One of my core beliefs as a teacher: G&T is a total philosophy of teaching and learning.
At both a pedagogical and strategic leadership level, I’d argue that cracking the issue of ‘G&T’ provision is the key to success – in the classroom and across the whole school. In fact, I think that if the profession could really properly address meeting the needs of the most able students in any setting, the whole system would be transformed.
When I was involved in setting up Alexandra Park School in Haringey (@APSchool) as Deputy Head in 1999, the ‘Success for All’ slogan was a powerful driver. It meant high expectations for all students and an inclusive ethos but all along we were absolutely clear that unless we secured the buy-in of the most able students and their parents, we would sink in the ‘parental choice’ marketplace. In the context of a highly diverse intake, (first GCSE results were around 50% 5A*-C EM) our mission was to provide an education as rich, challenging and rewarding for the most able as they could get anywhere. I’m confident this approach was one of the keys to the school’s ultimate success and it guided a lot of decision-making, including our strategy for appointing teachers.
Since long before I came to work in a Grammar school, as a teacher I’ve always found that it is a win-win-win to cater explicitly for the most able students in my class. If you ‘teach to the top’, pitching every lesson and the general thrust of every unit of work to stretch the most able, everyone benefits:
The most able students enjoy their learning, feel valued and feel normal. They go home and say how great school is. Their parents are happy and are deeply grateful that you’re providing what their child needs. In return they support the school and tell everyone how great it is. The school gains a reputation for being a place that delivers rigour, challenge and high standards. This rewards the staff for their efforts and secures their buy-in. At the same time as this, the learning environment in each lesson is characterised by high expectations. This raises aspirations and, through differentiation and support, all students are pulled along in the wake of the most able. I always promote this to new teachers in a mixed ability setting; love-up your most able students and only good things will come; fall short in meeting their needs and it can all come tumbling down.
My perspective on this is partly influenced by my own education. I was a bit of a problem; not freakishly clever but I found regular school a bit too easy. I was given IQ tests; packed off on nightmarish weekends for ‘gifted children’ to play Hexagonal Chess and generally worried over. In the end I was moved up a year and went to secondary school and university early. Eventually, it all came good and I’m not really complaining. But it took about three years to stop feeling emotionally out of my depth at school – and I was still routinely at the top of the class and a bit bored along with my counterpart Michael who was on the same journey with me. All that structural messing around when what I needed was to be intellectually/mentally challenged in lessons and to grow up socially and emotionally at the same rate as my peers.
Now, as a parent, I am on the other side of the fence (coin?). My kids are bright, enthusiastic learners; ‘top table’ or ‘Set 1′ as they each describe their groupings. They genuinely love school but I still feel that they have been generally under-challenged pretty much all the way through their school lives. That might sound harsh but really, aside from occasional bursts, they’ve cruised along, gently meandering without really finding out what they are capable of. They always come home with a buzz after a properly challenging and engaging lesson or assignment but that is relatively rare. They do everything their teachers ask, but no more – even though there is so much more they could do if asked. Again, it isn’t super-critical but mainly because, at home, we fill in the gaps. But what happens when those gaps are never filled?
Of course some school structures such as setting help to make this provision superficially easier to deliver – and this has to be balanced with overall inclusion and integration in the curriculum as a whole. However, every class is a mixed ability class and this is key. In my experience it is easier to provide more support and more scaffolding for middle and lower attaining students if the top-end students are flying off. However, it is much more difficult and never entirely satisfactory to ‘differentiate upwards’; giving a bit of extra work or a few extension questions – a few scraps of ‘challenge’ to keep them happy? It is hard to sustain and doesn’t ever deliver the full top-end learning experience you’d get if you pitched to the top from the outset.
In order to fully cater for the most able students – and create that aspirational achievement-raising effect for all – it needs to be embraced as a total philosophy; that those students set the course and that you get all the barriers to their learning out of their way to the greatest possible extent. It is crucial to set out a learning programme that completely encompasses (ie never restricts) every student’s potential- and that is only truly possible if you start at the top. I don’t see this as elitist – just pragmatic and necessary! If a student is bashing against the limits you impose, you need to continually expand the boundaries.
So, assuming you agree and want to teach in this way, how is it done? What does an all-out G&T-driven teaching philosophy look like in practice? I would say that alongside a rich seam of responsive formative assessment practice and learning-focused behaviour systems, there are some key elements:
1) Rigour and depth in the subject matter. Embrace the full complexity of a subject before breaking it down to make it accessible. G&T students love highly synoptic tasks where they assimilate lots layers of information, make sense of competing and contradictory points of view and messy data. They also want to know how and why things are as they are…there is always another and another layer of ‘but why…?’ Allow this complexity to hang for a while before you bring it down and process it. Model and celebrate the use of sophisticated language and terminology; know your subject and prepare those extra layers of questioning…there is always another level – but let the students find their way; allow a good deal of ‘struggle time’ and don’t give away the answers cheaply!
2) Open-endedness. Closed questions and closed tasks kill challenge. Stone. Dead. ‘Differentiation by outcome’ is a simple but much-abused idea but it makes sense. If you can’t always set a specific top-end task, create tasks that have no limit – in scale or depth. Give students the scope and the incentive to go as far as they can in class and at home. Give students the freedom to find their level in a set of exercises and skip over all the easy stuff. Often it is helpful to have exemplars of exceptional work; once students can see what is possible they realise that they too could go further. In terms of parental engagement, homework is a key factor. Even if you make it optional, make sure that your most able students can never say they have nothing to do….often they are craving it but don’t want to ask. When they do it, make a fuss.
3) Problem-solving. A lot of very able students love problem-solving. Our MFL lessons include a lot of this – the idea of ‘grammar detectives’ where students work out the grammar rules rather than being told them. In Maths collaborative problem solving requiring multiple stages is a big hit. In Science, having the opportunity to work out how the apparatus fits together or designing your own experiment instead of doing the standard recipe version, following fixed instructions… it is all good G&T stuff.
4) Creativity. The sky is the limit here. Give options for responses with research tasks: make a video, wiki, a cartoon strip or write an essay to answer the question. If we value all these alternatives as part of a mixed diet, the responses are superb. In every subject it is possible to design learning tasks with a creative element – the opportunity to choose your own project, design an experiment, invent your own debate question, to use role-play and artistic interpretations of concepts.
5) A classroom culture that celebrates intellectual curiosity, creative eccentricity and turns all those pejoratives into badges of honour: geek, nerd, brainy . Champion students with a general all-round passion for knowledge and understanding and never let anyone diminish them for it.
6) Co-construction and independence. This doesn’t have to be the full-on process I describe here but try to give students as much responsibility as you can for making decisions about their learning. What questions should we ask? What topic shall we do next? And get them up leading the learning of others. The idea is to give them the skills to learn independently; ultimately, with the right resources, able students can teach themselves a lot of things but that can’t be assumed or relied upon.
As with so many things, this is not about ticking boxes. It is about embracing the spirit: G&T is a total philosophy of teaching and learning.