Pace, challenge, engagement and differentiation: clearing up the confusion.
Last week we had some external CPD at our school. It was quite good as far as these things go; interactive, practical and with lots of ideas for activities that were lesson ready without heavily adding to the planning/creating resources workload. You’d have to have been a serious cynic not to be able to take at least one thing you could use, regardless of your subject specialism. The training itself kicked off with a question: which is the teacher in this image?
Some teachers said they felt like the mice, constantly performing to entertain the students and expelling copious amounts of energy. Some said they felt like the dog, carrying everyone along, panting and getting knackered in the process. Still others claimed they were the bike (not sure how they arrived at this analogy). But nobody said the cat. And yet, if we’re doing it right, as teachers, we really should be the cat. The cat is clearly the one in charge. It appears to be doing very little other than holding the pole on which the performing mice are precariously balanced. But in actual fact it is the central driving force that is ensuring everything is ticking along as it should. It appears cool, calm and collected, maybe even a little distant; but really it is the one that links all the others together and keeps things on track through subtle adjustments in its positioning. In the classroom, surely this is the sign that things are moving along as they should; the kids are doing the vast majority of the work while the teacher calmly monitors progress, intervening and supporting where necessary.
Inevitably at the CPD event, teachers were asked what they wanted from the course. And the answers were inevitable and predictable: how do I make lessons pacey? How do I differentiate effectively? How do I ensure that students of all levels are challenged and engaged in lessons? The lady delivering the course alluded to the idea that all of these things would be answered, but none were actually dealt with explicitly. However, in the activity ideas that were shared, all were dealt with implicitly. And this is because although we talk about pace, challenge, engagement and differentiation as separate things, this is actually confusing the fact that they are all part and parcel of the same thing. Let’s deal with them individually in order to show that they are all part of an indivisible whole.
Pace – many, many teachers of all levels of experience wrongly confuse pace with speed. The theory seems to be; pack in lots of short activities to keep the kids entertained so that they don’t have chance for attention to be lost. But in reality, pace is a synonym for momentum, not speed. Pace is the inertia that is observable when students are engaged in what they are doing because they are interested in it and want to do well. Activities should be completed thoroughly, not quickly, to ensure that learning is embedded properly. When optimum pace is achieved we can observe students in a state of flow, blissfully unaware of their surroundings and completely embroiled in the task at hand.
Engagement – engagement is the prerequisite for good pace and ultimately flow. Engagement stems from igniting the students’ curiosity in their learning by designing tasks that they are keen to try out. An explicit awareness of how the human brain works in social contexts is important here. By tapping into natural human urges we can design activities that will naturally engage the students. We need to build in opportunities for students to interact socially with elements of the things that make social leisure activities so enjoyable. An element of sharing one’s experiences and finding out about others’ experiences; an element of risk and potential embarrassment, as well as some competition with the possibility of success or failure. These are the things that make us tick and make us fundamentally social creatures, and so they should be harnessed as a vehicle for improving our lessons.
Challenge – there is a myth often bandied about that challenge involves making sure students are constantly being fed new knowledge. I would argue vehemently against this. Common sense says that bombarding them with new information constantly is not challenging. Challenge is what they do with the facts once they have them, linking them in different ways to broaden and deepen their understanding of a topic. I would also argue that if a task is engaging because it is interesting then it will be inherently challenging because our students’ brains will be dealing with it in their own way, whether this is mental arithmetic, literary analysis or deconstructing historical narrative. By framing seemingly mundane topics in imaginative and interesting ways our students will be engaged and challenged to find out about them. Challenge and engagement go hand in hand; you cannot have the one without the other.
Differentiation – the dreaded D word. I have felt compelled to blog on this topic more than any other. We are told we mustn’t differentiate by outcome as it’s lazy and shows a lack of planning (nonsense – students will engage with topics if they have an element of choice in how they demonstrate their learning). All the best differentiation is by input they tell us; different types of tasks for different “styles of learner” (see my previous post on “VAK silliness” for a discussion of this); different levels of challenge for different abilities; higher level “literary” texts for more able students and easier, more accessible texts for weaker students. But as I’ve argued before, this is rubbish. Ultimately we want all our students to be experts in our subjects and we want them to access the best work in the subject. The best differentiation comes when we differentiate in situ, just like the cat in the photo. It’s the little tweaks we make during the lesson to keep learning on track; feeding those that are struggling little snippets of information or words of encouragement to allow them to keep the momentum going in their work; using those who are succeeding to coach those who are not; rephrasing an instruction to allow the student who hasn’t quite got it to understand; and most of all, creating an environment where everyone helps each other to do their best and succeed in their own way. Differentiation, at its most effective, is intuitive and reactive.
I have to admit that all of the above is an ideal and that most of my lessons do not actually turn out like this. The social nature of teaching and learning and the unpredictable human element involved ensures that it is rarely so. But the lessons that do turn out like this really are poetry in motion and you really do feel like the cat in the picture; calm and in control in the midst of a hive of positive, energetic learning, gently intervening where necessary and equally knowing when to leave well alone if things are bobbing along nicely under their own steam. So if we know what we want our students to learn and can provide interesting activities to allow this to happen, we will necessarily observe all four of those holy grails without thinking too much about any one of them individually. Pace, challenge, engagement and differentiation are just the things that occur when well-designed but flexible lessons happen.