All it takes is a spark...and pupils will ‘catch fire’ intellectually

A two-tier approach to academic enrichment – focused on both the whole school and the more able pupils – would ignite students’ curiosity and let them take ownership of their learning, says Natasha Fenwick
19th October 2018, 12:00am
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Natasha Fenwick


All it takes is a spark...and pupils will ‘catch fire’ intellectually

All of us like to think that we are pushing our students intellectually. But when we do, we tend to call it something different: enrichment, extension, acceleration, gifted and talented, stretch, challenge … and so on. The types of pupil who have access to these extra interventions also differ from school to school: in some schools, interventions are provided for the higher-attainers only; in others, they are aimed at those who meet a complex set of specifications of different measures; and, in some instances, they are open to all.

What these interventions look like can be incredibly varied, too. In some cases, it may be nothing more than a few extra questions or compulsory extra homework, or a scheme with scant structure or value to young people.

What we would benefit from, as a sector, is better defining our aims and sustaining a research-backed approach.

"Academic enrichment" is the best term to describe what we are trying to do - as teachers, we endeavour to enhance pupils' learning beyond exam specifications. We also need to delve into the excitement of academic enrichment and what it means to "catch fire" intellectually (this was even discussed and questioned by the Girl's Own Paper in 1880, one year before Cambridge opened its Triposes exams to women). I think the best type of academic enrichment encourages students to "catch fire", to take themselves beyond their intellectual comfort zone, and to question ideas and concepts.

Who should this be targeted at? The Sutton Trust 2012 report Educating the Highly Able highlights issues with the subjectivity of the label "gifted and talented", what exactly this means from school to school and the fluidity of intelligence from year to year in the teenage brain.

Enrichment for all

Ultimately, enrichment programmes that nurture high-achievers will also inevitably benefit the school population as a whole. Those programmes that do focus on high-attainers, such as London Gifted and Talented and the National Association for Able Children in Education, stress the importance of interventions that benefit the whole school population.

This point is echoed by Deborah Eyre in High Performance Learning, in which she suggests that the methods of teaching we have used for academic enrichment for more-able pupils should be embedded into a whole-school approach to teaching.

What we also know is that academic enrichment should not be an extra chore for students. Martin Stephen, in Educating the More Able Student, recalls the problem of an Saturday morning scheme for targeted pupils. In schemes such as this, academic enrichment can feel like extra work, cause further stress for pupils already inundated with homework, and lead to individuals being ostracised from their peers.

So what should academic enrichment look like? In my experience, and looking at schools in which it is done well, there should be a two-tier approach. Enrichment for all should be present, covering critical evaluation, higher-order thinking, enquiry questions and things that students clearly value, such as links to universities and accredited schemes. Every teacher should be looking to stretch every pupil beyond what they need to know for the exams.

I have had to rethink my schemes of work, implementing deeper learning through more enquiry questions, cross-curricular links and visits from speakers. The amount of academic enrichment on offer through universities, social media, online courses and virtual tours is immense. The ultimate aim is to develop an environment in which students seek out these opportunities for themselves.

Academic enrichment for the more-able in various subjects should also be encouraged, with stretch-and-challenge policies and a greater sense of recognition for students' autonomy. The activities should include leadership schemes, work in the community, personalised learning plans, acceleration and opt-out schemes, enquiry questions and projects, further ties to universities and an overhaul of schemes of work. This approach can be traced back to Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Centre on the Gifted and Talented in the US. He advocates the need to give students more ownership over their own learning and approach to academic enrichment.

Many schools in the UK have successfully implemented his principles, encouraging pupils to complete Schools, Students and Teachers network student leadership accreditation, or to take part in the National Citizen Service. We are asking students to complete short online courses, accredited via universities, next year through edX. These are free and accessible on phone or computer.

Every student wants to feel that academic enrichment is exciting, mature and relevant, and gives them further responsibility. It is also a personal issue for the students we teach - it is not easy for today's teenagers to navigate their way through the unpredictable journey to adulthood via increasingly difficult exams, the pressure of social media and a myriad of other issues. What we want to give to them is a sense of joy in learning. Sylvia Plath summed this up perfectly: "The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon."

It is by recognising this sense of opportunity that our students will then become enthralled by learning and enrichment.

Natasha Fenwick teaches religious studies and is also academic enrichment coordinator at Mill Hill School in London

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