Differentiation: making possible the impossible

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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

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What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer

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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!

porter

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.

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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

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

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‘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

The Everest writing scaffold

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On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers officially confirmed to have reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest. After the failure of many previous expeditions, their feat has become a legendary benchmark of human commitment and ambition.

So what has this piece of mountaineering history got to do with learning in a modern secondary setting? Well, I think that their success provides a perfect analogy for the importance of, and interplay between, the modelling and scaffolding of extended writing.

Hilary and Norgay’s success would not have been possible without the use of scaffolds: a series of basecamps, a slow acclimatisation to high altitudes, bottled oxygen, thick woollen suits and heavy wooden ice-picks all played a part in staging their ascent. Without these essential scaffolds, rudimentary by today’s standards perhaps, it is fair to assume that they would have failed completely.

Their incredible achievement has since paved the way for many successful ascents. In fact, nearly 4,000 climbers have also reached the earth’s highest point since Hilary and Norgay including, amazingly, an 80 year-old man and a blind person. Hillary and Norgay wrote the original model, a model which has both inspired and instructed all those who have followed in their footsteps. The chances of success since the 1950s have been further improved by the development of more sophisticated scaffolds: fixed ropes, lightweight aluminium axes, closed-cell foam insulation boots and high-tech communication equipment to name but a few.

Reaching the peak of Everest, therefore, is a metaphor for the successful completion of a challenging writing task. If even the most talented climbers following in Hilary and Norgay’s footsteps need the influence of models and high-tech scaffolds, is the same not true of young writers? And if the scaffolding is developed to a higher quality, then is it not true that many more will find success than just the odd maverick? Yes, not all will reach the summit, but by attempting and falling just short, do we not learn more than by playing it safe at sea-level?

My belief is that scaffolding is not about making written work easier; instead it is about quite the opposite. Our scaffolds should make the work harder, more challenging, yet also ensure that success remains a tangible possibility. So how do we design effective scaffolds that allow this to happen?

It is important to note before I share some other strategies that models and modelling are the most important scaffold. Success is much easier to imagine and conceptualise when there are concrete examples available. Indeed, Hattie and Yates ascertain that cognitive load theory research has demonstrated that presenting students with ‘worked examples’ (completed model answers) is one of the most effective means of providing guidance. Moreover, if we teach writing without models we run the risk of  having to compensate with too much scaffolding so that extended writing becomes ‘painting by numbers’ or ‘filling in the gaps’. I have two key modelling strategies: 1) the use of multiple completed exemplars, and 2) the use of ‘live’, or shared writing, where students and teacher co-construct a text or part of a text. I have written about these strategies in more detail here and here.

Before considering how – or indeed, if – we will scaffold student writing, I find these questions to be useful:

  1. How will I ensure that scaffolds will extend and not restrict?
  2. How will I ensure that scaffolded resources are simple to use and understand so that they do not inadvertently create an impediment to learning?
  3. How will I know that the fine balance between support and challenge has been struck?
  4. How will I foster grit and determination in my students, yet ensure that the gap between where they are and where they need to be is not too big a challenge that they ‘give up’?
  5. When should the scaffolds be removed? (Because, ultimately, that is what we are aiming for.)

Below is the ‘Everest’ writing scaffold that I have developed for preparing students for extended essay writing. It is a ‘macro’ scaffold comprising of ten interweaving ‘micro’ scaffolds. Many of the strategies below can be planned in advance or improvised there-and-then as necessary.

  • Upstream knowledge. Often my students struggle with writing because I have failed to ensure they have the essential knowledge and understanding they need before they begin. If they are writing, say, about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth then they must have a detailed understanding of her character before they start. I know this sounds obvious, but too often I have found myself giving students with flimsy knowledge an over-challenging task. I am then left with two untenable options: spoon-feeding or underachievement.
  • Verbal responses. Regular opportunities to verbalise ideas are crucial all the way through the build-up to the final writing piece. However, these need to be structured so that they support writing. I have written – here – about one strategy I use to scaffold writing through structured discussion. I am also now trying to be explicit about how students respond to questions in lessons. If we are commenting on a poem, for instance, I will get them to respond in full, analytical sentences: ‘I think the poet uses the word ‘emerald’ as a metaphor for how precious this place is.’  With clear modelling, explanation and visual scaffolding on the board – sentence stems and the like – this should be possible every lesson.
  • Key words. These are best embedded way before the final written product is attempted. Repetition through teacher explanation and questioning, student verbal response, spelling tests and practice sentences and paragraphs is key.
  • Planning.  Just like the writing itself, planning needs to be modelled and scaffolded. A great way to do this – as John Tomsett explained brilliantly in this post – is to work backwards from an exemplar essay, so that students replicate the plan they imagine the writer originally worked from. From here, they can design their own plans with this model in mind. There are, however, plenty of well-trodden ways, some more scaffolded than others, to help children plan.
  • Practice paragraphs and sentences. Before students write an extended piece, I like to set the challenge by having them write practice paragraphs – Hilary and Norgay would not have attempted Everest without the extensive mountaineering experience they had on smaller climbs. It is through practice writing that knowledge and understanding of subject content and written genre come together. These can be modelled first through exemplars or shared writing. This is a good stage to look at explicit grammar constructs. I am particularly in  love with– and passionately so! – the sentence structures Chris Curtis has shared in his blog (here); they can be easily introduced and trialled in practice paragraphs. Students might write these paragraphs individually or, if the class are motivated, they can work in pairs (this is another great way for students to verbalise the genre they are writing in – see here). These shorter pieces are easy to peer-assess or self-assess in fine detail through simple check-lists.

So, how do we scaffold during extended writing?

  • Writing frames. My aim, usually, is not to use these. I have been guilty in the past of giving students such detailed writing frames that an essay becomes an unwieldy list of prompted sentences. However, I do offer my very weak students an ordered list of sentence stems, but only after they have given it a decent go beforehand or I am unconvinced by the quality they have produced without a scaffold.
  • Procedural check-lists. These help keep students on track as they write. Again, we have to be judicious about how much we use them and with whom:

                Have you used a topic sentence?

Have you used an embedded quotation?

Have you chosen a word/phrase from the quotation to analyse?

Have you linked your analysis to the play’s context?

Have you made a link back to the original question?

  • Time. I have written before – here – about the importance of slowing writing down rather than speeding it up. Students need time to work through their difficulties; learning, as cognitive science makes clear, is necessarily slow and difficult.

And after writing?

  •  Response to marking. Dedicated time for editing and improvement in response to teacher marking is vital. See my DIRT post here.
  •  Redrafting. This provides the perfect opportunity for students to start again. They may have failed to reach the summit in the first attempt, but they will certainly be more prepared for their second attempt. By withholding the opportunity to write a second draft are we sending the subliminal message that this is it, you cannot get any better?

Naturally, it is almost impossible to include all of the above stages in every unit or cycle of work. Likewise, there are many other useful scaffolding strategies I have not had room to include. As with any teaching and learning strategy, we need to take from it what is useful to us and the students we teach.

Realistically of course, many students will struggle to reach the summit and will fall short. Frustratingly, we also know that many will perform well with scaffolds in place, but will seem to have forgotten it all next time they put pen to paper. Some educators will argue that students learn more through more struggling and less scaffolding, but my question is slightly different: can we not have both? I will, however, concede that it is imperative that students also get accustomed to regularly writing without scaffolds as this is how they are ultimately assessed at GCSE.

To me, however, scaffolding challenge is a vital component to the teaching of writing. Most kids can produce two pages of writing without much struggle, but very few can produce two pages of excellent writing.

Scaffolds do not have to ‘dumb down’; in fact, they can provide quite the opposite.

MOUNT EVEREST HEROES