Converting high potential into high performance.

Recently my team and I have been thinking about why some of our high potential students don’t always produce work that reflects their capability. After a fair amount of discussion we came up with this four phase guide as a starting point. Suggestions on what else we should include, or critiques of where our approach might be wrong welcome as always and gratefully received.

LEVEL 1: Making expectations explicit.

We must have and maintain high expectations of the class as a whole. Letting the small stuff slip is the first step towards low performance. We explain expectations at the beginning of the year. If children get to ignore one (e. g no shouting out) then the rest will soon collapse too, because it will appear as if we don’t really mean what we say. If one can be ignored, why not all? If enforcing theses becomes an issue, ask for help rather than hope the problem will go away on its own. Because it won’t.

Insist that all listen to every word said. Make expectations explicit and try to avoid assuming that students know what is meant by “pay close attention”.

“When I am speaking I expect you all sitting up with nothing in your hands, facing forward with your knees under the desk, and looking at me.”

Don’t ignore a child looking out of the window, or fiddling or generally not concentrating even if everyone else is fully attentive and you want to push on. If you do ignore it, it will spread because some children see a failure to challenge as a tacit acceptance of non-compliance. Insist on the same standards when students are speaking too; if a child is giving an answer, they have a right to be heard by everyone in the room.

Sometimes just a pause in your explanation or reading can be enough of a cue to get everyone back on track if a critical mass of children are meeting expectations, because children usually peg their own standards against those of others. When things are going really well a stern look might be enough.

If this isn’t working try:

 “We’re going to have to repeat reading that last paragraph because some of you looked distracted, which means you won’t be able to do the work when I set it.”

“This is the second time this has happened. If I have to stop again we will have to go back to our expectations so we as a team can all learn.”

 The same is true of completing written work. All students should be writing for the time period you have specified. In the first instance deal with a failure to do this in the same way you would with non-compliance over listening.

“Some of you are wasting time. This is a problem because the writing is planned to take ten minutes. If you only write for five your answers won’t be of a high enough standard.”

“We’re not writing in silence as I asked. This is an issue because this work requires really deep thought and if you are talking you won’t be able to do it right. Also, when you talk you distract others which means their work won’t be good enough either.”

Make sure that the criteria of success is really clear. Here modelled work can be a powerful. Show students what a really good piece looks like and spend time going through why it is good. If sample work isn’t available it may well be worth typing out sample answers. Do remember though, this will have little impact if children don’t understand what makes it good, so don’t be scared to spend time on this.

If any number of very disruptive children mean that you are struggling to establish a wholly positive climate for learning  they must be dealt with very quickly. Remove them if needs be and work on Level 1 separately. All further efforts are likely to be undermined if even one child is seen by the rest of the class to be visibly breaking your rules.

 LEVEL 2 – LEVEL 1 has been established with a critical mass of children. Expectations are explicit and clearly communicated, but some students are still not meeting them.

 Establish a clear sense of cause and effect; if work is not good enough it will need to be improved until it is.

If you suspect a child is not listening to reading, or your explanations, ask them a question on it. If they don’t know, don’t go nuclear immediately because this leaves you nowhere else to go. Get another student to answer and then ask the first student to repeat it back. Doug Lemov has lots more on this in the CFU section of Teach Like a Champion 2.0. This shows that you will not tolerate passengers in your room and should have a ripple effect on other students tempted not to pay full attention – even if they haven’t been targeted this time they will be aware if they don’t do work well they could be. What we’re after is an internal: “Phew! Glad Sir asked Johnny that one because I didn’t know either. Better make sure I listen hard next!”

Select one or two students you know aren’t producing work of the standard you expect and target them. In the first instance keep this to yourself and avoid a direct challenge in front of others. While working circulate around the class and move indirectly towards them to avoid looking as if they have been immediately singled out. Then read their work and quietly explain why it is not of the standard you expect. Be explicit. Avoid: “This just isn’t good enough” or “you need to write much more than this.”

“Taylor, you haven’t included the key words I asked you to, nor have you written in paragraphs. We covered this when we discussed the sample answer. Do this now.”

Then go back and re-check. Don’t stop until the work is of the standard you expect. Keep children back if possible, to get it right.

This should also have the ‘ripple’ effect on others as it becomes clear that you do not tolerate substandard work.

LEVEL 3 – LEVEL 2 has been tried but some students continue to produce work below the standard you expect.

 Move the child to a position in a room where it is very easy for you to check their work. Make it clear why you have moved the child but do this privately.

“Francis, I know you understand the standard I expect and I have made it clear to you that I won’t tolerate sloppy work but you don’t seem to be making the improvements you need to. I’m moving you to the front of my room so I can check all the work you do is right.”

If moving the child isn’t practical for whatever reason, or you feel you even more robust action is required, tell the child you will be checking their work at the end of every lesson and will be making them repeat it in their own time if it isn’t good enough. Again, do this quietly and privately. Doing it publically is likely to lead to arguments, the incredibly annoying “but I’m not the only one”, and also flags to the rest of the class that not everyone works hard in your class.

“Francis, for the next week I am going to be checking your work at the end of every lesson. If you aren’t meeting the standard I expect then you will need to repeat it during your break or lunch until it gets there.”

If this doesn’t work use your management. Ask your Head of Department to check the work of the student.

“Francis, I’m concerned that you still aren’t making the changes we discussed and this means that you aren’t learning as fast as you should be in my lessons. I’ve asked X to check your work at the end of each lesson, so you need to get into the habit of taking your book to him until he tells you it isn’t necessary anymore.”

 LEVEL 4 – LEVEL 3 has been tried but the student(s) still show little improvement.

It may now be time to involve others. This can be quite sensitive and make sure that if you are doing this it is because you think it will have an effect and not because you are taking revenge. A parental meeting may be appropriate if you think this will have a genuine impact but may not be if you are aware issues at home are likely to make this a wasted effort. If you do choose to involve parents make sure you have a plan for what you want to achieve from the meeting beyond just moaning about the child which, especially if a parent hears this a lot, will cause them to switch off:

“I’ve called this meeting today because ___ is not including key words in their work and isn’t revising for their assessments. I would like you to help by..”

 Try to keep agreed actions as simple and manageable as possible. It’s really tempting to say that you will email the parent after every lesson but unless this is for a very limited number of students and for a limited time period the workload implications are significant. Overusing sanctions like this also means they become too familiar and cease to be an effective incentive to work hard.

It may also be appropriate to now speak to Form Tutors, Heads of Year, Head of Department or even SLT. If you choose to do this make sure that just as with the parental meeting you are doing this to identify strategies that will work and not just because you are really angry. Go into each meeting with a clear view of what support you want, to avoid getting bogged down with “X never does what I say, he always talks back etc)


 Acknowledge improvement at each level but do not over-praise the meeting of basic expectations (and fine work should be a basic expectation of a high potential student).

“Since you have been showing your work to X it has improved. So from now on I’m going to be checking your work instead. Hopefully you now understand what’s expected in my room.”

Be very careful about over-celebrating short term improvement. This is performance not habit and can lead to a peaks and troughs pattern. The aim is that these students develop the same habits and scholarly attitudes of high performing students in their class and that these habits become automated. This is less likely to happen if the process and not the work becomes the focus of our interventions.

Also be very careful that you are not introducing any new consequence out of anger. This doesn’t work. Doug Lemov puts this very well in saying “if you are mad, you waited too long.”


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