Ways to change the way we differentiate.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog entitled “Why we’ve got differentiation wrong”. In it, I argued that over the last few years the way that teachers have understood and implemented differentiation has led to a culture of failure and underachievement, and that rather than differentiating by task or outcome, we should, in fact, be differentiating by pedagogical methodology. In this blog I want to dig a bit deeper into some of the causes of unerachievement and think about how we can improve our approach to differentiation to counter this.
Almost without fail, the students in my classes that have poor literacy skills also have very low self-perceptions and self-expectations. They see themselves as destined to fail, a view that has been reinforced by years of academic failure and labelling; they are walking, talking, pitiful, self-fulfilling prophecies, tumbling from one classroom to the next, expecting themselves not to be able to succeed in whatever it is the teacher will ask them to do next. But how does this happen? At what point do these children become this self-fulfilling prophecy?
I am going to risk a bit of stereotyping here. The vast majority of students that I encounter with poor literacy development come from feeder schools in areas that have high levels of social and economic deprivation. This is by no means to say that all do, but it is true that most do. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Imagine Child A arrives at one of these schools. He is on FSM because, in this tough economic climate, mum and dad are struggling to find regular work that pays a wage that will allow a decent standard of living. Due to this there may not be internet access or reading material around the house. Mum and dad’s time is hugely constrained because they are looking for work or are carrying out low paid jobs to try and make ends meet. Due to the low hourly rate they have to work many hours just to get by. Neither money nor time are disposable commodities in this household. As a result, Child A hasn’t had the luxury of time spent looking at or reading books, and nursery or playschool are way out of mum and dad’s budget. Therefore the Child A comes to school unfamiliar with the pleasure of time spent reading. It is an alien concept.
Now let’s take Child B. This child goes to the same school, but dad has a succeesful joinery business and mum does a bit of part-time hairdressing. They are able to spend evenings and weekends as a family and do not have to worry about paying the bills. Consequently there is less stress in the household. Child B usually gets to read a book at bedtime, or at least listen to the “book at bedtime” on CBeebies. At that very early developmental stage, Child B has already developed a reading habit. Obviously he’s not reading in the sense that he’s recognising and decoding words, but the key thing is that the habit is established.
If we now imagine these two going into primary school in their reception year and taking part in daily structured reading activities, we can start to get a sense of where things will go wrong. Child B will accept taking part in such activities, seeing them as normal because similar activitis have been done at home. Child A on the other hand will struggle initially becuase it will be a very new and different experience, and humans naturally tend to find new experiences a little uncomfortable to begin with. And so the rate of progress is instantly going to be very different for these two students. And because Child A will see the progress Child B makes and the positive feedback he receives from the adults that run the sessions, he will begin to see himself as inferior (not that I’m advocating the abolition of competition). As this goes on and on the self-fulfilling prophecy begins to realise itself. As Child B learns things at school, he then goes home and applies them in the things he does with his parents there. He recognises letters and words around the house and in books and again receives positive feedback. This then creates a positive feedback loop in which the progress in Child B’s literacy is quite dramatic, whereas Child A’s improves much more slowly due to the lack of a fertile literacy environment at home and his inability to access the school curriculum quickly. As time goes on, Child A’s feedback loop positively reinforces his self-perceptions as a failure and as “thick” or “dumb”, and these continue to grow and become more and more deeply embedded in his psychology, whereas Child B’s feedback loop happily continues to bolster and boost his literacy skills. At some point in primary school he will probably get a diagnosis of dyslexia (read “poor literacy” skills) and this will serve as an excuse for him not to try and improve his skills. It’s the old “there’s no point me trying as I can’t do it syndrome”. But in actual fact, the reason he can’t do it is because he hasn’t had the hundreds of hours of practice that Child B has had, both at home and at school.
As teachers, we can do nothing about the social backgrounds from which we draw our students. Which means that we have no choice but to try and change the culture and approach of these students because, at the end of the day, to really succeed in modern society, they have to have really good literacy skills. There’s no way that we can make up the thousands of hours of practice that they’ve missed over the last few years, but we have to do our best to make them want to be involved in literacy activities. One of the ways we can do this is to try and ensure that the we provide rich, stimulating and challenging educational environments in which literacy skills are highly regarded and where examples of good language use are highly prized and praised. And alongside this we have to be prepared to avoid praise where it isn’t due. We have to make our students realise that our expectations are such that they must apply themselves to their learning and where they won’t do that this won’t be tolerated. And this is where we get back to our theme of differentiation.
Rather than differentiate tasks by ability, teachers must differentiate the way they behave towards students, and this differentiation must be based on a response to a students approach to their learning. We have to constantly demonstrate and model our expectations of students, and differentiate the way that we respond to their response to this. Our expectations have to be based on the two following statements:
– everyone in the class is capable of achieving the highest grades
– everyone in the class will work to the very best of their ability to achieve the highest grades
So long as our students are aware of these and are doing their utmost to realise them, our response needs to be positive and praising. But where a student doesn’t believe the first statement, we have to adjust or differentiate the way behave towards him or her. We need to be absolutely clear that there is no room for this sort of thinking and that anyone is capable of the highest achievement with the right guidance and enough practice. And where the latter statement is being violated, we have to be absolutely firm in finding ways to make sure it starts to be followed. I am confident that the majority of my weakest students have achieved this label through learned behaviour, through the constant reinforcement of the positive feedback loop mentioned above. We have to differentiate our speech and body language to ensure that we cause a change in the culture of these students and make them want to learn and achieve, because if they don’t, they won’t. This means never, ever letting them think, or think that we think, that they’re dumb or thick or stupid. Because these are just things that they’ve learnt to believe themselves and because of that they act like it (just look at their body language most of the time). No teacher should ever give off signals that can lead them to such a negative conclusion. They just need to know that we won’t stand for such silly, self-depracating behaviour, until they begin to change the way they see themselves.
Our relationships with and the way we speak to students are absolutely key in this, and it includes making sure that we are willing to not only praise good effort and achievement and challenge poor behaviour in the classroom, but also wherever we see it in our schools. Our schools have to become places of learning both in and out of lessons. We all know that learning styles are absolute tosh, and I’m convinced that differentiating by ability is tosh too, so instead of using these to base your approach to differentiation, why not think about differentiating the way that you respond to and deal with different students’ approaches to learning? I have seen so many teachers that moan about how stupid a child is or how badly behaved without actually reflecting on what they can do about this. As teachers, I’m afraid to say, we’ve accepted to be paid for the responsibility of helping these children achieve their potential, and research shows that potential isn’t fixed. It’s down to us to grow their potential in every way we can.
(Just as an aside, please do keep differentiating by providing equally challenging activities that allow students with different interests to reach the highest levels through ways that interest them. Personalise their learning experiences by allowing them to plan their own learning journeys through shared objectoves; but whatever you do, don’t cap their achievement by differentiating by ability, and more than anything, stay well away from those cursed differentiated objectives.)