I was so proud of my form yesterday. A year 9 bunch that I first took on in September, they are more demanding in terms of behaviour management than all but the first form I ever had back in 2005 (and they were a handful whose reputation spread throughout the school). They seem to have very low expectations of themselves in terms of learning and progress, and a very “interpretive” approach to school rules. This keeps me well and truly challenged in terms of support and behaviour management strategies each morning. But yesterday they excelled.
I was really quite worried when I woke up on Thursday morning and checked my Facebook account. Many of my friends, people who I considered rational and sensible people had posted statuses or shared pictures that were inciting racial hatred. This was after the killing of the soldier at a London Barracks by two fanatical sociopaths claiming to be acting in the name of Allah. Naturally every true Muslim condemned the attack, emphasising the Koran’s message of peace. That morning on Facebook, I saw calls for a “civil war”, for the EDL to take charge of things, and for all Muslims to be kicked out of the country or worse. The stuff people were posting was vile and despicable and quite frankly made me sick.
I got even more worried as I drove to work and thought more and more about it. If adults were posting such things, what would the kids be posting? Halfway in I passed a fast food van flying a Union Jack at half mast. I began imagining the conversations that were taking place around that van that morning. I decided I would run a discussion on the murder in form time and scrap the careers advice that’s usually delivered on a Thursday. I would give them all a piece of paper and ask them to watch a news clip on the event and then, without talking or discussing it, take three or four minutes to write down their response. I was expecting quite a lot of semi-racist, xenophobic stuff that I would then do my best to rationally argue against. I work in a school with a fairly homogenous, white working class intake and we have had murmurings from the EDL in the last few years. But I was completely wrong. I was bowled over by their responses. The most draconian was “it isn’t right, they should get the death penalty”. Which, to be fair is what a lot of adults still think. But on the whole they were measured, careful thoughtful responses that veered away from racial hatred and towards a careful interpretation of the event urging people not to affiliate the act to any sort of religious act. Here is what one of my students wrote:
“this annoys me because people are so small-minded about it, blaming all Muslims for the 2 mens (sic) acts. It’s not the religion’s fault, the religion teaches peace. The men who committed the murder were extremists, the minority that let their religion down. Not all Muslims are “terrorists”. If a Christian did this and started shouting religious words he would not be branded a terrorist”.
I don’t entirely agree with the last sentence, and I think the student in question needs a bit of input on some points of grammar and punctuation, but the fact that a 13 year old was articulating this mature and measured viewpoint in such a way completely put to rest much of the fear and panic I had been developing that morning. I think there are several quotes and proverbs about the wisdom of children that are apt here, but what it really shows is the level of stupidity and ignorance of many of the so-called adults in our community and that we really shouldn’t underestimate our young people.
I hate the way that many of us teachers are encouraged to differentiate, and the way that many teachers understand the term. In contemporary education, differentiation has, for many practitioners, become synonymous with “dumbing down”. Providing
easier tasks for “weaker” students, displaying differentiated outcomes (especially of the “must, should, could” variety) and texts where “difficult” words have been removed or replaced to allow the “weakest” to read them, is all symptomatic of a lowering of expectations and the acceptance that many students just can’t access complex material. To me, this approach is defeatist and is the root of the problem where low levels of literacy are to be found. Acceptance of such a view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the students who are only ever expected to reach the “must” objective or who are never exposed to complex vocabulary will never push themselves to grapple with difficult concepts or great pieces of writing.
Let’s start with differentiation by task. I’m all for providing a menu of equally challenging tasks that stretch students so that they really have to think hard. But this is still expecting everyone to excel at the task they do, and to me all tasks should allow students to demonstrate the highest level of skills (in SOLO language, working at the extended abstract level, or, in Bloom’s, analysing, evaluating and creating). Because some of my students have targets of D or E, I don’t expect them to show me that they can list or identify a bunch of facts and then stop there. I still want them to think about and show me how these facts link together or how these facts have an effect on another factor. And there is no doubt that with a little more support and given a bit more time, they are perfectly capable of doing these things. If tasks are differentiated by the level they allow students to achieve, we are simply capping aspiration and achievement and allowing them to opt for failure, or at least a lesser level of success.
The same goes for the awful notion of differentiated objectives, differentiated by level of achievement and by modal verbs. “All students must choose effective vocabulary; most students should choose effective vocabulary and justify that choice; some students could choose effective vocabulary and justify their choice by explaining the effect on the reader”. No. I’m sorry, but no. Absolutely not. I want every single student in the room to be able to choose effective vocabulary and justify that choice in relation to its potential effect on the reader. And if they can’t then I obviously haven’t supported them successfully to ensure that they can do it, and I need to tune the way that I teach and support them to make sure that next time they can. Again, by lowering expectations for some students, we are capping aspiration and potential achievement.
And as for simplifying texts, there is no need. Let’s just take a bit longer to work out why this text is trickier or why that sentence is harder to understand, and then provide students with the tools to understand it. On every table in my lessons there are 2-6 students, which equates to 2-6 perfectly workable brains. They have a pile of dictionaries on the desk. Often they have access to a laptop or two. There is sometimes a TA in the room. And then there’s me wandering about as a last resort. You can’t tell me that there is a secondary school child alive that can’t understand a text with that amount of support around him (I am referring to those without serious afflictions in mainstream education here).
What I am really keen to get away from in my lessons is this notion that some students can do things and others can’t. They can all do it, but some better than others. And I want them to get away from the notion that it matters in any way if they do get it wrong. By getting it wrong they can surely realise how to get better next time.
I was catalysed into writing this (which is a philosophy that I’ve been militantly applying in my own little bubble for years now) today after an incident this morning. My set 5, “LAS” “SEN” group had started the lesson by brainstorming a list of adjectives that would describe Juliet’s feelings on finding out that her husband had killed her cousin and then been banished. They were then encouraged to weave these words into a beautifully written paragraph that would describe and explain her feelings. Later, I wanted some of them to share what they had written by reading aloud. I got several negative responses from students who said they “don’t read aloud” and who justified this by reference to a “learning passport” issued by the support department that insists they shouldn’t read aloud in lessons.
My response? Forget that. You’ll never read aloud if you don’t read aloud. What a crazy, insane way to help them to improve. If you’re not very good at something, even if it’s one of the things that will really help you to succeed in life, then you don’t have to do it in case you get embarrassed? Nonsense. Common sense says the more you do it the less embarrassed you’ll be till eventually you’ll find it easy and normal. I put it to these refusers that if, in a games lesson, they were asked to kick a ball, would they refuse to do it because they weren’t very good at it? Would they pull out their learning passport that said they shouldn’t do it, worried that they’d get embarrassed? Of course not. They’d just kick the bloody thing. And if it went in the wrong direction there’d be a few surprised chuckles, the teacher would give them some feedback and they’d try again, and probably do a better job next time. At the end of this discussion, only one refuser stubbornly clung on to his excuse card.
We have to give our students the opportunity to fail at the things they need to improve at, otherwise they won’t be able to get feedback and improve. We need to make them understand that messing something up or getting it wrong or failing at it is all part of the process of understanding how to do it well. If we provide them with excuses to avoid these challenging and difficult situations, we are simply setting them up for a lifetime of self-conscious embarrassment where they are doomed to go round and round in circles of failure, never getting better at anything for fear of getting it wrong. Differentiation, in my view, is about finding ways to give everyone the opportunity and the tools to reach the top, not about providing excuses not to try, and therefore placing a cap on aspiration and achievement. Get it wrong, learn from it, try again, do it better. It’s obvious, surely.