Differentiation

The following post is a staff CPD session run at my school, The Ebbsfleet Academy, by our incredible Director of Learning for English, Briony Thomas. Briony, who eschews social media, has kindly allowed me to publish her work on this blog. I think her advice is invaluable to teachers, and a good reminder of all the excellent practice that happens in schools beyond Twitter!

I used to think that differentiation meant creating a whole range of fancy resources for a lesson…perhaps three different handouts to match my colour coded lesson objectives/outcomes of ‘All, Most, Some’ or ‘Good, Great, Outstanding’…

Four years into my teaching career, and my approach to differentiation has completely changed.

Now I am very wary of providing differentiated resources. Making individualised handouts is exceptionally time-consuming and for that reason, an unsustainable burden on your time (your work-life balance matters!). Instead, in my opinion, differentiation should be more fluid; based on addressing the misconceptions of specific students when they arise. Yes, you should plan how you will differentiate a task if you need to; but do not provide scaffolding until you know a student really needs it. You don’t want to assume that a student needs more help than they really do!

Problem 1: Task time

Students finish tasks at different times. Some speed through to the finish and then sit around twiddling their thumbs and distracting other students. Others work at a snail’s pace and can also lack resilience, give up and resort to distracting others too.

Solutions

Set a basic task completion expectation: “At the end of these four minutes, I expect everyone to have completed at least questions 1-3.”

Reward those who complete the task fully: “At the end of these four minutes, if you have exceeded my expectation and completed questions 1-5 to the best of your ability (crucial if you don’t want them to rush for sake of it!), then you will be rewarded with a merit.”

Make sure you always include a challenge that requires a longer answer to stretch your high ability students and ask them to share their responses with the class at the end (this can be their reward in addition to the merit they have already earned).

During the set time limit, give them frequent reminders of the time they have left and ask for hands up when they have completed certain questions to gauge the overall speed of the class and adjust your timings if you need to (they rarely notice when 7 minutes becomes 10…).

Problem 2: Teacher time

Certain students find it very difficult to get started or keep going without any direct teacher input, but you can’t be in more than one place at once.

Solutions

Group your most needy students at the very front of the classroom so they always feel like they are your priority. After explaining the task to the rest of the class, you can give a quieter, more focused second round of instruction to this group.

I know this arrangement isn’t always possible in different classrooms, especially when you have to consider behavioural concerns, so another way of doing this is to have mixed ability pairs (I would avoid larger group work generally as it is far too easy for students to be off task without you realising). For example, split your pairs into As (higher ability) and Bs (lower ability). After giving your instructions to the class, ask the As to explain the task again to the Bs. You could vary this by asking Bs to ask As any questions they still have about the task or by asking Bs to explain the task to As and getting the As to check if they understood it correctly. You want to vary it so as far as possible the students aren’t aware why they are either A or B.

If a student is consistently needy during a task and you are sure that they have understood the instructions but are just lacking confidence, then remind them of the hypercorrection effect, whereby if they have a go at a task and get it wrong, they are far more likely to remember the right answer next time than if they didn’t attempt the question at all. If this problem is more widespread across the class you can have a ‘no hands up’ time period for 5 minutes or so and encourage them to ‘save’ their questions by writing them down, by which point they might have figured out the answer or find it easier to just give the task a go anyway.

Rather than having a challenge ‘question,’ make the challenge task to become a class expert who acts like the teacher would and circulates the class helping those with their hands up.

Problem 3: Simplifying

You are trying to teach the class something really complex that you know they are going to struggle with but you’re unsure to simplify it.

Solutions

As experts ourselves, we can often forget how complex certain concepts are for our students to understand. When planning to introduce a new concept, think about all the different parts of knowledge students will need to know to understand it and separate this knowledge into manageable chunks of learning. A basic formula is to activate the students’ prior knowledge. For instance, before reading Oliver Twist with a class, they need to have a good understanding of Victorian London. Starting with an open question like: ‘what are cities like?’ is attemptable for everyone in the class. You don’t want any child to read the first question and think, ‘I can’t do that’. It will immediately disengage them from the beginning and it can be really hard to get them out of that negative mindset. From this starting point, you can then gradually make the questions more difficult, for example moving to: ‘What do you already know about London?’ to ‘How do you think London might have been different in the Victorian era?’

Multiple choice questions followed by choral answering (whole class answers A, B or C together) can be a really useful way of ensuring that all students feel confident enough to participate. You can also correct misconceptions immediately by asking those students who answered correctly to explain how they came to the right answer without making it clear which students got the answer wrong in the first place. As students are far happier to take a guess with multiple choice questions, this can also be a great way of making use of the hypercorrection effect explained earlier.

Problem 4: The word gap

With an increasing number of EAL students and with a high percentage of students who come from ‘word poor’ backgrounds, sometimes their lack of vocabulary can seem like an insurmountable burden.

Solution

The word-gap is such a huge problem that it is often the reason why there is such an apparent disparity between students in your class.  To address this problem head on, in your planning, it is so important to decide which words they are likely to find problematic. In the lesson you can gloss over the meanings of these words quickly so they do not provide a barrier to your students later on. For instance, “‘The west end of London was particularly prosperous’, I say you say ‘prosperous’. Prosperous means wealthy and successful. What does prosperous mean?” Keep these definitions as short and simple as possible. Often dictionaries use words in their definitions that are far too complex for our students to understand. To differentiate for students who already have broader vocabularies, you can use them as your ‘human dictionaries’ to provide these definitions themselves as you go along. This is a handy habit to get into when you are talking to the class to as well as reading with them because again, the most important thing when setting a task is to make sure they understand your instructions.

For words that they need to understand in more depth, providing images to illustrate their meaning can be really useful. This can allow students with already broad vocabularies to deepen their knowledge of a word by seeing how it could be applied in different contexts as well as making the lesson more accessible for EAL and word poor students who could really benefit from a visual aid.

Problem 5: Writing

You have students who can verbalise their answers clearly but really struggle to get their thoughts down on paper.

Solutions

Writing scaffolds are essential for a mixed ability class. You can write these up on the board during the lesson when the need arises and signpost only the students you want to use them, to make use of them. Providing sentence starters is a great way of helping those who need an extra hand to get started e.g. ‘The daughter of Henry VIII was…’

When you want students to provide a longer, more detailed response ‘because/but/so’ can be a really useful way of encouraging them to develop their explanations. E.g. ‘Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon because…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon but…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon so…’

Providing sentences or paragraphs with missing words ensures that all students will put pen to paper. They can even leave the gaps blank initially and then fill these in later when they’ve had a chance to think about them. Then, when you go through these answers with the class, they can complete any missing words in green pen.

To stretch the high ability, you can challenge them to use words from their knowledge organiser to improve their vocabulary. This is an extension that can be pretty much be used whenever they do extended writing.

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The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

Challenges to a ‘mastery’ curriculum

In my role this term, I’ve been implementing a knowledge-led mastery curriculum across all subjects, following the thoughts of great educationalists like E.D. Hirsch to shape students’ learning around core knowledge to increase their social and cultural capital and ensure they can access the greatest number of choices in their future lives.

So far, the three greatest challenges to implementing this kind of curriculum have been the concerns of SEN and EAL students, along with behaviour.

SEN

My school has a very high percentage of pupil premium students, and it is the peculiar case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) than their wealthier peers. Our school certainly has an extensive SEN list.

Now, while I am not an SEN expert, I do tend to the view that, as it seems unlikely that poor children are just predisposed to having special educational needs, there must be something else at play to explain the higher numbers on the SEN registers of schools serving economically deprived communities. Partly, I wonder if this is just one symptom of the wider knowledge and practice gap between our students and their more advantaged peers, diagnosed and labeled to be worked around.

Whatever the root cause, there can be no doubt that there are certain children who take much longer to learn stuff – any stuff. Try to teach all children incredibly rigorous material, and these children in particular will struggle. I don’t think that is an issue – struggle is the very stuff of learning, after all. But there is the inescapable issue of time: if these students will take longer to learn, how to we ensure we allow them the same space to master core content?

One solution is to focus the curriculum offer, giving more time to the key subjects (like humanities, science, English and maths) to ensure these students have time to truly master the key subjects. It is a point of contention at what stage such a focus should take place – is it in the early years of KS3, to drench them in the basics and catch them up, or should they have equal access to all subjects at KS3 and narrow at KS4 in preparation for the exams?

In general, I would advocate focusing sooner, as the latter can tend to lead to students pushed through a clutch of technical qualifications in an attempt to ensure they leave school with something they can use later in life. Too diffuse a subject offer at KS3 for these subjects means some will continue to struggle, and even fail, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of lack of buy-in.

EAL

The second challenge to consider in our school’s particular context is its EAL students. We have a particularly high number of new arrivals, and a phenomenal job is done by the EAL team with these.

But there are students who still really struggle with the basics of communication in English. As one teacher told me, ‘to allow one student to access the lesson, her TA has to look up the words in Portuguese just so she can answer the questions – in Portuguese. What is the point in her learning a nineteenth century novel?’

I have much sympathy with this view. Of course, we would like all our EAL students to miraculously pick up perfect English just by sitting in mainstream lessons, but there might need to be a smarter solution for these students.

It also depends how much time they have before their all-important exams; clearly a student in year 7 can struggle through the year and probably make enormous progress in mainstream lessons, where a new arrival in year 10 or 11 might need alternative curriculum provision to ensure they are not drowning in syntax.

Behaviour

The greatest and widest-ranging challenge to a mastery curriculum is behaviour, because behaviour affects every teacher and every student in a school. If in the past I was guilty of delivering lessons with too much group work and student independent research, this was partly because it was incredibly difficult to deliver to a class that you couldn’t reach silence with. In that circumstance, in my early years as a teacher, I believed it was better to teach them something than to have a complete riot with nothing being learned.

But I know now that I failed those children in many ways. We do not have time to waste – the gap is too large, the stakes too high. These children do not have time for guessing, for card-sorts, for making posters with their friends. They need to read, write, and learn.

Delivering a lesson which is composed of reading, questioning and silent writing is not easy with students who are used to a variety of engaging activities which allow them a quiet word with their friends. A year 11 student only recently reminded me ‘I’m doing the work while I’m talking!’ when challenged, as if to say that as long as their pen was near the paper they were fine to not be 100% engaged with the lesson. (I firmly disagreed with the student, for the record.)

The major concern with implementing a rigorous knowledge curriculum is that the people who deliver it, especially NQTs, teachers who are new to the school or trainee teachers, all run the risk of immense challenge from students who have grown accustomed to lessons which are part learning, part social time.

To be able to deliver effectively to children, for them to really engage with and reflect on the knowledge they are learning, for them to learn enough in a short enough time to close the gap, behaviour must be absolutely impeccable. And if it isn’t, that has to be the number one priority to allow mastery to take place.