Dealing with Day-to-day Differentiation
This week I ran a session on differentiation with our NQTs. I felt it was a good, open session where we could all share some ideas and describe the challenges that we face in meeting the learning needs of all of our students. The fact is that we all find it hard – and that’s because it is; sometimes it can feel as if you’re never quite getting it right because someone or other isn’t flourishing. As with many things in teaching, we need to aim high but we also need to be realistic, pragmatic and tolerant of imperfection in order to flourish ourselves.
To begin with we talked about the myths.
Differentiation does not mean that you must have tiered resources and tasks in every lesson. It does not mean you should have must-should-could learning objectives. It does not mean that a lesson where every student is doing the same task is fundamentally worse than one where students do have different tasks. Any given lesson snap-shot may not have explicit evidence of differentiation at all – and it could still be outstanding, or at least be leading to outstanding outcomes.
Differentiation needs to be seen as the aggregation of the hundreds of subtly different interactions that you have with each of your students, according to their level of attainment and progress. Even OfSTED now officially do not expect that the needs of all students are being precisely and directly addressed in every lesson observation. Differentiation is a long-term process that mirrors the long-term nature of learning and progress. (See Learning Arcs and Journeys)
We talked about some of the bottom-lines.
We all have ups and downs; we can all mess things up. We all have lessons that seem too complicated to factor in yet another level of support or challenge; we have all had lessons where behaviour issues dominate or you do more didactic input and the differentiation is less evident. However, there are always two things that I’d say are non-negotiable:
1. Neglecting the basic access entitlement of students with particular learning needs. If you have a student that can’t read the text-book or follow the standard instructions because of learning difficulties or physical impairment, you have to sort them out every time. You need to plan for their needs every lesson and go to them immediately to make sure they know what to do.
2. Setting work that is too easy for the top end. There is nothing worse than having students waiting for others to finish with nothing to do or simply having time for a good chat because they’ve completed a basic task. Here the solution is to set in-built extension tasks as a matter of routine. “If you finish Task A, then go straight on to Tasks B, C and D”. Of course, there is the issue that ‘more work’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘more challenge’. It’s better if each task is increasingly difficult and you can always consider allowing students to skip Task A and B if they feel confident to tackle other tasks straight away. At the very least, there should always always be a ‘what next’ if the initial task is quite easy.
We also talked about data.
We’re saturated with data but it only helps if it comes off the spreadsheet and influences our practice in the classroom, helping us to understand and address the needs of the hundreds of students that we teach as individuals. The main use of student data is to prompt you to ask questions about your perception of a student’s ability and progress. Am I getting this person right? It pays to look back at prior attainment information a week or so after meeting a class for the first time and again after the first term. If you triangulate between the prior attainment info, your gut feeling and your own assessment data, you get a better idea. Sometimes it’s quite revealing. Oh gosh, I’ve been underestimating John all this time…. or perhaps I’m neglecting Michael’s underlying lack of confidence; his reading age is lower than I thought.
Most importantly, data helps to ensure that you never settle for mediocrity from someone who doesn’t perform in the way the data says they could. Ben’s Official Target grade is A but his recent test score was C? Ok…something is going on there. That should catalyse a different response than if the prior attainment data suggested C would be a sign of good progress.
In my last comprehensive school job, I used to devise a differentiation guide for every class to help me plan lessons without forgetting about people. Other teachers made their own. An example is shown here. The grade here is artificial; in reality there would be lots of data points feeding into the crude categorisation: reading ages, MidYIS scores and KS2 entry data would play a part alongside other internal assessments. The idea is to make it easy to think about the students in rough groupings rather than allow the complexity of the individual data sheet, usually presented in alphabetical order, to be overwhelming and ultimately unhelpful.