Differentiation in Action: the joy of observing a fantastic lesson

Yesterday I had the great honour and privilege of observing a fantastic lesson delivered by an MFL colleague. I was in the lesson for the first 25 minutes or so, and I can only describe the atmosphere in the room as “electric”. All the kids were completely engaged. Their “thirst for knowledge” filled the room and threatened to burst out through the roof. In short, it was amazing. The observation took place straight after lunch (period 4), and I left that room with a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t wait to feed back to the teacher and was only sorry that it would have to wait until the end of the day.

As I sat and reflected on the lesson, it got me thinking once again about that slippery old concept of differentiation. Some of my earliest and most viewed blogs were on this subject. The most popular blog I wrote, “Why We’ve got Differentiation Wrong,” was an angry response to the expectation that objectives should be differentiated and that “weaker” students should be given easier work and expected to do less. I championed the idea that differentiation should be a reactive process that is perfected by expert teachers who can deliver it in situ without detailed planning of how and when it should happen. The lesson I saw on Friday was a brilliant piece of evidence supporting this theory.

You see, there were no differentiated worksheets. There were no differentiated objectives. Every student in that room was expected to partake in the same activity. The emphasis was very much on speaking French, but the evidence in the books showed that these students (who had arrived 8 weeks ago without knowing a word of the language) could also write extended paragraphs in the target language. The progress that this group had made in the time they had been with this teacher was, quite frankly, phenomenal.

So what’s the key to this great teacher’s success? In my opinion, it is an intuitive approach to differentiation. For a start, the written feedback in their books is focused and differentiated, allowing the students to improve on their work. But the real magic is in the delivery of the lessons. As she carefully guides the class through activities that allow them to grow their vocabularies and practise their grammar, she is constantly checking and assessing every single child in the room, carefully rephrasing questions and explanations to ensure that each child has grasped what they need, or pushing those that have got it just that bit further to ensure that they are challenged. As she does this, she oozes passion and enthusiasm for the subject and for the students. Her body language shares an excitement that is contagious, shouting to everybody that she is so pleased to be in the room and sharing this fascinating stuff with the class.

And the students know that there is nowhere for them to hide (but then, nobody wants to hide). The exciting atmosphere in the room encourages everybody to do their best; every single child in that room is desperate to please this amazing teacher. A student who is wheelchair-bound arrived several minutes late with her TA and was seamlessly absorbed into the action. Within seconds she was answering questions and behaving like she’d been there from the start.

For me, it was invigorating and refreshing to watch this lesson. It gave me a reminder of how lessons ought to be taught and gave me further contempt for the nonsensical distinction between “sages on stages” and “guides on sides”; often the kids learn best when they have a brilliant “sage on the stage” to admire and aspire to emulate.

My last job of the week was to feedback to this teacher, and it was great to finish the week on such a high. I try not to talk about work at home, but after ten minutes of being back through the front door my poor wife and kids were fed up of me waxing lyrical about this fantastic lesson that I’d watched that afternoon. I hope I can take just a little bit of what I saw and inject it into my teaching next week.



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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