High Performing Schools – sustainable school improvement

One of the most important developments in education in recent decades is the application of research from cognitive psychology in the classroom (Kirschner et al, 2018). What we know from cognitive psychology fits very well with what we know from research into teacher effectiveness (Muijs et al, 2014).

The flourishing of cognitive psychology has led to a renewed focus on teaching. This rediscovery of the importance of classroom practice is a very good thing. We know that teaching matters. According to earlier research by Hanushek, for example, some teachers  can achieve as much attainment growth in six months as others can in a year (Hanushek, 1992). However, when looking at the importance of teaching, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that short interventions aimed at improving teaching practice are not sufficient for sustainable school improvement. A lesson is only part of a sequence of lessons within a curriculum, and a subject or theme is also only part of a student's entire experience in the school. School effects also count, and a good educational experience means that a student not only receives good lessons every year and in every subject, but also has access to a rich knowledge curriculum and a positive and enriching school culture.

It is therefore important that we frame good pedagogical practices within a whole-school framework. Of course,  school improvement hasn’t always had the best reputation. That’s is not surprising, as there are plenty of examples of scientifically unfounded and incorrect ideas being promoted and leading an all too persistent life in education and school improvement (Dekker et al, 2012). We therefore have to ensure that school improvement is based on the most thorough and up-to-date research. This not only in respect to classroom practice, but also in relation to organizational management, culture and leadership.

Sustainable improvement must be school-led, but is often hard to achieve by a school on its own. In some cases we will need to build up knowledge and capacity in the school. But even in the most effective schools, we often see so-called "structural gaps",  knowledge or competences that people do not have or have to a lesser degree and but that we may find in other schools or organisations (Burt, 2004). Having thorough and up-to-date scientific knowledge is also not always self-evident, as busy professionals we often lack the time to keep up to date with the plethora of material out there (when Christian Bokhove and I wrote an overview of ten years of research into metacognition for the Education Endowment Foundation we found more than 1500 articles). That is why it is often a good idea to work with external experts, and to tap into existing evidence-based programmes.

And this is exactly what we are trying to do at Academica with the High Performing Schools programme. The aim is to work with schools to build an environment in which all pupils can perform. The programme is based on research from cognitive psychology, teacher effectiveness and organizational sociology. In this way we can look at practice across the school. Classroom practice lies at the heart of the approach we take, but a teacher is part of a team, a professional community. The programme is framed within the five pillars of the "High Performing Organization", vision and long-term goals, effective leadership, quality of employees, openness and action-orientation, and continuous improvement based on data teams. 

In the Netherlands we organize in-house HPS trajectories. Developing education, conducting research and teaching in one formula, HPS is possible in all schools.


  • Burt, R. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology. 110: 349–399

  • Dekker S, Lee NC, Howard-Jones P and Jolles J (2012) Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Front. Psychology 3:429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

  • Hanushek, E. A. (1992). The Trade-off Between Child Quantity and Quality, Journal of Political Economy, 100 :1 (February 1992): 84–117.

  • Kirschner, P. A., Claessens, L. & Raaijmakers. S. (2018). Op de schouders van reuzen. Inspirerende inzichten uit de cognitieve psychologie voor leraren. Meppel: Ten Brink.

  • Muijs, D. Kyriakides, L., van der Werf, G. Creemers, B., Timperley, H. & Earl, L. (2014) State of the art – teacher effectiveness and professional learning, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25:2,231-256, 

Professor dr. Daniel Muijs

Prof. Dr. Daniel Muijs

Dean School of Education and Society