Over the holiday, I have been thinking a lot about the possible impact of CPD Learning Communities focused on differentiation. At the end of last term, Sarah Wilton-Rhead said something that really crystallized my thinking on this: in order to differentiate effectively and sustainably, each teacher needs to develop their own personal ‘language of differentiation’ specific to their classroom and students. Sarah W-R talked about how her students assimilate her differentiated categories of ‘friendly’, ‘tricky’ and ‘for the brave’ after just a few lessons, to the point where they use these words naturally in peer-based conversation, along the lines of, “I’m going to start with a few friendlies then go onto some trickies”. Having watched one of Sarah Workman’s Maths lessons the week before (see previous blog entry), I was aware of how powerful students’ familiarity with these labels can be, and how seamless differentiation appears as a result.
So what would fully embedded differentiation look like across JOG? Where do we want to be by the end of this academic year? Speaking as a teacher of English, I now realise that embedding the language of differentiation in my classroom is a top priority for the year ahead. By term 4, I want every student in my lessons to be able to articulate how differentiation looks and feels in my classroom; I also want to have confidence that my differentiation is genuinely student centred rather than an abstract concept or an add-on to normal practice.
Inspired by the two Sarahs and Maths Faculty generally, I have magpied some of their ideas regarding colour-coded objective setting and linked activities. The picture below shows the last objective slide I shared with my Year 10 class before the holiday; under this is a picture of the slide I plan to use for lesson 1 of Term 2 next week.
One of the aspects of Sarah Workman’s objective setting that I particularly liked was the fact that the different levels are not presented as separate categories in a hierarchy (see Slide 1), but that they form a continuum with one level flowing directly into the next. Slide 2 has adopted this style, linking each stage to the level descriptors from the new GCSE Literature criteria. Accompanied by a verbal explanation and a closer look at the mark scheme, these objectives should guide students’ next steps without conveying a fixed mindset approach. As an aside, the pink background used for these slides is in itself an example of differentiation, catering as it does for the two students in the class who have Irlen Syndrome and the two others with dyslexia.
After thinking about colour coded differentiation in the context of RTM, where students had to start at the level indicated by their assessment, I wanted to try using the same colours to prompt student choice as part of a differentiated ‘Points Challenge’ task (see previous post). Although some teachers argue that differentiation tools in Maths are tricky to apply in other subject areas, Sarah’s points template was like a gift for Year 11 revision on language features. Slide 3 below shows how I categorized the objectives as ‘Mild’, ‘Hot’ and ‘Spicy’ for the student-led task; Slide 4 shows how easily I was able to adapt Sarah’s grid:
Although it’s only a starting point, I now feel that I understand fully what ’embedding’ differentiation means for me, and can continue working towards creating the language and colour-signposting that will be instantly recognisable to all the students I teach.
In considering this embedding process, one other idea that keeps coming back to me is the model of comfort/stretch/panic zones used by Mike on TD day 1:
When teaching, it is vital that we remember to pause for those ‘balcony moments’, during which we can ask ourselves honestly how many of our students are really in the yellow ‘stretch’ zone, and consider how to shift those who are just ‘zoning out’ due to stress or boredom.
At the end of our conversation, Sarah W-R and I discussed whether we thought that systems for differentiating should be the same across faculties; at least one local primary has developed a whole-school vocabulary for differentiated challenge in the form of ‘comfort’, ‘stretch’ and ‘super-stretch’. Although such consistency has many merits, particularly in smaller schools, we liked the idea of JOG teachers coming up with words, images or signs that are in keeping with their own individual classrooms and teaching styles. ‘Mild/hot/spicy’ or ‘friendly/tricky/for the brave’ may work well for some, while others will prefer to use subject-based accolades, adapt level descriptors, appeal to growth mindset/’stretch’, or even use images. As long as we are consistent with our students from lesson to lesson, and provide them with clear ways to understand and access differentiated learning in our classrooms, then we can enjoy the process of embedding in our own creative ways.
As someone on the World Wide Web once said –