Differentiation Is All About Engagement, Not Dumbing Down.

I was lucky enough to be sent on a course this week. I really didn’t want to go. It was originally booked for another colleague who, in the end, wasn’t well enough to go. As it was already paid for the powers that be thought that, so as not to waste money, they’d ask me (I have a bad habit of saying yes to things without thinking them through first). Worse, it was on a topic that I’ve written on several times before and feel very strongly about and so I thought I’d be like a granny sucking on eggs. The topic was differentiation.

But how wrong I was. I left for Manchester at 6.15 in the morning, wondering why I’d agreed to go and be shown how to dumb down texts and worksheets and how to create differentiated learning objectives that catered to all levels. I expected things about creating key word sheets and selecting books for the correct AF level or how to prepare several versions of the same reading comprehension.

Instead I was confronted with a course leader (Isabella Wallace, @wallaceisabella) whose whole philosophy toward the dreaded D-word was that each challenging task should engage everybody whatever their current level. This was music to my ears. The whole course was really underpinned by the beautifully mutually supporting theories of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” and John Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy, meaning that tasks could be tackled whatever a student’s level, and they could easily be stretched to the next level too. There were loads of really good little activities that could be applied to any topic or subject quickly, easily and painlessly with just a tiny bit of forethought.

So the next day I arrived in school and rewrote my lesson plans, following some of Isabella’s advice. My bottom set year 11 (who it transpired had been awful the previous day for the supply teacher) walked into a clip of Jeremy Kyle having it out with an absent teenage father (working on writing to argue you see) followed by a quick discussion of the pros and cons of Jeremy’s techniques. Students then had to try to answer the learning objective: “how well can you justify your belief in the supernatural?” (An aside here: an LA advisor recently told me my objectives were dry and to rephrase them as questions – you’ll see why in a minute). It turned out that most didn’t know what the supernatural was, so I asked them instead “do you believe in ghosts?” They were given a sheet of paper on which they had to write either “Yes, I believe in ghosts”, “No I don’t believe in ghosts”, or “I’m not sure whether I believe in ghosts or not”. We then left the room and went and stood on the staircase with 100% believers on the top landing, 100% non-believers on the bottom and the rest working out where they stood in between. We all (including myself and the TA) had to justify why we were stood where we were.

Next, we went back to the classroom and laid out three pieces of A1 paper. On one we wrote “Ghosts can talk”, on another “ghosts can be good or bad” and on another “you can feel a ghost’s presence”. Next, we carried out the “silent debate” (something I picked up at the course). Every student had a different coloured pen and spent two minutes at one of the sheets, writing comments and responses to what others had written, before moving onto the next one. The amazing thing here was the sheer immersion of the students. The concentration and focus was such that for 15 minutes they were in a pure state of flow, something I’d never seen with this group before, and by the end of it we had 3 sheets covered in brilliant comments and responses (with the exception of the odd “YOLO”) that we can use next lesson to really build up and structure our arguments.

At the end students went back and had another go at answering the objective. This time they could do it, meaning progress was clearly demonstrated in their books (and why the objective framed as a question is so damned useful). The proof that this was so engaging and so clearly a successful example of differentiation was that, in a group that yesterday had made a supply teacher really upset and needed the intervention of the Head of Year, everybody was 100% engaged throughout and contributed really constructively, as well as having made clear progress. After they had finished answering the objective they kept trying to add more comments even though the bell had gone, and, more importantly, one of the students (who was removed the day before) asked me if we were carrying on with what we’d done as it was “sick”. Formally, I could say that all students had moved from the prestructual, unistructural or multistructural level of SOLO to the relational level, which with a bottom set of LAS isn’t to be sniffed at in a single lesson.

The lessons that came later in the day were almost (but not quite) as brilliant as this one, with almost everyone making excellent progress and being engaged all the time (I had a year 11 Media lesson linking up key words from the Superhero genre and a year 7 literacy lesson on building complex sentence structures, but I won’t go into the detail here).

The downside of the day is that it forced me to shell out a load of department cash on resources that are going to allow me to carry out these kinds of lessons every day, but that will be money very well spent, I’m confident.

A key thing that Isabella said yesterday was: “differentiation is about ensuring all participate”; “same task different level of challenge”. I think my lessons today really reflected this, so thank you Mrs Wallace for some great ideas.

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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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