Teach to the Top

Taking the lid off and not accepting or expecting mediocrity...it's a repeating theme.
Taking the lid off and not accepting or expecting mediocrity…it’s a repeating theme.

I’m working on a new post on this issue.  But first, here is a round-up of previous posts on a recurring theme in my blog: that teaching to the top is the best way to ensure that every student in any class is fully stretched and challenged.  This approach, to my mind, is not a strategy to dip in and out of; it should be a fundamental philosophy that underpins all planning and delivery, including curriculum design.

The main ideas behind this approach are featured in the post: Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy. 

Another general post is ‘The Anatomy of High Expectations‘.  I’ve since been persuaded that clip-on ties have a transitional function in some contexts but let’s not confuse that with high expectations in general because it is an illusion. The clip-on tie is an analogy for all that intervention driven ‘school improvement’ that leaves students with an education at a deep level that is no better than it was before.

In Raising the Bar, I argue that many initiatives to raise standards miss the mark because they focus on everything except pedagogy – it is how students are taught that makes the greatest impact on raising the bar, not all the tinkering around the edges.

A very early short post focused on finding out what students are capable of before launching in with a pre-planned scheme of work. This is: New Group? New Topic? Find out what they know already. This is basically an excuse to tell my brother’s ‘We don’t do nines’ story which is symptomatic of what I regard to be a common experience: students are systematically under-challenged.

This post on empowering students to own their Maths problems, highlights some specific issues in Maths. The same general idea applies in other subjects.  Sometimes students work within the boundaries of what we set them.. when they could actually go further if we let them or showed them the way.

In terms of lessons, Teaching to the Top as an approach underpins most of the Great Lessons series: I’ve written about the need for Rigour and Challenge at every level, including the routine use of Probing questions. It is still often the case that, where lessons are less that adequate, it is because of a lack of challenge, especially at the top end. It’s a central teacher skill to be able to ask the probing questions and to ensure that the most able student is challenged. Sometimes this is an issue with a teacher’s confidence in the subject matter but more often it is just that their expectations are too low.

The Ron Berger ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ story helps to think about what standards are and provides food for thought about whether we underestimate what our students are capable of, systematically selling them short with our low expectations.  A core activity in schools should be ensuring that every teacher is aware of the standards that should be expected at the highest end in any class.  The ‘Defining the Butterfly’ post tackles this issue as does the Great Lessons: Possibilities post -sometimes you need to show students what they should be aiming for.

I’ve tried to set out these ideas in a hastily made video:

There are numerous other posts in my blog about providing opportunities for additional extension and challenge beyond the classroom, but here I am focusing on the things you do in regular lessons. It should be a central, basic element of any teacher’s professional practice, that the highest performing students in any class are always challenged..and that often means putting their learning needs at the centre of the planning process. It also means that you need to be very clear what that level of challenge will look like.  Are you setting your expectations high enough for every student?  How would you know? Answering that is the place to start.


  1. Completely agree that we should all aim our teaching to as high a level as possible. It has a direct impact on engagement and therefore behaviour, and ultimately, progress.


  2. Teaching to the top might be an option at KEGs. At an average comprehensive teaching to the top would be unacceptable where teachers are judged against the number of C/D borderline students they can turn into C passes. In a mixed ability class that means forget about the A* student – they would do the work even if you didn’t turn up! It is far more important to squeeze coursework out of those bottom set students who have done nothing all year!


      • I might have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole. My point was that the obsession with rankings and metrics can lead schools to over-emphase borderliners at expense of achievers. You admit as much in your post ‘The Anatomy of High Expectations’. Mixed ability teaching may lead to the best average rates of progress but it can hold back the most able. Of course you are right that, to borrow your analogy, the “rainforest” is better than the “plantation” in every conceivable way. But try telling that to a data obsessed SLT.


  3. As a data obsessed SLT I would say that the purpose of any data is to show our staff the possibilities. Too often teachers plan their lessons for themselves and not what is in front of them. Too often the students in my school behave impeccably in spite of some pretty dull teaching. That is why Tom is right on the money in highlighting what great teaching is all about; to inspire and engage our young people.


  4. Hrrumph… I was enjoying the video and cribbing away like mad when it ended somewhat abruptly!

    Thanks for taking the trouble to pull your various posts on stretch and challenge together Tom. I’ve taken on responsibility for our more able cohort and look forward to sharing your ideas with colleagues.


    • Thank you! Teaching to the top is always a scary proposition especially in a world when many teach outside their own subject areas. However, enquiry is the way to drive it forward for all students. Data obsessed SLT would see more C’s as challenge and high expectations eventually increase aspirations. However , how do you ensure this is a cross- school initiative and how can you effectively monitor and support staff in this every day? Issues which we are currently trying to overcome.


      • This issue of SLT folk giving priority to C/D borderline students is ridiculous really. However, it will end soon because the new measures require schools to maximise outcomes. A to A* will count as much as D to C. That is a good thing. In any case I’ve always argued that teaching to the top should lead to better outcomes for all; in my experience it does, especially if you retain your most able students in a Sixth Form and they help to fuel the culture of high expectations.


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