Bright Spots: high ability


This week Shaun Allison and I walked around the school and visited several lessons focusing on the teaching of high ability students.  We dropped into English, maths and science top sets, observing the teaching and learning strategies that were being employed.  Most teaching at Durrington is delivered to mixed ability classes, however we do still have top sets in our core subjects.  The EEF toolkit provides evidence that for the highest attaining students, being taught together can be beneficial, although for all other students mixed ability teaching is most effective.  As a school we are still grappling with how to get the very best from our H and H* students, and the aim of this bright spots blog is to highlight some excellent examples of how this can be done.

Head of science Steph Temple was completing a walking talking mock with her Y11 class.  Her teaching showed several of the hallmarks of metacognition (the subject of a recent blog on our Research School site which can be found here) as she guided the students through annotations of exam questions.  Key to this was revealing her own thought processes as she encountered the question and checking understanding across the class by punctuating what she was saying with regular questions.  Initial questions also contained prompts for elaboration, a key skill in helping high ability students deepen their understanding.

Also in science Martin Reene was teaching Y8 students about plant reproduction.  One aspect of this lesson that was clear from the outset was the high expectations Martin set for the class.  He referred several times to the material being covered being of GCSE standard and how adept the class were at dealing with it.  He supported this through his explanation, ensuring he did not shy away from tier 3 vocabulary or the complexity of the processes he was explaining.  He was also not afraid of allowing this teacher talk to continue for an extended period of time, knowing that with this class the students stayed with him through this and as a results were more likely to be thinking about what he was saying.

The final science teacher we saw was Ian Canavan, who like Steph was teaching a Y11 class.  Ian was using a concrete example of a torch to explain energy transfer, thereby strengthening student understanding of this abstract concept.  As with all classes we visited, evident in this lesson was the attentiveness of all the students in the class and their commitment to what they were asked to do.

There was only one top set English lesson being taught, on this occasion by Bridget Norman.  The Y11 students were responding to written feedback and completing revisions and improvements to their work.  The teacher feedback was exceptionally precise and detailed, giving students clear formative comments that they could act upon during the lesson.  Each target was linked to a specific instruction as to the literary technique they could employ to improve their writing.  The mark of success of this activity was the output of the students, with those questioned showing a sophisticated understanding of what they were being asked to do.  Bridget was clearly playing on the ability profile of the class to set the challenge high as to what she expected in terms of the second draft.

Finally we visited maths, first dropping in to Julie House and her Y9 class.  This class were engaged in completing a GCSE exam paper, again demonstrating a culture of high expectations.  What was notable here was that the class contained a number of students who, in other contexts, had failed to meet expectations on behaviour and attitude.  However, in the culture of Julie’s classroom they were given licence to inhabit a more focused and academic version of themselves.  This could be a further advantage of top set teaching.

In Kathy Hughes’ Y9 class we witnessed another common characteristic of the best high ability teaching: accurate and useful peer feedback.  Peer feedback can be counter-productive in that the teacher loses control of the feedback being given, meaning it can be wrong and inconsistent.  In this particular lesson the students were questioning each other and helping their peers reach the correct answers by sharing their thoughts and workings on difficult problems.  Again this is a result of culture, and when properly managed and nurtured can lift the atmosphere of the class and drive their learning.

Overall, their was much to consider after this bright spots walk, not least the value of teaching high ability students separately.  This does not have to lead to strict setting of seven sets.  It could mean one top set with six groups with a mixed ability profile.  Ultimately we are committed in general terms to mixed ability, but for some subjects it seems top sets may still have a place.

Posted by: Chris Runeckles

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