The world has long been fascinated by geniuses – the rebellious Albert Einstein, whose mother sought medical advice because he was slow in learning how to talk, Mozart, who composed his first documented composition at the age of five and Stephen Hawking, whose brainpower inspired the 2014 Oscar-winning movie, The Theory of Everything.
Although geniuses are a rare species, we should always expect excellence. Expectation is everything, according to High Performance Learning founder Professor Deborah Eyre. As Education Director for Nord Anglia Education, who is internationally recognised for her work on gifted education, Professor Eyre believes that being gifted is not so much about inheriting dazzling grey matter but also being eager to learn and a proper environment to facilitate this.
While gifted children have always been considered extraordinary, Professor Eyre maintains that, given the right conditions, high performance is within the grasp of a larger cohort than the handful of prodigies that graduate before most of their contemporaries finish their basic education. “The way to secure this is to create a system that expects significantly more from more pupils,” she said in her 2010 paper Room At the Top, which was written for the think tank Policy Exchange and drew on her experience running England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) between 2002 and 2007.
Her main point was that neuroscience and psychology had produced enough evidence to conclusively show that the brain is plastic and our intelligence can be nurtured and grown. “Dismissing children at an early age as being unable to cope with advanced cognition is to ignore neuroscience, which states that if you are under the age of 70, learning higher skills remains a realistic activity,” she wrote. “The fact that a child is not a high performer right now does not indicate that they are unable to become one.”
The upshot of Professor Eyre’s paper served as the starting point of an initiative designed to establish attributes, values and practices in schools that would make high performance an attainable goal for all sorts of students with the cooperation of parents and mentors. Students would be expected to raise their game in a culture of intellectual growth and opportunity that would award open minds and help them optimize their abilities and realize their potential as lifelong learners.
Between 2010 and 2015, Professor Eyre tested her theory in 31 international schools. The experiment proved revolutionary. There are now 36 accredited High Performance Learning (HPL) schools, including King’s College La Moraleja in Madrid, which belong to the HPL Fellowship of World Class Schools.
The impact on students in these schools has been a notable rise in grades and confidence. Ninety-five per cent of teaching staff assures their students have developed better self-esteem and, in comparison with non-HPL schools, an additional seventeen per cent of students from these schools consider they are capable of high performance.
According to Alex Kershaw, who leads the HPL program at King’s College La Moraleja, “High Performance Learning works by teaching students the attitudes needed to learn and, as they develop, also teaching them the cognitive performance tools that enable them to achieve them. These are embedded in their learning and teachers explicitly mention when children are using these cognitive skills.”
Learning how to learn can mean making students aware of their use of cognitive skills of association. For example, if asked to link a task in Science, to previous lessons, in the case of putting the task in a wider context, they will be conscious of the fact that what they are doing is ‘big picture thinking’.
“The change in attitude has been more to make the children explicitly aware of what cognitive skills they are using so they can understand how and when to use them,” Alex explains. “This has also meant teachers have thought more explicitly about how the cognitive skills can be used.”
Results have been overwhelmingly positive, despite the unprecedented events that have sent us all reeling in 2020. “Thanks to the values they have been taught explicitly through our High Performance Learning philosophy, the children were able to transition seamlessly back into the classroom, adapt to the new learning environment and have flourished, producing work of amazing quality and continuing to strive for excellence,” says Alex.