Chesterton classThat isn’t the question… although it is one which is frequently asked with regard to HPL. The truth is, it isn’t how students are grouped which is the limiting factor in their success, it’s the way in which those groups are treated and the expectations of their teachers.  

If we create two sets and, in the expectation that both will attain high levels of performance, we provide challenging and stimulating opportunities for both, and ensure that we identify and address any barriers to progress, then the setting is largely irrelevant.

If, however, we have differing expectations of the two sets and assume that one set is of lower ability and will never attain highly, and so provide less challenge and make fewer demands, it is unsurprising that the “lower” set lives down to our expectations. They have had a diet of less motivating teaching, low expectation and reduced opportunity.

The research evidence suggests that ability is a measure only of what an individual can do at the current time. It isn’t fixed and with the right teaching and interventions, can be augmented so that new knowledge can be learnt and new skills mastered over time. If this is the case then what we term “ability sets” is a flawed concept since we are, in effect, setting based upon what we understand about a student’s current level of performance. It seems fairly obvious that if we then provide a stimulating and rich learning experience for those whose current level is high, their progress and “ability” will accelerate. If, at the same time, we provide limited, and limiting, learning for those whose current level of performance is in fact most in need of acceleration, we further retard progress and exacerbate the gap. 

This is not to suggest that that prior attainment isn’t important as are cognition and attitude to learning (in effect ACPs and VAAs) but, as we all know, these can be taught. Setting or grouping should enable a school to ensure that pupils with differing levels of current performance are both challenged and supported to progress and can help the teacher to provide tailored intervention for students to overcome any barriers to learning so that they move forward.  

The question isn’t whether or not to set students, it’s the underlying educational beliefs which underpin the setting arrangements and the way in which they operate either to promote, or hamper, the goal of high performance for all.

Melanie Saunders, March 2017


Of all the High Performance Learning characteristics we focus on in HPL, those in the ‘Hard working’ group seem the most familiar. Perseverance, practice and resilience have been the underpinning philosophy behind much recent educational dogma – including Character Education in the UK and the work on ‘Grit’ in the US – so that these elements of the framework appear almost ubiquitous.


To be clear:

  • Perseverance is the ability to keep going; to encounter obstacles and difficulties but never give up.
  • Resilience is the ability to overcome setbacks; remain confident, focussed, flexible and optimistic; and to help others move forward in the face of adversity.
  • Practice is the ability to train and prepare through repetition in order to become more proficient.


The Marshmallow Experiment

A great deal of time and effort has gone into proving how vital these characteristics are, not just for success, but also for health and happiness. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of the 1960s, which tested the ability of young children to resist the temptation of a marshmallow on the hope of more marshmallows to come, concluded that:

‘The pre-schoolers who were able to wait for two marshmallows, over the course of their lives, have a lower BMI, lower rates of addiction, a lower divorce rate and higher SAT scores.’

This experiment, with various adjustments, has been repeated many times with similar outcomes. If we know, therefore, that these things matter, why aren’t we all teaching our children to be resilient and persistent?



It is, of course, nowhere near as simple as it appears. Those children who are least successful in our schools often lead lives which require them to learn greater resilience than many of us will ever need and demonstrate remarkable persistence just to be in school, on time, with at least some of the required equipment. It also obviously isn’t enough just to develop these characteristics – high performance requires that we recognise them and learn how to apply them to academic and professional success.

Equally, many of the young people who have been supported from their earliest years to work hard and be academically successful in school have not had the opportunity to learn the resilience they need to bounce back from failure or to persist when their achievements fall short of perfection. There is a difference between aiming for high performance and chasing unobtainable perfection, and learning this difference is as important for mental health as it is for success.

Children need to be taught about resilience and persistence and how to apply it to their lives and their learning. Recovering from failure and trying again, understanding that not all tasks have a pre-determined outcome, learning that mastery is a process not an event, working with their peers to identify and overcome barriers and engaging in a productive discourse with their teachers are all part of establishing the classroom climate which develops these characteristics.



Interestingly, later research on that famous marshmallow experiment has demonstrated that the most important element in developing resilience is trust. Those children who did not trust the adult who promised the reward made an active choice to eat the marshmallow already in their grasp. Most of those who were confident the adult could be trusted to deliver on their promise chose to wait.

Since, like intelligence, behaviours are learnt and augmented by experience, it is unsurprising that teachers who are consistent and reliable are most successful in teaching children to be resilient and persistent.


Melanie Saunders
February 2017

Chesterton lesson 2This is the latest in our series of blog posts from HPL Pioneer Schools. HPL Members can join Chesterton to learn more about their implementation of HPL at the Webinar on Monday 20th February (visit the Member Site to register).

What happens when you rip up the rule book for a cohort of students? Can it make them world class learners?

This is what we at Chesterton Community College are finding out, using the concepts of High Performance Learning.

Working initially with a cohort of predominantly low prior attaining students (3rd out 4 sets if you like), a leading group of teachers at Chesterton are testing the cohort's responses to different paired ACPS and VAAs. Looking at both curriculum and lesson planning, we are evaluating how effective we find strategies in shifting students' mind-sets in the very short term (a task or lesson), and the very long term (their academic career).

Contextually over time (10 years or so), similar students have made progress at similar rates to other students, but not greater; a gap has remained. At Chesterton, we had already tweaked this cohort’s curriculum menu: their timetables / days are structurally different in shape to those of students on other pathways, their curriculum is more overlapping, and there is a robust pedagogy focused on the best teachers delivering genuine mastery and consolidation. Subsequently, we have over the last few years seen outstanding progress with this group and feel that all students reach a juncture where they can succeed.

Chesterton lesson image

High Performance Learning has helped us to define the narrative of what we’re doing for this cohort of students, in terms of our aims, and in terms of giving us the language to explain how our students have been developing. In piloting HPL, we are confident that we can unlock the door that makes the difference between our students doing very well, and our students being truly world class.

Thanks to Lucy Scott, Richard Auffret and the rest of the team at Chesterton ( for this blog post.

If you want to learn more, why not become an HPL Member to get access to live and recorded webinars from HPL experts and Pioneer Schools?

Geography imageLast term HPL Members enjoyed a webinar presented by Jeremy Reynolds, on High Performance Learning in geography. Here he summarises why he thinks geography is so suited to this approach.

Geography is an excellent subject to demonstrate how High Performance Learning can work and have an impact in the classroom. This blog suggests a variety of lesson ideas and strategies that can developed to illustrate the clear application of the different types of thinking and dispositions that are at the heart of HPL. I would encourage all teachers to reflect on their practice and lessons, thinking about their students, and I would stress the importance of being overt when developing these cognitive and behavioural competencies.

I suggest a twofold approach, that can be applied to all subject and phase applications of HPL. Firstly, look at existing successful and effective lessons and teaching strategies and ‘deconstruct’ them to see what thinking is being developed (ACPs) and what behaviours are nurtured (VAAs). Secondly, use specific ACPs and VAAs as the ‘drivers’ in planning new schemes of work and lessons in Geography.

Geography as the ideal subject for HPL
Geography readily lends itself to HPL and is an ideal subject for many reasons. It is a synoptic and connecting subject, linking together many other disciplines with a spatial focus. It is intrinsically relevant to the world around us and problems and issues that feature ‘in the news’. Several of the ACPs and VAAs can be automatically associated with Geography – those links to the real world already mentioned, and also enquiry-based learning. The skills and qualities of the geographer – e.g. the ability to analyse, synthesise, evaluate and present – are highly prized by employers and are part of HPL’s approach in developing students who are college-, career, and life-ready. Finally, Geography can and always should excite, fascinate and inspire passion for learning (through, for example, highlighting the grandness and splendour of the natural world), which surely is the key to motivating students’ high performance learning and achievement.

Geography 2

Developing the ACPs in Geography lessons
Metathinking can be developed by considering Geography’s contribution to the curriculum, linking together other subjects such as Economics and Biology, but giving a unique, spatial perspective. High performance is encouraged by asking students to ‘think like a geographer’ in understanding real life situations and issues.

Comparison and contrast of similar yet different things such as cities or ecosystems encourages linking; and two hugely important ideas in ‘big picture’ thinking are the concepts of geological time and human impact on the environment.

Analysing is fundamental to the understanding of all geographical processes and systems (e.g. rivers, glaciation, plant succession) and graphs can be brought ‘alive’ by asking questions, constructing scenarios and hypothesising, rather than just relying on closed response to simple data-led questions.

When students are asked to view issues and problems in different ways and come up with innovative solutions, creativity comes to the fore, and a personal favourite of mine is the use of geographic analogies, which can be hugely effective in developing understanding.

More ‘standalone’ activities used regularly in Geography, such as problem solving, role playing and decision-making exercises, cover many areas of HPL and there is value too in ‘working backwards’ from a stimulus such as a photograph, to encourage high level thinking and questioning in the form of Socratic dialogue. Spatial awareness and a good geographic general knowledge are both helpful to the geographer and demonstrate the ACP of realising.

Geography and the VAAs
The behaviours encompassed by HPL’s VAAs are also inherent in all aspects of Geography. Fieldwork and fieldtrips, so integral to the subject, provide wonderful opportunities to bring out the key features of HPL, and these do not have to be on a grand scale, as the local area offers opportunities as well.


In conclusion, Geography is a subject which ideally lends itself to High Performance Learning. Teachers who can develop their understanding of how to develop the ACPs and VAAs in students will be able to capitalise on Geography’s inherent advantages and enable all their students to achieve at the highest level.

High Performance Learning
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