very useful:

“In this climate, there is a temptation to simply try to get through the changes unscathed, to focus on the data and getting the best possible place in league tables. But this short-term outlook is a barrier to genuine improvement as each action becomes a response to the latest crisis or government diktat. What is needed instead is a culture of excellence that permeates every classroom, department and school; a focus not on simply getting the best grade, but on getting the best education and creating a lifelong passion for learning.”

His post on providing five ways to put challenge at the heart of your lesson follows this with five key strategies to help in securing this environment. As he outlines in this second post, challenge is not an arbitrary add on to lessons: “We are now all urged to make sure that challenge is at the heart of every lesson.”

Modelling and being clear with students about the standards they can drive themselves towards is also vital.  Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ is an excellent read in this regard. If we can become what he deems ‘An Archiver of Excellence’ and collect excellent pieces of work for each year group, then we can regularly raise standards by visibly modelling the top in terms of standards. Then is about not accepting sub-standard efforts, but continually persevering to encourage students to reflect on how their work can be improved. Even better, once they gain that realisation of what they can do, they are no longer curtailed by their own expectations:

“I believe that the work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.”  (page 8)

In terms of excellence,Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby devote a section of ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ to challenge and provide a range of strategies. They explore when we should intervene in their struggle through learning, highlighting that they have to be given time to grapple with learning before “it is time to give them the answer and teach them the strategy they need to get there.” An important point they raise is about the importance of our own subject knowledge:

“If you are going to stretch and challenge all students, be careful not to neglect your own subject knowledge. Indeed research demonstrates that a deficit in subject knowledge can be a barrier to student achievement.”

If we want to really push our students, we need to have considered what their misconceptions may be in advance, we need to ensure that our own knowledge of content is comprehensive. It is then that we can really drive forward their learning and model the importance of challenging thinking. Questioning plays a huge role in this, often we fall into the questioning traps that I have written about here. By planing out challenging questions we begin to inspire the inquisitive mindset that will help to encourage students to think hard in our lessons. Sarah Donarski provides an excellent summary of questioning research and strategies on how to encourage more evaluative thinking here:

“Initial questions may focus on knowledge retrieval, and then move to closed questions to prompt all students to develop an argument (keeping the learning accessible despite a more subjective response), and then finally to more challenging questions”

This excellent post from Dawn Cox is also very useful in a practical example of how ‘Teaching to the Top’ works in an every day lesson, about how it is not necessary about producing extensive new resources but in giving students the criteria that can allow them to achieve the top.

“Whilst they may not all succeed at the same level, they are exposed to what is needed to access the high level material. The amount of differentiation involved is minimal. It usually comes in the form of suggested structure (optional as some like to develop their own style) or sentence starters. These are optional and the ‘take it or leave it’ manner in which they’re presented means that there is no stigma or compulsion to use them.”

This is merely the tip of an iceberg in how we might challenge our students, but it is a vital and important dialogue. Austen’s butterfly is perfect place to end, reiterating the role of redrafting and high expectations in getting the most out of our students. Thanks for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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