Three tips on supporting high-ability learners

How do you solve a problem like a high-ability learner?

It’s not an easy question, and one that is often – perhaps with good reason – not as high on the priority list for some classroom teachers. Why? Well, in the archaic (and now defunct) but sadly frequent A* – C measure of a school’s “success”, simply put, helping a pupil with a D prediction to get a C was of far more value to that school’s image than helping a predicted-A child to get an A* – rightly or wrongly. But for those with higher predictions, it’s a tricky question indeed: they would be likely to get those A* to C grades (in old money), and if they’re predicted an A or an A*, there’s little chance of them making really good positive progress (or “value-added”). So why put so much energy into them?

The reason I feel entitled to write such a post is because, relatively recently, I was one such high-ability learner. I’m now in the industry of education consultancy, and I guess that makes it my job to be able to talk with authority about these things – I have been through the very same, only six or seven years ago, and it’s becoming an increasingly common question asked of us at EBE: what can we do to challenge these pupils who are at the extreme right of the normal distribution of ability? How can we stretch them? Here are my three tips:

  1. Create “desirable difficulties”

A big focus of ours recently, in the development of some new training days and programmes, has been around creating desirable difficulties: those things which take thinking to solve, and ultimately, those things from which we learn. Adults, toddlers, or pupils in schools around the world… None of us is any different in that regard. In particular, high-ability pupils will know when their teachers are giving them more of the same. In order to challenge and push them, they have to be tested beyond the limits of their comfort zone. To put it another way, it has to be quality over quantity.

The issue that then arises is time. No class teacher has the time or willpower to create 25 different schemes of work – each tailored to the exact levels of a pupil in the group. My argument is not only that it doesn’t have to be curriculum-based, but that it shouldn’t be curriculum-based. Which leads me on to number 2.

  1. Encourage transfer to novel contexts

Ultimately, pupils know that school work is school work. They’re generally wise to that and pretty switched on. In order to get the mental juices flowing, they need to be challenged in areas that can be seen as relevant and, more importantly, that aren’t about a mark scheme. One of these things that springs to mind is a former Chemistry teacher of mine. His method for this was, no doubt, seen by some as “lazy”. But it was anything but.

He would, at the start of each day, photocopy the puzzle pages from The Times and The Telegraph – number puzzles and crosswords, respectively – and leave them on the back desk. If you finished early, the instruction was simply to go and get a sheet and have fun. He hit the nail on the head.

Whether you liked numbers or words, there was always something to head to. Some would go for the quick crossword; others the cryptic. Some would take on an easy Sudoku; my favourite was the hardest Killer possible. It wasn’t Chemistry, no. But it got us thinking outside the box – “real-world” problem-solving, for want of a less-clichéd term. It’s clearly stuck with me, as I was sat doing a crossword this morning.

It’s nothing new that puzzles boost brain function, cut dementia risk, and much more, but this article highlights a particular benefit of crosswords: bolstering verbal communication skills. It will come as little shock, then, that I went on to study languages and get a first-class degree in Chinese and German. Likewise, while I was in China, I entered Chinese speaking competitions where I devised informative and entertaining “crosstalk” speeches centred around linguistic patterns and wordplays. That is the “active mind seeking patterns”, to quote the article above, at play.

  1. Build in the continuum of learning

Thirdly, and perhaps more interestingly, is a childhood favourite. It’s a computer game – an activity much maligned at times – and it became a go-to for me once again while studying abroad only a few years ago, over a decade after being bought it for the first time. In fact, I credit it with why I’m in business now. It’s Rollercoaster Tycoon.

I loved theme parks, and my brain worked in strangely logical and organised ways (cf. point 2). It was the perfect storm as a child: I could build a load of exciting rides, and think about the most effective park layouts – how to get the most value for my land, where the ride exit should be to keep guests happy, and so on. What I didn’t realise though is what I was actually learning as a nine-year-old sitting on my Windows 95 computer. I was learning about profit margins, about uncertainties in a business world, about advertising, about customer satisfaction, and about delegating effectively – creating defined roles for my staff. The challenge for me was to make things run like clockwork in my park, so that I could go and have lunch, leaving it running in the background without any fear that anything would go wrong. Little did I know, I was learning a lot of business theory by doing something I was really immersed in.

That isn’t it, though. That doesn’t mean I could build and run a theme park in real life, and it doesn’t mean I know everything about business theory, by any stretch of the imagination. But I was on that particular continuum early. I’m still on it, and still learning. I couldn’t run before walking, and similarly I couldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t learned some of those skills from a young age.


So, back to the question. How do you stretch high-ability learners? Tests can be a powerful way of stretching high-ability learners, but without analysis of data from students’ responses, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to judge accurately if a test does actually do this. EBE’s Assessment Lead Programme includes a tool which does precisely this, and teachers have been surprised by the information it has given them (many have found that their tests are too easy, despite what they previously thought).  The most important thing to do is to engage them. You give them work (or play…) that is relevant – they can see why they are doing it, and so they engage in return.  For me, at the time, my parents bought me Rollercoaster Tycoon to pacify me and keep me happy at home. Likewise, my Chemistry teacher gave me crossword puzzles to do the same. Looking back, years later, whether it was intentional or not, they were teaching me to learn. That is so so powerful.

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