Teaching to the top


Teachers are still asking on forums and social media how to differentiate and sadly observers are still expecting to see multi-task differentiated activities.

Other than the ridiculous amount of time that would take, which isn’t sustainable, one reason I dislike the multi-activity approach is that there is good chance that the different groups might not be learning exactly the same thing. At GCSE they need to all know and do the same thing, so why wouldn’t you help them to do this?

So I don’t teach in that way, I teach to the top. I want all students to learn the same thing and be able to to do the same thing. Whilst they may not all succeed at the same level, they are exposed to what is needed to access the high level material.

The amount of differentiation involved is minimal. It usually comes in the form of suggested structure (optional as some like to develop their own style) or sentence starters. These are optional and the ‘take it or leave it’ manner in which they’re presented means that there is no stigma or compulsion to use them.

With many classes of books to read and mark I’ve considered how I might reduce workload but keep it meaningful.

In the past I’ve used different ‘levels’ to show a student how they’ve met or not met the criteria. Here is a GCSE example:


It shows what they’ve done according to the mark scheme and the marks linked to it. The EBI tells them how to improve. I don’t think students really engaged with these, they just looked at the marks and when told to improve did the minimum as described in the EBI. The mark scheme is also simplistic and lacks the exact things students need to write a good answer.

However, this year I have considered that the steps towards top marks are superfluous. I want to know if they’ve done what is needed or not. We’ve also dropped ‘all’ grades and marks so I’ve adapted this to a ‘done’ or ‘not done’ model.



This makes it very clear to the student when they get their work back what they’ve done and need to work on. I’ve also gone from using the exam board mark scheme to more detail that makes an overall ‘good’ answer. For example, the mark scheme doesn’t mention quotes but good answers will include them.

Last week a student asked me why I need the ‘not done’ column and couldn’t we just tick ‘done’ or not. He suggested that when they do their improvements they could then tick the gaps. It was a really good point which I’ve pondered but not actioned. I think I like the tick list of ‘not done’ as they stand out more than leaving gaps.

The aim is for all students to do everything needed in their answers. It’s really clear what they need to do and they’ve now stopped asking about grades. There’s only one standard I expect from them and that is the ‘top’ standard.


6 thoughts on “Teaching to the top

  1. I’m so glad I’m not the not to ‘teach to the top’. In GCSE science there are basically two levels, higher and foundation and in each case there is a set of content and skills that all students need to have. When I teach, I teach to the highest level. When I mark free writing I mark to expected content (state, describe, explain, apply). Then I use lots of exam questions so that students know what they will be seeing and doing in their exams. They get used as ‘Do Now’ tasks at the start of lessons, as longer pieces of independent work for maybe 20 minutes, or for topic tests which are around 45 minutes. Questions come in 3 levels – levels 1&2 will be foundation paper questions, levels 2&3 will be higher tier. This is the only point at which I may truly give different work. Otherwise, differentiation comes in the form of my input, seating students to share knowledge and expertise and building skills and access to books, iPads and other resources. I can always fill in gaps using DIRT/Fix It time if a student clearly needs the extra. I really do think that 4 different work sheets or setting different tasks is just demoralising for the students and me as it focuses on difference as being a negative thing and says to students that I don’t expect them all to aim for the same top levels. I hope this kind of makes sense…

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