Ive been reading a lot of posts on the topic of Differentiation and it has really got me thinking about how I do it. As a Teacher of Physical Education I am confident that I differentiate quite well in the gym. I use smaller rackets in Badminton, balloons in Volleyball and make tasks more complex to challenge and extend pupils. Sport is brilliant at applying and using mastery tasks and pupils respond well. It is in the classroom that differentiation can be a confusing topic, especially for less confident teachers and newer teachers during NQT years.
If you were to ask 30,40,60 or even 100 teachers on their definition of differentiation they would all give you slightly different explanations. Why is this? well we have all had different routes to get to where we are now and have jumped through hoop after hoop in getting this. After a while our opinions and ideas on education may not even be our own. However, it is time now to bang our heads together and grind out the true meaning of differentiation.
For years teachers have spent countless hours per week creating differentiated work for their pupils. Why? we care. Many teachers still can be found doing this and it is no fault of their own. We are compelled to help every single one of our students but we must ask if this is really how we go about differentiation. Is it a waste of time? I certainly think so.
I have seen and been part of lessons that lowered the bar of expectations for the young people. Not intentionally but think of your own experiences and consider how many of these strategies you have seen: differentiated learning objectives like must, could, should or all, some,few. differentiated worksheets, some for the most able and some for the least able. Tasks related to each grade, this is for A candidates. Success criteria for some, most, all.
All of these send messages too young people that they can’t all do all of the tasks set. Imagine sitting in a class where the learning is split into must, could, should and a child completing the work he must do and then stopping there. Or imagine getting work for the least able, wouldn’t that put a big dent in your confidence.
Ive been guilty of using some of these strategies as I felt it is what I should be doing. I can remember outlining success criteria for all, most and few. This pigeon holes children into brackets and moves firmly away from fostering a mastery mindset. We must stop labelling children like this inadvertently. We must take all children seriously and believe they can all do all of the work. The only difference really is the amount of time they will take to get there based on their starting point.
What we should do is perhaps consider changing our vocabulary. If I asked you to challenge students instead of differentiate for them would this change how we approach our lessons? Could be become more Pygmalion in our approach.
A study conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) looked into the Pygmalion Effect. In the study they told teachers that a number of students were ‘intellectual bloomers’ even though some of them scored poorly in an IQ test. Unaware the teachers taught all of the pupils for a year at which point the children IQ was tested again. All of the students who were labelled as ‘intellectual bloomers’ showed significant gains when compared to the control group. This is a self fulfilling prophecy in that if we increase our expectations of students they will respond and the author suggest that the teachers may have subconsciously changed they way they behaved with the ‘intellectual bloomers’.
Why is this important for differentiation you ask? Well could we not all be a bit more Pygmalion and believe that all young people will produce excellent work and not just those considered to be smart or be labelled gifted and talented. What I mean by this is that I want us all to aim high and support up. Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence beautifully sums this up. In the book he talks about how he developed excellence and craftsmanship in his children’s work. He describes how his children created radon gas reposts that were so accurate they were used by their own town and associated towns asked for the work. He also speaks to how younger pupils created field guides that are almost professional. These are just two examples from his book, I urge you to read it.
Strategies he employed to achieve this started with a relentless focus on excellence. He modelled excellent work, encouraged learner to work through a number of drafts, if the work wasn’t good enough he would support children to redo it. He demanded excellence by aiming high and supporting up.
This isn’t easy, trust me I know. It is however a place where I would love to get to but I am a long long long way from it but I have a few ideas on how I and you can make differentiation just what we do as a great teacher. My thinking here has been heavily influenced by David Fawcett through his book Relearning to Teach.
Along with aiming high and supporting up, you should consider making the thinking easier and not the task. A challenging concept but we want young people to access the work. We can do this by considering where they are and improve their knowledge. Before they begin with work we must show them What a Good One Looks Like (WAGOLL) as we can’t assume that they will know without seeing it first. I use writing frames with a lot of my senior classes and offer some pupils more support with this and take the support away from some pupils to allow them to use their own knowledge and retrieval to produce a quality answer.
I mentioned in a previous post how we should become ‘historians of excellence’ by displaying previous outstanding work. This will also help pupils identify what excellence looks like and help with their own work by giving them a sense of ‘if they wrote that, so can I”.
Modelling should be a key piece of your teaching toolbox as along with showing excellent work being able to deconstruct pieces of writing by describing your thought process and breaking tasks down into manageable chunks is a vital skill when aiming high for your students.
Sentence starters are also key to help support pupils but the key here is not making the thinking easier but by providing a carefully considered sentence starter you can support a lot of students to kick on with their written responses. In Relearning to Teach by David Fawcett he references this excellent post from Doug Lemov. In the post Lemov discussed how he, through carefully designed sentence starters, could add rigour to pupils work. It is well worth a read and it will add to your teaching if you consider carefully how you construct sentence starters.
A key tool you can use to help aim high and support up is ‘I Do,We Do, You Do’ and is a form of explicit teaching. In this model you (the teacher) share your thought process as you tackle a problem. The class do the same thing which you will write down fully what they say, take a step back and problem solve together to solve the problem. Once the pupils are happy they then complete the ‘You Do’ which is where scaffold and supports are removed and they get on with completing the task.
David Fawcett’s brilliant Relearning to Teach has had a significant impact on my thinking when it comes to differentiation and a lot of my examples have came from his book. His book also confirmed a lot of my current thinking but a key comment he made in the book allows us to further explore differentiation. After you have shared your high expectations and modelled excellence, provided writing frames and sentence starters you now need to support up students where necessary. For this David describes differentiation as ‘just bloody good teaching and being responsive’. What he means by this is that it’s your skills as a teacher that will provide pupils with challenge and support.
This is where differentiation really kicks in after modelling and explanation you really do need to get amongst the students. I have been guilty of perhaps checking for understanding too quickly and of standing back for too long. Working the room is a key teaching practice and its here where you can provide challenge and differentiation for each pupil. By checking over their shoulder, asking how they are getting on, asking how they will tackle their work or simply probing through the use of sharp questioning will allow you to build a picture of who needs what support or stretch in their learning.
To aid this type of differentiation the teacher needs to be completely secure with their subject knowledge to allow for expert explanations and the ability to change the explanations to suit pupils. They also should plan their questions thoroughly and also consider questions that will come from misconceptions and misunderstandings to get pupils back on track and thinking about what you want them to think about. Giving timely feedback on work that causes thinking will also be different for each pupil and can be achieved while you skilfully work the room.
In sum, differentiation for me is what Harry Fletcher-Wood calls Responsive Teaching. Forget all the resources and the busy strategies it is about you, the master of your craft and the students learning from you, being challenged by you and being supported by you. It is easy to offer pupils different worksheets that are easier for them or more simple in what they ask of them but challenging all pupils to achieve excellence by aiming high is much harder and relies on your skill as a teacher but stick with it. If a pupils is charging ahead, challenge them. If a pupils is struggling, immediately support them. By getting amongst them and questioning them on their thinking, their work and how they plan to tackle problems you get a real sense of their learning where you can provide meaningful feedback to move learning forward. Teach for excellence, demand excellence, support everyone and get amongst it.