How to find the right fuel for Ignition rather than Burnout?

How to find the right fuel for Ignition rather than Burnout?

The metaphor of Formula 1 and the importance of finding the right ‘fuel’ to power our potential high performers works quite well to describe how best to meet the needs of higher ability students. It had to be a fuel that ignited and powered world class performance but which, at the same time, did not run the risk of wrecking the engine through burn out.

So does this fit with recent Ofsted Reports?

Ofsted inevitably points out that we cannot consider what we currently do for our most able learners in our schools as world class, and advocates some clear ways forward to immediately address these issues of under-challenge.

What fuel works for high performance?

To extend the F1 analogy further, as a team we have to develop a fuel that complements and at the same time enhances the innate capacities of the driver. So where does it come from and who develops it? In Formula 1 the right fuel mixture would emerge from the mechanics, the drivers and the managers all working to accumulate the important marginal gains that come from experimentation, risk taking and practice. Just watch the team in operation during a Grand Prix to see their breathtaking mix of individual expertise and their slick division of labour. It would be unthinkable for the team manager to make crucial decisions about the fuel mix – or the type of tyres to use in any given weather conditions – without consulting and listening to individuals and to the team.

In the classroom, we perhaps too often assume that the ‘fuel’ of learning is entirely in the hands of the teacher as the ‘team manager’. The teacher/team manager has a crucial role in setting the tone – modelling the approach, sharing the passion, motivating, lifting aspiration,  and identifying and feeding back on those ‘marginal gains’. But teaching is not a monologue, it’s a dialogue. The mechanic, the driver, the timekeepers, the researchers and whoever else makes up the winning team, must all feel able to make a contribution that is heard or they leave. In the classroom the team members – the students – are stuck. For the teacher to be teaching to a template that comes entirely from her or his priorities and personal ways of learning is like a Formula 1 team ignoring the weather conditions when deciding on what tyres to fit for the race.

Applying the analogies

It might be illuminating to apply this analogy to the organisation and approach in the classroom in order to create a school based version of an F1 team:

  1. Working with the whole class

Whole class teaching is obviously important for sharing information, unpicking the rationale for the work and establishing the goals and the ethos for the group. This is the place where we take the class ‘behind the curtain’ of our teaching – where we talk about our strategies and intentions and why we are employing such approaches and where, inevitably, we talk about the criteria for examinations. It’s also where we confess our fallibility and the need that we have, just like the students, for lots of ‘rehearsal’ time as opposed to ‘performance’ time to get things right. It’s where we are in charge of the medium and longer term objectives, but where we engage students in a dialogue about how we get there; where we allow for task variation and practise differentiation – and if we have a TA that person too has a voice in our response to needs and choice of strategy. All of this can happen if we think of the work in terms of the questions we need to ask as teachers and the questions students might be encouraged to ask about the work and their way of tackling it.

  1. Focused Group work 

What happens in our organisation of sub groups is where the Formula 1 analogy really comes into its own. Some time ago Barry Hymer coined the phrase, ‘special interest groups’ to describe a style of group withdrawal which promoted and allowed for divergence and extension. The phrase works because it suggests a passion to know and accomplish, rather than an acknowledgement of proven ability. The composition of the group(s) can vary according to the ‘special interests’ of the individuals. The group would need to establish its learning aims, timescales, assessment criteria and outcomes – how will the group feed back its conclusions and outcomes to everyone else. All this can happen within a lesson, over a series of lessons, in breaks at school or as an extended homework, own work, project. This is differentiation in action: it’s about choice, flexibility and learning conversations; it has the potential to develop expertise and create the seeds of a master class.

  1. One to One

Although expensive, one to one is easy enough to manage in the classroom – with a TA or an imported academic mentor (from outside school or from an older age group within the school) or even (the easiest option) with a nearby available ‘low distraction’ space, but it is much more difficult, although not impossible, to manage when it requires some timetable flexibility. Off site master classes, specialist teaching, video conferencing, in school study days/conferences are effective but sometimes unpopular with colleagues. Nevertheless – one to one provision really does need to be part of the mix.

This way of planning and thinking about provision might go some way towards providing stretch and protection for the most able. It’s also a way of planning and it’s a way of explaining to students, colleagues and parents how needs are being met and it’s a way of developing the right ‘fuel’ for individuals with rather than for them.

The Absence of Challenge

A final thought. Ofsted talks a great deal in recent reports about high challenge, or more particularly, its absence.

What that perhaps means is that we have installed a ‘glass ceiling’ over learning – understandably perhaps given the national focus on grade boundaries, levels and league tables. We teach to the grade/level thresholds. The irony is that standards across the board would be more likely to rise if we used some of our Formula 1 thinking more widely.

Perhaps the ‘right fuel’ metaphor might find application beyond the classroom to illuminate schools’ geographical settings, whole school learning, achievement and aspiration. These issues certainly loom large in Ofsted’s two more reports: the first bemoaning our blindness to the most able in preparing them for the best universities, and the second wringing its hands about our failure to respond adequately to the needs of learners in rural, isolated and seaside schools.