Closing the Gap by Teaching to the Top

Written by Andrew Nelson.

Recently I have read some very interesting articles on teaching to the top. I have found them thought provoking, for many reasons.

At my previous school I was given all bottom sets (my timetable involved bottom set year 7,8 and 9 History and Geography). I always planned in accordance to delivering the scheme of learning, but I tailored lesson objectives and success criteria so that they were accessible for very low ability students. I also differentiated tasks so that they were accessible, but inevitably dumbing the content down. Students made progress against my success criteria in each lesson and over time. This made lessons productive and enjoyable.

However, on reflection, my teaching widened the achievement gap between the most and least able. I dumbed down content so much that I had to differentiate the end of topic assessment so that it was accessible. The paper I used could not enable students to exceed their target grades. I suppose I was doing myself a favour, ensuring low ability students made progress that was easy to demonstrate in each lesson. Ultimately, I was not helping my students, as this lead to under achievement as these classes were not able, nor prepared for more challenging exam papers.

Following on from an AGS Inspire session on ‘Teaching to the Top’, I challenged myself to teach a top set lesson to a low ability class. At the start of the lesson I told them exactly what I was doing – I was challenging them to leave today’s lesson thinking ‘wow, I never realised I was that good at Geography’ and that they would feel exhausted when they left! I removed all support mechanisms that I would normally provide. Their task was to produce a diary entry describing a migrant’s experience of life in Shanghai and to do so they had no writing frame, other than ‘points to consider’, and they were made to use their learning from the previous two and a half lessons. I insisted on the students using key geographical terms and integrating into their work complex topics and issues.

For 30 minutes, the entire class, without exception, wrote page after page of quality geography, using key words appropriately. One student, a weak ‘typical lazy boy’, said ‘Sir, I only ever write a page worth of work, today I did 2 and a half pages. I Am so proud of myself’. Yes, this class produced a lot and their Geography was superb. They were challenged and they were forced to show resilience. I believe that without my expectations being made explicit about teaching to the top, this lesson would not have been anywhere near as successful!

In terms of Geography, the work that was produced was fantastic. However, the lack of a writing frame and assistance from me, lead students to produce work with massive literacy issues – switching from the 1st to the 3rd person incoherently and not using paragraphs. Marking their work was extremely challenging! After several books I was left wondering whether or not it was worth not providing any assistance, as by not modelling quality SPaG, students merely entrenched their poor SPaG practises into their work. On reflection, this is not going to make me go back to dumbing down content or providing numerous support structures, it’s just something I need to reinforce next time.

I now aim to teach to the top and I have recently tried to do it for every lesson. Not every lesson runs smoothly and supporting the bottom leaves me very thinly spread during lesson time, as am providing more 1 to 1 assistance than ever. Interestingly, more low ability students seem to be asking to go to the toilet then before, not because they need to, but because they are looking for an escape route! I am not yet an expert just yet!

However, the more I am doing this and the more entrenched this pedagogy becomes, the more resilience and independence I can see students show. Gradually, I firmly believe that this will have a significant positive impact on progress over time, than historical methods used for differentiation.

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