Invisible differentiation

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I heard a story of an Ofsted inspector taking two student books, one a lower attaining starter and one from a higher attaining starter. The inspector then proceeded to look at the same lesson in the books and try to find evidence of differentiation.

This really made me think. What would they see in my student books? And the answer is troubling; it’s ‘nothing’.

It’s troubling because if they were to make a judgement on just this I would ‘fail’. Yet I know there is a lot that I do to ensure that everyone achieves and can be extended.

It’s in my teaching along the way…

When I teach, I consider the variation of students in the room. My use of vocabulary ranges from ensuring the students with lower literacy understand key vocabulary to the use of more technical terms. Everyone in the room can access both but as minimum they can know and use the core vocabulary.

I go through structures and skills all together as a class. Again, ensuring that all can access the basics and yet everyone can access the high level. For example, I go through a possible structure to use in their answer. It’s up to them if they use it. However, everyone has a copy of that structure in their folders. I wouldn’t just give that to some students; they all have it.

I also model good examples. Every student has a copy of these. This means they can all see what a good one looks like and can use it as a model for their work.

I will use emphasis in my explanations. I will highlight higher level responses. I will indicate the kind of vocabulary that shows a deeper understanding. The higher attaining starts are well aware of what they need to do, but I haven’t excluded anyone else from this.

I also don’t just teach what is on the spec. I extend knowledge and understanding well beyond. For example, I teach students some Arabic at GCSE. I don’t need to but it really pushes their skills and extends their core knowledge.

It’s on the board…

I leave lots on the board that is supportive or may extend. For example, some of the technical key words, a diagram of the structure they could use, a quote they can attempt to use in their work by themselves. If it’s not on a PowerPoint slide then that support will be gone and potentially unevidenced.

It’s in my in-class support….

I walk around my class, answering questions. If I see common issues I stop the class and clarify. I reference the stuff on the board if I can see students are missing something. I remind them to use their notes. I remind them of good examples and structures. It’s what I tell them whilst they work.

It’s in their use of notes….

I encourage students to take notes during my lessons. Whilst they vary in terms of independent notes, there are core ideas, words and content that I make them all have. Sometimes when students are doing a piece of work I will give them the option to use their notes or not. These core notes provide a basis for their support. I train them to look back at their notes each lesson and see how useful they are. As these notes will include a range of material including that needed for high end answers, they can all use their notes to achieve.

It’s in my expectations….

I expect all students to do the top end work. I don’t give them different tasks based on any sort of data. They all do the same task but all the previous stages means they can all access it. I don’t have students saying ‘I don’t know what to do’ because the preparation and support given for the piece of work means that, unless they’ve been absent, they can all attempt a piece of work and have a range of support as above.

What you won’t see

On the whole, you won’t see different tasks, different vocabulary lists, different structures, levelled worksheets, target level activities, different homeworks, different mark schemes…. anything that limits the possibilities for students. 

In my classes, you won’t really see anything different in student books which ‘proves’ that differentiation has happened. However it does happen and it seems to work fine, except if someone comes looking for it in their books……..

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The insight that many new senior leaders lack and what can be done about it

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I’ve been thinking about what it is that can potentially cause issues between senior leaders and teachers. In many cases that I have experienced (at secondary level), it has come down to a lack of understanding of senior leaders of subjects other than their own.

This post is based on the premise that senior leaders in schools need to have a least a basic understanding of the variation between and unique challenges of every subject/key stage. If you don’t think this, stop reading here.

The issue

I once went into a meeting with a deputy head as we needed to discuss workload within RE; a colleague had left and I was essentially marking for 800 students. I will never forget what the deputy head said I should do:

“You can easily whizz through a set of books whilst students are working in class”

I sat, possibly with my mouth wide open and pondered what he was saying. He wasn’t talking about the ‘live’ marking (marking student work and feeding back whilst they are completing tasks) that can help reduce mark load. He meant that I should take a different class’s books and mark them whilst the current class,  working totally independently and without my input, do their work.

The issue here is that he was a Maths teacher. He had no concept of what marking was like in RE. Whilst he was probably talking about checking ‘correct answers’, possibly in a nice short list of 1-10, I was having to read pages of extended writing, checking for SPAG errors. He lacked the understanding and possibly the empathy that was needed in that situation. He didn’t offer helpful advice for me. 

This isn’t uncommon. Teachers that decide to go into senior leadership will not always have the cross-subject and cross phase experience that may give this ability to understand what teaching and learning is, in areas out of their own experience.

This can become exacerbated when you have a leadership team from ‘similar’ background in terms of subject. I would argue that subjects can be grouped* and that if there isn’t a member of SLT from each group or a significant understanding of the other groups. Then there may be avoidable issues.

Why is it an issue?

Most first time Assistant Heads come from one of the following:

  • Head of department/faculty
  • Head of year

And occasionally

  • Lead practitioner
  • SENCO
  • Senior teacher

The issue is that it is rare that most spend a significant amount of time out of their subject specialism.

The knowledge and insight that I believe senior leaders need are:

  • How a subject’s curriculum works
  • Variation between key stages
  • The challenges that a subject/dept. faces
  • Simple pedagogical differences between subjects

Does it really matter?

I think it does. A senior leader, regardless of role, is a leader and a manager of all staff and of all subjects. Their knowledge and understanding is essential in making things smoother. Ignorance can cause unnecessary conflict and problems.

For example, a senior leader that see their 5 classes, 3 times a week and say that books should be marked every week, won’t realise for an RE teacher that sees classes once a week that it means 20 sets of books to mark a week compared to the SLT’s 5.

You can’t fully prepare for an SLT role but some experience and exposure to as many different subjects before a teacher is in role will really help.

What can be done to develop the insight needed?

Middle leader collaboration

In my current school we have a regular middle leaders meeting. There is a short agenda and for 90% of the time it is middle leaders sharing what they are doing or will do on a specific issue. For example,  this means that the Head of Maths shares what they are doing with the Head of Geography. The Head of Drama shares what they are doing with the Head of MFL.  The assistant and deputy head are also there listening and contributing. This is a great way for colleagues to understand the way other subjects work. It’s a good chance to develop this cross curricular understanding.

Associate roles

A Head, with foresight and a focus on developing their staff, will create associate roles where possible. These are commonly associate SLT roles which gives someone an insight into the wider perspective SLT need to take. However, if you are a Drama specialist it may be useful to become an associate member of the Maths department. This may include being include in subject meetings, in the department email group, ‘observing subject teaching, joining a subject for INSET or asking to join the Head of subject in their line management meetings. It needs to be done with sensitivity but it could provide a great insight into a subject different to the person’s specialism.

External course/CPD focus

Many middle leaders that want to go on to senior leadership go on a course such as the NPQSL to help prepare. However there is no requirement on this course to do anything that is cross curricular. It has to be whole school but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the kind of thing that provides insight into how different subjects work around the school. A Head could suggest that colleagues doing this kind of course should do something that enhances their knowledge and understanding of different subject areas.

Consultation, communication & collaboration

If someone is already a senior leader and doesn’t have the knowledge needed, then this can be the best way to gain insight. It’s also called ‘good management’.

If a leader wants to create a new policy, for example, for homework, instead of sitting writing this by themselves or even with other SLT they should work with middle leaders/teachers to find the best solution for all. Even better they should work with broad principles and ask colleagues to adapt for their own subject.

Duh

Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘duh, yeah’ but I am well aware that there are many leaders out there that don’t do this and in their ignorance, produce policies or systems that may well be great for their subject specialism but completely unworkable and problematical for other subjects.

This kind of uninformed behaviour is regularly shared on social media. Sadly,  it can be a significant cause of stress in teaching and in some cases people leaving the profession. It IS important.

 

*For example…..

  • Humanities based – History, Geography, RE, English etc
  • Mathematical based – Maths, science
  • Creative based – art, drama, music etc
  • Technical – Food, textiles, resistant materials etc
  • Languages – French, German, Latin etc
  • Physical – PE, dance etc

Hidden classroom routines

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When my GCSE classes come in to the classroom, they go straight to the cupboard and get their folders. Some offer, amongst each other, to give out others’ folders. If it’s keyword test day, they get out their sheets or revision cards and start discussing and testing each other on the words.

I meanwhile, can be sorting the resources for the lesson, standing at the door welcoming them or dealing with something from the previous lesson. I don’t tell them to do any of the above. They just do it; it’s a GCSE RS classroom routine.

It took about 3 lessons in September year 9 to establish this routine. It will last 3 years and will save me repeating myself endlessly.

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Many of my discussions with my trainee this term have been about routines. Routines for learning and routines for behaviour. The problem is that they are hidden. Anyone walking into my classroom will just see the result of the routine not the process that I went through to get there. It’s not easy for a novice to see. They may just assume ‘all children will do X’.

Where it goes wrong

Where things can go wrong with trainees is when they ask students to do something, which they’ve never done before, and they assume (wrongly) that students know how to do that thing. It can be simple practical tasks like how to present their work and then more complex routines for example, how to structure a piece of writing.

Also, even for trained teachers things can go wrong without routines. Students like to know what they need to be doing and when. These routines then set boundaries in the classroom. If a teacher has no routine, then the potential for chaos is high from the moment the students walk in the lesson.

Routines also link into attitude and behaviour. If a student doesn’t follow a set routine, it could be a sign that they aren’t going to ‘play ball’ that lesson. But it’s hidden. Some teachers might not even spot it. It’s a subtle indication that the teacher needs to address sooner rather than later. It may mean nothing, it may mean the student will need an alternative.

Also, at secondary level, think about those students that struggle. 10 different teachers, with 10 different sets of routines. This doesn’t mean that teachers are undermining any whole school expectations; they should flow across classrooms. But there are subject specific, classroom specific and teacher preference routines for every subject they take. This is why many students struggle at the start of year 7.

Routines support learning

The beauty of routines is that a teacher can set their own. I know I’m a very specific type of teacher and my routines follow my pedagogy. I’m not a big fan of group work. However I know there are teachers that do this brilliantly because they have such tight specific routines for group work. If Drama teachers don’t put these structures in, then group performance and it’s development would be utter chaos. Routines support learning.

Interestingly, as I am a highly structured teacher in terms of routines, students with certain special needs seem to thrive. They like to know that ‘it’s Tuesday period 5 with Miss Cox, so it’s our keyword test’. Routine makes them feel safe. If I can give that structure to them, why wouldn’t I?

Routines & expectations

Routines are also often linked to expectations. We can’t just expect a student to do something unless we’ve specifically got them into a routine of doing so. This is where trainees are at a disadvantage, especially on short placements. They can either continue the routines of the original class teacher or go with their own, that, by the time they’ve established them , they’ll finish teaching the class.

Creating routines

Students need to be told, clearly what the expectation is. It may also help, where appropriate,to have them in writing, on the board or in their books. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. There needs to be a consequence for not following. This will vary hugely depending on what it is. However, it must be proportionate and fair.

Reflection

If you watch someone teach ask yourself, what routines have they established? What routines might they need to establish to make things easier?

Teachers – Think about your own practice. Do children come into your classroom knowing how you expect things to be done? How have you communicated these? What invisible routines have you created? Do they need tweaking or adding to?

Leaders – what routines are there in your dept/area/school? Are they clear or just clear in your head? Do they need changing? How will new routines be established across the school?