On Thursday I had the pleasure of listening to Ross (aka @TeacherToolkit) talking about Mark. Plan. Teach., his latest book. The issue of differentiation and the challenges it poses for teachers popped up in discussions a number of times during the day. My views on differentiation have changed over the years and changed quite significantly.
My early years in the class room were spent trying to differentiate as much as possible; differentiation by learning objective, by resource, by support and by outcome. It was an impossible task and with hindsight the wrong approach, when teaching a class of thirty plus pupils. As a middle leader I saw differentiation as a departmental thing; too much for any one person but could we develop the differentiated schemes of learning, associated resources, support and stretch materials as a collective. We didn’t manage to but again I’d question the underpinning logic of what we were doing.
As CEO over the past three or four years, no longer teaching in the class room, my teaching is in the staff room, we have increasingly looked to develop an understanding of what “over the bar teaching” might look like. You set the standard expected, set the bar high, and differentiate by support, the predominant means of class room differentiation, to get all or as many pupils as possible over the bar.
Some of the lessons we are learning; a new set of issues for us to address: the need to teach few things better. Within each subject there are difficult choices to make about the core content, key concepts and ideas as well as habits of mind, needed to gain an understanding of the subject. These are hard choices; what is central and must be taught and learnt compared to what is a bit more peripheral and can be omitted? The pace tends to be slower as the aim of the teaching is to get more pupils to a minimum and challenging acceptable level.
The bar keeps changing position nationally particularly with the new Key Stages 1 & 2 curriculum and GCSEs; the standards expected in the preceding year groups/classes needs to increase. This requires a huge investment in staff development time, focussed on rethinking and writing all schemes of learning, that systematically and sequentially develop pupils’ knowledge over seven (primary) or five (secondary) or twelve (all through) years. We’re still playing catch up in Years 6 & 11 to an extent. As a Trust we’ve supported this with numerous extra INSET days over the past three years.
The need and ability to memorise, retain and retrieve, significant amounts of information has increased significantly. Retrieval practice and interleaving, low stakes testing and development of knowledge organisers, are becoming more common place but some/many pupils need to work harder at memorising the curriculum content.
Gaps in literacy are being more cruelly exposed than ever before; beyond decoding and fluency pupils’ ability to comprehend increasingly demanding texts needs to be enhanced. An interesting analysis of our current Year 7 pupils’ SATS data, conducted by the English Department, showed repeatedly poorer performance on questions that required inference. There may be a skills deficit here but also a limiting shortage of the background knowledge to fully understand the text.
Getting more pupils over the bar will not be easy; lowering the bar is unacceptable and unhelpful. I’m up for the challenge.
A few caveats:
Firstly, there is a small group of children and young people who have significant additional learning needs who with the agreement and in partnership with their parents need a differentiated curriculum. These pupils should be in an environment – taught in a very small class and/or in a larger class with their own individual support – that allows them to be successful on their own terms.
Not all the support can be given by teachers as there may be social, emotional or economic barriers to success that need to be addressed. There are many different staff and many different agencies who need to pull together,
This is not a silver bullet and will take years and years to implement. You’ll be working against the system: children arriving in early years with vastly different levels of development and far too little funding to attract and retain sufficient numbers of high quality early years practitioners that enable the most disadvantaged to catch up. Equally there is a substantial and unchanging gap in attainment on entry to secondary school that just gets worse during this phase of education.
Over the bar teaching primarily aims to address the long tail of underachievement so prevalent in the English Education System; even as the bar rises there will be a need to think about challenging the most able. Setting is not the solution; it lowers the bar for too many children.
“Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up by going slower (and doing easier work) than they are? Coo coo!”
Bart Simpson (Quoted in Cleverlands, Lucy Creehan)
Taking forward “over the bar teaching” is a huge challenge. It can be done but would be easier if it was a whole education system way of thinking and operating.