Differentiation

After reading Harry Webb’s (@websofsubstance) latest blog on differentiation ( https://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/seriously-differentiation-really-doesnt-work/ ) I thought about differentiation for a while.

You see I have struggled with differentiation for many years. I don’t mean that I find differentiating my lessons so that all the pupils can learn difficult. I don’t mean that I find differentiating my lessons to an extent that I am happy with the lessons I plan difficult. By “struggled with differentiation” I mean that I have often struggled to differentiate for my classes to the satisfaction of the middle and senior leaders, consultants and inspectors who have come in and observed me.

You see for me a lesson is differentiated if every pupil in the class can access it and has tasks to do that are appropriate for them. It is in essence about knowing your class. It is knowing where they are starting from, what they are likely to be capable of and what strategies and resources and most likely to move them forward in their learning. It is about knowing about what barriers pupils face to their learning and planning to circumvent or minimise them. It is difficult and it’s something teachers do as a matter of course every lesson.

So what does it look like in my lesson?

Generally, if we’re in the middle of a topic the planning starts with the marking of their books or looking at my notes about who struggled with the previous lessons work. If starting a new topic I normally do a “big picture” lesson or a brief informal assessment to establish prior learning. This allows me to divide the class into 2-3  groups.

Generally all the pupils do the same main task. A few pupils may need to do another task first or a more scaffolded version of the task. Some pupils will get less of the task done than most. Extension work is always available for those that complete the work, those that show they understand it and those that I decide should be doing it. The workload involved in having the scaffolded and extension resources prepared is minimal because I have been teaching for a long time.

This works for me, it works for the vast majority of my pupils (in terms of them making progress) but it does not always work for observers.

For me the problem is not “differentiation”. I have never taught, or even seen, a lesson where no differentiation has taken place. Lectures yes, but no lessons.

You see any teacher as they help their pupils learn will do so differently depending on the pupil.  They might use different language, different examples, they might use diagrams for some pupils but not others. All of these things are differentiation.

Teachers expect different amounts of work from different pupils. Differentiation.

Teachers will speak to different pupils different numbers of times in a lesson. Differentiation.

The problem is the level of differentiation, personalisation and individualisation demanded from teachers by people who have not taught a full timetable in a long time. Many of the people that have insisted on insane levels of differentiation probably didn’t do what they’re advocating themselves because it’s not possible. For some lessons some of the time perhaps but with the number of lessons we teach? No. To do what they want without burning out or being forever tired, feeling like you haven’t done your job properly and thus grumpy would require a significant drop in the number of lessons we teach and thus would cost a lot of money.

I believe the following story illustrates the problem with differentiation:

A few years ago the school I was working at were very concerned about the Maths results. a consultant was hired to come in and tell us how to improve. The two issues that were honed in on were the balance of teacher talk and pupil talk being too skewed towards teacher talk and differentiation. I won’t write about the “talk” part of that because even think about it makes me furious.

We were all observed and we were all told how we should be differentiating better. I was essentially told that I should have 3 levels of resources, that I should cater to the pupils learning styles and that the SEN pupils should have different resources to support their individual needs. a quick calculation established that every class I taught would require a minimum of 11 different resources if I were to attempt this. Most of my colleagues immediately said this was impossible. I knew that refusing to do it was non-starter as it would just invoke the wrath of SLT. Instead I asked whether planning out our differentiation should be our top priority. I explained that there are only so many hours in the day and coming up with 11 resources per lesson obviously takes time. Thus our work and effectiveness in other areas may be reduced if we do this. I was told categorically by the consultant and SLT that this and sorting out talking too much were to be prioritised above everything else.

I actually made a genuine attempt to do what was asked of me. I kept a diary of the time I was spending working and what I was working out. I worked 65 hour weeks for a half term and in that time I did not have time to mark books or run my usual revision sessions at lunchtime and after school. I also had very little time at the weekend to relax because I was planning.

What, I hear you ask, was your reward for doing what you were asked? Well, I remember being asked on an almost weekly basis why my classes were not getting revision sessions like all the other classes. I remember my marking being criticised after ever observation, learning walk and book review. In short I remember a complete absence of anything approaching realism about workload from the people demanding the insane levels of differentiation.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with differentiation…

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