Differentiating Upwards

From now on, simply known as UP!

Question: PGCE student – “What is differentiation?”
Answer: Mentor – “It’s about making the work easier for the pupils to understand.”

This type of conversation, or similar versions, has probably happened for most teachers at the start of their careers. The ‘D’ word then becomes some kind of magical tool that only a few truly understand.

When the ‘Inspector arrives’ the teacher will have remembered their mentor’s early advice and proceed to cover their plans and boards with ‘WALTs, WILFs, Shoulds, Coulds and Musts’. Educational texts will have been plundered for the latest tips and pupils will then be subjected to being given different tasks presented on different coloured paper (laminated) on different tables.

When the Inspector leaves the teacher will return to their ‘differentiation by outcome’ approach but with the nagging feeling that they don’t fully understand the ‘D’ word. The mentor’s words are still remembered and the latest Twitter Guru is then sought out for further insight.

Personalised learning (misunderstanding of) and the caring nature which all teachers intrinsically have can lead to potpourri teaching and learning.

For those of you who have participated in one of the many OTPs around the UK we may have mentioned the term ‘Differentiating Up’. For one cohort this was made concrete due to one of the participants relating a colleague’s recent Ofsted experience.

The teacher was trying to ensure that his Merit and Distinction BTEC pupils were both catered for (it’s here where any teacher thinking about exam board implications will be likely to limit the learning in their classroom). This lesson resulted in nearly all the pupils opting for the ‘easier’ versions of tasks. Hence, the ‘caring approach’ plan was undone through no fault of the pupils.

Another participant mentioned that she teaches her Yr7 pupils GCSE standard work. In essence this exemplifies the ‘UP!’ process.

Try thinking about what is required to achieve the absolute maximum of learning.

Following the old adage about ‘shooting for the stars’ means you’ll probably get pupils to exceed their own expectations…and yours.

Still not convinced? I teach in a school with the same proportion of EAL pupils as most of you will. After an ‘interesting and expensive’ day of tips and advice and promising myself to learn “Hello” in 57 languages I then spoke to one of our successful Polish pupils. I apologised for having not known about all these new techniques. She insisted that by being challenged to learn like the others was the reason for her success. The ‘differentiating down’ methods were not going to help when she was being asked to write the same essays as her top set friends.

I would advise thinking more about getting the learning right in the first place through planning for all by using a system such as SOLO.

Many traditional differentiation techniques arise from incorrectly thought out lessons in the first place.

An Example

My own planning would be from a lesson ob by a ‘trainee’ Ofsteder… who saw one of my Yr11 lessons.

‘An example of ‘UP!’ from my own planning was from a lesson I taught for a visiting observer a couple of years ago. The previous ‘E’ grade achieving pupils were reaching ‘C’ grades for their speaking and listening because I had previously fully explained/demonstrated the excellent type of work that I was expecting to see that day. This high (Up theme continues) set of expectations is based on Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’. The learning needs to have a ‘hook’ with the real world and the determination to succeed will ensure that grades and marks are achieved as a matter of course. Never show anything less than the best work as ‘models’. I have heard teachers say “they can’t do it.” They can!’

‘Learning for one = Learning for all.’

Look Up!

Scott Slocombe

Head of English and OTP/ILP Facilitator


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