Rising stars: why are some students thriving out of school?

Liz Allen CBE, NACE Trustee

Listening in to over 200 school leaders, teachers and young people in online forums and in personal conversations, I am hearing a recurring theme: “Some children have done better without me teaching them.” Some teachers add, “…which is a worry.” Most are keen to explore the reasons why some children are thriving on home learning, when many appear to be struggling. While it is vital that the reasons for this struggle are identified and addressed, there is also much that school leaders and teachers can learn from the “rising stars” – young people who were not identified for a particular ability, skill or expertise in the classroom but who are blossoming at home, surprising their teachers.

Why were they not noticed in school? Why are they thriving at home? What can we learn from them, for our future practice, as we prepare for more students to return to the classroom?

Limiting factors within schools

Although the rising stars appear to come from all phases, types of school and a range of socio-economic contexts, common limiting factors in their schools’ culture and organisation are emerging:

  • Less confident schools, that are focused on exam outcomes, attendance targets and rigorous behaviour management structures, where young people are lost in the drive for data;
  • Schools with highly structured, frequent testing, where young people have too few opportunities to be inspired, to be creative, or to learn in depth;
  • Schools with strict ability grouping and differentiation practices, built on assumptions of ability;
  • Prescriptive schemes of work that leave little scope for teachers’ creativity, or for young people’s expertise – there is no time for deep learning in a classroom where quantity matters more than mastery;
  • Pedagogies that are teacher-focused and controlled, leaving too little scope for young people to become independent researchers, problem solvers or learning leaders;
  • Schools that misconstrue presentations of negative learning character as misbehaviour: the window-gazer, who finds the ideas inside her head more interesting but has no chance to share or explore them; the disruptive, who wants to let the teacher know that he is capable of much more challenging stuff but doesn’t know how to say it; the angry or withdrawn, who doesn’t understand and can’t process the work because her learning needs have not been recognised; the passive, unconfident, who finds the classroom crowded and oppressive;
  • Schools that have an extended core curriculum at the expense of the creative/expressive arts, design and PE, where young people have little opportunity to grow into disciplined, collaborative, creative learners and critical thinkers, or to have their creative/expressive/physical abilities and talents acknowledged and celebrated.

Why are some students thriving at home?

Teachers are telling anecdotes about the “rising stars” they are noticing and are asking their pupils why they are more engaged and making more progress. What is striking is the deepening mutual trust and respect which is clear in their voices:

Creative writing is a struggle for many young people, who often have a fixed view “I can’t do it.” One Year 5 pupil was very anxious about having to do creative writing tasks at home. “In school, there’s a plan on the board and I can put my hand up when I’m stuck.” Finding it easy to come up with “lots of ideas”, but getting stuck on how to develop them further, he is enjoying sharing his ideas at home and on FaceTime with his friends. “It’s much nicer than at school and I think I am getting much better.”

One-to-one tutorials are building young people’s confidence and respectful relationships with their teachers, who are able to see their capacity. A Year 12 tutor was struck with how powerful the tutorial can be: “It’s fascinating to listen to him. He has great insight and knows more than I do!” Another Year 12 student is appreciating the value of having a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with her tutors. She had a difficult pathway through the GCSE years, excelling in the subjects where she had private one-to-one tuition but unable to achieve her best outcomes in the rest. Now, through daily contact with her tutors, personal advice whenever she wants it, constant collaborative learning opportunities with her peers and with new-found confidence in her capacity, she is totally engaged with her Year 12 studies. “I miss being in school and I certainly miss my friends, but the work is going well. And I am looking forward to going in after half-term for real, live tutorials.”

What can we learn for our future practice?

Good friends from the retired headteachers’ community are entertaining each other with tales from the home front. They are discovering that IT is not a mysterious world inhabited by the young but an exciting avenue into following their interests and exploring new places: playing in a huge online orchestra, singing in Gareth Malone’s choir, visiting the theatres, galleries, faraway lands. And they are clearing the loft! An opportunity to throw out unneeded items that must have been useful once, but you have forgotten why – but also to rediscover lost treasures, hidden gems, that deserve to be brought back into the home, polished and put to good use. Perhaps this period of home schooling is our chance to clear out the curriculum and pedagogy loft, to discard what is not useful and to rediscover and polish up the gems of our principles and practice in the light of what young people are telling us.

NACE’s core principles include the statements:

  • Providing for more able learners is not about labelling, but about creating a curriculum and learning opportunities which allow all children to flourish.
  • Ability is a fluid concept: it can be developed through challenge, opportunity and self-belief.

In its chapter on Teaching for Learning, The Intelligent School (2004) presents a profile of the Learning and Teaching PACT – what the learner and the teacher bring to learning and teaching and, in turn, what they both need for the PACT to have maximum effect. Features of the PACT are visible in the accounts of rising stars, where both learner and teacher bring:

  • A sense of self as learner;
  • Mutual respect and high expectations;
  • Active participation in the learning process;
  • Reflection and feedback on learning;

And where the teacher brings:

  • Knowledge, enthusiasm, understanding about what is taught and how;
  • The ability to select appropriate curriculum and relevant resources;
  • A design for teaching and learning fit for purpose;
  • An ability to create a rich learning environment.
“Place more emphasis […] on the microlevel of things […] It encourages a culture that is more open and caring […] It requires genuine connection.”

– Leading in a Culture of Change (2004)

Chapter 4 of Michael Fullan’s Leading in a Culture of Change is entitled “Relationships, Relationships, Relationships”. Young people are letting their teachers know that personal conversations are enabling their learning. One group of Key Stage 3 students have asked their teachers to stop using PowerPoint presentations, which they feel unable to understand – “But it all makes sense when we talk about it with you.” Learning conversations may be a rediscovered gem in some schools, worth bringing down from the loft of forgotten treasure.

From the same chapter:

“When you set a target and ask for big leaps in achievement scores, you start squeezing capacity in a way that gets into preoccupation with tests […] You cut corners in a way that ends up diminishing learning […] I want steady, steady, ever deepening improvement.”

Motivation comes from caring and respect: “tough empathy” in Fullan’s terms. The rising stars are being noticed in a learning environment free from classroom tests and marking. We may need to take a close look at assessment practices in our loft clearance and rediscover the gems of self-assessment, academic tutorials, vivas and reflective discourse.

Can we improve young people’s chances of stardom by considering some fresh thinking, as we prepare for more of them to return to school?

  • What will “homework” mean? Can we build on what we are learning about best practice in home schooling?
  • How will we inspire (rather than push) young people to high aspirations and outcomes?
  • How can we listen better and build respectful, healthier learning relationships?
  • Can we design learning for depth and mastery rather than for assessment/testing and quantity?
  • How can we open up the curriculum and learning to creativity?
  • How can we exemplify and model best learning in our lessons?
  • How can we give young people time, resources and personal space to learn how to learn, to become the best they can be?

References and further reading:

  • The Intelligent School (Gilchrist, Myers & Reed, 2004)
  • Leading in a Culture of Change (Michael Fullan, 2001)
  • Engaging Minds (Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler, 2008)
  • Knowledge and The Future School (Young, Lambert, Roberts & Roberts, 2014)
  • Reassessing Ability Grouping (Francis, Taylor & Tereshenko 2020)

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