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Author Stuart White. Posted on 27-May-2016

As a teacher, in both UK schools and overseas, I have seen and tried a lot of approaches to teaching. Work in the classroom and as a school leader has been anchored by Piaget, Hargreaves and John Holt at one end of a career, and more latterly by the drive to evidence-based learning, cognitive strategies and the role of motivation. I have always believed that theory should anchor strong performance in the classroom and drive student outcomes. This is the ethic that underpins everything we do as school leaders: we must be clear that the approaches we are taking really do provide the best opportunities for all the children and young people in our care.

In 2010, I was in China, working as Head of Secondary in a through school of 1400 students aged between 2 and 18. Next on the development plan was to move teaching and learning on to a level we could all be proud of, and I was looking for the right way to enthuse and develop a teaching staff from a wide range of different backgrounds – UK and international, independent and maintained. This is when I first came across Professor Deborah Eyre’s ideas – in ‘Room at the Top’ (www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/room-at-the-top-inclusive-education-for-high-performance) – and was able to talk to her more about how she saw education. I’m not sure I could have articulated so obviously then what I liked, but as I have talked and reflected more on the academic journey – mine and the school’s – I think it was largely prompted by a simple thought: all this ‘stuff’ we do with children who are ‘gifted and talented’ – it’s good – why don’t we do it with all children?

High Performance Learning (HPL) and Our School’s Goals

We had simple aims: be the best school in Shanghai, be the best school in China, and so on. We also had more sophisticated goals around the hard edges of secondary schools with demanding parents: significant increases in student retention, in GCSE results and – top of the list – headline improvements in IB Diploma scores for all students.

IB Diploma scores in particular sat very well with the HPL philosophy. I have been frustrated by the perception in some places that the IB Diploma is an elite programme that is “only for bright students”. Worse, I know of schools who only let “bright” students on to the Diploma programme. Unforgivably worse, rumours abound of schools who drop students from the Diploma programme when they look like they aren’t going to score highly enough. HPL’s key premise that all students can achieve highly is a perfect match for a development programme designed to raise IB scores to extra-ordinary levels.

HPL’s stress on the less easily measurable outcomes was also important to us. As an international school, we wanted to be able to reassure parents who had taken their children across the world that they were in great hands. We laid a lot of emphasis on helping our students to become well-motivated and engaged independent learners, and the HPL philosophy had the potential to work well to underpin this.

Our HPL Approach

Our approach to implementing HPL is rooted in a line from Daniel Willingham: “memory is the residue of thought”. We didn’t want to train teachers – we needed to get them talking, discussing, arguing, creating – engaging with their own pedagogy and that of others around them. We started with the Advanced Performance Characteristics. We loved them, but we didn’t understand them all. So we bashed definitions around and thought about how best to make them fit our school. We worked with the primary school and found that we could use the same language throughout the school. I still have video of a Year 1 student explaining how he was thinking. It turns out (as HPL tells us) that you can and should have high expectations of all students – nursery students can do meta-cognition.

One of the key things for us was making it as a visible and explicitly articulated as possible. We created displays and had them printed onto posters to go up in every classroom. We embedded HPL language everywhere we could – student planners, exercise books, badges – anywhere we could think of. Professor Eyre’s work had provided us with a theoretical underpinning, and we saw our role as making it part of our life – practical, simple, quotidian. We had a mission to get teachers and students ‘thinking about thinking’ every time they did anything; I smiled every time I walked past a discussion that involved the word “meta-thinking” or heard a primary student explaining that they were concentrating on “practising”. Primary classes created actions for the ACPs, and made short videos – which I loved. Building learning conversations in the classroom, in the staff room, in corridors and at home created the idea that we cared how we learned as a community and that it was important to us.

HPL is a philosophy that needs arriving at gradually since it requires deeply held belief. For our school, the ACPs were a good way in. Once we’d all embraced the ACPs, we applied the same approach to the HPL values, attitudes and attributes (VAAs) – but that’s another story.

One challenge we had when helping teachers to change their practice was to avoid being patronising. None of us like being lectured, and even less do we like being told that we’ve been ‘doing it wrong’. Structuring the work we did in the form of discussion and shared discovery was both a good cultural and a good pedagogical fit. We talked so much about ‘cognitive articulation’, for example, that it became a thing. I think by the time we finished everyone probably thought they’d always known about it.

Results

For us, as an international school in a competitive environment, however much we found the process intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, it absolutely had to be the right thing for measurable student outcomes.

And, in short, we loved the results. The school got better and better, and HPL must have played a key role in this. Everything we could possibly measure about the school showed year-on-year improvement: student numbers, examination results, university and college destinations and parent and student satisfaction.

After a while, the approach to learning becomes part of the school’s DNA – indeed this is a metaphor we used explicitly with staff and students – we talked about “our learning DNA”. We all felt good about what we were doing, including students and their parents, so we were delighted to carry on.

Reflection

There’s an old saying that sometimes gets applied to change in business about not being able to cross a chasm in a series of small steps. I don’t really believe that’s true and I don’t always think it’s helpful. Major change involves major disruption, and where you are talking about fundamental changes to people’s beliefs, then creeping insurrection feels like a better and longer lived approach. If I had to do it again, I would start HPL by taking the smallest possible step on the HPL Journey, but do it with everyone in the school, from Early Years to IB Diploma, and in all subjects – in and out of the classroom. I would explain the whole process to staff and then pick jointly somewhere to start. This points to my major learning outcome from the implementation we started: it has to be built collaboratively.

Professor Eyre introduced me to the concept of tightening and loosening in change management in schools. Encapsulated in a quote of Joel Klein’s – you can mandate adequacy but greatness has to be unleashed – this for me is the idea that the processes for the journey from satisfactory to good are very different in schools to the processes from good to outstanding. HPL for me belongs to the latter stage of the growth of the school – it is a core philosophy for unleashing greatness in all students and staff. Even as we stumbled through the early stages of implementation, it became clear that the best outcomes arose from handing over control and letting teachers experiment. I’m probably at the authoritarian end of the leadership scale – I am a great believer in trying to control as much as possible – so this is a pretty significant piece of learning for me.

On a personal note, I might mention that one key driver for me was having two children completing education at the school whom I wanted to have the chance to succeed. The approach certainly worked for them – both now happily ensconced at top UK universities. IB scores of 42 and 44 points place them amongst the top students in the world and leave them with very proud parents. HPL’s part in that is something for which I am very grateful.

One final thought: Sir Terry Pratchett once wrote wryly that “fish have no word for water”. I believe that HPL will have helped education take a huge step when I no longer hear the phrase “gifted and talented” in schools.