Moving towards an evidence based approach to teaching and learning, seeking methodologies that support the learning needs of the whole class, including special needs and gifted and talented.
The teaching profession, at times, can appear to be seduced by methodologies that eventually become stereotypes. The three part lesson appears often, introduction, activity, resume/summary/plenary. This can support whole class teaching, which occasionally is necessary. The first question that arises is whether all the children are in need of the input. If some are already secure on the teaching point, could they be better occupied on an independent task, based around the same elements, while those who needed the input had direct teaching? The able group could then have a more specific and useful input following this, while the taught group was engaged on their activity. This increased dynamic will have a positive impact on learning behaviours. Once the input is over, there is the question of activity. In a mixed ability class, how is this achieved?
The needs of any grouping of children will be as diverse as the number involved. Every child has individual capabilities, each of which needs to be developed. This causes teachers to shudder, as they deem themselves incapable of meeting the needs of so many individuals. Many then revert to whole class teaching, supported by different challenges for different groups, sometimes with unspecific outcomes, such as “all must, most will, some might”. If “some might”, who are they and shouldn’t that be the bottom line challenge for that specific group. In this case, is “differentiation” potentially allowing some children not to be sufficiently challenged? Differentiation is, in reality, a constituent of assessment and diagnosis, using the information arising out of assessment activity in order to provide clarity in the next steps for learning. Differentiation by outcome, by support and by task are the most used approaches.
Differentiation by outcome, where all the children are given the same task, supports whole class teaching and can be, if created with care and then followed up in detail, a very valuable diagnostic approach. The teacher role is to engage fully with the outcomes to support their subsequent planning. Attempting to do this for a class of thirty children is time consuming and demands considerable analytical skill from the teacher. The outcome should be a careful descriptor of the capability of every child, a series of “can do” statements, providing the starting points for subsequent learning, supporting detailed target setting. It is often the case that differentiation by outcome becomes the norm of the classroom. However, it can also be used as an excuse for no differentiation, where outcomes are largely ignored and have no impact on subsequent learning. So differentiation by outcome is a starting point, not an end in itself.
Differentiation by support is often deployed in classrooms where a teaching assistant is available, more frequently to work with the lower ability children in the class, sometimes becoming the normal operation. This approach can have impact, but also has drawbacks with overuse, as it can mean that children with specific needs are always working with less qualified staff. This can lead to reduced independence being shown by the children and can make the TA define the role as his/her norm, with the teacher becoming more deskilled in dealing with SEN children. As a result of the teacher analysis of pupil need, differentiation by support should be part of targeted intervention with clear development articulated and anticipated, measurable outcomes known to all participants. Without this, the TA can be working in the dark and the children can spend time drifting, rather than devoting time to learning. Consider whether it is possible to institutionalise dependence in bot children and teaching assistants.
Differentiation by task is the harder approach, but over time is by far the most challenging to learners and, if carefully supported and encouraged by the teacher and other staff, can lead to greater outcomes. The outcomes of a piece of work allow the teacher to sort the children into general ability groups, based on their levels of achievement, which can be generated from level descriptors, “can do” statements or APP-style records. This provides a general range of ability with specific challenge points, each of which can have the next learning steps described. Once these are in place the setting of discrete tasks can happen. These can incorporate more subtle learning challenges, like collaborative or cooperative working methods or independent use of resources. The tasks are set with clear learning outcomes, based on a teacher hypothesis, so the teacher is essentially saying “Within this task you’ll be able to show me if you can……”, so assessment at outcome is either yes or no to achievement.
Differentiation by task is not just a matter of starting with the special needs children and then making tasks a little bit harder for the rest. This approach may leave able children unchallenged, or insufficiently challenged. Start at both ends then consider the middle. Are the middle ability really all the same? Are they in reality several sub-groups? Do some need tasking nearer the able children, or the lower group and what about the real middle?
Therefore, in reality, it is the tasking of learning opportunities that might cause teachers to avoid the detailed approaches demanded by differentiation by task, as it can be argued that the teacher is creating four or five “lessons” within one. In reality, the tasking is likely to have similarities, but with the implications of targets challenging different end points, providing restrictions for some, perhaps the use of concrete apparatus as a learning support, while others have more open tasking to see how far they can progress. Support and tasking will lead to outcomes. It is the diagnosis of these outcomes that provides the base for the next challenge. Is there a need for pre-teaching, recapitulation of the information or is there room to progress? These questions will receive different results, even within groups.
Gradually the class teacher is moving to personalised learning. The next question may be how much certain able individuals can challenge themselves and take responsibility within their own learning. In this scenario, if each child is capable of self-generated target setting, the teacher role becomes far more subtle, with the need to engage with individualised need. The teacher and TA will at times then become the facilitators of learning, but also available to be the knowledgeable other, teaching as necessary.
Differentiation by expectation.
This reflection was prompted by the #ukedchat Twitter discussion on Thursday 29th November 2012, which was focused on differentiation. There has been much consideration of this topic and it is often the most difficult aspect of teaching practice. Reflecting on interpretations of differentiation, it would appear reasonable to promote the idea of differentiation by expectation, which may be a more accessible idea than differentiation by other means, especially of task, where there can be the perception of planning for several separate lessons in one, so this is then ignored, reverting back to differentiation by support or outcome.
Differentiation by expectation occurs before the learning, not after, so articulated, group-specific expectations provide clarity to the learner and the teacher during and afterwards for engagement and feedback.
Many teachers have been seduced by the three part lesson approach, input, task and summary or plenary. It can be seen regularly in use, with a large group of children sitting around the teacher on a carpet or at their desks, depending on the age group. The teacher presents the same material to the whole group at the same time. Is it realistic to assume that all the children need the same input, unless perhaps, it is a completely new piece of learning?
If a teacher, standing in front of the class, is aware that some of the class already know the information, why do they still have to sit through another resume of the activity? Are they learning anything? Could they be doing an activity that captures the essence of the information, while allowing the teacher to focus on those who need a more scaffolded, rehearsed approach? The teacher would then follow this up after the input to the remaining group.
Equally, some children will be finding the activity too hard, so perhaps they could be given a preparatory, sensitising activity before coming to work with the teacher?
This approach is a variation on the three part lesson, but seeks to put the notion of differentiation to more practical use from the beginning of the lesson, rather than just at the task stage. Adopting this approach, which is relatively simple to accomplish, allows greater interaction with the learning needs of the learners at an individual level, guiding the teacher to closer engagement during the task, allowing challenge levels to be refined, feedback to be personalised and children to take more responsibility for their learning.
Whole class inputs can lead to whole class tasking and then a great deal of individual marking. Refining the approach ensures that the outcomes can be more clearly defined, supporting a deeper intervention and future learning.
Developing personalised target setting
Where a school is developing a strong Teaching and Learning agenda, there is usually much data, which is capable of supporting the target setting agenda for the children. However, this does need to be interpreted into useful information to be able to ensure that children are party to their progress. This omission could be a contributory factor in holding back the achievements of some significant groups. With this in mind, the following idea is offered. Choose you own scale if not still using levels.