This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.
The various layers and levels of a classroom highlight the complex job that being a teacher entails. All classrooms are made up of unique individuals who all need a variety of instruction or support to get the best out of them. Over the years the higher profile of the term ‘differentiation’ has seen an increased awareness of students’ abilities and encouraged us to think of and implement numerous intervention strategies. There has been the use of ‘must, could, should’ outcomes that have seen different levels of learning aimed at different children. We have seen the use of amended and adapted worksheets with varying difficulties deployed in the classroom. Differentiation has increasingly become a thing that is looked for during observations. All of these in their own right have the best intentions. They are designed to support those who need support and help push learning forward. But (there’s always a but), have we got differentiation the wrong way round? Are our best efforts actually holding learning back rather than moving it on?
Focusing on those who need it most
If we let it catch us, we could end up being expected to differentiate for every member of our classes. Not only is this unrealistic, but it reduces the impact on those who could benefit from our time the best. Take time to find out those with specific needs, those whose reading age is low, those who need support with their writing or those who have language requirements. Supporting these individuals means that our time and effort will have a bigger impact.
Think up not down
With the use of strategies such as ‘must, could, should’ and levelled worksheets, students are actually being fed the message that producing less work than others (or even of a lesser quality) is what we expect. It makes it the norm. It’s saying to certain individuals that only completing a core task or getting a basic grasp of a topic is sufficient. But what about when that student sits the same exam as other students who have been directed to more complex work? Is there a knowledge gap that we are creating which will hinder them in the future? Clearly not every student will be able to achieve an A* but as Daniel T. Willingham explores in his book ‘Why don’t students like school’, should we not make the task easier, but instead make the thinking behind it easier for students?
Set high (but achievable) expectations
With the idea of making the thinking easier and not the task, be confident to set challenging work with high expectations. The process of challenge if pitched right can be an excellent learning experience and one that can help memory over time. Yes it may cause confusion, but as in the short study by Eric Mazur (2011) showed, confusion when learning has an increased retention rate as the individuals have to grapple and make sense of the information. Challenge it seems is good and should be encouraged.
Model what excellence looks like
I seem to have be wooed by the craft of modelling excellent work to students. Showing students what a fantastic outcome may look like can help solidify what it is they have to do, and provide inspiration of what they should be achieving. There are those who will find such high exemplars daunting so a range and variety of pieces should be used. Once shared it is then the skill of the teacher to show how creating work of similar quality can be a realistically achieved.
Scaffold and support
Obviously some students will struggle to achieve the very highest standards you expect. Or will they? Is it our perception or reliance on labelling students (like a level 4 boy, or underachiever?) that in turn lowers our own expectations of what we think students can achieve. In Ron Berger’s book ‘An ethic of excellence’, his students create architectural blue prints for houses, Radon gas reports for their town and even biographies of local senior citizens that tell the stories of their fascinating lives. If we set a high standard of work, we as teachers can help support and scaffold the process. Creating strong success criteria, frameworks, writing scaffolds and milestones for the task can help students reach the heights that we are trying to encourage them to reach. Our craft and skill to make the process clear is essential.
Write like they’ve never written before
Show them what good writing looks like. Even show them how to write like your subject requires (like a historian, a scientist, a philosopher…). Don’t settle for poor spelling or lack of technical vocabulary. Lowering the standards because we label students only means that the student will never be pushed to up their game. Analyse texts, perfect answers, past students work or even work from an expert within your subjects’ field. The process of reading these texts is itself a way to help them write better in the future. Use writing frames and scaffolds that can be removed later on once their quality and accuracy consistently improves.
Draft, redraft and then redraft again
Set the norm that work can always be improved. Rename work and call them drafts. The unique feedback we give to each student is one of the clearest examples of bespoke differentiation I can think of. Getting that student to then redraft and improve work is key. It shows them that work can get better through improved effort or process. Time may be a concern but the benefits from redrafting work to make improvements will pay dividends in the long run.
Talk like they’ve never talked before
If you wouldn’t accept the quality of an answer if it were written down, don’t accept its quality if it is verbalised to you. How often in the rush of a lesson do we take answers from students that aren’t as high a quality as they could be if we spent time developing them? Encourage students to say an answer with the same high expectations that we hold for written answers. Use techniques like think, pair, share or ABC questioning to help build up the quality and academic language. Model answers with students and then pull it all together. Insist on the use of correct terminology and meaning. We could easily except a lack of depth or inaccuracies but why not help all students communicate language effectively.
Go beyond the curriculum
Now this is probably the idea that will make us wary the most. We all have curriculums and specifications that we need to follow. Many of them are fantastic and have great depth. But how many times have you heard in conversations with teachers “Yeah but they don’t need to know that for the exam”. Now this in itself is partly right. Sometimes with time and workload we barely have enough lessons to get through the content required. Sometimes we have groups who latch onto our every word and any tangent we may go off on becomes engrained in student’s minds only for them to use it incorrectly or at the wrong time. There are however those times when the limits of the curriculum could be broken. Could we bring an expert into our lesson? Could this be in person or via media such as Skype? Could we visit local college, University or industry departments to show us how our subject is used in the real world? Could we find times when going beyond the syllabus would drive the learning of the entire class forward rather than limiting what they know?
In a session I led a while back I changed the word differentiation to ‘stretch and challenge’. Instead of making tasks easier, we make the thinking easier. Instead of settling for second best, we inspire to go further. We show students that they can go beyond what they thought they could only achieve and show them what is possible. Miracles don’t happen overnight, but then again differentiation isn’t a short term fix. The constant refinement, encouragement, modelling, examples, direction and teaching can help students produce work that may even surprise them.