In this contribution to our “Perspectives on More Able” series, author, teacher and lead for high-attaining students Robert Massey shares his views on helping all students become Expert Learners.
How do we help our ‘students who are a bit cleverer than the others’? Their faces beam at us expectantly in every classroom, drama workshop and games lesson, and we are told to apply the dreaded ‘d’ word to plan for them… Yes, I’m talking differentiation, but you can come out from behind the sofa, because that nasty word has gone now...
What we used to do was label such students as ‘gifted’ (excellent in one area) and ‘talented’ (excellent in several) and hope that our hard-pressed G&T Coordinator could come up with some viable strategies for us on a frantic CPD day. Alternatively, we could label such a pupil a ‘child genius’ (like the TV programme) and watch amazed as they swallow and regurgitate facts with seemingly little effort. Then we could leave them to get on with it and concentrate on students at the 3-4 GCSE pass threshold.
I hope I can persuade you to abandon these terms and, more importantly, this approach. Why? Because we have research evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to help support the learning journey of every student you teach and to allow them all to become what I’m terming Expert Learners. Moreover, this research is tempered by hard-won classroom experience. This won’t produce overnight results because instant solutions in education are unicorns: what so many consultants and software salespeople are trying to sell us are the equivalent of swimming with mermaids.
Getting started: three key principles
1. Get clear on your terminology. ‘Able’ and ‘more able’ are widely used by official bodies such as Ofsted and are useful, but often lack definition and relationship to a set of data. ‘High attaining’ or ‘high current attainers’ are a step forward because they are objective, verifiable and temporary rather than fixed. Whatever terms you select, make sure that every parent, pupil and teacher understands what they mean.
2. Teach to the top. Tom Sherrington is a great advocate of this. Look at your class, which you know better than anyone else, and set out the benchmarks of excellence for them. Offer all the support and scaffolding needed for your middle and low attainers but set the bar at the top of your class, defined and put into practice by you and your department. No exam board, ALT or MAT can define ‘the top’ for the class you’ll teach tomorrow, so you need to do it yourself.
3. Modelling matters. Adults lead, students learn, students lead. Metacognition is a game-changer. You explain and demonstrate what, for example, a point-evidence-explain-link paragraph of English, history or RS looks like; your class learn, reflect upon, repeat and question the process; they become self-aware learners (slowly, not overnight) so that students themselves become Expert Learners. Notice – not the ‘cleverest’ or the highest attaining, but the most adept and empathetic learners in the room, able to support their peers in ways which powerfully supplement what you do.
Five practical strategies to make this approach work for your students
1. Recall and testing for understanding. Research in cognitive psychology tells us that your learners can practise and improve how they move information rapidly and regularly from their overloaded working memories into the secure storage of their long-term memories and then retrieve it. Students need repeated, repeated and repeated practice in short-term factual recall to help enable this, and teachers need to check for understanding all the time – and then test for it.
2. Questioning. Self-aware learners can model to each other some of the main types of questioning: for understanding, for depth, for the development of an idea. They have faced thousands of questions in their lives: formulating their own questions and responding to them builds confidence and expertise among peers.
3. Feedback. You knew it would matter, and it does. It’s powerful if students learn to recognise different types of feedback and its stages, from simple task-oriented feedback to more complex assessment of processes, and then model it and apply it.
4. Collaborative learning: emphatically not poor-quality group work. If your students can obey rules in team games or act in a play, they can work together in lessons, and there is research evidence that this can improve both attainment and behaviour. Building more opportunities in the classroom to allow students to take a lead rather than passively follow instructions is key.
5. Stretch and challenge yourself and your colleagues. It’s not the job of a solo G&T Coordinator to wave a wand and raise attainment. Rather, she or he can work fruitfully with Heads of Subject to share ideas about learning and teaching across your school or college so that you help build 10 or a dozen leaders of learning, championing excellence and sharing it with colleagues.
There are lots of books (more each week, it seems) about how to teach. Some even claim to train you to teach the perfect lesson. There are far fewer from the perspective of the learner. Far fewer still from the perspective of the high-attaining learner. That means your learners and mine, who can all, regardless of their current attainment, become Expert Learners – and therefore higher attainers.
My book From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners has just been published by Crown House. It offers a lot more detail about the approach and strategies I’ve summarised here, and I hope it will help you to have the confidence to ditch ‘gifted’ and focus on expertise for all your learners.
NACE member offer
Crown House Publishing is offering NACE members a 20% discount on all purchases from its website, including Robert Massey’s From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners. For details of this and other current member discounts, log in to our members’ area.