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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The introvert in the classroom

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“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:

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

Responsive questioning

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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…

Pause.

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.

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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.

Differentiating the responsive way

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In last week’s post – here – I looked at how we might mark students’ written work strategically, considering not just the feedback we will give them, but also the practicalities of how we expect them to respond to our feedback. This week I am going to backtrack a little to consider how we might ‘differentiate’ our feedback during the writing process.

Differentiation was once my teaching bête noire. The very mention of the word would immediately feed my perception that I was a terrible teacher for failing to ‘meet the needs of every child’ in every lesson. To compensate, once in a while I would be seduced by the insidious ‘differentiation by task’ trap. Three different tasks (one for the top, one for the middle, one for the bottom), and a hell of a lot of pacey group-work later, the lesson would end with an unsightly pile of worksheets and a few scrawled lines of writing. It was completely unmanageable and completely pointless. My ‘top’ got no better (the task was often so challenging that they spent most the time deciphering what they were being asked to do); my ‘bottom’ got no better (how can you become a good writer by filling in spaces in sentences?); and my ‘middle’ were left bemused by the fact I had totally ignored them.

Discovering Carol Dweck’s Growth Mentality – John Tomsett’s post was particularly inspiring for me – triggered a much-needed epiphany. All students have the capacity to be successful as long as they are challenged and encouraged to work hard. Yes, I can finally justify getting them all to do the same thing! These days, after setting the bar high, I then consider the support and scaffolding required to nudge them all in this direction. It is unreasonable to expect every student to reach the ‘bar’, but removing the bar for some in the name of ‘differentiation’ defeats the object. Key, too, is how I will respond to the complex range of difficulties and needs that will, inevitably, arise as they are writing.

Differentiation, in my opinion, lies in the skillfulness of our response to the anticipated and unanticipated difficulties our students will encounter along the way.

Anticipated response.

By modelling and deconstructing the writing process slowly and carefully we can second-guess many potential misunderstandings – see my modelling post here. Tick-lists and procedural instructions that focus on the minutiae of the writing process are also invaluable. Below is a paragraph structure I have used to help Y9 students write about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

  • State where, when and to whom.
  • Embed a short quotation and mention ‘Shakespeare’.
  • Pick out a word or phrase and analyse it.
  • Pick out another word or phrase and analyse it. (Optional.)
  • Using sentences starting with ‘despite’, ‘although’ and ‘even though’, evaluate your understanding of Shylock.  (Thanks to David Didau – here – for the ‘golden sentences’ idea.)

Anticipated response, therefore, is really just conventional lesson and task planning with our understanding of our students’ capabilities at the forefront of our thinking.

 Improvised response

This is where teaching becomes a craft, not a procedure. In responding to whole-class and individual needs, the knowledge, expertise and experience of the teacher is key – as is the willingness to except that our best laid plans often go awry. This is easy to exemplify with a hypothetical example. Let’s take my Y9s again:

  • Students have been writing for 5 minutes when Callum puts his hand up and asks to spell ‘traumatised’. I tap the dictionary on his desk and smile, but repeat the word for the whole-class to reinforce my expectation that students employ challenging vocabulary.
  • Grace’s hand shoots up. I smile and motion it down. She smiles wryly back, sensing that, once again, I am encouraging her to be more resilient.
  • Katy, ‘less-able’, has not written a thing. I verbalise the first half of a sentence and she finishes it. Then she writes it down and off she goes.
  • My TA and I circulate for a couple of minutes armed with highlighters. We randomly zoom in on misspelled words and either highlight them or put a dot in the margin for the student to work out.
  • On my rounds, I have noticed the clunky overuse of ‘this’ at the start of sentences. I stop the class and explain how we can use ‘which clauses’ to combine sentences and help with fluidity.
  • I come to Matt, who is incredibly able, but prone to prolixity. He must cut out 10 unnecessary words before continuing.
  • I notice Megan has used the word ‘shows’, which is banned from my classroom. I refer her to the sheet below, which is stuck on her folder:

Tentative

  • Graham has written a page and a half of scrawled nonsense and is swinging back in his chair. I hand him a piece of paper and tell him to redraft the first paragraph, this time using the paragraph structure I have given him. I sense potential defiance and remind him that it is break time after the lesson.
  • Next a student puts his hand up and asks, “Was Shylock married?” Quickly explaining Shylock’s elusive mention of the name ‘Leah’ , I consider it wise to avoid a whole-class discussion at this stage.
  • There are 10 minutes to go and the class are working hard. Do I stop for the peer-assessment task I had originally planned? Absolutely not. We can worry about this next lesson. The bell goes and I thank them for their hard work. Off they trundle.

(As a footnote, I am beginning to experiment with an idea I gleaned from Alex Quigley’s excellent questioning blog post – here – which is to give students post-it notes to write down their questions on. If I limit it to one question per student, then it helps to build resilience and challenge learned helplessness.)

What I have described above is nothing strange. It goes on in the classrooms of good teachers worldwide. Response is inter-personal and forms part of the existing dialogue between the student and teacher (which may have been ongoing for years). It is almost impossible during a graded observation for the observer to understand the complexity of the social interactions they are viewing; a subtle raise of the eyebrows at a student can be loaded with meaning. You will notice that some students go ‘ignored’ – that’s fine, I will check up on them next lesson and, of course, this task will be assessed and they will be expected to respond to my marking.

I have become a lot more relaxed about planning for differentiation. We must have confidence in the reflex judgements we have honed over time. Only last week, I had a delightful, yet surprising, email from a speech therapist who is treating a student of mine with a serious speech impediment. I was praised for “offering to record her, giving her more time to speak, reassuring her that she speaks more clearly than some others, and placing an emphasis on the content of what she says.” The thing is, I hardly even realised I was doing these things!

To misquote John Lennon: differentiation is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.