Dolphins and Monkeys

35 Strategies for teaching More Able Students

This blog is the follow-up to an Ofsted Gifted and Talented Action Plan for Optimus Education that can be found here

In The Great Education Debate David Willets refers to a comment by a university vice-chancellor that “kids who turn... up from schools that Ofsted rated outstanding rarely get firsts... being a good school in Ofsted terms is not necessarily good for your long- term education.”  If this is true, is it because teachers are doing more of the hard thinking in these schools than students?  In The ‘Outstanding’ school fallacy, Carl Hendrick critiques a school culture in which “being clever and culturally aware comes second to passing an exam.”  Similarly, the Guardian’s Secret Teacher bemoans the impact of the current exam system on students’ independent thinking skills.

Today’s More Able students need to be two different types of learner – dolphins who can jump through the hoops of assessment, and monkeys able to explore learning.

We are increasingly adept at training dolphins

In Trivium, Martin Robinson comments that, “The current education and assessment system does not like doubt.  Teachers teach children what to think, what to write, and how to write it down for endless tests, which are intended to prove that they know what to think.”

However, we also need to grow monkeys

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World highlights the dichotomy of high test-scores purchased at the expense of creativity, divergent thinking, originality and individualism.  Similarly, the head of the Girls Day School Trust comments here that, “school tends to reward being very compliant, conscientious, getting things right but work rewards risk taking, entrepreneurialism, coming up with outrageous ideas.”

Entwistle’s research on promoting deep learning here found that students adopt three approaches to learning:

  • A deep approach: focused on extracting meaning by using active learning processes to relate ideas, look for patterns, use evidence and examine the logic of an argument
  • A shallow approach: focused on coping with tasks using more restricted learning processes such as routine memorisation
  • A strategic approach: focused on achieving the highest grade possible

How do we grow ‘deep learning’ monkeys whilst training ‘strategic learning’ dolphins...


1. Engage students’ curiosity

Ken Robinson dismisses academic “boring stuff” as if intellectual curiosity is incomprehensible, however research reported here suggests that students memorise better when their curiosity is piqued.

Entwistle found that “explanation, enthusiasm, and empathy... are most likely to evoke a deep approach.”

By growing monkeys, we facilitate dolphins



1. How to make your subject engaging @Reflecting English
2. Plan for extended abstract thinking: S&C Lesson Plan @Love Learning Ideas
3. Use big learning questions to engage students’ curiosity: @andywarner78
4. The role of story telling in the classroom @Class Teaching
5. How to enthral students @Surreal Anarchy
6. Use the ‘knowledge gap’ to stimulate students’ curiosity @The Learning Spy


2. Model subject metacognition

Research here by Tricot and Sweller outlines the ‘expertise reversal effect’: as student expertise increases, problem solving tasks become more effective than providing worked examples.  By over-scaffolding writing and analysis, do we remove students’ thinking space?  Chris Curtis suggests here that English essays have “moved away from being about detailed thought.

Tricot and Sweller also found that the “teachable aspects of problem solving skill are entirely dependent on large amounts of domain-specific information stored in long-term memory.” Problem-solving skills are not transferable and should be taught through subject metacognition.

Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning also finds that, “creativity and innovation are the result of disciplined thinking.”

At Northern Rocks 2015 here, John Tomsett advised ‘teaching the thinking:’ “what am I thinking when I’m tackling a question?”

Model monkey thinking through domain specific ‘dolphin’ knowledge



1. Fermi questions develop logical reasoning by:

  • Challenging students to ask more questions, not just provide an ‘answer’ 
  • Developing the skill of making an educated guess 
  • Necessitating the ‘working out’ of reasoning

 2.  Set thinking homeworks:

3. Model subject metacognition @johntomsett

4.  Give students thinking journals, or consider using the left hand page of exercise books for thinking and making connections @Chris Chivers (Thinks)

5. Don’t over-scaffold @Headguruteacher

6. What is critical thinking? @Filling the pail

7. Develop metacognition through exam practice @Class Teaching

8. Teach students to solve problems with no clear solution path @Solve My Maths


3. Teach Monkey Language

Ken Robinson argues that, “creativity is as important as literacy.”  Actually, literacy underpins creativity as the means by which we express ourselves in “the great conversation of mankind" [A C Grayling]. 

Literacy skills develop creativityIn Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Maryanne Wolf writes: “the new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundations for being able to think in different, innovative ways.” 

Learning as dolphins helps students think like monkeys.  Rex Gibson (quoted in Pragmatic Education: What Sir Ken Got Wrong) says: “Shakespeare is an outstanding example of how schooling can foster talent. Schoolboys learned by heart over 100 figures of rhetoric. His schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays. Having mastered the rules of language, he was able to break and transform them. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of memorising and of constant practice.”

David Didau points out here that, “creativity requires form.  This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing.”

Dolphin literacy skills scaffold monkey thinking...



1. Develop vocabulary through word bingo.  Students cross off a word when they have used it correctly orally, or in their writing:

2.  Teach students how to structure academic discourse using an anatomy of extended writing @must do better...

3. Teach students how to construct beautiful sentences @The Learning Spy

4. Develop the art of the sentence @The Goldfish Bowl

5. Teach students how to write better sentences @Learning from my mistakes

6. Teach students rhetoric @SurrealAnarchy

7. Reconsider P.E.E.  @The CPD Paradox

8. Teach students how to plan extended writing @Reflecting English

9. Learning the language of learning @Headguruteacher


4. Teach for Thinking

Entwistle found that, “A deep strategic approach to studying is generally related to high levels of academic achievement, but only where the assessment procedures emphasise and reward personal understanding... assessment which encourages students to think for themselves – such as essay questions, applications to new contexts, and problem-based questions – shifts students in a class towards a deep approach. In contrast, procedures perceived by students as requiring no more than the accurate reproduction of information lead to a predominance of surface approaches.”

Dolphin and monkey attributes complement each other...

Research on Teaching practices and cognitive skills found that traditional and modern teaching practices promote different cognitive skills: traditional practices promote factual knowledge and application, whilst modern practices develop reasoning.  Research here suggests that we underestimate the importance of group discussion in improving reasoning skills.

Keith Sawyer distinguishes in Explaining Creativity between individual ‘small c’ personal creativity, and socio-cultural ‘big C’ game changing creativity.  Chris Parsons argues here that ‘big C’ creativity requires not only the ability to think divergently, but sufficient mastery of a domain of knowledge to “create fertile counterpoint perspectives.”


1. Use thunks

2. Teach deep knowledge.  As Martin Robinson points out, the mind “can’t diverge if it doesn’t know.”  In Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Daniel Willingham argues that, “There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context...The ability to think critically... depends on domain knowledge and practice.”

3. Teach complex narrative @Esse Quam Videri

4. Explain the concrete to abstract connection @Headguruteacher

5. Check students are thinking @The Goldfish Bowl

5. Use ABC questioning @HuntingEnglish.  This could be expanded into:

6. Teach using dialectic @SurrealAnarchy

7. Kick start creative thinking @DevNicely

8. Use spreading activation models to link concepts

9. Use Gallery Critique to encourage students to evaluate work @Class Teaching

10. Use your teaching and learning policy to grow philosopher kids @Headguruteacher


5. Create a Thinking Environment

At Northern Rocks 2015, David Cameron argued that we need, “kids who can do last questions.”

In Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future, David Price suggests ways to stimulate learning, based on Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park complex:

  • Encourage unorthodoxy and counter-intuition
  • Learn by tinkering
  • Allow failure: Edison famously said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • Make learning horizontally relevant
  • Give students the right to roam
  • Create the right ‘growing conditions’ for learning

Similarly, Dr. Robert Bilder suggests here that creativity requires, the freedom not to have to seek right and wrong answers.” 

1.  Create a ‘Reach for It’ culture.  20 ideas @Love Learning Ideas

2. Give students space: The Power of Introverts suggests quiet, minimally stimulating environments over enforced teamwork that stifles creativity and promotes ‘group think’.  Similarly Keith Sawyer argues in Explaining Creativity that, Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming in a group produces fewer ideas than if the same number of people had thought up their own ideas individually, before sharing them collectively.”

3. Help students to see the relevance of learning @Improving Teaching

4. Set up Scholarship Forms @Love Learning Ideas


Posted on July 1, 2015 .