Think like a more able learner

Hilary Lowe, NACE Education Adviser | Dr Ann McCarthy, NACE Associate

NACE’s research project “Making Space for Able Learners” arose from the acknowledged gap in provision for highly able learners in schools in England and Wales, and the gap in the research evidence supporting effective pedagogical approaches to classroom provision.

The project began with an enquiry into successful approaches for more able learners in 18 NACE Challenge Award-accredited schools in England and Wales, primary and secondary, focusing on “cognitive challenge”. We also sought to identify school-wide factors which support these approaches.

Alongside this school-based enquiry we undertook a synoptic and chronological review of the literature and research relating to cognitive challenge. We looked at the literature pertaining to the “gifted and talented/highly able” field as well as to wider related education research and disciplines such as cognitive psychology. Based on this review we established a set of premises with regards to cognitive challenge, located in a contemporary evidence base and in the context of current curriculum thinking and developments in England. This has informed the project strategy as well as providing benchmarks against which to evaluate enquiry findings from participating schools.

What do we mean by cognitive challenge?

The term cognitive challenge is used by NACE to describe how learners become able to understand and form complex and abstract ideas and solve problems. Cognitive challenge will prompt and stimulate extended and strategic thinking, analytical and evaluative processes.

What have we discovered so far?

A full case study report detailing the project findings will be available in the autumn, but in the meantime here are some key takeaways…

We need to establish an appropriate educational culture built on a clear vision for more able education:

  • A solid foundation is essential to provide more able learners with the degree of challenge that will enable them to flourish.

We need to understand the cognitive and behavioural differences in the ways more able pupils think and learn:

  • Teachers and school leaders need to understand the nature of the pupils for whom they are planning. They need to plan the cognitive demand, learning activities and tasks.

We need to understand the importance and nature of cognitive challenge and cognitive discourse:

  • Highly able learners develop knowledge and skills at an appropriate level and learn more rapidly and effectively when cognitive challenge and cognitive discourse are distinctive, embedded, and consistent.

We need to manage a specific, precise and coherent learning environment.

  • Cognitive challenge was seen to exhibit itself through the planned and intentional design and management of teaching, learning and assessment.

We need to be aware of the impact of linguistic development and cognitive discourse and explicitly plan for this:

  • The quality of interactions with the teacher and with others engaged in the learning process (e.g. rich and extended talk and cognitive discourse to support challenge) is a key factor in cognitive challenge.

We need to plan a curriculum which reflects a deep understanding of learners’ needs:

  • The quality of the curriculum in both organisation and design can have a profound impact on the quality of learning, pace of learning and aspirations of young people.

Thinking like an able learner

One of the most important findings of the project is that teachers who consistently provide cognitively challenging learning opportunities do so from the starting point of the learner. This sounds obvious, but is not always obvious in practice. Planning for a very able learner should start from what that learner knows and can do and what the optimal learning outcome could be for a student who can go well beyond mastery onto the upward slopes of cognitive taxonomies. The teaching of very able learners should be informed by thinking like a very able learner.

What next for the project?

Making Space for Able Learners is an important part of NACE’s ongoing research programme and will continue into next academic year. The next stage will involve gathering further exemplification of aspects of cognitive challenge from participating schools and NACE R&D Hubs, together with further exploration of the school-wide factors which support and sustain the development of effective practices for cognitive challenge. Participating schools will also be supported by NACE in marshalling evidence of the impact of their approaches to cognitive challenge.

The project findings will be shared across our network and beyond, informing our CPD programme and the work of our R&D Hubs. It will provide schools with access to relevant and evidence-based support to increase opportunities for all learners, including the most able, to benefit from an enriched, extended and challenging curriculum.

With thanks to all staff, leaders and learners at participating schools.

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