Differentiation Part 1

This area is something which has never really suited my default style of teaching. I can only truly pick a handful of lessons where I have successfully extended and supported students at the right points in every lesson. I’ve always felt that I should be aiming to make sure all students hit the main aim(s) of the lesson and put structures/scaffolds in place to support.

A strength in my teaching had become my greatest weakness – I pride myself on the relationships I build with students and have occasionally defaulted to use this to get around lessons that aren’t always pitched correctly or resourced well. Particularly in the middle part of my career some lessons feedback – particularly from non maths teachers – differentiation was highlighted. To make clear i’m not in the camp of maths teachers knowing best (we don’t!) but due to the variation of questions I would set in lessons maths staff observations never picked up on this area. Non maths teaching staff would feedback with ‘Could Amy and Jane be set a different task?’ or ‘What different routes did you plan for John in your lesson? or ‘Why were specific students not guided to task A or B?’

They were right I just did not know how to fix it!

As I gained greater responsibility in school I felt the need to react to any feedback and ensure I reacted to it to showcase to any staff member that came in that they would see what they required in their own mind as a good lesson. I found myself trying to predict what was in students heads and tell groups of students to do this task or plan multiple routes. Or set tasks based on the KS2 starting point because they should be doing that level of task! I’d also found myself planning additional activities so I would actively hunt for students who were performing well so they had to do it!

black textile
Photo by Pedro Sandrini on Pexels.com

This is not meant to say that assessing pupils performance is not possible in the lesson – a mini-whiteboard is a wonderful thing but it only shows the students performance at that moment in time. I’d started to design lessons which pleased observers but I was not convinced that students were all making good progress. It looked great but trying to hold down up to 3 different activities happening at the same time in a lessons was a skill I do not think I can ever master!

A solution was recently proposed where there would be two routes in an activity with the second route designed to really stretch students. Due to being fortunate enough to observe other subjects in previous leadership roles some subjects can extend tasks through asking for more quality or facts through research or additional support/prompts to extend. Maths does not progress in this way as I think of it more as a set of building blocks – once the block is in the wall its there it might crumble over time but to put on another block needs some form of teacher input or support. So on this site we’ve started to build 2nd tasks which either apply the maths methods taught in context or unpick the process further by reversing it or add the cement on the wall by making connections to other Maths topics where this is applied.

We’ve looked to create resource pages aim to do this and have solutions for all questions which is critical for the 2 routes to work. Students make the decision to move routes based on assessed solutions or some topic areas do suit planned questions which inform to students of the best route.

What is clear in this process is I am not God and cannot judge students confidence/learning levels – they need to be taught to do this and be flexible enough to make the judge to move when the time in the lesson is right. My job I feel is to create the environment where mistakes are celebrated as key part of learning and students actively aim to stretch themselves. But they must ‘feel’ confident enough to jump straight in and feel success regularly enough to maintain their belief levels.

This is the first blog of a few on this area as  i’ll develop this approach over the year as its an evolving process.

Andy