Author Deborah Eyre. Posted on 12-January-2016

Remember when we thought girls could not achieve as highly as boys? We thought it was genetic because that’s what most psychologists believed. Well life has certainly proved otherwise and girls are currently outperforming boys at every level in school in the UK.

So why are we still so wedded to the idea that other groups of pupils are incapable of achieving highly? We continue to think that our ‘potential’ defines us and that this will inevitably define educational outcomes. We routinely institutionalise this by calling students less able, more able etc.


But this was early 20th century thinking. Now we know better. Don’t we? Most of us have already accepted that innate ability does not account for everything. We are all familiar with the nature versus nurture arguments and have accepted that environmental contexts, family background etc can play a part. Some of us have even adopted Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset ideas. But we stay wedded to the idea that these are merely additional or even marginal factors. In the end we still believe that you either have what it takes to succeed in school or you haven’t.

So education has committed to becoming more and more adept in measuring how much cognitive potential each child has and using tests to define this. On the basis of the results we now make confident predictions from an increasingly early age about who will do well and exactly how well we expect them to do. Schools doing particularly well are said to add-more-value but this is still adding value to a child’s predicted potential.

But here’s the thing. Just like with girls’ education, when you ensure that students have the right learning opportunities, the right support and the self-belief that they can achieve highly, then most of them do.

Research from a whole variety of directions indicates this should not be a surprise. Neuro-science tells us that the brain is more malleable than we thought and can be developed1. So it’s not a case of born to succeed or born to fail. Random trials on expertise development show that with training most capabilities can be developed – both physical and cognitive2. Research into exceptional cognitive performance shows that a clear link between opportunities and achievement – those who don’t make the gifted scheme can perform just as highly as those in it but they won’t because the opportunity to do so has been withheld3. This means that by introducing early setting in school we are probably creating underachievement. Just like when we had girls’ underachievement as a result of deliberately withholding the more challenging subjects from girls. Remember the days of needlework and domestic science for girls and Latin and physics for boys? I do…

So we need to think differently. We need a step-change. Instead of seeking to identify levels of potential and creating appropriate pathways, we need to see all students as potential academic high performers and enhance the chances of success by removing individual barriers. Expect more from more. Instead of segregating and creating different pathways for different students we need to help every student develop the competencies that we know enable the highest performance.

Of course, for some, the route is more complex than others but it’s just as achievable. Like driving, some will take longer to master it and pass the test but that does not indicate how good their driving will be in the long-term. So this means an end to lowering the cognitive bar as the first sign of failure; just a redoubling of efforts and exposure to different types of opportunities.

All very well I hear you say. But what do we actually need to do? Well in 2010 I suggested4 that we needed to recognise that most students are theoretically capable of high performance but crucially only if deliberately and regularly exposed to the opportunity to develop advanced ways of thinking and the necessary learner behaviours. They need to practise these skills regularly and frequently as a part of their day to day education, building ever greater proficiency. The approach must be deliberate and systematic if it is to be effective. Like a training regime.

So here is the challenge for education. Structures come and go but the heart of high performing systems is the focus on the student and their achievement. The lesson from the Asian Tiger countries, who are holding most of the top positions in the OCED league tables, is that you do not create different pathways for different kinds of students. Everyone follows broadly the same demanding track and everyone is expected to achieve. Does this place too heavy a demand on students? No. OCED has identified that students themselves dislike segmentation – it reduces their sense of belonging. So why are we still doing it?

Author Deborah Eyre. Posted on 12-January-2016
So let’s stop concentrating on measuring ability and instead focus on maximising the factors that lead to cognitive success. Pie-in-the-sky? It is not. I have road tested this approach comprehensively with 31 schools and 20,000 students over a four year period. The results speak for themselves.

Professor Deborah Eyre

High Performance Learning helps schools move from good to world class by focusing on pedagogy and helping students develop the competencies they need for academic, workplace and lifetime success.

1 Jaeggi (2008) Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory

2 Ericsson, K. A., & Delaney, P. F. (1998). Working memory and expert performance. In R. H. Logie & K. J. Gilhooly (Eds.), Working Memory and Thinking (pp. 93–114). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum),

3 Shaughnessy, M. (2002). A reflective conversation with Robert Sternberg about giftedness, gifted education, and intelligence. Gifted Education International, 16, 201–207.

4 Eyre, D. (2011) Room at the Top, Policy Exchange

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