Sunday, January 25, 2015

We don't need differentiation, we need to be be better teachers.

I read the following post 'The dangers of differentiation and what to do about them' by Andy Tharby (@atharby) earlier today. I would suggest you read that first then come back here. It's an excellent post and I believe that Andy has gone some way in demonstrating how ineffective our current form of differentiated instruction is at the moment. I believe that we are holding back many children due to our obsession with differentiation in every lesson.

I teach in EYFS, this is a world where differentiation should not exist yet it does. I am continually reminded by my SMT that I should be including differentiated activities in every lesson so that every child can gain access to the learning (I'll hold back from writing what I really think about that). It is true that children come into Reception with varying skills in reading, writing and number. Some children are more than capable of reading simple sentences and their phonic knowledge is good. Others recognise their name and that's about it. Others can write a few words whilst some struggle to hold a pencil using 'the preferred grip'. Realising this wouldn't it make sense to approach every lesson with a set of differentiated activities so that every child could succeed in the learning? No, it wouldn't.

If I did this I am automatically assigning four and five year old children with a label. They will be forever known as a HAP, AAP/MAP or LAP (High, Average/Middle, Low achieving pupil). This label will be theirs throughout primary school and no doubt into secondary too. I stood my ground last year and did not assign labels to any child in my class. However, at the end of the year I had to provide the Year 1 teacher a list of HAP/AAP/LAP/SEN children so that she could fulfil the obligatory use of differentiation throughout the school.

Differentiation means well. In a recent post on EdWeek, differentiation takes the following factors of student learning into account.
• It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.
The problem with this is that it is unworkable in the classroom. The teacher ends up spending too much valuable and productive time on the time-consuming activity of planning for three separate activities that end up not meeting the planned for lesson objective.  Andy Tharby's lists a 'Differentiation Hall of Shame'. (This list should be printed out and put up in every school in the country). 

1. Differentiation because you think you should. 
2. Differentiation to meet an outsider’s expectations.
3. Differentiation according to prior-attainment grade or target grade. 
4. Differentiation that takes time away from planning subject content. 
5. Differentiation according to all/most/some.
6. Differentiation that does the thinking for them.
7. Differentiation as a life sentence.
8. Differentiation as a list of rules!

Teachers blindly adhere to SMTs ideas on lesson planning and what is supposed to be contained in those plans. Yet SMT do not teach your class. You are the teacher, you know your class better than anyone else in the school. You should be able to adapt where you see fit, to change a lesson at any point when you realise it's not working. You should teach your whole class and then respond as and when to those students that need you to make the progress they richly deserve. They do not need watered down activities that hold them back, that will never stretch their learning. They need a teacher.

The most effective differentiation takes place inside the teacher’s thought-processes. - Andy Philip Day

What differentiation does get right is telling us that teaching in the previous year was poor, substandard. That's about it. To ensure we don't fall victim to the curse of differentiation we need to teach our children well. We need to ensure they understand what it is they have been taught, and they need to be able to demonstrate this understanding before moving onto the next lesson. 

We don't need to differentiate. 

We need to be better teachers.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Are we teachers or sheep?

Meek and mild?

I had been expecting the Ofsted inspector all morning due to the Head providing a timetable detailing the team's whereabouts. I was due to be seen just after break. They came after lunch. I was told 10 minutes before. I had French on the timetable but decided to change it to Spanish, I scribbled down a post-it plan that included using the iPad app 'Toontastic' and got the five iPads we had in school into my classroom. The team arrived at 1:15pm, five minutes into my lesson and stayed until the end. I adapted my lesson throughout as I responded to the strengths and weaknesses of every child, I wrote no Learning Objective on the board, nor made a list of Success Criteria, I even had children under tables whilst they used the iPad app so that they could record their spoken Spanish in relative quiet and at no time did I refer to the post-it plan although I did provide it to the lead inspector for a laugh.

I was graded Outstanding. 

I'm sure there are many, many teachers like myself that have taught lessons in this way yet if we I repeated similar lessons today we would no doubt receive a warning from our ever more powerful senior micro managers. We need to ask ourselves why? 

Why have many of us let the inadequacies of senior micro management get in the way of creative and effective teaching? 

Why have we fallen prey to the insistence on very detailed weekly planning for every subject?

Why do we feel inadequate in our professionalism unless we can provide the prescriptive, detailed weekly planning to back it up?

Why we have lost our voices in countless staff meetings and begrudgingly accepted the latest 'Ofsted need the following' tripe as truth?

Why do we continue the ridiculous and non-effective marking strategies that require two or more pen colours and take up most of our evenings and weekends to the detriment of personal life?

Why do we keep allowing our management to add yet another tracking system onto the others we already use so that we can track progress in ever more refined detail and softly, shaded colours?

Why have we become sheep that bow to submission and get on with whatever management has told us to do instead of questioning everything they say and asking for proof that it will actually make a difference in teaching and learning?

Why is it that most of us know we can do a much better job if we just ignored all the crap and got on with the difficult yet rewarding job of teaching?

Are you one of the sheep or a teacher?

Note - Ofsted visited me September 2012.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Learning to write through play

My daughter playing a writing game -Game two

My daughter is three and a half years old. I have never taught her to write nor how to hold pencil using a preferred pencil hold. Before she was three she was naturally holding a crayon using the preferred hand grip, and mark making like any other child her age. I never pushed her to write letters as she enjoyed making marks, circles and then faces with arms and legs. Two weeks ago I played a game with her where I wrote her name and asked her to write it too. She watched me closely then copied it. The picture above shows the second go at the game. To say I was taken aback is an understatement.

I teach in reception (4-5 years old) and children have a wide range of writing abilities. On entry in September, a few can write their name, many more can write the first few letters of their name and some use only marks to show their name. The only reasons I can ascertain as to why children can write their names when they start school are
  1. They are encouraged at home
  2. They are encouraged at nursery
  3. They are encouraged by child minders
  4. Points 1-3 encourage them to make marks through play
Encouragement through play not teaching

Initially, you don't teach three or four year olds, you give them the time to explore, to try out, to play. Young children learn through play, teaching comes second. A few discussions on Twitter and blogs have attempted to demean play as an effective educational activity but they all miss the point that they are completely wrong. Children do learn through play. 

My daughter demonstrates this every day. By game three I had taught her how to form the f and e as you can see in the game three picture.

Play first, teach second. When I taught in Year 5 I used the same approach. I used play in a lot of my teaching from the outset and children responded favourably. Too often some of us look down upon play as a form of fun rather than an educationally sound activity . I ask those who do so to look again and rethink how play can be used as an effective teaching and learning strategy.

Game one 
Game three