Over the years I’ve recommended that teachers ‘teach to the top’ on too many occasions to count. For the most part, I’ve caveated this by included the need to ‘scaffold down,’ but, honestly, I’ve come to believe that the phrase ‘teaching to the top’ has the capacity to do more harm than good.
I spoke at a conference recently where I asked participants to discuss what they understood by the term. After a brief chat, I asked them to respond on their mini whiteboards to the following question:
What is the best definition of the term ‘teaching to the top’?
A) Pitching lessons to the most able
B) Ensuring all students achieve the highest outcomes
C) Differentiating lessons to ensure all students are appropriately challenged
D) Challenging the most able whilst ensuring the least able don’t fall behind
When everyone held up their MWB, most had gone for D or C (although I was startled to see a number of As) and almost no one had gone for B.
As it happens, B is my preferred definition.
‘Teaching to the top’ only works if ‘the top’ refers to outcomes rather than children. If we mean teaching to the top of the ability range then we will inevitably leave many students behind. But, if we teach all students, regardless of their prior attainment, to achieve the highest possible standards then maybe all will find it possible to achieve excellence. Getting the most advantaged, the most able, the highest prior attainers to be successful is relatively straightforward. All too often these students are successful despite rather than because of what we do in the classroom. If the least advantaged, the least able, the lowest prior attainers are to be successful it will only be because of our efforts.
Easy to say, but what does this actually mean?
As I’ve explained before, experiencing success is essential for students to be willing to commit doing anything difficult. For some students this will inevitably require a huge amount of support. The five teaching strategies which underpin the implementation of OAT’s English curriculum are all aligned with this ambition. For instance, the focus on reading fluency ensures, through repetition, that all students achieve perfect prosody. C25K writing, with its relentless focus on mastering individual sentence structures, attempts to guarantee that every student can smash out perfect sentences. Structured discussion, with its emphasis on repetition of high quality language, means that all students have the experience of speaking well-crafted academic language. Because the curriculum specifies small steps repeated over and over, all students have the opportunity to be successful. Obviously, despite this emphasis on mastery, some students will still be more successful than others, but because all students see and feel that they are able to produce something impressive, they come to believe that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to sustain this standard with increasing independence.
The fact that all this is ridiculously optimistic is part of the point. Inevitably, there are still students who, despite every effort, fall through the gaps. But, if we’re really serious about all students achieving the highest standards, we need to believe that gapless instruction is possible.
In the past, when children failed to achieve the highest standards, I’d assume they just weren’t up to it, that the fault was theirs. Instead, our default response should be to take responsibility for these inevitable failures and assume that if students haven’t been successful, it must be because we’ve left a gap in our instruction. Whilst it might not always be true – there may be some students who, no matter how hard we try, we can’t reach – it’s probably a useful fiction. Useful because there’s very little percentage in blaming kids. By taking responsibility and assuming we’ve inadvertently left gaps we will look more closely at the content and sequencing of our curriculum and reflect more deeply on our teaching. And, if we look carefully and closely enough, we’re likely to find areas where we can improve.
Because ‘teaching to the top’ is widely misunderstood and so blandly meaningless, I’ve stopped recommending teachers do it. I’ve increasingly come to suggest the idea that we should endeavour to achieve gapless instruction.
 Whenever I say ‘all’ please be aware I’m referring to children within the normal ability range of mainstream schools.