The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them


Image: @jasonramasami

Differentiation seems to revolve around a dilemma. It is evidently clear that all students have different needs and areas of weakness; yet it is also true – or so it seems to me – that if we obsess about what they cannot do now, or do not know now, we risk losing sight of the direction we could be taking them in. Valiant attempts to ‘differentiate’ often prove counterproductive because, cumulatively, they decrease challenge in the long-term.

A few things about differentiation that seem true to me are:

1. That long-term outcomes – in terms of hard results and quality of work – are the true measure of successful differentiation. If outcomes are improving over time across a range of UDGs, the teacher’s differentiation is almost certainly effective.

2. That classroom differentiation revolves around a mix of anticipation and agility. When planning we need to predict when and where students will require support or stretching, but also we must respond in real time to unexpected needs in the unscripted social dynamic that is a lesson.

3. That over time good teachers should aim to develop, adjust and refine their delivery with such finesse that differentiation melts into their practice. At this stage, it could be said that it ceases to remain a thing.

4. That it is our job to challenge students to go beyond what they can do now, not to keep them rooted to their current spot.

What follows is my ‘Differentiation Hall of Shame’ – mistakes I have made myself and how I have sought to rectify them.

1. Differentiation because you think you should. This is more about guilt than it is student needs, but unfortunately it manifests as a patronising assumption – I would feel terrible if I did not do something special for poor little Freddy. Some topics and tasks require very careful consideration of the spectrum of entry points; others, especially when introducing new knowledge that does not rely so much on prior knowledge, do not. The trick? Ignore the guilt and think strategically about where and when to exert the finite time that you have.

2. Differentiation to meet an outsider’s expectations. Only the subject teacher has a handle on the needs, working habits and requirements of her students. This understanding is built up over time; it is a rich and complex data-set. Observation rubrics that contain a box saying ‘evidence of differentiation’ can lead to the Kafkaesque scenario where a teacher under-challenges a student to keep a member of SLT with a clipboard happy. Madness. The solution for schools in this case is to measure the effectiveness of differentiation through long-term data – only when a weakness is uncovered should classroom practice be investigated as a cause.

3. Differentiation according to prior-attainment grade or target grade. This looks something like...level 4s you will learn to spell these simple words, level 5s you will spell these medium level words and level 6s you will look at these hard ones. Such tasks give assessment data too much credit and ignore, once again, the richer qualitative data that we tacitly accumulate about our students. Every English teacher knows that technical writing skills – in terms of strengths and weaknesses – are unique to the individual. Only this week, a very advanced year 10 writer got into a good-natured argument with me.

“It is spelt ‘prehaps’, I know it is!” she protested earnestly.

The solution is to bring in strategies like DIRT, proofreading and redrafting. This way we can have students work not on our crude assumptions about their ability, but on their genuine errors and misconceptions.

4. Differentiation that takes time away from planning subject content. James Theobald has written wonderfully about opportunity cost this weekend. The cost of planning, say, a host of differentiated worksheets can lead to a deficit in time spent researching subject content, developing questions to test and stretch students’ thinking, considering different explanation strategies – such as stories, analogies and a range of multi-modal examples – or planning for the careful modelling and deconstruction of the target product. If these are not given due priority, we are likely to be left with unclear and confused students. Often, we will be left having to patch up our lessons with individualised help because we did not introduce the material to students as clearly and succinctly as we should have.

5. Differentiation according to all/most/some. A healthy dose of self-delusion is important in teaching. We need to partly erase the assumptions we make about a student’s capacity to learn, yet also prepare for the support that might still be required. All/most/some tells some students that it is okay to opt-out, and, more dangerously, creates an opportunity for us to subconsciously lower our expectations for some. Stick to ‘All of you will…’ and then intervene with those who need it.

6. Differentiation that does the thinking for them. Dweck stresses the importance of ‘struggle’; Willingham how students should be thinking hard about subject content; psychology in general, from my limited understanding, about the importance of thinking about semantic meaning for long-term retention. It is very tempting to give children easy work to keep them happy and maintain the illusion that they are sufficiently learning, yet how will they make any progress if they are only working on things they already know? At times, yes, strategic repetition is necessary for long-term retention and automaticity, but this must be tempered by healthy ‘struggle’. A very simple trick is to withhold any supportive scaffolding until all students have had a decent attempt at a task. So for a few minutes stand back. Don’t hand-out support sheets, or assign a TA to a student or intervene yourself. Stand back and watch for a while and intervene a little later with those who require it. You will now be working now with genuine need and not misplaced assumption.

7. Differentiation as a life sentence. One day I might write a modern morality tale entitled The Tragic Tale of Evie Smith. Evie has little support coming from her home life and she arrives at secondary school at a significant academic disadvantage to her peers. She moves from lesson to lesson always given the differentiated worksheet, always sat next to the TA, always congratulated on putting her pen to paper. I am not sure what the answer is here. Nature and nurture have conspired against her but that does not mean that we should join the conspiracy. If we never challenge students, or give them the chance to get hard stuff right, they will comfortably meet this expectation.

8. Differentiation as a list of rules! The more experienced we become, the more tools we acquire with which to help our students. Yet sometimes we are well and truly stumped. Sometimes our well-honed strategies fall short. Often the reasons are obvious: a severe or profound learning difficulty, for instance. At other times the reasons are murky: this student is capable of responding well but for some reason they are not. Why? At this stage, it is best to seek advice from their form tutor, their other subject teachers or their parents. Is this a problem with the way I am teaching him or is there something I am unaware of interfering with his reception of my teaching? Usually, the latter is the cause. We know that human minds learn in a remarkably similar way but we also know that the knowledge that every mind is shaped by is hugely different and complex, as are the individual conditions through which they experience our instruction. As a teacher, it is wise to keep searching for ways to help these complex ‘outlier’ students, as well as to continue to hone those strategies that work well with the majority.


So, the nub of this post is this. Differentiation should be informed not by assumptions of need, but by a leap of faith. This is the place we imagine the students can get to in the future, however hard this might be for them.

This post has been in preparation for my #TLT14 talk on differentiation and challenge later in the month. I hope to see you at the event.

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way
Differentiation: making possible the impossible
Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

Reflections on a successful student


 Image: @jasonramasami

“Can he get an A*?”

In the autumn term, when Rasheed’s father asked me this at year 10 parents’ evening, I squirmed in my seat. My mind screamed, “NO, he’ll get a B.” Eventually my vocal chords, with little assertion, found a compromise:

“I’m not sure, but if he works hard he might achieve an A.”

Rasheed – not his real name – has a MEG (a ‘minimum expected grade’) of a B, and I rather think that the anchoring effect, as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, was playing its hand. Kahneman writes:

“It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number the people considered – hence the image of an anchor.”

The effect has been shown to influence and constrain our thinking beyond our control. My prediction for Rasheed, therefore, was probably anchored to that ‘B’ that sits adjacent to his name on my class list. If you had asked for my reasons, I would have claimed that my prediction was based on my understanding of his current ability.

On closer scrutiny, my reasoning reveals an uncomfortable prejudice: my subconscious belief that a student working at Rasheed’s level at the start of year 10 is only capable of achieving a B by the end of the year. (Our students complete their English literature GCSE in year 10).

Here is a random paragraph from Rasheed’s work taken from October. He was writing about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

“George was in disbelief as he sat ‘stiffly’ on the bank, he was frozen with shock. He also ‘looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away,’ this means that he was emotionaly numb. It may also suggest that he was angry at what his ‘right hand’ just did, it shot his friend. It shows that he wanted to blame it on something. Steinbeck used these words to replicate how frightened he was after he shot Lennie.”

There is little real analysis here, just a gunfire list of descriptive inferences. On such evidence, a B might seem more than a fair target.

At the end of June, after the students had completed their literature exam, we returned to Of Mice and Men to write their English language controlled assessment. Eight months on, here’s a sample of Rasheed’s writing:

“Furthermore, she reveals a more dominant side when she stands ‘over him’. Here Steinbeck describes physical levels to illustrate social hierarchy. To emphasise her power, Steinbeck uses the metaphor ‘whip’, a harsh sounding word that not only stings Crooks but the reader as they feel his pain. This onomatopoeic word generates images of slavery, which was abollished many years before, yet is still remembered to this day. Hence, we could speculate that Steinbeck felt a certain degree of sympathy for Crooks. Moreover, it conjures up images of a slave master, Curley’s Wife and Crooks, the slave. It is this that gives Curley’s Wife a vociferous tone. When Crooks had ‘reduced himself to nothing’, our sympathy is eroded away from Curley’s Wife and deposited into Crooks. On closer analysis, it might seem that by describing Curley’s Wife as powerful, he is actually exposing her weakness as Crooks is the only person she feels she can attack.”

This paragraph, written under controlled conditions, represents the journey Rasheed has gone on this year. Even though his ideas are not completely polished, you will notice a new-found maturity of style and depth of analysis. A* is a not a million miles away.

Rasheed, it is fair to say, has blossomed over the past three or four months, and not only when writing about Of Mice and Men! When we witness such success, it is important to attempt to unearth the causes.

First, of all it is worth mentioning the curriculum plan. It was a risk entering every year 10 student for English literature this year; we will find out in the summer how successful this approach has been. However, the quality of the controlled assessments we recently moderated, along with the supporting data, shows unanimously that a year of analytical writing practice has paid dividends across the year group. The quality of the writing about the novella was further enhanced, I believe, by the knowledge students had of the text; as they already knew the storyline and themes well, they were able to find extra layers of meaning with relative ease. Rasheed’s progress, then, is partly explained by the general picture.

Yet this is not the full story. I would like to claim a little bit of his success for myself. The most obvious affect I have had as a his teacher has been through my teaching of essay writing (see this post on life after PEE). I would contend that his writing has improved not only through an improvement in his ability to access more subtle ideas, but also through an improvement in his ability to express himself through analytical language. This improvement has been replicated across the class, to various degrees, and it is something I have taught explicitly through a range of modelling and scaffolding strategies. Pleasingly, I can detect my influence in his work.

But of course there is more. Rasheed exudes the growth mindset. His effort levels are quietly impressive. Since the beginning of term, he has often waited behind after lessons to ask what he can do improve and what we will be studying next. He listens, nods, says ‘thank you’ and goes. I will never forget the time he arrived at a lesson and asked which poem we were covering today. I told him – it was one we had not covered in class before – and he smiled.

“Yes, that’s one of my favourites,” he replied.

His progress, however, cannot just be explained away by in-school factors. Rasheed’s father, clearly, has sky-high expectations for his son (expectations, unfortunately, that were not shared by his English teacher at the beginning of term). The research into mindset suggests that there is a cultural element to the attribution of success. In many Asian cultures, success is more likely to be attributed to hard work and effort than it is in the West, where too often success is linked to talent. His cultural roots may well be significant.

Perhaps there are other opaque factors at play too, factors that we as educators may never fully grasp hold of. What has happened within his mind? What invisible neural connections have fizzed together this year? Is he a thinker? Does he sit at home on his bed mulling over what he has learnt today? Or does he pace around the house religiously rehearsing the sentences he will write in his next piece? Who knows?

Success is a complex concoction. To understand its richness accurately we must not only engage with robust educational research, but also zoom in on those fascinating individual case studies readily available to us. Our students.


Last week, I asked Rasheed whether he realises how much he has come on in English. His response is instructive:

“I didn’t know I could improve so much.”

Neither did I.

(Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read my scribblings over the past few months. It is time for me to take a holiday from teaching and blogging. I aim to be back again in September. Enjoy the break.) 1DA9A47D-5771-4594-9E10-B11AEE763898 79B58F87-24F3-4F60-BF0D-50FE8E422E2D

Differentiation: making possible the impossible


Image: @jasonramasami

When I think about the students I teach, I probably should make a beeline to their personality traits – their helpfulness, cheerfulness, kindness or pain-in-the-backside-ness. Or, perhaps, I should visualise an image of their pimply or foundation-masked faces. But no. Instead, etched in this particular English teacher’s mind’s eye, is their handwriting. Eddie’s hideous scrawl that hides his mature and concise control of syntax. Imogen’s perfectly curlicued lettering that can’t quite disguise a simplistic matter-of-factness of style. Tom’s horror-show spelling that can sometimes be forgiven because of an unexpected rhetorical flourish.

They are all different, very different. Now let’s multiply these three by ten and we have your average class. Grades and levels might help me group these thirty into smaller groups, yet even within these smaller groups the range, in terms of what they can do and can’t do, and in terms of what they know and don’t know, is startling. In fact, it is impossible for me to hold all this complex data in my mind at one time. This difficulty is further compounded by the truth that never will I be able to see inside minds and memories to discover the extent of comprehension that exists beyond what appears on the page or what is uttered from the mouth.

Graham Nuthall’s incredible research, detailed in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, shows how each student enters the classroom with very different prior knowledge even if their ability is broadly similar. New knowledge, as we know, can only be assimilated in the memory by attaching itself to existing knowledge schemas. This means, in effect, that each and every child will experience our lessons differently and so learn very different information and concepts from the same lesson. Nuthall’s amazing finding was that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student and is not learned by other students in the class.

So, differentiation – or challenging all at the level of need – is pretty hard. In an attempt to paper-over this uncomfortable truth, I have attempted many teaching strategies. Unfortunately, however, each of these strategies has seemed to both fix the problem and simultaneously create a new problem:

• If they work in ability groups, then the more-able can stretch each other…yet the less-able might hold each other back.

• If they work in mixed-ability groups, then the more-able can support the less-able…yet it is harder to challenge the more-able with new material in this scenario.

• If students are given different tasks, then they will have work suited to their ability…yet confusion about how to complete the task is more likely as each task will need separate instructions.

• If I only ask simple questions to the less-able, then they will be more confident when talking in class…yet they will not be stretched by challenging, higher-order questioning.

• If I only ask challenging questions to the more-able, then their thinking will always be stretched…yet it might be that they too need testing on their basic understanding.

And the list goes on…It seems, therefore, that attempts to differentiate can militate against the very learning I am trying to elicit. The above are all useful teaching strategies, of course, but are they useful differentiation strategies? It seems to me that too much that goes by the name of ‘differentiation’ is driven by deficit. It focuses on what they can’t do now, rather than what they might be able to do in the future. This is further compounded by the fact that the more ‘different’ learning experiences I try to plan into one lesson, the more time consuming it becomes to plan and the more watered-down my effect becomes. I cannot deliver six different lessons as effectively as I can one. 

So what’s the solution? Clearly our students are all so different that they cannot be taught through the same methods, can they?

Well, perhaps they can. When I reverse my thinking I find the complexity a little easier to cope with. It may be impossible to tailor work to the level of each individual in every single lesson. However, over a longer period of time – a year, a key stage – it is less daunting. That’s why I think that differentiation can never be measured in an individual lesson; it might look like they are all learning or being challenged, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are not. My way of looking at it is that if our students  make progress over time, irrespective of ability, then we are surely differentiating well.

So here are my four – very simple and obvious – suggestions for creating a classroom culture that might ensure that all abilities thrive.

1. An ethos of hard work and sky-high behavioural expectations must be established. As Dweck’s mindset research has ascertained, students must attribute success to hard-work; failure must be normalised, or even celebrated, as part of this ethos.

2. High challenge is essential. However, we must accept that it is not realistic to expect that every lesson is challenging for all. At times we need to, as Doug Lemov suggests, ‘encode success’ through practising the basic knowledge and skills that underpin our subject areas. Challenge, therefore, is about imagining where the student might get to in the future and then leading them there, however circuitous the journey.

3. Responsiveness is key. We must anticipate as best we can the needs of our individual students, yet we must always be prepared to act and respond to the unanticipated needs too. See my post on the matter.

4. Differentiation is no bolt-on. It should be infused in everything we do. How might we explain complex and abstract ideas with clarity and concision? How might we break up complex questions into a simpler, yet no less challenging, series of questions? How might we deliver instructions in the most meaningful way? How might we, as David Didau might say, make the implicit thought processes of experts, explicit to our students? Etc, etc.

Please don’t see this argument as an excuse for binning differentiation as a frame of reference; in fact, I see it as quite the opposite. Let me finish on a slightly pretentious note. The concept or ‘force’ known as Brahman comes from the Hindu religion – it is said to be the ultimate reality or ‘soul’ underlying all phenomena. Perhaps the following analogy for Brahman could also apply to how differentiation might melt into everything we do:

When you throw a lump of salt into water, it dissolves; you cannot take it out again, and hold it in your hands. Yet if you sip any part of the water, the salt is present. In the same way the soul can be perceived everywhere and anywhere; the soul has no limit or boundary.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4.1–4, 8

Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer


Image: @jasonramasami

Four years ago I became, almost despite myself, an all-grain brewer. What does this mean, you ask? It means that I can design a beer recipe. I can choose from a dizzying range of ingredients. I can combine hops, malt, yeast in an ancient scientific alchemy. I can manage the fermentation process. I can bottle-up and wait impatiently for maturation. And I can drink the stuff. Litres of it.

If I think back five years, however, I had not the slightest interest in becoming a homebrewer. If you had told me that within a year I would be able to make my own amber nectar, I would have thought you absurd. I have few practical skills, I don’t have a head for science and the closest I’d ever come to real ale was a pint of the mass-marketed stout known throughout the land as Guinness.

So what happened? My transformation was driven entirely by my friend, brewing expert and fellow English teacher Gavin McCusker. Gav decided he would like a brewing partner and that I was his man. Right from the get-go his vision of my brewing potential surpassed my imagination of who I was and what I was capable of.

This post reflects on my experience as a novice ale-maker and what I have learnt about the experience of being a learner…

Let’s get started. The learning process Gav took me through was devoid of any teaching ideology; instead it was purely pragmatic. How would he use the limited time we had to turn me into the discerning and skillful brewing buddy he so desired? He decided to take the hard option: he would need to design me in his own image. I was to be his apprentice.

The brew-day itself is the key to brewing; it is far more complex than managing fermentation (the few weeks that it takes for yeast to convert sugars to alcohol) and bottling. To master brewing, you need to master the brew-day.

1. It started off with watching Gav, the expert, in action. He modelled the processes, talking me through a huge range of procedures from mashing, to sparging, to boiling, to cooling the wort… Needless to say, it was very challenging and not a little confusing (made even more so by the fact that it is de rigueur to knock back one or two ‘sample’ ales along the way).

2. As Gav explained, he flaunted his mastery of the brewer’s glossary, refusing to ‘dumb-down’ for the sake of easy comprehension. The boiler was the ‘kettle’, the sticky pre-hopped fluid was the ‘wort’, the grain was ‘malt’. He took time to explain how ‘alpha acids’ determine bitterness, the way alcohol levels are measured in ‘gravity’.

3. The next time we brewed together it was more of a collaborative venture. Gav allowed me to practise the basic processes one-by-one while he managed the overall sequence. Instant feedback was readily available – I remember he was distinctly unimpressed by my stirring technique!

4. Gav was insistent that I did not buy specialist brewing equipment. Abiding by frugal ideals, the genuine homebrewer fashions ones own utensils. We made a brewing ‘kettle’ from the combination of an old chutney vat and an element taken from a Tesco Value kettle; we insulated the ‘mash tun’ with a couple of tent mattresses from Argos. It was slow, frustratingly time-consuming, but helped me to understand the minute mechanics of what I was learning.

5. When it was finally time for me to brew alone, Gav provided a written scaffold: an exhaustive list of procedural instructions, calculations and a recipe. He was available on the phone to answer my questions, but ultimately I was left alone, independent. And guess what? I made my first beer!

6. On cracking open and sipping my first brew I was up for more. I read around the subject, deepening my understanding as I did. Eventually, I designed my own beer from start to finish: Pepper Porter. Made from a mixture of pale malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley, it was named after Pepper, my dog. With chocolatey bitter depths, boy it was good on a winter’s evening!


7. Over time, my beer preferences have diverged from Gav’s. He prefers the heavily-hopped American-style beers all the rage in the Brighton area at the moment; I prefer something sweet, malty and more traditionally British.

8. Since learning to brew, I have experimented with many styles of beer. There have been disasters along the way (like the day the beer leaked out of the fermenting vessel, through the floor and dripped onto the head of my son’s visiting great-grandmother!). There have also been many successes too: such as the beer I brewed, to much acclaim, for my best friend’s wedding. Unfortunately, due to the demands of life, I have not brewed for several months. I know, however, I will pick it up again easily when I have the chance. It’s like riding a bike.

The process Gav took me on was not a self-conscious one; instead it was entirely organic. However, it mirrors remarkably the ‘Big 5’ that Shaun Allison has identified at my school. Beginning with the initial challenge, we moved through explanation, modelling and collaboration, all supported by feedback, questioning and scaffolding.


The process took time. It is now firmly embedded in my long-term memory. The sequence would have pleased the cognitive scientist. It involved repetition, spaced-out learning and the interleaving of procedural steps.

All the above factors, however, were not the most crucial. The most crucial factor was my teacher, Gav. He was indefatigable, never giving up on the vision of the brewer I could become, even if I was ready to throw in the towel on more than one occasion. His quest was relentless. At 7.30 on a Monday morning, he would come into my classroom to ask about my latest ‘gravity reading’. When I was having trouble with the ‘false-bottom’ of my mash tun, he took it to the DT room after school to perfect. His infectious enthusiasm for brewing exuded from every pore of his body. He encouraged, commiserated, cajoled, comforted and bullied me into becoming a brewer, never once allowing me to believe that this was not possible.

If brewing was an academic subject, my target grade, based on prior practical ability, would have been a D. In brewing terms, a D would be the equivalent of being able to brew a hop-less wort (which, unless you like sickeningly sweet Horlicks, would be entirely pointless not to mention unpalatable).

So what did my experience as a novice brewer teach me about teaching? Firstly, that for all the expert teaching methodology and research in the world, the relentless belief of the teacher in the student’s potential is the glue that binds everything together. Secondly, that expectation is everything: the teacher must make the unimaginable imaginable. And thirdly, that learning, with all its short-term setbacks, must be a long term venture.

Of course, Gav did not have a class of 25 in front of him; he was teaching me one-to-one. We also had a very tangible goal – lots of cheap beer! – to work towards. Even so, Gav taught me many lessons. This week, my Y8s have been set a Shakespeare sonnet to recite from memory. Some have managed it first time, others have not. It would be so easy to say to those who have struggled, “It’s okay, you gave it your best shot.” But no, instead I have said: “Go and practise again over the weekend. I know you can do it.” I became a brewer, they can learn a sonnet.

Cheers Gav!


Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

The introvert in the classroom


“If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth century art. They are the artists, engineers, or thinkers of tomorrow.”

Susan Cain, Quiet

I thought I would start this piece by revealing a little bit of myself…

• I prefer not to be in large groups of people.
• I struggle with small-talk but love discussing serious matters in depth.
• I would usually prefer to read a book than go to a party.
• I enjoy spending time on my own daydreaming and thinking.
• I prefer to work alone rather than collaboratively.
• I like to arrange to do as little as possible during the holidays.
• I am uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings even though I love travel and new experiences.
• I am unambitious.

I do not expect to receive too many party invitations on the back of this – thankfully! What I am trying to say is simple. I am an introvert.

Unlike my extrovert brethren, who prefer the speedy, sociable glare of the here-and-now, I lean naturally towards reflection, slowness and quiet. Susan Cain’s quite brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has reshaped my understanding of myself, has inspired me to write this post. The introvert-extrovert divide, as Cain notes, is the ‘single most important aspect of personality’ and, I believe, our understanding of it might have some interesting implications for education. Depending which study you believe, at least a half to two-thirds of Americans are introverts – I imagine that here in the UK, with our characteristically phlegmatic national psyche, the statistics are likely to be weighted even more heavily towards introversion.

So let’s roll back the years. What did the internal, unassuming child I once was struggle with at school? Group-work:  the loud shouted over the quiet. Noisy lessons: I preferred quieter conditions that allowed me to think deeply and carefully. Being put on the spot by the teacher: I would struggle to think quickly and so would appear less knowledgeable than I actually was. And the worst? A teacher in Y7 who expected us to learn from a series of worksheets with no instruction from the front.

You may think it  strange, therefore, that this introvert decided to become a teacher, a profession surely designed for the assertive, limelight-seeking extrovert. However, by shedding light on historical introverts such as Gandhi and Rosa Parks as well as a wealth of fascinating research, Cain’s book seeks to question the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ and reimagine how we view introversion. Great thinkers, leaders and teachers can often achieve greatness because of their introverted nature. In fact, for me, my natural temperament might be one of my strengths – I avoid too much superfluous off-topic chat, I plan my lessons meticulously and I read in-depth around my topic. I was once described as a ‘methodical yet interesting’ teacher and I rather like it (although I didn’t when I first heard it!). Even though teaching might seem to be more naturally suited to the extrovert personality, I like to think I have carved my own little niche through, not in spite of, my natural preference for quiet. Cain also notes the way we can put our introversion to one side and become pseudo-extroverts. This works best if we pursue ‘core personal projects’ – work that feels intrinsically worthwhile to us – because otherwise we risk burnout or unhappiness.

I have, however, not always used my personal experiences to shape my teaching practice. I have set up many a group-work task when an independent task might be more suitable. I have actively encouraged classes to be more noisy than they need be, even though I teach a subject that involves reading and writing, two naturally quiet pursuits. I have watched students squirm under my unforgiving stare after asking them to think on the spot. Why? Because I was trained to believe that student talk is everything.

By their nature, schools are set up for the extroverted personality to shine: large classes, collaboration and a wide variety of tasks do not suit the introverted student. Take Cain’s description of a group-work scenario she observed in a classroom. (Students are passing around a bag so that they speak one at a time.)

“Maya looks overwhelmed when the bag makes its way to her.
“I agree,” she says, handing it like a hot potato to the next person.
The bag circles the table several times. Each time Maya passes it to her neighbor, saying nothing. Finally the discussion is done. Maya looks troubled. She’s embarrassed, I’m guessing, that she hasn’t participated. Samantha reads from her notebook a list of enforcement mechanisms that the group has brainstormed.
“Rule Number 1,” she says, “If you break laws, you miss recess…”
“Wait!” interrupts Maya, “I have an idea!”
“Go ahead,” says Samantha, a little impatiently. But Maya, who like many sensitive introverts seems attuned to the subtlest cues for disapproval, notices the sharpness in Samantha’s voice. She opens her mouth to speak, but lowers her eyes, only managing something rambling and unintelligible. No one can hear her. No one tries…”

Sound like a familiar scenario to you? We learn later that Maya is an intelligent student and a very gifted writer.

So what are the implications for teachers? Firstly, I would be deeply mistrustful of any suggestion that introverts and extroverts learn differently. We do not; we just prefer to learn in different environments. However, next time someone tells you that all kids prefer group work, I can assure you that this is patently untrue!

Here are a few considerations for the classroom – some from Cain, some from me:

• If you choose to use group work, consider carefully who your introverted students will sit with and keep group sizes very small. (Interestingly, Cain presents a huge amount of compelling evidence that ‘collaboration kills creativity’ in the workplace – and presumably in the classroom too. A group will devise more ideas and better ideas if individuals work independently and share the ideas – preferably electronically or in writing – than if they have ‘brainstormed’ them together).

• On a similar note, the creative, multi-modal lesson may not provide the time and space that introverts need to think.

• Introversion is obviously not a get-out-clause. However, it is unhelpful to write report comments such as ‘he needs to participate more’ or ‘she is too quiet in class’. It creates anxiety in young people who become increasingly unhappy and frustrated with who they are. As Cain writes, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

• Nevertheless, some introverted children will need encouragement with speaking up and sometimes extra support at a pastoral level.

• Give kids an ample amount of time to think before they share ideas. When they do share, ensure that the ideas of introverts are given even weight to those of extroverts. Focus on what they say, not how they say it.

• Celebrate the deep interests of introverts. In time, these might become genuine talents.

• Calm parents who might be worrying about, or putting extra pressure on, their children. There is at least one parental conversation that might have gone differently this year if I had read Cain’s book beforehand.

• If you are an introvert yourself, sharing the fact with your introverted students and their parents can be very helpful.

• Remember that the definitive function of education is to help children learn not to engineer their personality. Yes, we must encourage pro-social behaviour and some degree of confidence; quietness, however, can hardly be described as anti-social.

• Finally, as cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham point out, ‘we remember what we think about’. For learning, what  is happening inside their minds is more important than what they say and do.

The world we live in relies on the harmony between the loud and the quiet. Both are important. We need those who reflect and think, along with those who act and speak. Although most fall somewhere in the middle, it is easy to forget the needs of our quieter students.

Social awkwardness often masks brilliance – so I like to think!

Susan Cain’s TED speech:

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?


‘Challenge’ is one of those buzz-words being bandied about in education at the moment. You must challenge your students! Students in the UK are institutionally under-challenged! The new curriculum is designed to create rigour and challenge!

 In the video below – nicked from Shaun Allison’s post on challenge – John Hattie clarifies the great potential of acceleration and challenge. Most exciting to me is this statement: if students don’t understand something then ‘give them harder stuff, then come back’.

I have a hunch that ‘challenge’ might singularly be the most important day-to-day consideration for the average classroom teacher like me. But why do I have such a difficulty establishing and maintaining a challenging environment? Three answers come to mind immediately:

1. We make simple content and tasks more challenging than we need to. A classic example of this is the ‘dictionary challenge’ in English. We have students root out the meaning of words even though these meanings might have been more efficiently and more effectively explained by us in the first place. In the name of challenge, we have provided a task that slows down learning. Hattie’s simple advice – “tell them the answer and then show them how to get there” – is one way to counter this problem. Quite why we have developed an education culture where explaining things explicitly is seen as a weakness is quite beyond me.

2. The time for good planning is hard to find. If we are going to up the standard of our existing content and tasks, or develop alternatives, then we need the time to do this. So what do we drop instead? This is likely to be controversial but the answer seems obvious: the quantity of marking. Why? Because marking a piece of work that has not challenged the child means that we are unlikely to be able to give useful feedback. Yes, marking should inform challenge, but many teachers with a high marking load would, I am sure, agree that it can directly limit our capacity to plan more rigourous work.

3. The risk factor. It is safer for me to ask my students to, for instance, write a persuasive letter about uniform to the headteacher than it is to ask them to write a satirical argument. This is especially so if the outcomes of this task will be recorded as part of whole-school tracking and monitoring, and even more so if it is part of GCSE coursework or controlled assessment. The fear of taking risks is a side-effect of our current accountability culture.

However, before we challenge our students we must challenge ourselves and as such I have been reflecting on three types of challenge through the prism of my subject, English.

Challenge through content. At first glance, this is the one that we would seem to have less control over. The National Curriculum, exam syllabuses, school and subject leadership all hold sway here. In English, content is bound up in the texts we teach. A simplistic argument is that the more challenging the text is, the more our students will be challenged. This inevitably leads to a thornier issue: what constitutes a challenging text? Do we only choose our texts from the ‘dead white men’ of the established literary canon, aiming to immerse our students in what Matthew Arnold dubbed, ‘the best that which been thought or said’? Or do we adopt a pluralistic approach, teaching modern texts from a diversity of writers along with the traditional?

It seems to me that the issue here is not just which texts are being taught, but how they are being taught. Is skirting over Great Expectations, reading a handful of chapters on the way and superficially touching on plot and character, any more challenging than, say, a detailed full-text reading of The Hunger Games which explores sophisticated interpretations and insights? If we are going to create the conditions for challenge, how the content is delivered is as important as what the content is. Our explanations, our questions, and how we encourage students to talk and think about the content are key.

Challenge through task. Here the teacher has more control. If we are going to challenge our students, we must set them harder tasks – so the argument goes. Take these two essay questions taught by Teacher A and Teacher B:

Teacher A: How does Steinbeck present Lennie?

Teacher B: How does Steinbeck reveal his moral, social and philosophical ideas through the character of Lennie?

Clearly question two is the tougher question, but would it necessarily elicit the better answer? Taught well it is unquestionably a stronger question, yet I think it is entirely possible that the students of Teacher A might learn more than the students of Teacher B. Why? Because, once again, the quality of teaching that counts for more than the perceived challenge of the task. Exemplars, modelling and scaffolding must be of the highest realistic standard, yet also allow room for independence and a chance to think and struggle. Be that as it may, we must also be careful not to get too caught up in raw outcomes – the quality of the outcome might not always be an indication of the quality of learning.

Individual challenge. Challenge becomes more complex when we add into the mix the fact that for each student challenge means a slightly different thing. In a sense, it is easier to think of our students working towards two concurrent challenges: a) those that pertain to the whole class such as write a persuasive speech and b) those that pertain to the individual such as use at least five different sentence starters across a piece of extended writing. I like the idea of setting a ‘challenge’ for the next extended task when giving feedback, rather than a generic ‘target’ – it just seems more stimulating.

In spite of the caveats, the breaking-down and simplifying of challenge in terms of content, task and the individual has made things clearer for me. Here are a few decisions I have made recently in light of this:

  • To teach Y8 students how to write a Shakespearean sonnet.
  • To introduce Y9 students to a range of historic political speeches before they write their own on significant social issues (and not whether football is better than rugby!).
  • To spend more time planning the way I word my questions and explanations.
  • To ensure that students redraft work more often so as to complete the challenges I have set for them.
  • To bring encourage my Y11 top set to begin their ‘conflict poetry’ essays with famous quotes about war.
  • To set individual challenges for my KS3 students.
  • Not to change much with Y10s because the English Literature exam they will be sitting in May is challenging enough!

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come  to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way

The Everest writing scaffold

Responsive questioning


Before Christmas I wrote about teacher responsiveness and differentiation – here. Since then I have been considering the importance of responsive questioning, of how we respond to the unpredictable – and sometimes downright bizarre! – verbal feedback we receive from our students. Once again, this is about our on-the-spot agility, our knowledge of our students and our subject expertise.  We are actors in a forever unscripted play; planning can only get us so far.

It is helpful to consider the purpose of questioning in the classroom before we begin. It often seems a vague area. Is it to check learning or is it to springboard further learning? Even though both are relevant, I am more interested in the latter than the former. For me, it is about helping students to formulate new perceptions, about challenging lazy preconceptions and, in English at least, about encouraging nuanced interpretations. When successful, questioning will lead to discussion, and it is in these episodes that we build our relationships with our classes and cement the ethos of our classroom. Perhaps the crucial point is that questioning, I think, is about initiating and sustaining a high level of academic rigour; the more we probe, the more we push the discussion forward, the less we leave unchallenged, the better our students learn. For me, this is just about the toughest skill to master. I struggle along, if I am honest, failing at it every day.

When it comes to this kind of questioning, I am wary of ‘silver bullets’.  The current thinking tends to advise the following:

   Questions should be thoroughly planned before the lesson.

   We should avoid hands up.

   We should avoid too much praise.

   We should avoid repeating what our students have said.

   We should use random-selecting strategies – such as the lolly stick – to avoid allowing some to dominate and others to remain passive.

   We should use PPPB. Pose a question, Pause, Pounce on a student and then immediately Bounce it to another student without interfering.

   The teacher should keep quiet and let the students do the talking.

All of this advice is useful, but only partially so. Our complex classroom environments are far more fluid than some would have us think; more than anything else, we should listen to our students.

I remember hearing the ex-England goalkeeper, David James (he of the ‘Calamity James’ sobriquet), describing how he would spend hours in the shower visualising penalty saves over and over again. He found that this helped to hone his reactions on the pitch. In this manner, I have attempted a ‘visualisation’ of a short questioning sequence to demonstrate the kind of sharp thinking required.  I am asking the class about Curley’s Wife from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.


ME: So, what do you think Curley’s Wife’s role in the novel is? You have twenty seconds to think about it…


ME: Josh, what do you think?

(My question was deliberately vague; I am after divergent thinking here. I pick Josh for a reason – like some others in the class, he jumps to conclusions too quickly. This is my chance to challenge these pre-conceptions from the off.)

JOSH: I think she is meant to be the evil character because she destroys the dream.

ME: When do we see her behave like this?

JOSH: Well, when we first see her she cuts off the light in the doorway.

ME: Is that enough to call her ‘evil’?

JOSH: No, not really. She also treats Crooks badly and flirts with Lennie which leads to him killing her.

ME: Interesting. Matt do you agree with Josh?

(I have probed Josh to give evidence, yet remained non-committal about his response.  Matt’s thinking is more refined and I know he will challenge Josh. If I had used a random selector at this point, there may have been the potential of the discussion finding itself in a repetitive cycle without the degree of insight I am searching for. The PPPB system is working well, but I do feel you have to pick your second student wisely. Most likely, students will all be rehearsing their answers to the initial question in their minds, so to ask for feedback on Josh’s opinion too takes a degree of multi-tasking; this may have an impact on the working memory of some leading to a muddled point.)

MATT: To an extent, but the way Steinbeck describes her death makes her seem weak and defenceless.

ME: Do you remember how Steinbeck described her?

MATT: No, not quite.

(Emily’s hand goes up. I nod to her. If I did not allow ‘hands-up’ at times this useful addition would not have occurred.)

EMILY: She was “very sweet and young.” (I look back at Matt. He is used to my body language. He knows I expect him to say more.)

MATT: So ‘young’ shows… (I shake my head; ‘shows’ is a banned word) illustrates that she is just an innocent child.

ME: Right everyone. Josh suggests that Curley’s Wife is evil, yet Matt feels she is innocent. Have a think about it. Where do you stand?

Pause. Choose Sian.

SIAN: Well, I think she has some of the characteristics of a villain but she’s also a victim. Steinbeck was making a comment about women in those times: Curley’s Wife is a victim of a masculine society who has no choice but to be the villain.

ME:  A* answer, Sian. Wow. That’s the kind of balanced interpretation we’re looking for everyone.

(Because, for me, class discussion is about searching together for the best ideas, I think it is important to stop and draw attention to quality answers. If praise is over-used, I find it can put a stopper on the discussion; you can inadvertently send out the message that that was good enough, no more need be said. )

ME: So, Sian, are you sure there were no other choices available to her?

(All assumptions, even the best, can be challenged.)


The sequence above certainly represents a good day at the office (and, yes, my students rarely speak as incisively as Sian). Responsive questioning requires knowledge of the student, knowledge of the subject and lots and lots of listening. When students are less forthcoming, I often try the following:

   Give the student the answer you are looking for and ask them to explain how you got there.

   Give them two options, and get them to explain which they agree with most.

   Scaffold the sentence for them. ‘On the one hand, Curley’s Wife is the villain of the story, yet on the other…’

   Revert to hands-up mid-discussion. I tend to bounce a question round and when it begins to dry-out, I will listen to some hands-up. Is it right to leave great thinking unshared?

   Turn the tables. This is one of my personal favourites. The teacher takes on a role and the students question you in this role. On many an occasion I have found my meagre dramatic skills pushed to the limit in the role of a character or an author.

   Embark on a round of quick-fire closed-questions to cue memory and then go back to the original question.

   Stop the discussion and teach. I often find myself frustrated when the discussion has not elicited the level of perception I am after. I probably should not feel this way; it is entirely normal. As the expert in the classroom it must be the right thing to stop wherever we are to explain the learning they have not yet grasped.

I am dubious about hard-and-fast rules for classroom discussion and questioning. Listening sharply lesson after lesson is a tough ask, yet it is in the glow of these moments that I enjoy being a teacher the most.

warm glow

Further reading:

Tom Sherrington on probing questioning – here. Lots of great probing questions in this post.

Old Andrew on alternative ways to use hands-up – here.

My post on using a stimulus – here.

11/01/14 – Alex Quigley has written a great practical blog on conducting class discussion – here. Make sure you read the comments too.