Tue 29 Jun 5 min read

#25 Lifting the lid on student potential

Kai Vacher

“All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop those talents.”

John F Kennedy

Are you familiar with the fleas in the jar story?

If you don’t know it already, the story goes something like this…

‘When fleas are placed in a jar, they try to jump out and they do. Then a lid is placed on the jar. Once the lid is placed on the jar, the fleas stop attempting to escape – as they learn the boundaries of the new environment they are in. Even when the lid is removed, the fleas no longer try to jump out of the jar. Their thinking has created the ‘lid’ as the boundary, so has conditioned them to limit their jumping.‘

The fleas in a jar story, whether true or not, is a helpful analogy for how we might sometimes place limits on our achievements. We all can be a bit like those fleas – our thinking can create a ceiling or lid on our performance or successes. We can build imaginary boundaries that keep us stuck in a certain way of operating. Traditionally schools can also limit students’ learning and achievements, by, for example, labeling a minority of students as ‘Gifted and Talented’, and by implication the rest, and usually a large majority, as neither gifted nor talented.

The latest neurological and psychological research shows, however, that more children are capable of reaching the higher levels of performance previously associated only with the so-called ‘Gifted and Talented’. The same research also indicates that the brain is malleable and that ability, talent, IQ and potential aren’t fixed – they can be grown.

This growth mindset philosophy, and a belief in high expectations for all students, is what first attracted me 5 years ago to the work of Professor Deborah Eyre and High Performance Learning (HPL). Eyre developed HPL having studied gifted and talented learners for many years in a range of educational settings around the world. Eyre carefully reviewed the research for several decades and worked with a number of national programmes to fine tune her ideas. She concluded that if we systematically grow and nurture children in the ways of thinking and behavior of high performance learning, more students will achieve at the highest levels.

Eyre’s powerful HPL philosophy of high expectations for the many, not the few, makes a substantial difference to how we approach the education of each child at British School Muscat (BSM). Teachers at BSM, like in all HPL World Class Schools, of which there is a growing number year on year, believe that every child can achieve at the highest levels.

The term ‘Gifted & Talented’ can be a divisive term which can also promote a very fixed mindset. And it is so easy for a fixed mindset to develop in children. As soon as we decide that we are ‘not good at this’, whether it’s Maths, art or sport, it is remarkable how difficult it is to challenge this perception successfully. Therefore, instead of trying to identify a small number of ‘Gifted and Talented’ students and thinking how we might develop them more effectively, we aim to identify, challenge, support, nurture and draw out the gifts and talents of all our students.

At BSM we think that all our students have gifts and talents; not that some have talents and others don’t. This is an important starting point for thinking about how and why we educate our young people. HPL also helps us to set the highest level of expectation for all our students, in respect of what can be reasonably achieved in lessons at any given age. Our teaching team does not talk about ability, we focus on current performance and future performance. Instead of saying ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I just find it too hard’, our students say ‘I can’t do it yet’.

We assume that everyone can become a high performer and we act accordingly with that belief. Furthermore, it is important that every child believes in their own capacity to learn and that they should experience success at some point during each school day. Our goal is to accurately understand a student’s current performance, strengths, needs and difficulties and then to focus on strategies for challenging and supporting each and every student.

As an HPL school we constantly make sure that we:

  • set high expectations in our classes for all our students to flourish;
  • use approaches to teaching and learning that stretch all our students;
  • systematically use the research based language of advanced performance characteristics (ACPs) and the values, attitudes and attributes (VAA)s) to develop higher order thinking skills and behaviours in all our students;
  • continually look for innovative teaching approaches to challenge students at all levels of performance.

As we develop as a High Performance Learning World Class School, this approach empowers our community with a universal language; we call it our ‘BSM Thinking Skills’ and our ‘BSM Learning Ethos’ and these are both based on the HPL ACPs and VAAs mentioned above. We use this research based language to discuss teaching and learning and for the systematic development of higher order thinking skills and behaviours in all our students from Foundation Stage through to the Sixth Form.

This is an exciting and demanding journey in pedagogy, curriculum design and professional learning. We are making progress but we aren’t there yet. However, if our students are going to leave our school ‘best for the world’ and live a life well lived, it’s vital that we take the lid off student achievement and identify, nurture, and grow all of our students’ talents, whatever they may be.

Kai Vacher

21 July 2021

Kai Vacher, Principal, British School Muscat, was recognised as an HPL Fellow on 29 June 2021 by Professor Deborah Eyre, Founder and Chair of High Performance Learning. HPL Fellow status recognises Kai’s sustained advocacy and commitment to the HPL philosophy and framework and celebrates the exceptional contribution he has made to leadership in a global context.

Professor Deborah Eyre said, ‘As an ambassador for High Performance Learning, Kai has led by example and set the highest expectations for what education can be, resulting in his school successfully achieving HPL World Class School status in 2019.’

Kai Vacher said ‘I am honoured to receive such recognition from Professor Deborah Eyre, a global leader in education research and thinking. I look forward to continuing to work with Professor Eyre to systematise and optimise the impact of HPL within my school and to showcase my work with other HPL principals to demonstrate a re-imagined version of educational excellence. We are confident that together we can transform the educational landscape and ensure that high performance becomes the educational norm for all children.’

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