Approaching Differentiation: the proof is in the pudding.

This year I have been trying to use a common sense approach to challenge and differentiation. Rather than slavishly accept the doctrine to dumb down my resources and make the language of explanations “accessible” (read “easy”), I’ve ensured that my students have been given deliberately difficult language and concepts to deal with, and given them the time and support to understand them. As you might expect, this takes a little longer when you’re dealing with a “low ability” set full of kids who all have SEN statements that label them as failures and strugglers in one form or another. This week my Set 5 SEN group sat the most difficult controlled assessment they will have to do, comparing a Shakespeare play to a range of poems. Where we previously would teach them the Shakespeare, write part of the controlled assessment, teach the poetry and then write another bit of the controlled assessment, followed by a last comparative section written at the end, this time I decided to teach them the whole lot and get them to write it in one go: a true academic and intellectual challenge. The results have been rather pleasing. Although 5 out of a group of nearly 20 still ended up with E and F grades, which is what I’d have expected from the whole group if I’d been teaching under my previous pedagogical methods, the rest of the group’s grades ranged from B- down to D. In a group of this type, I think this shows exceptional performance from these students. So how has a change in teaching methods allowed this to happen?

Let’s first look at what this approach isn’t. It isn’t a case of tweaking resources to make language easier to read or putting lots of pictures on the page to make the text easier on the eye. It isn’t about providing a range of objectives at the start of each lesson that cap aspiration and allow most students to give up after making minimal progress (i.e. those of “must, should, could” or “all, most, some” variety). And it isn’t about providing the students with the criteria that they need to hit their school target. All of these negative approaches smack of the philosophy of differentiation that I’ve been encouraged to use since qualifying in 2005 and which, over the last 18 months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from. But enough of the negativity; here follows a summary of the four main things I think teachers can do to improve student engagement.

The first thing is to have unflinchingly high expectations, not just of the achievement of students but of their approach to their learning (“behaviour for learning” in the jargon). I’ve realised that the biggest obstacle facing our students is the behaviour that they’ve learnt is acceptable from years of not being challenged and from being allowed to bandy about excuse labels, usually provided by school support departments. I make my students realise that I will not accept anything but total immersion in what we are doing in the classroom. In reality I know that this doesn’t happen all the time, but I try to make sure that I never cease to challenge disengagement or avoidance behaviour. Learning is bloody hard work, and the sooner they realise this, the better. The only way to improve and get better is to throw themselves into it and tackle it to the best of their ability. The real difficulty here is knowing that this approach may not be applied across the board meaning that in some learning environments they may be allowed to coast along unchallenged, providing they’re not disruptive. Until CPD is perfected, this will always be the case. But you’ve got to train them to know that when they walk into your room it’s hard work and total immersion in the task at hand and that the reward is in the progress they make and the learning they take away.

The second thing I do is use lots of positive praise and reinforcement where due, both for good behaviour for learning and for great work. I think this is really important as even as a grown adult I know that praise makes me feel good when I’ve done a job that deserves it. But this must be praise only wherever and whenever it’s due. I NEVER praise a student who hasn’t put in a really good effort or who has produced sub-standard work. This would clearly be ridiculous as they would simply go about believing that their unacceptable work is fine. But equally, when work and behaviour are substandard, I never “tell them off”. I try to look disappointed and a little bewildered, and then make sure we get to the bottom of exactly what the problem is and how we can rectify this next time. This is simply giving good quality and honest feedback that will allow them to improve.

The third thing I do is make sure I have lots of visible and eye-catching posters around the room that reinforce the message of unflinchingly high expectations and that I can constantly refer to during lessons. One of the most common phrases I hear in lessons is “I don’t get it”. I hate this. It doesn’t mean anything. I suppose what they’re really saying is “I give up” or “Do it for me”. I believe that many teachers and TAs will accept the former and bow down to the latter. But I don’t want this from my students. I want them to formulate a sensible question that will allow them make progress towards their goal. So I have a poster that reads:

““I don’t get it”. STOP. Now think of a question to make sure you do.”

Every time I hear “I don’t get it”, I point to this poster. I also have a poster that demonstrates the “Brain, book, buddy, boss” principle. Every time a student asks me for help I point to this and verify that they’ve been through all these stages before using me as a last resort. It’s all about cultivating self-confidence and resilience and transforming the negative culture of dependency into a positive culture of self-reliance. The other really useful poster I have is one that has a representation of the learning process and shows how failure is a necessary stop-off on the route to success. Every time a student tells me they just can’t do something or that they keep doing it wrong I refer to this and remind them that FAIL stands for “first attempt in learning” (which I have written on my classroom window ready to refer to). In this case, it’s about making them realise that mastery of anything is just about lots of focussed, deliberate practice and acting sensibly on teacher and peer feedback.

The other thing I’ve found really useful this year is employing SOLO taxonomy in planning. I won’t go into this as you can read about it in my previous blogs (the ones with “SOLO” as part of the title), but suffice to say that I’ve been trying to include students more in the planning process and have been making the skills and knowledge they need to gain throughout a topic available to them before they start. This, I’ve found, gives them a greater stake in the SoL and makes them more proactive in thinking about lesson content and what learning looks like. Tied into this is making sure that I give students examples of excellent work, always of A-A* standard and lots of chances to deconstruct it with highlighters, scissors, felt tips or whatever they prefer to use so that they can see how it works, followed by lots of time to practise creating their own examples of great work that is open to both peer and teacher scrutiny and receives lots of helpful feedback that they can use to improve. In my former teacher-self, I would have given each student examples of work that was levelled at their target for them to deconstruct. I now berate my former self for this capping of aspiration and achievement. As that awful saying goes, “aim for the moon and you’ll land among the stars”. Now, every student aims for the highest criteria possible.

So to conclude, this year I’ve realised that I’ve been doing differentiation all wrong up until now. I believe it is all about expectations and support and about adapting your teaching to individuals in order to change their culture and habits where these are detrimental to the learning of themselves or others, rather than making resources more accessible or easier to read. All this approach does is to allow the perpetuation of a culture of dependency which will set students up to fail in the real world (I talked a bit about this in a previous post entitled “Dyslexia, Fonts and Football”). And that really is doing them a disservice. What we want is to create successful people who are up for a challenge and enjoy doing things well. Allow them to coast or disengage and they will coast through life and disengage from the challenges that await them in the big, wide world.


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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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