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Against “Teaching To Your Top Third”

If you hang out in teaching circles for long enough, you will occasionally hear talk of the idea that educators should “teach to your top third.” In other words, the teacher should figure out what the brightest, smartest third of the class can do and then tailor lessons to them. Theoretically, the bottom two-thirds of the class will rise to meet the top third. If the teacher tailors lessons to the top ten percent, class will be too hard, and the bottom ninety percent won’t be able to rise and meet them. If the lessons are tailored to the top half, they will be too easy—although just by a little. If the lessons are tailored to the top ninety percent, the best students will get bored.

Until you’ve taught a class of twenty students who all have varying academic gifts, the idea of teaching to your top third will probably come across as cold and unfeeling. A little experience, on the other hand, proves that a teacher can lead a great discussion and feel (as his students leave class) that he is a rollicking success, but then have three students stay behind to sadly confess “that was all way over my head.”

There are many bad reasons to object to the idea of “teaching to your top third,” many of which are sentimental, theoretical, and not born of attempts to solve real classroom conundrums. Nonetheless, I still don’t like it.

I’ll note that I am speaking as a humanities teacher here and that math and science teachers may have a different take, but “teaching to your to your top third” assumes that teaching is primarily concerned with transmitting a body of knowledge, which is really more of an antiquated secular belief about school.

Now, classical Christian educators are concerned with transmitting a body of knowledge, and if graduates of a classical Christian school didn’t know when and where the Reformation began or who the apostles were, that would be a bit embarrassing. They ought to be taught those things. However, a classical education is not primarily concerned with transmitting a body of knowledge. It’s a concern, but not the greatest concern.

A classical education is primarily concerned with the right reordering of the student’s affections, teaching them to enjoy good things, teaching them to hate wicked things, teaching them to love most what is most worthy of their love. A classical education is also concerned with giving students what I can only call “the classical spirit,” a spirit contrary to the spirit of our “evil age”, as St. Paul puts it. The classical spirit also provides a vantage point from which to dispassionately observe this age lest the student spend their whole life being hustled from one empty, fashionable idea to the next—before finally concluding that no idea is really worth anything.

In teaching students to rightly reorder their affections, it will be necessary for them to learn the dates of the Reformation and the periodic table and many other objective facts. And yet, “teaching” cannot be limited to objective facts.

Perhaps my objection to “teaching to your top third” is most clearly expressed in my objection to the idea a pastor should “preach to his top third.” I’ve never heard anyone put forward that idea before, of course, but I imagine most pastors would scoff if they heard it. “Preach to your top third? What sort of a thing do you take preaching to be if you believe there is a top third? And what do you expect your top third to do with this preaching that is tailored to them? Write better commentaries on Hebrews? Is that what pious old Mrs. Whitlock is going to do with your sermons?” On the other hand, a good sermon about the Beatitudes is going to hit your most pious congregants between the eyes—and your least pious congregants, too.

Likewise, I can imagine a few students failing a test which required them to explain the entailment in technically accurate terms, but for the most part, a book like Pride & Prejudice is preached more than it is teached—if the point of teaching it is reordering affections, at any rate. I am all in favor of teachers having heart-to-heart conversations with troubled students after class and during lunch, and with teachers forming friendships with students that survive graduation. And yet, the teacher of virtue plies his trade in the classroom. Reordering affections is not what the teacher does after Pride & Prejudice is done for the day. It is what he does during Pride & Prejudice.

Teaching must offer students wisdom, not just knowledge. Wisdom is food for the soul, and no one expects “feeding their top third” to fill the bellies of the bottom two-thirds.

2 thoughts on “Against “Teaching To Your Top Third””

  1. William Carey

    Everything you say here is doubly true for the teacher of mathematics or natural science (which are also humanities) because, while we have some sort of broad inchoate understanding that one ought to have affections about things like plays or poetry, the first task of the math and natural science teacher is to convince students and parents that numbers and shapes and their relations fit into the category of lovable things rather than merely functional things.

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