Getting started with challenging ‘more able’ learners

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For the early career teacher, the desire to understand and provide for learners with different starting points in terms of attainment can seem challenging. But with thought, planning and acting upon the advice of others, you will achieve this and the results will be so worthwhile.

You will have already discovered that all pupils need high levels of challenge on a daily basis, but this can sometimes be more difficult for the highest attainers – sometimes called ‘more able’ learners. Building a secure learning environment in which the teacher has high expectations and creates regular opportunities for stretch and challenge will lead to engaging learning for your highest attainers, the whole class, and for you. You should seek to challenge these ‘more able’ learners in an atmosphere where all learners are motivated to improve and challenge is the norm.

First steps

The first step is to find out who has the responsibility for the ‘more able’ learners in your school. Show that you are aware of the importance and that you are keen to get it right. Be proactive.

Some initial questions you may ask:

  • Who are the ‘more able’ learners in your class?
  • How frequently does the school monitor and track these learners?
  • What does the ‘more able’ policy or equivalent say?

Identification

Find out what terminology and criteria are used in your school. In the past, the following terminology was often used to describe learners:

• More able: referring to those who are able in ‘academic’ subjects such as mathematics, French, etc (10% of a cohort)

• Talented: referring to those who are more able in art, music, drama and PE (10% of a cohort)

• Gifted: referring to 0.5% of the population who excel; sometimes called exceptionally able

This is only a starting point and comes with a warning: there is a danger that percentages arbitrarily limit the number identified. You will have come across work on ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2008), which may be helpful in clarifying your own thoughts on the nature of ability.; this is one reason it’s now quite common to hear the phrase ‘high attainers’ rather than ‘high ability’ used. Be wary of labelling children too tightly. When you group by ‘ability’ or ‘attainment’, think carefully about why you are doing it.

Identification of ‘more able’ pupils should be determined broadly, drawing on a range of sources, moderating judgements with other colleagues and observing performance and learning traits over a sustained period of time. In order to identify abilities, it is important to provide opportunities for learners to reveal them. Provision is therefore a key means of identifying ability and potential. Without the chance to show what they can do, pupils’ talents can remain hidden.

Teaching and learning

A review of Ofsted reports (Potential Plus, 2019) found that in relation to provision for ‘more able’ pupils the weakness in schools was the lack of challenge and progress. More able pupils in general welcome challenge and often like to take a lead in shaping their own learning. They often prefer to work at their own pace (which can be rapid!) and some will immerse themselves in learning, not wanting to stop or being displeased when the independent learning section of a lesson ends. A single intervention is not the answer, but instead a ‘suite’ of interventions (Cullen, Cullen, Dytham et al, 2018).

Key teaching strategies

  • Task design: ensuring the right pitch with appropriate challenge will engage the pupils. Does the task make them think, not merely do?
  • Cutaway: do ‘more able’ pupils need all of the direct instruction part of every lesson? Instead, let them start the work earlier than the rest of the class. Then pull them back to you later to check understanding.
  • Differentiation: this doesn’t just have to be through task, but could be through outcome, resources supplied or how the pupils are grouped.
  • Ongoing dialogue: look to develop learners’ metacognition. Can they reflect on their learning and make decisions? Look to have a ‘negotiated curriculum’ where you discuss, nudge and suggest things for them to learn next.
  • Applying learning: all pupils need repeated learning, but ‘more able’ pupils do not need to spend time consolidating what they have already consolidated. They need to apply learning in a different context or extend their learning, going sideways rather than always upwards.
  • Working with others: think about tasks for pairs and groups. Look ahead for opportunities where challenge can develop, perhaps in the form of longer tasks.
  • Beyond the classroom: look for external opportunities including clubs, particularly for highly able musicians, athletes and performers.

Feedback

Prioritise verbal feedback. Draw ‘more able’ pupils into discussions where questioning can be higher-order, and encourage analysing and evaluating rather than remaining at the comprehension level (Alexander, 2017). Insist that pupils mark their own work before you do. Expect learners to use the success criteria or checklists. Beware of ‘crowding’ ‘more able’ learners. You will need to follow the school policy on marking, but remember success is seen in the learning pupils achieve, not merely how much you write in a different colour pen. Be mindful of your workload and reduce hours of pointless marking (Ofsted, 2019).

Key takeaways

  1. Identify the ‘more able’ pupils based on school criteria.
  2. Provide challenge (for them and all of your pupils!) on a daily basis – are they thinking and using their abilities to the full?
  3. Adapt teaching to allow them to flourish – no one alone, no one too crowded.

But most of all: embrace it. To quote Hamilton the musical: ‘Legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see grow.’ You will see some of those seeds start to grow this year and beyond; how rewarding to see the part you played in nurturing the future growth and blossoming of these more able pupils.

This article is based on the NACE Essentials guide “Getting started with more able”, available to preview here.

The National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) is an independent charity and membership organisation supporting schools to develop high-quality provision for more able learners in the context of challenge for all. Learn more.

References

Alexander R (2017) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk. 5th ed. Cambridge: Dialogos.

Cullen SM, Cullen M, Dytham S et al (2018) Research to understand successful approaches to supporting the most academically able disadvantaged pupils. Department for Education.

Dweck C (2008) Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books.

Department for Education (2019) Reducing workload: supporting teachers in the early stages of their career. Department for Education.

Potential Plus (2019) Ofsted Reporting of Provision for the Most Able Pupils: Comparison of analyses of Ofsted reports. Available at: https://www.potentialplusuk.org/index.php/2020/02/20/ofsted-reports-new-research-shows-44-of-schools-needed-change-to-more-able-provision/

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