When I started this course differentiation scared me. Even its Wikipedia page is scary, though not as terrifying as integration’s.
Differentiation still scares me, mathematically speaking, but I know that it’s a suppressed memory that will return with time, like kinematics did earlier this week.
But right now its another kind of differentiation that’s occupying me.
When we started this course, a little over four weeks ago, I think it’s fair to say that all of us put subject knowledge at or close to the top of our lists of a teacher’s key concerns.
We were wrong; none of us would be on the course if there had been any question that we couldn’t cope with the material. Subject knowledge is a given.
A couple of weeks ago most, if not all, of us would have said behaviour was our main concern. Many may still say that and with good reason.
But crucial as it is, it doesn’t pose the same pedagogical challenges as differentiation. No one ever learnt anything by behaving well. (You could argue that the best learning comes from breaking rules, not obeying them, but that’s a blog post for another day.)
Differentiation is pedagogically critical. No, not calculating “sensitivity to change”—not even in maths—but ensuring that everyone in each class is engaged in learning and making observable progress. We manage it on the crudest level by organising students into year groups and sets, but within those the variation in engagement, commitment, “ability”, motivation and self-regard can be huge.
The size of the gap only becomes truly evident when you teach. Faced with 22 students, there are dozens if not hundreds of possible variations. You simply cannot plan for all of them.
The crudeness of class and year organisation are matched by the crudeness of the standard approach to differentiation: bronze, silver and gold tasks. Each teacher will have their own nomenclature for each level of difficulty (red/amber/green; tough/tougher/toughest etc.), but the principle of stepped tasks remains the same.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad idea. Two days ago I doubt I would even have questioned it.
Then I read a David Fawcett blog post, Can I be that little bit better at…..understanding why I might be getting differentiation wrong, whence the title of this post was taken.
Instead of making the outcomes of tasks easier for different groups of students, structure the thinking behind it that little bit better. A colleague of mine said a few months back that ultimately, every student in her class, regardless of ability, will have to sit the exact same exam with the exact same time limit as everyone else. Making tasks easier for some just means that they will know less. I have to agree. Gone are the ‘must, could, should’ objectives and differentiated endpoints. Instead every student has to learn the same key content, but, the way each student thinks and gets there may be different.
Most of the differentiation we do in lessons happens in response to the events that unravel. Yes we can plan until the cows come home but it’s the moments in a lesson when you have to rephrase an instruction, give a prompt when someone is stuck, pose a tough question that spins a student on their head when they are flying.
The opportunity presented itself to me today on a couple of occasions, but rather than spinning the student on their head, instead of empowering them, I stuck to my lesson plan.
Of course, making the thinking easier is much more challenging than making the task easier, but it’s only by challenging myself that I will continue to revel in this experience.
It’s the reason I decided to do maths (apart from the government’s ridiculously lopsided and shortsighted approach to teacher training funding): if I challenge and question myself in every aspect of my teaching I will be better able to encourage my students to challenge and to question.
Writing a blog post can be an easy task—I should know, I’ve rattled of a few in my time. I could make it more difficult, perhaps, by using more complex grammar constructions and richer vocabulary or by attempting to cover more ground. But where’s the thinking in that?
The Smiths // What Difference Does it Make?