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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Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands