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Are you the best of the best… or the best of the rest?

Imagine you were a footballer playing in the first team for your county – you would be able to say with certainty that you were good at football, wouldn’t you? What if you then were selected to play for your country, but compared to the other players on the national team you were ranked at the bottom for playing ability. Would you still think that you were good at football? Would you still have confidence in your ability to do well in matches? Would you still be as motivated? How might your coach perceive you as a player in their team?

Teaching and learning in a high achieving school brings different challenges to both students and teachers. The focus of the teacher is to help guide a student to achieve their very best, always challenging and cultivating their academic ability. The top achieving students thrive in this type of atmosphere, eager to learn and further their knowledge and make as much progress as they can. However, for other students, I believe it is possible that a high achieving environment can have a detrimental effect; it is hard for them to experience and enjoy success if they compare themselves to their peers.

My project is to research how best to support the perceived “lower ability” students. Often these are students with a target grade of between 5-7, which would certainly not be considered low ability in other establishments, however, with a majority of targets set at 7-9 in my classes, those with a perceived lower target grade and perceived lower CAT score are considered relatively to be at the bottom end of the class. With a majority of students in the class receiving consistently exceptional marks, it can be de-motivating for these students.

With the current pressure on teachers to work toward exceptionally high target grades, there are many potential positive and negative impacts. Research has proven that many students that are set high targets can perform at a higher level than they would have otherwise achieved; they are pushing themselves harder alongside the expectation and recognition from their teacher that they are capable of achieving at that level.

However, there is also a range of damaging effects that these targets can cause which need to be recognised; factors that we need to be aware of and ensure that we do our utmost to counteract. The expectation that the teacher will always be able to support students to the highest external target grades potentially has a catastrophic effect when the teacher recognises that the target grade is well out of reach and is almost certainly unattainable by the student, regardless of the interventions that are put in to place. The resultant effect of this has the potential to damage a positive teacher-student relationship as the teacher can become resentful that the student will have a negative impact on their reputation, departmental statistics, and a possible negative impact in their performance review. Which is a problem as there are extensive research findings to suggest that the student-teacher relationship is one of the greatest influences on student achievement.

In a time when student and teacher well-being should be one of the top focal points for any school, given the current state of mental health issues prevalent in the school environment in our country, we need to be careful to consider how to manage student and parental expectations, alongside those of the teacher, department and school.

I am a Computer Science teacher teaching mixed ability sets. Though, to a certain extent we are selective, as students must reach a specific level in Maths to be accepted on to the course. However, though this is normally a good indicator of reasoning skills, we do find in some cases that Mathematical ability level does not equate to logical reasoning at a level required to be successful in Computer Science.

The students who are involved in the project were selected based on data: CAT scores, target grades, forecast grades and performance in class. A questionnaire was issued to three classes to attempt to identify learning processes and attitude differences between top achievers and the perceived lower ability students.

With a large part of the project dependent on student attitude many factors need to be explored in the project to look at their effect on motivation:

  • Growth mindset

  • Styles of feedback

  • Effects of high target grades

With reference to Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset, teachers should be encouraging students to increase their self-belief and aid pupils to become more resilient, this would lead to them developing more of a growth mindset; resulting in an increased positive attitude towards their ability, enabling them to believe they are capable of more as they would experience more “wins”. This is especially important for the perceived lower ability students in a class, as they are in danger of becoming demotivated or losing interest in the subject, believing that they are not capable of achieving the required levels.

To support a more positive experience for students I believe it is important to deploy a variety of more personalised feedback methods for these perceived lower ability students; for some students, confidence can be damaged by continually receiving a low grade for their work. I tested this with a student over a few months – she received Closing the Gap exercises, praise for work that was attempted – either complete, or partially completed, but she received no grades, even if the rest of the class did. She responded well to this to the point where I was able to raise her target grade at the end of this time; as her self-esteem increased so did her performance. This is one of the focus areas for my research.

In summary, all students have different needs, we as teachers sometimes need to consider this more carefully in our approach to working with individuals.

Janet Symonds

Computing Department

Saffron Walden County High School

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