This was linked to knowing your stuff and being aware of children’s learning needs, with match and challenge, aka pitch, being the precursor of differentiation.
In many ways, problems started, for some, when differentiation became a thing to do, resulting in a more activities-led approach, rather than the earlier more analytical approach. It embedded, in some practice, the need for different activities for different groups, creating an appearance of catering for different needs when there might be too little or too much challenge. The ease of downloading activities from the internet and easy reprographics aided and abetted this approach.
There are different layers of challenge, starting with the curriculum, where concepts might be simply introduced in one year-group, added to in subsequent years; a progressive building of knowledge. It does require, though, from the teacher, an awareness of previous learning, to be able to make appropriate links that enable recall to underpin the new information.
Challenge will be embedded in the introductory part of the lesson, where information is shared directly, orally, supplemented by visual or other means, aka dual coding, building a coherent narrative, developed further through careful question and answer to fine tune responses and ensure security. The extended vocabulary, exploring new concepts, must be linked to earlier understanding and linked vocabulary; it cannot be assumed that each child will make the links without them being made explicit; modelled retrieval practice, within and between lessons.
I am also very visual in the way that I think about systems. I have to have the bigger picture, so that I can explore the constituent parts. Schools, after all, are systems, of interlocking systems, with the key one being the system that operates around each learner, so that they are enabled to make the best progress at that point in time. This also allows for those individuals for whom expectations of the whole group may not be applicable, as a result of issues specific to them. As teachers, we have to accept that life does affect learning patterns. It does for adults, so it does for learners and they are young, so may not yet have built their coping mechanisms.
There are many elements which go together to make up the complex event that we call learning.
Some commentators argue that you can’t “see” learning in a lesson, and yes, perhaps that, as a phenomenon is not easily visible, but, I think it is feasible to explore the learning intentions of the lesson and to qualitatively explore the learning environment, the experiences, the challenge and effort being demanded, so that it is possible to determine the likelihood of whether learning might be taking place at that point.
Knowing where the learners are at the beginning of the discrete series of experiences they will encounter though a series of lessons is essential, so that they will then be taken on a journey alongside the teacher, rather than the teacher running ahead and learners lagging behind in a long tail. Knowing where they are headed is important too. If the “map” is only ever in the teacher’s head, then learners are not aware of the destination, nor can they have an understanding of where they are on the journey. If one was to take a climbing analogy, as I have done in another post, from the base camp, we want to journey to a specific point, or pitch, where we can take stock before moving onto the next one, so that the journey as a whole is always within the learner’s understanding.
Having an understanding of what “getting there” might look like is also an essential element of the learning process. If this is not clear, then effort can be misdirected into other areas, which might have lesser impact on a learner outcome. For some, the journey to each point may need to be broken down further and they may require guidance on the way, so the leader/teacher/TA has to “drop back” to encourage and support. Some might like to “climb/run ahead”. If that is the case then the teacher has to determine whether this can be accomplished safely. They can’t fall off an exercise book, so it is probably very safe, but some teachers do supply limitations. This is the point at which real independence can be developed through appropriately set challenges.
Task Setting (What’s the challenge?)
Limitations can be embedded in the activities that are given to children. I looked at task setting in another post, and it is to this that I’d want to return, as it is, without doubt, the determinant of progress. Real learning, at least to me, requires embedding through use and application of what is known into overcoming a challenge and solving problems. School learning can be based on activities, doing, following a set of instructions, which can be seen as modelling or scaffolding, more rarely applying knowledge and skills to challenging scenarios. This “recipe” approach to teaching can be effective in the right hands, as can all approaches, however in the wrong hands it can embed a limitation, created by the task. A level x task, given to a level x learner, will produce level x learning. Task choice and challenge is therefore an essential skill.
Unpicking the level of challenge, the need for learners to think, to plan, to organise, to select, to determine routes and ideas rather than just follow instructions, is an important aspect. Completing an activity sheet does not necessarily equate to learning. End to end activity sheets does not mean a scheme of work or a curriculum.
The process of learning has to be a dynamic interplay between the learner and the context, making active links between what is already known and what is being laid before them. To that end the interplay of the formal lessons, homework and time between lessons would also appear, to me, to be critical. How much homework is an unrelated activity, just because homework has to be given? What if the challenge was continuous, so that homework became pre-thinking, preparation for the lesson, or a reflection on the learning outcomes of the current one?
Boxing everything would appear to embed potential limitations, in inexperienced hands, but sometimes in more experienced hands, as a result of the system. From that point of view, the diagram at the header is limited as it implies boxes rather than a dynamic.
Knowledge and Skills
Learners need to know things in order to understand the world around them. Knowledge underpins all thinking, but the awakening by teaching or discovery through experience of new knowledge has to be explored in relation to what is already known. Making links is essential.
The knowledge area provides the context for the learning, sometimes in discrete subject areas, sometimes in less discrete manner; the real world of young children does not exist in subject boxes.
Discrete area allows specific concepts, (current) knowledge and subject specific skills to be explored and developed to hone the skills over time to provide capacity to explore for oneself, at different levels, each of which, I would argue has validity.
One does not have to reach a specific level of expertise before using what is known to explore. As a teenager, I was interested in entomology, not as an expert, but as a way to explore the natural world. It was a specific interest, but linked with GCE and A level studies, allowed deeper insights in a very specific area.
The skills of the subject often provide the thought and practical processes, and it is this area that needs careful consideration, as it is within the process skills, use and application, that reflective practice enables the involved teacher to determine where any gaps occur.
Active Processing- Making Sense of Things
While a teacher might present knowledge in contexts in ways that they think are suitable for the children in their classes, there is never a guarantee that the message gets across to the learner.
The teacher language style, and the vocabulary being used might preclude a learner from picking up the essential information that they need to make progress. Not all learners are active listeners and even those who are can miss parts of information as they reflect on an earlier snippet of knowledge.
Even if the message does get across there is no guarantee that the learner will have the capacity to process the knowledge, in some cases because they do not have prior experiences which allow them to link the new information to an expected position. They already have a deficit, which, if undetected, embeds and deepens the deficit, by adding a further layer of deficit.
And, even if they have the capacity to take the information in and to process it, there are some learners who have difficulty in expressing what they know in ways that are acceptable as outcomes.
The teacher role is to place learning opportunities in front of children, it is also to walk along beside the learners, especially identified vulnerable groups. Engaging and investigating their progressive understanding supports fine tuning of interactions, the feedback, the guidance in a lesson, the alteration of learning expectations and the written feedback.
It is a cyclic event, with each successive outcome creating a new baseline of expectation, based on learning outcomes.
So to simplify the diagram at the header of this post.
- Teaching and Learning is a series of interlocking expectations over time; long, medium and short term.
- Analysis underpins the detail of planning, which in turn describes what will happen in the lesson, during and after which the reflective teacher adjusts expectations to evident outcomes, with appropriate records kept as aides memoire.
- Tasks set embed the expectations of the learning, which should be challenging to thinking rather than activity based.
- The product, the outcome and the process are important, with the latter capable of investigation to discover the aspects which a child finds difficult, receptive, processing or expressive difficulty. The former can be compared to aspirational outcomes and investigated for future learning steps.
- You don’t really know what they know unless they can communicate it to you and there are many routes to communication. It’s not just spoken or written.
That is for the teacher and the learner to determine. If exemplars are shared, they can be discussed against the learner outcome, with a descriptor of next steps shared. Once shared, they become a common expectation, for the learner focus. Showing progress can be good enough for an individual. If there is a “bottom line” expectation, this can be explored with learners to establish the personalised route necessary to achieve this. Specific support and guidance may be needed.
This might suffer from being an adult concept, especially for younger learners. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk in terms of what learners are trying to get better at.
Current target setting is also often a hidden agenda, with targets stuck inside book covers, in another booklet, or in a teacher’s planner. It also suffers in some places from lacking a dynamic; three targets set for a half term review. If not achieved, then reset. It sucks the life out of learners putting effort into their learning.
An alternative approach is to
- Put personalised targets on a fold out slip, at the edge of the exercise book, so that during the lesson, the child and the teacher can be aware of the specific targets.
- This can prompt conversations specific to that child, support the learner’s self-evaluations and also support teacher oral and written feedback, as the slips can be folded out during marking.
- Targets can be achieved , then become non-negotiable in future work, with new ones added.
- This approach also supports record keeping, as the slip forms an on-going record of achievement.
We are all, or should be, life-long learners, more often without a teacher. Life offers challenges. We need to create solution finders.
Know your children well (baseline). Challenge them appropriately. Engage in the journey; support and guide as necessary. Explore and Improve outcomes. Outcomes become new baseline. Repeat.
It is always interesting talking with student teachers, because, by definition, they are still learning; they are students in Initial Teacher Education. Trying to unpick different elements that go to make up good teaching can give rise to interesting side issues, not least seeking synonyms for different aspects of the role. The two most common to seek alternatives are differentiation and assessment.
I quite like to start with simpler models then build onto that framework of understanding. When I was training, I had a friend whose first port of call for any topic was the Ladybird series, where there was easily available a rapid introduction to a subject, so these books provided the sub-headings to be filled in with detail later.
It is very important for trainee (and qualified) teachers to develop a holistic awareness and knowledge of the needs of the full range of children with whom they will work, so that, when faced with a particular year-group, their attainment can be seen in context and provide the basis for planning.
Knowing the children in their classes holistically, as described in the diagram above, supports decision making. Visualising education in the round and being aware of the children’s backgrounds can enable the teacher to underpin areas where the prior, background experience may become a limiting factor.
My own model of what teaching is can be described as a cycle; analyse, plan, do, review, record, or, even more simply, as in the nutshell below.
The range of children within a class can vary significantly, but, even within selected classes, such as streams and sets, there is a range to be accommodated, with both subject knowledge and skill needs to be addressed. Knowing the different needs of the children ensures that challenge within tasking can be tailored to their needs, with the need to articulate challenge being greater than the need to show different activities, which can be the fall-back position.
It is, in reality, the need to see children challenged within a lesson that an observer wishes to see. What have the children got to get their teeth into, to think about, to talk about and then to write about? That this will be different for different children seems to me to be self-evident, but then, I taught before the initial National Curriculum, quite often in an Integrated Day, group-based approach, which was then a feature of Primary practice. Group-based tasking was normal.
So, the first word that needs to be evident in the classroom is challenge and how this is manifest and visible across the range of abilities. It can be embedded in personal challenge or learning targets, which can be the main focus within a broader tasking.
Improvement is the second word that needs to be in common use in the class. If the challenge is correct, then there will be an outcome. Whatever the outcome, it should be capable of improvement, so sharing this with the group or class through the available technology should enable the children to talk through how they would seek to add even greater value to the shared outcomes.
The use of display, as in WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like) walls can be a valuable asset to discussing improvement. It is a case of constantly putting quality in front of children, so that they can build a visual image of expectation and take some charge of their own efforts.
Every outcome should become a new baseline if the process of challenge and improving outcomes is embedded in classroom practice. Each successive outcome becomes a descriptor of progression.
Of course the issue then is how to describe progress across a subject, so that there is a framework against which to make the judgement. The question is; how far have they travelled and where next? And so we go round the houses, especially without clear frames of reference. It might be better to consider security of learning, with successive descriptors of capacity supporting this thinking.
- Some will be investigative, some problem-solving, some using and applying what is known into new areas. All should be challenging to thinking and have an impact on learner progress. The context for a practice task needs to be considered carefully.
- There will be the intellectual challenge; do they understand the task and the nature of the challenge? Can they perceive the strategies that they will need to fulfil the task? Some of this will be determined by the teacher explanation of the task criteria, and what needs to be done to be successful, ie the success criteria, or what the teacher will be looking for.
- For some there will be the social challenge, such as the ability to cooperate with others in sharing available resources, organising, or being organised by, others.
- Some tasks will challenge independence. This, for the adults, is sometimes a difficult judgement call. Some tasks will need direct adult support, supervision and guidance to be successful. The amount and the detail of the adult support needs to be considered when reflecting on outcomes. What could the learners do for themselves?
Some tasks will challenge learners to take what they know, to address the challenge with that baseline understanding, then to tackle new issues, identifying what they now need to know in order to make progress in the task.
For interest these are tasks, extracted from work planning diaries that I have used with young children.
Set up a fair test to find the best colour to wear when walking along the road.
Design and make a device that will project a ping pong ball 4 metres into a container.
Using newspaper, build a framework strong enough to… hold a 100g mass 50cm above a table.. hold a cup of water… hold a cream egg… span a 50cm gap between tables and hold 100/200/500g
Consider how to find out of a full balloon weighs more than an empty one.
How much stretch does an elastic band have?
Using squared paper, always the same size, fold a series of rafts with different area bases and different height sides. Which design holds the greater mass?
Other ideas are embedded in subject related blogs.