Teaching to the top, by Megan Mansworth

Author: Megan Mansworth
Published: 11/10/2023

Teaching to the top

Ten tips for teaching to the top

1. Remember that all students deserve to be challenged

Teaching to the top means having high aspirations for every learner in your class. It’s not about directing challenge only towards the highest attaining students: this entrenches existing gaps. Instead, we should teach aspirational content and have high expectations for all, while supporting students to achieve those expectations.

2. Sharpen your own subject knowledge

Good subject knowledge is vital for planning and teaching challenging lessons. Devote time to learning new things about the topic at hand to help ensure lesson content is as ambitious as possible. As a bonus, expanding your subject knowledge can reignite your own enthusiasm for a topic. 

3. Modelling is key

Exploring high-level examples with students is a key component of teaching to the top. Importantly, ensure the quality of the models is high. A model should not simply be one level up from student targets, but instead should be pitched high enough to allow for detailed exploration of what makes it so effective. This way, students are more likely to be able to incorporate the most powerful elements in their own work and make faster progress.

4. Get students to ‘think hard’

Professor Rob Coe encourages teachers to ask: ‘Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?’ Asking this question when planning the curriculum is a brilliant way of making sure students are challenged in every lesson.

5. Avoid differentiating by task

Ability grouping has been shown in research to be detrimental to students’ progress. Therefore, avoid splitting a class into groups with different tasks or targets. Wherever possible all students should be given the same task, with differentiation by support provided.

6. Relax the pace

Don’t feel that every lesson must move quickly to be challenging. When teaching to the top, sometimes it’s important to slow down so that you can give students enough time to grapple with challenging concepts.  

7. Match a high level of challenge with high encouragement

When increasing the level of difficulty for learners, remember to match this with an increased degree of support and encouragement. This ensures students feel confident and empowered to tackle the high goals you set for the class.

8. Scaffold for success

If the level of challenge is high, then scaffolding becomes even more important. Scaffolding can take many forms, and can include supportive resources provided alongside a task, carefully planned input during the preparation stage, and a responsive approach to assessing learning during lessons.

9. Embrace spontaneity 

Planning is crucial for aspirational teaching, but we should also recognise the unexpected learning opportunities that can arise during lessons. If students ask a surprising but perceptive question, or the teacher input takes longer to complete than expected because you need to explain an unfamiliar concept, embrace the opportunity to teach to the top even if you hadn’t planned for it.

10. It’s about mindset

Teaching to the top does not mean only using one particular pedagogical approach, or including challenging tasks as an ‘add-on’ to your lesson plan. Most importantly, it’s about applying an aspirational mindset to everything we do in the classroom and to our perceptions of students’ capabilities.

Watch Megan's on-demand webinar: Teaching to the top: how aspirational teaching can increase achievement for all

Megan Mansworth

Megan Mansworth is an experienced teacher and leader who has taught English at a variety of state secondary schools, from leafy suburban settings to inner-city schools. Her writing on education has been published in a range of national media publications and academic journals and she's delivered CPD at a national level. Her most recent publication is Teach to the Top: Aiming High for Every Learner.