How do high ability students reach for the stars in a world of Great Expectations?

high ability students

Guest Post by Stephanie Anne Dudley

As Ed Sheeran likes to put it: “Keep your head down and work hard to achieve”. As a music sensation with global hits consistently hitting the top ten, and with what can only be described as a banger after banger music portfolio, his advice on success is probably worth listening to.

Naturally gifted. Naturally clever. Naturally talented. We’ve all heard the phrases before. Rising from a world where these clichés could often be seen as excuses for underachievement, it raises the question: 

Is the idea of being naturally clever a myth? Can you simply work really hard at something to succeed? Or even is it a skill that you were born with?

Recalling my own schooling, back in the days where pin-straight hair was fashionable and begging Jane Norman for a fancy shopping bag to put your P.E Kit in was a Saturday pastime, the pressure of students who achieved a level 5 in Key Stage 2 SATS achieving high grades did not seem to be at the forefront of education.

By Year Ten, lesson outcomes were the latest craze and on the odd occasion, there may have been a support sheet to assist with a task, but on the whole, from a student perspective, it was different pressures in a different era.

So what has changed?

In an education system where coursework no longer exists and GCSE papers have become more comparable with that of A Levels, the bar has definitely been raised. We expect more from the students we are teaching, as they are now required to sit four exams for their English Language and English Literature GCSEs!

Why the push?

Following the introduction of the 9-1 grading system, English was one of the first subjects to be put through the new examinations. Overnight there was a sea-change in the quality of what students should be writing. Not only could you achieve an A* now comparable with a Grade 8, but an A** which was an exceptionally wonderful quality – as a Grade 9. Thus, no longer were schools focused on simply getting 5 A*-C including English and Maths but the move to Progress 8 marked a development in the way a school or academy would be assessed. Forever.

Schools would now be judged on performances in all subjects, forming an overall Progress 8 score that would then reveal how good a school really was for its teaching and learning.

In working and training in an inner city school within Stoke-on-Trent, which has rapidly raised its profile to second in the city for performance, focusing on how those high ability students at KS2 achieve greatest has become a priority over the last few years.

Are there a range of strategies which assist in this happening or is it simply just good luck?

Here are my 9 top tips to support academic achievement for high ability learners, to avoid the inevitable event of coasting happening, especially for boys.

9 top tips for teaching high ability students

(I do like an odd number, just to be awkward.)

1. Thinking Hard Strategies

In early 2019, our academy trust, in line with PIXL, began to introduce Excel @ Thinking. This involved a range of strategies under the categories: connect, extend, reduce, prioritise, categorise. It enabled students to access deeper level thinking and was certainly a hit for those in top sets. An example of this is giving students ten challenging words associated with a text or topic and asking them to link them all together. They then have to justify the reasons why each links to another. Observing students doing this you can literally see the cogs turning.

As Morrison McGill highlights: How do we instil this confidence and the ability to learn from mistakes in time for them to become self-assured, risk-taking learners? (McGill) Thinking hard strategies hence enable students to make mistakes and find the answers as the emphasis on thinking reduces the amount of written critique.

2. IRIS Connect

Are your questions high level enough? Are you targeting the right students or are you best moving to a no hands up policy? How can you ensure that all students are learning? Get it filmed. We have embraced video equipment IRIS Connect to reflect on practice. The best part is you can just watch it yourself or can share it with others? It’s your call. This is probably the best place to start if those high ability students just aren’t making the grade.

3. Bibles

Thanks to the 21st century, social platforms, notably Twitter, have become a haven for teacher resources. For English Literature within our department, Twitter birthed some amazing revision resources that not only assists with context and plot but focuses on key vocabulary and high-level ideas for Great Expectations, Animal Farm and Macbeth. Since introducing these resources in 2017, we have used these in class and homework to support higher level learning.

4. Tuition

Tuition has been a controversial topic amongst educators for a long time. If it is done properly then it has been proven successful for high ability students. Using a break-down of how students perform in mock exams, if tuition focuses on specific skill deficits then it’s worthwhile. If it is just a general overview of revision then I’m afraid to say, it just won’t cut the mustard.

5. High ability subject entitlement

In order for HAT students to be hitting those grades, they need to be a priority. If they allowed to rest on their laurels in the hope that they are naturally gifted they more than likely won’t actually make any progress and, worse, go backwards. Thus a high ability subject entitlement allows teachers to be aware that HAT students, like other key groups, have different needs. There should be opportunities for masterclasses the elite class, university seminar style days, to name a few examples, as compulsory for students. Learning outside of the same four walls is crucial.

6. Having great expectations

Taking after our good literary friend Pip, of whom our Year Elevens are well and truly sick of by now, we too have expectations of bigger and better. Promoting an environment by which we, as educators, expect students to do well enables students to develop confidence. Inevitably, student success, rightly or wrongly, becomes teamwork between the teacher and student, especially in Year Eleven. Using a question level analysis, students need to know what they cannot do and how to better on those questions in order to succeed. 

7. Exam specialists from AQA

A phrase being coined in academies at present, as GCSEs soon approach is the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Giving the nod to Einstein, this mantra is so true for student success; something needs to change for high ability students to access higher marks if they aren’t already doing so. Adopting this notion within a core department, English, we have had, as well as other subjects, support from the exam board and a consultant to train staff and students as make the big move to AQA this year. Reflecting upon this, what can be better for the students than either workshops or resources and support from those that write the exams themselves. It’s a no brainer. Looking back, that 100% A* gained in my RE GCSE, aside from the great teaching, also came from revising past paper questions in a textbook written by the examiner. 

8. Less writing, more talking

You don’t need to be writing lots to be learning – the most controversial statement if there ever was one. In education, we have spent years providing evidence of books that students are doing. However, all this does is give teachers more to mark and a bombardment of red pen for students to figure out. For all students, but particularly higher ability students, students need to talk about critical questions. For example, it may be far more beneficial for students to discuss the motivations behind Orwell’s novel rather than writing note after note about the Russian Revolution. I simply believe that HAT students need less/more purposeful marking, more high level discussions and teachers just need to plan the hell out of those lessons. Progress achieved. (If only it was so simple…)

9. Boys

Like the main theme behind the 2001 Britney Spears musical number, high ability boys are super important and despite, showing my millennial love for Britney, it is normally high ability boys who struggle to make the progress. Typically, it is the boys that have succeeded in KS2 that then tend to drop off towards KS4 and play catch up on the build-up the exams. How do we combat this? One suggestion would be less focused writing independently and more group writing. Old school flip chart paper and pens enables boys the freedom to explore ideas in pairs or groups and is non-committal as it is not going to live in books forever for the world and his dog to see. In school, we have trialled writing on tables too which went down a treat. It’s definitely worth a shot.

High ability students is a continuous focus nationally, going forward. It is worthwhile trialling some of the strategies above to see how they work in your context. I am eager to develop strategies for high ability further and so am keen to hear any ideas that are working across the country, 

In this society of moving goal posts and high pressure, I would like to think we are all on the right path to success for these students, even if it’s the start. Underachieving boys are an issue that will only change if change is made. Not forgetting that these are strategies that we are putting in place – what are students doing to ensure their own success. There’s no getting away from that.

As Del Boy says:

 ‘There’s no point running away. Running only wears out your shoes.’ 

So I say, let’s growth-mindset the hell out of it – high ability students are not where we want them to be.

Yet.

References:

Morrison McGill: 2017: Mark, Plan, Teach-Save time. Reduce Workload. Impact Learning: Bloomsbury Publishing

Author Bio:

Stephanie Anne Dudley: Passionate English Teacher, Writer, Blogger
and Performance Poet. Six years teaching experience in the teaching
world and Key Stage Coordinator within Staffordshire. Lover of
teaching and learning, spending her days discovering exciting ways to
help students learn. When in hibernation, can be found under a pile of
marking. Send chocolate. Send help.

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