By Bob Cox, Teacher, Author, Presenter and Education Consultant.
What I Wish I’d been told about Teaching Pupils with High Learning Potential
For ‘The Potential Trust’ as part of GTN awareness week, October 2021.
After 23 years teaching plus many more as an educational consultant, writer and presenter, I can reflect upon a journey of awareness and learning which is ongoing when it comes to high potential in pupils.
It took me a long time to appreciate fully how many pupils relish top level challenges. In the early part of my career, I can recall being bathed in relief when pupils finished a task, approached my desk with a beautiful poem and didn’t seem to be asking any awkward questions! I was full of easy praise, telling them to ‘go over it and correct it as it’s fine. Well done.’ These were pupils I did not worry about because they had apparently ‘mastered’ the task; I could turn my attention elsewhere. There was no culture around me of asking questions about pupils already doing so well.
Two revelations gradually occurred to me, not overnight but by a kind of osmosis born of day- to -day teaching, being a Head of English for 13 years and then encountering some big thinkers on the educational stage!
Firstly, came a growing understanding that the pupils finishing the beautiful poems were not actually excelling at all according to their own potential. The writing may have passed on ‘age-related’ expectations but not on any more personalised routeway. My curriculum design was not challenging enough because pupils were completing tasks rather than deepening knowledge. They were not being set the kind of opportunity Barry Hymer calls ‘moments of intellectual contradiction, requiring the making of new connections.’ In short, the curriculum was ready made for grade attainment but not for enriched and accelerated progress beyond the limit. To address this, my team introduced tier upon tier of quality reading immersion, from reading texts linked to the core one used in lessons, to individual choice to thematic book boxes. Curriculum time was given to silent reading, feedback, book talk and writing choices. Now, budding young poets would have had a teacher prompting them with further poems on a given concept, an immersion in relevant wider reading and specific advice on improving the poem and developing an anthology.
As pupils displayed their flair, we in turn expected more of them. For all concerned, it was like seeing a new mountain peak peeping through the mists, the glimpse of which produced the motivation to climb further.
The second slow dawning was the fact that those pupils not so advanced also benefitted from pitching expectations high. Modelling around me had always been that if a pupil is struggling to understand then they should be set easy work and sit on a different table. From my extensive work coaching in schools, I saw how the most successful teachers found ways of maintaining challenges whilst intervening specifically as necessary. Of course, this is still open to debate, but I have only ever seen a lowering of expectation when discrete exercises have been set to the so called ‘low ability’ table; and as all pupils have the potential to learn deeply, though perhaps at different rates and in different ways, I began to understand that targeting content or differentiating overtly could also be stark labelling whether ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability. What was needed was the desirability of an ethos of excellence into which all pupils could be a part. Hiving off pupils into separate groups, even denying them opportunities like encountering top class writers, was helping no-one.
I was influenced by the passionate Barry Hymer, the research of Heather Clements and Elaine Ricks, writers of the NACE Challenge Award and Professor Deborah Eyre’s superb ‘Room at the Top’ report to assimilate more about ways in which quality provision can grow more high potential learners rather than accepting a drift into fixed assumptions about pupils.
I was at that point a consultant with responsibility for what was called ‘gifted and talented’ provision. There were some very creative ideas being mooted in schools, but a sticking point was the tendency to build provision just for a limited percentage of pupils. No-one could agree who they were! No-one could agree where their talents lay and what did a ‘talent’ mean? What emerged positively from that era though was that a school or a Trust or an LA needs the culture of aspiration running through an organisation to inspire classroom innovation. By pitching high but including a raft of access strategies and scaffolds as appropriate, this excellence ethos could become a reality. I’ve now seen it in many schools. The idea for my own work on ‘opening doors’ was taking shape.
Ultimately, developing quality teachers who aim high and have what I call ‘restless questioning’ is at the heart of the matter; and that questioning only becomes consistent with a depth of subject knowledge. In some ways I wish this excellence ethos had been modelled more for me when I was younger; but I also wonder if I would have recognised it anyhow? To an extent, I think thousands of lessons have to be taught before the big picture of learning can make sense; up until that point, the mind can be invaded with top tips and downloaded lessons without the rationales for understanding why we teach what we teach. Survival is critical of course, so ready-made ideas are grabbed with glee. I did just that. As the cognitive field of learning builds, the multi-layered needs of high potential pupils can be incorporated into a richer, whole design. Extension for a few is an undesirable bolt on compared with greater depth thinking for the many.
So, this blog is also about what I wish I had listened to a little earlier! A readiness is needed, never easy to grow in cash strapped and busy schools. It’s been my role now for some time to find the right frequency teaching adults, to probe for the mindsets and curiosity into which the search for excellence becomes exciting to a teacher, not intimidating.
Certainly, as my experience grew and I became privileged enough to support many schools, both cross-phase and cross-curricular, I saw a pattern emerge of pupils revelling in an education via challenges, the kind of curriculum Prof. Timothy Shanahan encourages in his blogs today:
If you really want your kids to excel in reading, get them challenging texts. Then engage them in discussions of those texts. Get them to write in response to the texts. Reread the texts and talk about them again.
Pupils finding absorption and satisfaction in such complexities and challenges has been a huge privilege to see. I recalled a pupil telling me the literary tours I ran via trains or even double decker buses round the UK had made her ‘feel better’ and I began to connect the depth of the immersion in literature on the trips, with something that could be a regular need for good health. In other words, academic puzzlement and advancement was as much a daily diet for some as playing sport might be for others. Many young people love an enriched curriculum with inspiring teachers who set fascinating goals; but the system seems to have retreated into a view of education as a grades race. The well-being of our incredible younger generation is at stake; words like ‘creativity’, ‘risk-taking’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘leadership’ are all part of the process of acquiring knowledge and enjoying the ride!
Ian Warwick and Ray Speakman explore the ‘unfinished perfection’ of Leonardo Da Vinci and state the urgent desire to find a piece of information, make use of it, and connect it to our broader understanding makes us feel good about ourselves – and as a result, we are motivated to go on finding out…..
This notion of learning as necessary brain food was finally hard wired in me by the time I decided to put ideas into practice by opening a Saturday enrichment centre. When even some Heads said pupils would never come as it was a Saturday, I just did not believe them. It was open to any keen pupils with a clear message of high pitched, challenging work and, with colleagues, I set up sessions on art, maths, science, philosophy, film studies and even mandarin. Recruitment of pupils was hard work as predicted but if you know the Kevin Costner baseball film ‘Field of Dreams’ it was very much:
‘Build it and they will come’
The centre called ‘The Saturday Challenge’ ran for seven years and we taught pupils coming from miles and miles away. So many pupils love a maths challenge, a new style or form in art or to write like one of the greats! Their prior learning varied but their potential was very high because they revelled in it. By the end of the morning, they visibly looked more confident and refreshed. Brain connections, new ideas, socially constructed dialogues and independence can only grow through ambition and plenty of laughter!
I now began the humbling experience of realising that the teachers at my centre might have been learning from me! I did have comments like, ‘I wish I realised before how much pupils love to be stretched’.
It was time to write! I am going to add to my list of ‘wish I had known’ that I knew nothing of the publishing world, of authors, of associations or marketing. I just loved teaching – both pupils and adults. After a long journey, I found the amazing ‘Crown House’ publishers who helped me fulfil a life’s dream and put my ideas for inclusive, excellent English education into practice and it’s become a five-book series so far. Books can reach to far-away places and we now have a huge network of schools and organisations actively ‘opening doors’ to all their pupils and growing high potential learning via the resources and approaches in the books. It is a high pitched, ambitious process, one these schools regard as an adventure worthwhile for their pupils. Some of the work produced is incredible and we showcase it on the publishers’ site and on twitter. The schools with whom we work are from places as varied as London, Hampshire, Birmingham, Macclesfield, Hartlepool, Maltby, Uxbridge and many more – even Athens! Do take a look:
Yes, I wish I had been told more earlier about the power of teacher expectation and the need to back up belief in aspiration with top class, ambitious resources; but I’m honoured now to be working with so many schools who see the opportunities in building a curriculum where excellence for all is prioritised and planned for, not just talked about. This is the ethos into which high potential pupils can feel they belong, can thrive and enjoy learning.
Eyre, Deborah (2016) Room at the Top. Policy Exchange
Hymer, Barry (2009) Gifted and Talented Pocketbook. Alresford: Teachers’ Pocketbooks
NACE Challenge Award
Shanahan, Prof Timothy. Blog (2021)
Warwick, Ian and Speakman, Ray (2019) Learning with Leonardo. Woodbridge: John Catt