Differentiation- a follow up post

It took me an unconscionably long time to understand that different people mean different things by the term differentiation.

I went into my first proper job thinking that if you planned lessons that catered to the needs of all your pupils and gave all of them the opportunity to make progress then you were differentiating. The goal was to maximise the progress each pupil made in the lesson.

Provided the level of the work and the resources used were appropriate for the students I viewed pupils not behaving properly, not listening or not doing enough work as a behaviour management problem rather than a problem of differentiation. Unfortunately at that time my behaviour management was not great. The effect of this was compounded by the general behaviour in the school being appalling, the processes for dealing with behaviour ineffective and the leadership team disinterested in dealing with poor behaviour (and often ineffective on those occasions where they did actually attempt to do something).

What confused me at the time and interests me now is that the school considered inadequate differentiation in my lessons to be more of a problem than my behaviour management. Differentiation was frequently mentioned as an area for improvement in my lesson feedback and for a long time I failed to understand why. I was setting work that every pupil was capable of doing. I was providing support and extension work for those that needed it. I had different resources for those that needed them. Nobody was able to adequately explain what they wanted in terms of differentiation.

Finally it clicked. I was planning lessons that pupils would be able to access if they listened and tried. I viewed it as my job to find ways to make them listen and make them try to enable them to access the work. I was giving them tasks that required a bit of thought sometimes. Those that didn’t listen could not do the work. Those that didn’t want to try would get “stuck”. They’d get “bored” and start messing about. In my eyes the problem was that I was not able to get some pupils to listen and/or try. I was not succeeding in my attempts to deter pupils from messing about.

In the eyes of the school the problem was largely one of planning. A lesson in which pupils struggled if they did not listen was “too ambitious”. It showed that I did not know the ability of the class. A lesson in which pupils were required to think was “too ambitious” or “unrealistic” in terms of what the pupils were being asked to do. If pupils misbehaved because they “didn’t get it”,  “the work was too hard”, “too easy” or “boring” it was a failure of planning. The pupils reasons for not working were always taken at face value.

What they meant by “differentiation” was that lessons should be planned to minimise poor behaviour rather than to maximise learning. If there were behaviour issues in the lesson that this was put almost entirely down to poor planning of the lesson.

All of the training and support given on planning and behaviour was about how to keep the pupils entertained rather than how to get them learning or doing what they were told. If anything following the advice given in that training made the behaviour in my lessons worse. Fortunately my department had some excellent managers of behaviour in it so I learned from and was supported by them.

This had an enormous impact on how I planned lessons before I learned how to manage behaviour. The goal was to get pupils from the beginning of the lesson to the end without ever having to listen, be stuck, think about how to answer a question for more than 2 seconds or  do anything they might find challenging (unless it was the sort of student who enjoyed challenge in which case challenge had to be provided). If they learned something that was great but nobody seemed to have much of a problem with it if they didn’t provided they behaved.

Even when my behaviour management improved the prevailing view was that if you had to set detentions or send pupils out then this was a failure on your part to plan a sufficiently engaging and properly differentiated lesson. This meant that any teacher wishing to be viewed positively by the leadership team or ambitious for promotion planned their lessons with behaviour at the forefront of their thinking with learning a distant second unless they were an excellent manager of behaviour or the pupils were scared of them.

The only teachers I’m aware of that did not plan in this way much of the time were the ones the pupils were scared of.

I thought when I moved to a better school I was leaving all that behind me. Sadly not.

In my next school the behaviour was better. The way the school dealt with poor behaviour was better. The results were much better. The view of differentiation was much the same though. It just caused fewer problems because the behaviour in the school was pretty good most of the time. If you were a reasonable or good manager of behaviour then the behaviour in your lessons would be fine most of the time. The pupils were largely compliant but many were disaffected and did as little work as they could get away with.

The NQTs really struggled with behaviour. This was partly to do with a lack of clarity in the systems and procedures for dealing with behaviour. Most of the NQTs simply did not know what they were supposed to deal with themselves, what they were supposed to refer upwards or two whom they were supposed to refer it. The behaviour policy was extremely vague and whenever anyone asked they were just referred back to the policy most of the time. There was also a very real fear of being judged if they asked for support with behaviour. This was hugely damaging. I tried to support them in a similar way to the way I was supported when I started out.

NQTs that had problems with behaviour in their lessons were often given criticised for or given support with their differentiation, planning and resourcing of lessons rather than training or support in managing behaviour. In my opinion this not only damaged the standard of education their pupils were receiving in the long run but also slowed their development as teachers where classroom management was concerned.

If the proposed solution to poor pupil behaviour is “easier lessons” or “more engaging lessons” then it speaks volumes about the priorities of a school. If a reasonably well planned and differentiated lesson doesn’t work because of poor behaviour then to suggest “more differentiation” as the solution is bonkers.

One observation I was doing an algebra revision lesson just before a mock exam. I had algebra packs on a range of topics ranging from simple linear equations to simultaneous equations with a quadratic on each table and pupils had to choose in their pairs which they wanted to revise. The overwhelming majority of pupils worked really well. 2 did not. They were convinced they were A* students and should do the hardest questions when they couldn’t. When they struggled to complete the hardest pack rather than choosing an easier one, looking up how to do the work in a textbook or their exercise book or even listening to a brief explanation they loudly proclaimed that my lesson was **** and refused to work until I had no choice but to give them detention.

In my feedback session I said that I was disappointed that they had not worked and that I had to set them detentions for lack of work and disruptive behaviour. I said I would ensure they did the work in detention. The observer said I had not considered that their preferred learning style was kinaesthetic, that I should have differentiated for their preferred learning style, that I should have known that they would behave in that way when faced with challenging work and planned for their reaction to avoid the confrontation. I pointed out that my plan of monitoriing their work and effort and giving them detention if they did not do enough work was planning for their behaviour. Judgement: Requires improvement…

What that feedback in essence says is that if a child is lazy that should be differentiated for and that if a child is a giant pain in the posterior that should also be differentiated for. Why? Are these now considered special needs?

Are we really saying that if a child is lazy or poorly behaved then giving them easier work is a better option than making them work or making them behave? If a child is lazy and we reward their laziness with less or easier work then what message does that send to the rest of the pupils?

My current school is a very good school yet a significant proportion of the teachers I’ve seen teach strip much of the challenge out of their lessons.

Planning and differentiation can have an enormous impact on pupil behaviour. Of course they can. I’m not suggesting otherwise. If the lesson is too demanding or not demanding enough then poor behaviour is more likely. If pupils cannot access a lesson the likelihood of poor behaviour is increased. However that does not mean that all poor behaviour is caused by poor planning or a lack of differentiation.

In every school I have worked in a significant proportion of some teacher’s planning and differentiation is motivated by a fear of poor behaviour (and a fear of being judged as a result).

Too many teachers plan lessons that are less demanding than what we know the pupils are capable of. When we know that pupils could do something if they listen and if they try but we also know that some of them won’t listen or won’t try the temptation is always there to avoid the behaviour problems by avoiding the topic or dumbing it down. I still find myself doing it sometimes.

I decided years ago that I was going to plan every lesson assuming all pupils were going to behave and do their best and that I would deal with it if they didn’t. Initially the behaviour was very difficult and the learning dropped off a cliff but over time two things happened. The first was that my classroom management improved beyond all measure. The second was that the pupils started to not only learn more but become more self-sufficient. Giving them permission to be stuck and trying to shift their view of what it means to struggle with something or be stuck on a question slowly changed their attitude to the subject and to hard work.

Too many teachers, in my experience, seem to view differentiation as compulsively avoiding any situation where a pupil might become stuck. We hold their hands, spoon feed them and give them very little thinking time before intervening. Some of us don’t even know or recognise we’re doing it until it’s pointed out.

If we “differentiate” away the difficulty in our lessons we deny pupils the opportunity to experience successfully struggling with something difficult by themselves. We deny them the sense of accomplishment that comes with figuring out something really difficult and we ensure that if they come across something they can’t do in the exam (and they probably will) they will be ill equipped to deal with it.

I find pupils arrive in Year 7 willing to attempt challenging questions and willing to have a go at things they don’t get. That might suggest that things are different in primary schools. Their willingness to risk failure, looking stupid or getting things wrong decreases the longer they are in secondary school for. This is often the case across the entire spectrum of ability. While puberty and peer pressure play a part in this I think the way we teach plays a big part too.


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