TES news articles
‘Why I came to distrust differentiation’
This teacher has decided that differentiating students based on prior attainment puts limits on student aspiration and teacher expectation
A well-meaning, but misguided alteration to our school lesson plan template just before an Ofsted inspection was the beginning of the end for my relationship with differentiation.
The blank new lesson plan arrived in my inbox, neatly divided into three columns, one for "less able students", one for "the majority of students" and one for "more able students". As the lesson planning pro forma was introduced in a meeting, I sat silently, seething.
Who were we to judge what students could achieve before a lesson had even begun? And what did "less able" and "more able" mean anyway?
Dangers of differentiation
Labelling and notions of fixed ability are rife throughout our education system. It isn’t unusual for teachers to be encouraged to divide students into groups according to their prior attainment, and to provide "appropriate" work for their level. This practice of within-class ability grouping – fairly common in primary schools, but also used in the secondary sector – implies that students’ ability is a fixed entity.
Perhaps instead we should be exploring the notion that, given appropriate learning opportunities, all students can achieve, even if they may not all progress at the same rate?
The issue of self-esteem also seems critical to me: surely some students feel less valued if they feel they have been labelled as "low-ability"? The requirement of some schools that their teachers write every lesson objective according to "all, most, and some" creates, I believe, an opportunity for both teachers and students to lower their expectations.
And if activities are presented as being purely based on performance, then they are seen by pupils as a test of ability rather than an opportunity to learn. To meet task demands and avoid failure, students may rely on surface-level learning strategies, avoid challenges and give up easily.
Mastery breeds motivation
In contrast, mastery goals emphasise the challenge of learning, stressing the importance of continuous improvement. This can prove particularly motivating for students and promote student autonomy if students choose the focus of their goals based on precise teacher feedback.
As many of us know, the importance of teacher feedback, verbal as well as written, has been documented by the Education Endowment Foundation, and cited by John Hattie in his meta-analyses Visible Learning. The EEF comments that teacher feedback has a high average impact on student attainment, reminding us that schools should mark less, but mark better; we should set aside time for students to consider and respond to marking, and careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors in understanding.
Similarly, Hattie points out that feedback is one of the most powerful influences in student achievement, although he also warns us that giving feedback is complicated, and given incorrectly, can actually have the opposite effect.
Despite these complexities though, differentiating for current, rather than prior, attainment removes the potential for low expectations that "all, most, some" lesson objectives can create.
Fortunately, our school is now beginning to take the more challenging and inclusive approach of differentiating for current attainment, "teaching to the top" and responding to students during the lesson as the need arises.
I find that sometimes challenges are anticipated, and sometimes students need help in unexpected ways. Developing positive relationships with students, as well as a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, is so important, and this knowledge is far more in-depth and complex than simply basing our differentiation on a summative number filled in on a seating plan.
A studied lesson in recovery
In 14 months, our school went from good, to special measures, and back again. Personally, this led to a loss of confidence in the inspection system, professionally, (and thankfully only briefly), it damaged the reputation of the school, and as a staff, it led to a steep decline in morale in a workforce that had previously been full of pride.
The reasons our school ended up temporarily in special measures are somewhat mystifying, and partially due to the well-documented English GCSE fiasco of 2012. The inspection judgement seemed arbitrary, and driven by an opaque agenda that felt difficult to understand. Almost as soon as we were plunged into special measures, we were deemed to be out of it again, but the experience had inevitably taken its toll.
As teachers, we know that the Ofsted model of educational evaluation is essentially merely quality assurance. Previous to the fateful 2013 Ofsted inspection, levels of insecurity among the staff had already been heightened by the use of graded lesson observations, which were seen as an inevitable consequence of a low-trust accountability system. During the time that we were placed in measures, I was researching the impact of differing models of classroom observation for my M.Ed. In questionnaires and interviews, teachers expressed a sense of powerlessness about the observation process, and were concerned that something of the spirit of the school had been lost. They stated a preference for informal peer support and self-reflection as preferred approaches to improving their practice, and the perception that graded lesson observations were punitive was evident throughout their comments. Teachers referred to graded lesson observations as a box ticking exercise, and not a true reflection of normal classroom practice.
So, as a staff, how did we not derail entirely? How did we not just survive this turbulent era in the school’s history, but instead, find ourselves thriving?
One line manager tentatively suggested, ‘perhaps trust is the key’. The staff rallied, refusing to let the situation defeat them. There are now a multitude of ways that a culture of trust is being re-established in the school: the introduction of a democratic and distributed leadership model; a wider range of staff leading their own initiatives; staff ownership of their own CPD; greater links with other schools and professional bodies are to name but few. We were also lucky enough to be given supportive guidance from a fantastic HMI, who helped us define a clear sense of direction and ensured we never became complacent. One of the changes that epitomises our return to a culture of autonomy is the introduction of lesson study as a model of classroom observation.
Despite our experiences with Ofsted, we have always believed that every teacher can improve, and that lesson observation is a valuable form of professional development. Thankfully, it has now been proved that graded lesson observations are neither valid nor reliable. Instead, we are finding alternative ways of observing lessons and in doing so, we have reclaimed our professionalism. We have recently completed our first pilot of lesson study, in which a triad of teachers collaboratively plan, teach, observe and analyse learning and teaching in research lessons.
Findings have been interesting: one triad, looking at student resilience, avoided the current trend to address ‘growth mindset’ in schools through motivational posters and assemblies as it was felt this may be inadvertently misleading for students: whilst an absence of effort guarantees failure, ‘more effort’ is not necessarily a guarantee of success. Instead, the intervention was based on Martin and Marsh’s research into academic buoyancy, and the triad focussed their attention on the impact of teacher feedback. Findings were that, for these students, feedback was particularly effective when delivered verbally, although further questions were raised about ways to increase student self-efficacy. A further triad has examined the effect of setting personal targets for students, finding again that specific, verbal feedback directly related to assessment objectives seems to be more impactful than merely offering reassurance. Our final triad’s lesson study reiterated the importance of setting clear and specific goals, as they investigated using reflection points to aid student progress.
There are some interesting trends emerging from the initial pilot. The power of positive teacher-student interactions seems to be key: students who feel supported by their teachers appear less likely to be alienated and disengaged from their work; a sense of belonging seems to promote a sense of achievement. A further benefit of the process is the close focus on authentic student voice, putting students at the forefront of planning and reflection, and thereby ensuring the students have joint ownership of their learning. The collaborative nature of lesson study is popular with staff: it relies on teacher professionalism, and offers respectful challenge and support from peers.
The process of lesson study is not without its detractors, and we are not naïve enough to think that lesson study is ‘the’ answer. As an evaluative process, it is time-consuming, and in order to be carried out properly, it must be underpinned by theory and research. It is helpful that I am studying for a professional doctorate: my course is driven by practical research tasks, and gives me a good understanding of the complexity of educational issues, in addition to improving my research literacy so that I can support others who don’t necessarily have the time to engage with or assimilate the scale of reading that is required.
The beauty of the structure of the lesson study process is that it prioritises development over surveillance, and also contains an element of measuring effectiveness – there must be demonstrable impact on student progress and attainment, while ensuring teachers remain at the centre of the planning, teaching and evaluation process. We are using accessible summaries of research, such as the EEF’s toolkit, to ensure that we avoid poor proxies for learning, and we are focussing on teacher learning to improve teacher quality.
The issue of power has been paramount in enabling us to thrive: our current education system can feel stifling, and can discourage individual initiative by encouraging conformity and control. Undertaking research is a way that teachers can take increased responsibility for their actions: it is a method of returning teachers’ self-worth.