Teaching to the Top: Attitudes and strategies for delivering real challenge.

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Teaching to top has been a long-standing principle of effective teaching from my perspective.  One of my early blogs was ‘Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy‘ and it remains one of the topics I am asked to talk about most often in CPD sessions.  I no longer think that Gifted and Talented is a helpful label – it never was – but the principles are the same.  I’ve also covered this topic The Anatomy of High Expectations.

As I’ve said previously, I firmly believe that too many students are systematically underchallenged at school, especially in the years furthest away from high-stakes tests.  I also think that, if you crack this, you crack most other things too; the bar is raised for everyone.  This blog is based on the CPD I usually deliver on this topic.

The secret to doing this well is to think about it in three areas of teaching practice:

  • Attitudes:  The belief and mindsets teachers need to have themselves and inculcate in their students. This influences everything else.
  • Routines/Habits:  The things you do all the time, in every lesson.
  • Extra Challenges: Things you build into an overall scheme of work and use occasionally.


  Teach to the top; make the high attainers drive you. 

This requires a deliberate shift in attitude. Too often teachers’ concerns about the struggles of weaker learners lead to content being softened; this is no good for top-end challenge.  I think teachers should consider the curriculum and plan activities based on the capabilities of the highest attainers as a total priority – lifting the lid as the image suggests.  Providing appropriate scaffolds for other students flows from this but teachers need to have the courage and confidence to challenge at the top end, relentlessly.

Pygmalion effect and Growth Mindset:


These two sets of research findings are powerful.  Too often high attainers are regarded as having special gifts – which negates the need for them to also work hard.   It’s really important to challenge fixed mindsets in higher attainers. It is also a challenge for teachers who may not be 100% confident with the most challenging material.  Modelling earned fluency through hard-work and self-belief is powerful. The Rosenthal Pygmalion effect – as featured here – is powerful:  expect more, you get more and vice versa.  Don’t aim to pass; aim to excel.

Rigour; depth before speed

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The elements of a rigorous approach.

Read this post on rigour.  It’s a set of teacher attitudes that means you are driving standards in all areas. You don’t accept mediocrity; you insist on excellent behaviour; you pay attention to details of the subject content, delivering and expecting clarity and precision; pushing students to find ever deeper levels of meaning.

Acceleration through depth before speed is a good mantra.   This means it is not inherently better to cover a set curriculum  faster, or enter exams early. It can be better to explore a subject more widely or deeply.  However, working at a faster pace is also something higher attainers value and benefit from, eg in Maths.  Depth before speed, not instead.  (With thanks to Tim Dracup.)

Awe and wonder

As well as rigour, it pays to continually project a sense of awe and wonder about the material. Whether it is a mathematical solution, a beautiful poem or piece of physics, a clever and interesting structure in French, or an awe-inspiring event in history or feature of the natural world – there is always something to light up your students’ minds.  In my experience, high attaining students always value their teachers’ command of their subjects and their capacity to bring it alive.


Pitch it up: high challenge concepts early on – be brave.

This is partly a mindset but is also a routine.  If you are successfully challenging the highest attainers, they will feel this all the time; it will loop back to parents that students enjoy your lessons.  A few one-off challenge events won’t be enough.  The challenge is to gauge this for yourself: you must routinely set work that is pitched to challenge your highest attaining learners.

How do you know if you are challenging your students enough?  I’ve met too many teachers who were rather deluded in this regard, taking compliant busy engagement as a false proxy or being happy just not to get any complaints.  The only way to find the limits is to push students beyond them…. try a bit of deep-end challenge and see where they get stuck.  Set some pre-tests to establish what your students already know and can do.  It’s pretty frustrating to be ‘taught stuff I already know’ as one student once put it to me.

Here are a couple of superb examples of high challenge. From KEGS – a sample of the Year 7 ‘Fun with Faust’ unit.  And from my son’s school – his first ever homework.  The first question he had for homework at secondary school was ‘What is the difference between science and philosophy’.  As a parent, this fills your heart with joy.

Explicit knowledge; knowledge organisers

High attaining students like to know the big picture; they like to run ahead and see where everything is going; to work out where everything fits in.  Give your students good course outlines, spelling out required knowledge, reading, resources they can learn from independently and so on.  Alternatively, involve them in creating their own, as a class or individually.

Try the FACE It approach: 

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Once again, giving credit to my wife who devised this neat acronym, this works well as a scaffold for a unit of work.  Even very sophisticated learners benefit from some routine knowledge drills.  However, try to make sure they have the opportunity to connect the learning across topics to make connections, asking them to explain them in as much depth as possible.

Synoptic questions like these are good examples.   Make sure you also build up their problem solving capacity by showing that they need to ‘own the problem’ – add labels, make choices, plan a strategy.

eg Find the fraction shaded.  Show them lots of examples first but then give them the challenge of doing this themselves.

Probing questions; teacher knowledge. 

You need to use high challenge questioning strategies that get students to think hard and  to develop good, in-depth answers.  As I say in the Great Lessons: Probing post,  good probing questioning that can develop into dialogic questioning, is probably the defining feature of strong teaching to the top.  It’s not a one-off party piece; it’s a routine feature of great teaching.  Once you’ve taught a topic in depth and/or provided some high challenge source material, there is always another level of understanding to reach if you keep probing.

Of course, this only really works if the teacher can explain and question at the level of depth required.  Very often, an important CPD priority for teachers is going to be to  make sure they have a really good command of the material.  Could  you get an A* or Level 9 in your subject? An A* at A level?  Developing confidence in your own subject knowledge is never going to be time wasted if it related closely to the material your students need to know in order to excel.

Exemplars of excellence to emulate

One of the key messages from the Austin’s Butterfly story from Ron Berger, is that, too often, we settle for less than students are capable of.  Another is that students themselves don’t know what might be possible and so they pitch too low.  As a routine practice, it pays to show students what the highest standards look like:  the expected length and quality of piece of writing, the quality of finish on any creative product, the language features or use of technical terminology; the precision of measurements or accuracy of plotting a graph.  Don’t hit and hope…. show them first.

Tiered levels of Problem-solving

Inevitably, you will have mixed ability classes;  students will always work at a different rate or need different levels of challenge on some topics.  If you routinely provide tiered questions that balance repetitive practice with a scale of challenge, you can’t go too far wrong.  This is not the same as expecting less of some students.  You should still pitch a lesson to the top.  However, the practice questions need some tiering if you are going to have a chance of optimising the challenge level for each student.  See this post on differentiation  for more thoughts on this.

Extra Challenges:

High challenge independent learning.

Every so often it really pays off to get students to flip the learning, asking them to read ahead, self-teach via youtube clips or text books and then to bring their learning into a classroom.  This adds to a healthy diet of learning experiences.  I got great mileage out of asking Y10s in Physics to teach themselves vlookups on Excel so they could make their own stopping distance calculator.  It’s amazing what students can to if you give them the green light to try.  Of course, some struggle more than others but you can create a culture where this is ok rather than simply play it safe.

I also find that, if you train A level students to take rigorous notes from a text book or online video tutorials in advance of a lesson, it frees up a lot of time for discussing questions and probing into their understanding.

Open-ended projects: ‘Dazzle me’

Sometimes it is really great to ask students to respond to a piece of learning in any form they like. A history teacher at KEGS did this with superb results.  She asked her students to respond any way they liked, ‘but you have to dazzle me’.  And they did. They produced exceptional pieces of researched material on individual figures from the Renaissance, creating artefacts and illustrations that they had taken great joy in making.  This was all done over a half-term holiday without taking any lesson time at all. The expectation was there.. and they rose to meet it willingly.   Of course, you might get a lot of lame rubbish- but then you wouldn’t accept that. Models from previous years also help to set the standards.

Oracy; pedagogical inputs

Oracy activities are superb for stretching high attaining students, alongside the routine practice of expecting high quality verbal responses in class. Here you can see a special event Soapbox Day where students are all giving their own personal five minute speech. The other image shows Trevor explaining a physics demo to his class.  These pedagogical inputs from students are usually much better than presentations with a powerpoint for getting students to pull their ideas together whilst also involving the class fully.

Co-construction; side-kicks; Edmodo/google apps

This, to me, remains the ultimate in full-blown teaching to the top.  I wrote about this a lot from my time at KEGS. There were so many fabulous elements as I’ve tried to capture in these posts:

Sidekicks.  Just check out Taran’s plan or the email exchange with Arjun.  These students were being stretched fully in the content of the subject were also exploring a wider set of skills in shaping their learning. This could be achieved with a sub-group in a more mixed class.  It’s exciting to give students the responsibility to plan, organise and deliver a set of science demonstrations and to do it really well.  Obviously you, the teacher, is always there alongside them, giving it depth and keeping it all on track but their experience is hugely enriched from this process as part of a more traditional diet.

Online class forum. Using an online platform like Edmodo to communicate between lessons provided a rich seam of challenge for students in a Year 9 science class.  I had teams for every unit and an overall tech team that kept it all running.  They found this hugely rewarding.

Excellence Exhibition

Finally -show it all off.  We all give value to the art exhibition and music concert  as a means of showcasing student work – but what about the rest.  At my recent schools, showcasing excellent work at an exhibition has been part of the thinking with some superb results.  The exhibition at KEGS contains short films from history and languages, extended essays, student magazines, sculptures and art work – and so on.


If you get this right, everyone wins.  Your highest attainers are stretched, they love school all the more, you get great support from parents, your students are more motivated and the rising tide effect brings everyone with you.  Is it possible for a student to be under-challenged and held back in your lessons because you’re not expecting enough?  Give it some thought, test it out and then, if necessary, make the change.  All to gain; nothing to lose.


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