A few weeks ago I wrote a post about using the 6 principles from ‘Making every lesson count’ to support the learning of students with a low starting point. This week, I want to turn my attention to our brightest students – the ones with a high starting point. In the same way that I don’t like the phrase ‘low ability’, as it suggests some kind of pre-determined level in terms of achievement, I don’t care much for phrases such as ‘gifted‘ or ‘high ability’. Again, the suggestion here is that these students have simply been born bright, without having to get there through hard work and effort.
So, what can we do to stretch our brightest students? Enrichment activities, such as after school sessions and residential trips are fine…but they are one offs. Similarly, extension tasks are fine, but it needs more than this. If we really want to push these students on and make a real difference to their learning, we need to look at their provision day in, day out – every lesson. This is where the six principles come in.
Setting challenging learning objectives and then supporting all students all to reach them is fine. However, the high starters have only a small distance to go! So with this in mind, we need to think about taking them beyond this point – and in order to do that, we need to know them really well:
- Know who your high starters are.
- Know what they can do well….and not so well.
- Know how to push and challenge them, to keep them in the struggle zone:
This takes planning and prior thought. What we will you expose them to and expect them to do, in order to really challenge their thinking – in lessons, but also for homework?
Don’t assume their prior knowledge, find out what they know/can do and build on this – so whatever their level of understanding, move it on to the next level. In order to do this and make your explanations at a high enough level to challenge them, you need to know your subject content inside out – so make it your business to do so! Here’s an account of how one science teacher at DHS did this. You also need to ensure that you don’t overload students with this difficult work – build up the challenging content is stages.
Through your explanation, take them from surface learning i.e. remembering the key knowledge, to deep learning i.e. being able to relate and link this knowledge to other knowledge. Plan this beforehand – where do the links exist?
Make sure you know the misconceptions and mistakes students commonly make, around this challenging content. If you don’t know, ask more experienced colleagues. Address this in your explanations.
Don’t skimp with the modelling! Model the fine detail, so the high starters are able to use this to refine their own work, and so ensure that it includes a great level of detail.
When we talk about modelling, don’t just model the final product. Model your thinking – why did you write that sentence in that way? What was behind using that particular terminology? How are you going to extend and explain that particular point? Show them how an expert thinks – and then encourage them to do the same.
Before the end of the summer term, save an exercise book or piece of work from your highest achieving student. Then in September, so this to your students – especially your high starters. This is the standard you expect from them. Do more than this though, tell them about the student whose work it was. What did she do, that enabled her to produce such excellent work?
Don’t rush them – give them the time to embed the new knowledge and skills they are learning. If your level of challenge is right, they will be dealing with difficult material, so you need to ensure that you ‘check in’ with them, in order to ensure that mistakes aren’t being compounded. Alongside this, encourage students to self-check their work – this way, they can focus on making their own improvements, whilst you focus on the more challenging aspects of the work.
This is key to the success of our high starters. Andy Day sums this up brilliantly:
Whilst you can do this by simply asking ‘Why do you think that?’ to student responses, Socratic questioning provides a great framework for thinking about how we can support our students to think deeply about the topic they are learning. The following Socratic questioning prompts are useful:
- Getting students to clarify their thinking/ Explore the origin of their thinking
- e.g., ‘Why do you say that?’, ‘Could you explain further?’
- Challenging students about assumptions
- e.g., ‘Is this always the case?’, ‘Why do you think that this assumption holds here?’
- Evidence as a basis for argument
- e.g., ‘Why do you say that?’, ‘Is there reason to doubt this evidence?’
- Alternative viewpoints and perspectives/ conflict with other thoughts
- e.g., ‘What is the counter-argument?’, ‘Can/did anyone see this another way?’
- Implications and consequences
- e.g., ‘But if…happened, what else would result?’, ‘How does…affect…?’
- Question the question
- e.g., ‘Why do you think that I asked that question?’, ‘Why was that question important?’, ‘Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?’
Another important strategy is to think about a really hard question, that the high starters can tackle during the lesson. We call these ‘think hard’ questions. So, look through past exam papers and find the hardest questions you can. Use these with students in lessons to promote deep thinking.
Finally, when asking them really hard questions, don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer. Scaffold your questioning down and then build it up again. This will take some planning – think beforehand how you will do this scaffolding.
As you get to know your high starters, and understand what they are capable of and where you want them to get to in their learning, you can give them feedback to really challenge their thinking. Live marking during the lesson is a great way to do this. Look at their work and then write your feedback as a challenging question for them to respond to. Again, this requires some planning – where are they likely to get to (based on your prior experience of similar students) and so at this point, what are you going to ask them, to really make them think?