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?

4 things you need to teach that aren’t on the GCSE Religious Studies specifications

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We are lucky to have a 3 year GCSE course and so we have to time to cover the course. However when we chose AQA we soon realised that there are really important concepts that have been omitted from the course. These concepts are essential for a deeper understanding of other concepts. Otherwise the GCSE becomes the superficial; ‘some think X and others think Y’ with little explanation behind it.

I thought I’d share four of those concepts. There are more but these seem to be really important to understand the two religions we study: Christianity and Islam.

Christian denominations

There is no specific requirement for students to reference the specific teachings from a denomination but I believe that if they don’t understand how there are different groups of Christians they will never really understand the different practices.

I teach it chronologically: The life of Jesus, Pentecost, the Great Schism, and the Reformation. Not in a huge amount of detail but enough to show them how Christianity developed from the life of Jesus. Classic misunderstandings like Jesus being a Christian are covered and some very basic history. It’s all very simplified but it gives them the basics and can see why we now have many different Churches.

How this helps with the course

The learning from this that applies to the rest of the course is huge.  For example, they learn about the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) which can then link to religious experiences, miracles, differences in sacraments. It provides them with the key foundations of Christianity.

It also helps them understand that leadership is also important in Christian moral decision making. If they don’t know about the role of the Pope for Catholics they won’t understand the range of sources of wisdom for Catholics.

Biblical Interpretations

This follows on from denominations. Many differences in views in Christianity comes from how the Bible is interpreted. Students should really see this  for themselves, so we teach them how to use a bible. In my experience it opens up the study of the Bible to them as they’ve been previously (especially in faith school feeder primaries) come with an understanding that the Bible has a fixed meaning. Again we keep it simple, using basic terms like ‘literalist’.

It’s a useful activity to pick an issue and present them with several verses and ask them ‘what would a Christian believe?’. They can then clearly see that with most things it comes down to interpretation not definitive answers.  They can also see that the Old Testament and New Testament can have different roles in Christian belief.

How this helps with the course

This understanding helps when they have to give different views to social and moral issues. They have a deeper understanding that views can be based on teachings yet be different in nature. For example, views on abortion balancing the idea of murder versus a loving and forgiving God; both which can be based on Biblical teachings.

The life of Muhammad

It is so easy to teach religion out of its original context. We spend quite a few lessons looking at the social, cultural background of Makkah and the society that Muhammad was alive in. Again, in simple terms, but students learn about polytheism, the treatment of women and polygamy. Without these, Islam can be misinterpreted in a Western context.

One key Hadith that they learn from these lessons is Muhammad’s final speech. We spend a lesson unpicking it. It’s a great source for looking at core beliefs and practices. For example, it names the 5 pillars of Sunni Islam. In fact, it’s in these lessons that they learn the sources of wisdom for Muslims: The Qur’an, the Hadith and the Sunnah.

How this helps with the course

It gives a deeper understanding of the quotes they use when referencing the Qur’an and the Hadith. They can also see the cultural background of some important practices for example, the importance of Makkah when studying Hajj and Salah.

The Sunni/Shi’a split

I will be honest, before I taught this course I knew nothing about this. I’d never had to teach it. I attended a fabulous session at the London RE hub a few years ago with Zameer and Wahida (link here) that really inspired me with this. It gave me some subject knowledge confidence. Without teaching this split after the death of Muhammad, we risk students just knowing there are different Muslims without a deeper understanding of the reasons behind it.

How this helps with the course

Students do have to know some of the differences in beliefs and practices between Sunni and Shi’a. This knowledge helps them to have a deeper appreciation. For example the difference between the six articles and five pillars alongside the 5 roots and 10 obligatory acts. It gives the students a better understanding if they need to evaluate these views in the evaluation questions.

 

 

There are lots of other teachings we add in but these four cover so much of the rest of the specification and add depth to their knowledge and understanding, if you cannot fit them in at GCSE I would highly recommend putting them in to key stage 3.

Using multiple choice questions to practise GCSE skills

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It’s easy to see how using multiple choice questions can test knowledge. Ask a question on a topic with viable answers and if a student selects the correct answer/s then they probably ‘know’ that piece of information (assuming they don’t guess).

We use multiple choice questions in key stage 3 and key stage 4 in different ways but mainly for recall to aid long term learning, not always as diagnosis of what they do/don’t know. Part of all key stage 4 homework is to write their own multiple choice questions. This is a brilliant way to find any misconceptions. In fact, when sitting with our trainee this week to explain how to mark this homework, the first student had done exactly this. She had misunderstood a concept. We immediately cross referenced this with the class notes and could see a general misconception that can be addressed in feedback next lesson.

However, up until now, we have only expected the students to create questions that are content based. Now we are moving on to making the skills more explicit.

For GCSE RS this will be two main new features in the multiple choice questions; use of quotations and evaluating arguments by their strengths and weaknesses.

Quotations

In a question 4, students need to explain two aspects of religion and then add a quotation somewhere in their answer. So far, when students have answered these questions without prompting, some forget the quotation, which limits them to 4 marks. This is for two reasons: they genuinely forget or they can’t think of a quotation to support either point. Our aim is to rectify the second so the first is less likely. On Monday we have an INSET day and we are going to agree as a department quotations for each topic that we will use and learn. There are so many that could be used, we will aim to narrow it down as much as possible and start to promote, repeat and plan for recall of the selected quotations regularly over the GCSE.

These can be put into multiple questions in several ways:

  • To help them remember the wording of quotations

  • To help them select an appropriate quote

  • To link a quotation to a particular view

  • To link to a particular teaching

Evaluating arguments

In question 5, students have to write an argument based on a given statement. The skills here are about analysing and evaluating arguments along the way. Some teachers are allowing students to give their own opinions however I am trying to stop students from doing this as I don’t think it helps them understand the concept of evaluation; unpicking the relative strengths and weaknesses of an argument. Giving an opinion can move away from dealing with the objective, logical analysis to personal opinion and potentially, inappropriate criticism of religion.

To help them learn some common evaluations of the issues we study, we are starting to add multiple choice questions on the relative strengths and weaknesses of arguments studied. These will have been taught and discussed in class and so the quiz will be a form of recall and hopefully will help with long term retention of the critiques.

We have gone with the terms ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ to create consistency and ultimately so an examiner can see the clear analysis and evaluation throughout their answer.

These new types of MC question are actually testing knowledge and understanding of appropriate quotations and arguments but their knowledge of these will help with answering questions that require more than just recall of content. I think they’re the best way to practise these important aspects of the skills without getting them to write full answers and requiring me to spend hours marking.

From now on we will require students to include at least one quotation and one evaluation type question in their homework multiple choice questions which will hopefully start to embed these skills. We hope to see their application when they answer questions 4 and 5 and will try to evaluate the impact of this next step in the next year.

The invisible practices in teaching: watching a teacher teach

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Watching teachers teach is a good thing for trainees (and anyone), to do but I am dubious of the value of just watching a teacher and then walking away from the classroom. So much of what we do is ‘invisible’; there are unseen practices with rationales that may not be obvious. If we want to use observing teachers as part of training it needs to give time to unpick these practices and give time for discussion. A trainee may then decide whether they want to do similar, think about how they would do them or not do them at all.

I’m keen that teachers engage with research and so have thought about how this might be utilised when watching a teacher teach. Experienced teachers may (or may not) be able to ‘see’ these practices and will only need a blank sheet of paper to take ideas from watching someone else teach; they’re experts. Novices however may pick up on some superficial practices but not some of the subtleties or long term strategies that teachers use. These proformas are designed to help a trainee explore an aspect of teaching and discuss it with the teacher. Please feel free to share and use but please do credit them. I will add as I go along.

Links to proformas

Retrieval

Cognitive load

I may also blog further about the discussions that I have, in order to unpick the hidden practices in my classroom.

Why bother with mocks? How to make them useful without taking hours of your life away

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It’s mock exam season. The time when teachers spend longer marking test papers than the total time that the students spent revising and sitting the exam itself. Is the time cost worth it?

I believe that teaching a subject that results in a terminal exam comes down to a careful balance of teaching content, how to apply the content to questions and how to complete the exam. In terms of timing, I’d probably go for a 50/40/10% split of curriculum time on these.

Mock exams are one of the only chances where all three of these parts of the exam puzzle come together. I am in no doubt that students need to do mock exams but possibly not in a way that many teachers do them.

What is your mock for?

Teachers need to decide what their mock is for. This will then determine what they will do with it. Alternatives include:

  • Practising timing
  • Practising sitting in a room, in silence, with peers, for a long period of time
  • Seeing the paper as it will look in the real exam
  • Reducing nerves associated with something different and important
  • Recalling all previously taught material
  • Practising exam questions
  • To motivate students
  • To give students a needed ‘wake up’ call
  • To generate a predicted grade (for school data, for college/sixth form application)

Once you decide what it is for, you may not need to mark them all in the same way.

Do mocks from the start

Practice questions should be completed from early on, not left until the end of year 11. Once students have covered some content I choose the easiest way to introduce one type of question. I use a set of rubrics for a successful answer to that question. They have as long as they need (well beyond what they’ll have in the exam). I let them use their notes. It’s a gradual experience that builds confidence. Over the 3 years I then gradually take away the scaffolding. Giving them a set time. Not using notes.

I’m experimenting where possible get students to move from the place they learnt the material when they do the test. See here for why.

At the start it’s about confidence and ‘I can do this’ not throwing them into a full GCSE paper. By the end, it has all come together to a glorious full mock paper.

Don’t leave recall to the end of the year

Some teachers leave recalling content to the end of year exam. Their end of year exam covers ‘everything’ that has been taught that year but has not been recalled or tested until that point. Most students will have limited recall, even with some revision before the test. I get students to recall prior knowledge on an almost lesson by lesson basis either through a quick quiz starter or linking current content or an exam question from previous topics.

If you don’t want to get depressed from their lack of knowledge, don’t leave their first test until the end of the year.

Hours and hours of marking?

As shown in this tweet, fully marking mock papers is seriously time consuming. Unless your school gives you the time to mark them it can be your Christmas holidays gone.

Depending on the reason, teachers do not have to sit and mark every answer of every paper.

What could be done with the mock? Alternatives to teachers marking the whole paper*

  1. The student nominates which answer/s they want the teacher to mark (within guidelines)
  2. The teacher identifies the type of question that the student has been specifically working on previously and only marks that
  3. The teacher only marks part of an answer e.g the introduction,
  4. Give the paper back to the student at a later date. In silence, by themselves, with a mark scheme, they mark it themselves (or parts of it). They can then nominate a set amount to be checked by the teacher
  5. As above, peer marked.
  6. Teacher copies one answer (different questions) from each student. An anonymous copy is then shared around the class alongside a mark scheme and students mark it, identifying what they think has been done well and what is missing.
  7. Teacher copies the same answer from all the students. Students then rank them from ‘best’ to ‘worst’
  8. As above but with staff only. (Commonly known as ‘comparative judgment’)
  9. The teacher gives a ‘perfect’ answer to a question. The students then compare with their own and unpick the similarities and differences.
  10. Make some careful pairings/trios of students based on answers. Get students to work together on one answer.

If your school insists on full paper marking….

  1. Use stampers that highlight common errors/improvements. Expensive but can be used throughout the year and hopefully for a few years with current specs.
  1. Use tick sheets/rubrics to highlight what has been included and what hasn’t
  2. Only write marks not comments. Use whole class feedback when giving back papers

And if you’re going to spend your life marking….*

You must get the students to do something with the marking. Giving them a paper back and then doing nothing about it has to be the biggest waste of your time. Suggestions:

  1. Students improve (add to) one answer (variations – using notes, using a ‘perfect’ exemplar, using a text book, their worst answer, teaching highlights on individual papers which answer to improve)
  2. Students start improvements with the easiest marks to gain
  3. The teacher goes through the most common errors and then the student chooses one of these to implement
  4. Student rewrites a whole answer
  5. Get students to explain what they’ve done to improve their work
  6. Sit students on a table based on what they need to improve. You can then sit with each table and go through the common error/s. Or if you’re tech savvy make a quick screencast for them to watch and then improve their work. Example
  7. Get students to record (I use a quick & easy googleform) how they got on with each question. I can then look at which topics were weakest for students and focus ‘revision’ on those.
  8. Use the above data generated to target which content they need to learn or which questions they need to practise. This will vary from student to student. Set as individual homework.

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*these may not be appropriate for your students/context