Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding that how they say it, is as important as what they say?

c/o Wonderlane
Over the years I have been in many colleagues classrooms.  As is part of the observation process, you focus on a number of things, ponder on what you see and generate discussion afterwards.  Everything you do is focused on moving the teacher forward in order to have better outcomes for the students they teach.  Most of the time I am asked in to focus on specific elements of teaching which colleagues wish to improve.  Feedback, planning, ways to differentiate and developing student writing are just a few.  One area in particular, questioning, has made me rethink what I thought I knew.

I wrote a couple of posts last year about the complexities of good questioning and what might actually make this fundamental component of a teachers repertoire effective.  Although I'd never say I am anywhere near an expert of good questioning, I would say I have a pretty good grasp of it in my lessons.  However, a curious thought popped into my head whilst chatting to a member of our focus group a few terms back about what we observe when watching teachers pose questions.  I had been wooed under the illusion that a teacher who can skillfully pose questions that unpick, dissect, delve or expand on an element of knowledge must be a master craftsman.  The well worded question that simultaneously causes a student's head to hurt whilst still providing scope for an answer to be found is a thing to behold.  All hail thee, who when being observed, both stretch and challenge students through well designed questions.  And that there maybe the problem.

A lot of the time, the skill of questioning focuses on developing what or how the teacher poses the question.  We work with teachers to craft better questions.  We look at how we word a well designed question.  We use a variety of techniques to increase student response or even deploy techniques like 'wait time' to ensure an answer can be provided.  But what about the quality of the answer?

Having done a lot of work on our school's feedback policy, we focus a lot on the quality of written work that students produced.  And why wouldn't we?  It's easy to look through a book, read an answer and be able to analyse the quality of it and even suggest improvements.  Here's a question though.  When looking through an exercise book, what would you think if a student provided this written answer to the following question?:

Instantly many of you might be focusing on the overuse of the word 'like', the vagueness of the content, or even the weak example.  When written down it is easy to analyse, correct or challenge.  As a teacher I can mark their books and provide feedback to improve the depth of their answer.  As an observer I can check books and question students to see if this happens over the year.  We spend a lot of our time and focus on what students write that maybe we've forgotten about what they say?  For instance, if the same answer was given verbally, would we scrutinise it so intently and in as much depth?  Or, might it go something like this?

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?

Teacher: [Deploys wait time and uses a no hands up technique for selecting]

Teacher: Josh, what do you think?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Nearly Josh. You've got the basic idea.  What Josh is saying is an athlete might train.....

Or how about this?:

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?  Emma, what do you think?

Emma: Umm, I'm not sure?

Teacher: Ok, anyone else? Josh?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Sort of.  Can you add to it?

Josh: Umm, well, don't they have to train at altitude for a few weeks or months and then come back to their normal home and compete?

Teacher: Yes Josh. It's to do with the fact they go away at altitude for training and then.....

Both versions might seem either very common or a million miles away from what you do in your classrooms.  The problem with these is that it's the kind of avenue I would take after an answer was given.  I know it's not technically correct, but I focus on the content technicalities rather than the quality of the language used.  The first example results in me producing the better answer for the student myself.  I've ultimately done the improvement for them.  The second results in me trying to develop it but instead I take an answer which is a new question.  Have I therefore tackled the inaccuracies of language use?  Have I made the answer more academic?  No.

So, back to my earlier ramblings, here is that curious thought that popped into my head when chatting to a colleague in a focus group and it all stemmed from him saying:

"If students can't give high quality verbal answers, will they be able to give high quality written ones?"

I'm not sure.  When observing others I know I focus on teacher questions but I'm not sure I've specifically focused on the quality of student answers and that direct link.  Have I missed an important component?  I do know that in my own teaching I don't tackle low quality verbal answers anywhere as near as I do with  low quality written ones.  And that's what needed to change.  In the frantic hustle and bustle of a lesson, do we have the time, the confidence and the environment to challenge answers like this?  Or do we do what I highlighted before and do this for them and correct it ourselves?

So what could we do?

Be aware of it

There can be no simpler piece of advice than simply be aware of it.  Be reflective as you teach and identify times when you pose questions.  What was the quality of the answer?  What exactly did the student say?  What was the language use like?  How was the strength of their communication skills?  Where they able to eloquently explain their thoughts?  Did they use high vocabulary or specific terminology?  These are just some things to be reflective of and clearly not exhaustive.  Once you know when these moments happen and you pay more attention to the response, then you can begin to change the habits of both yourself and your students.

Identify a link?

Are those students who provide poorly constructed verbal answers the same ones who produce poorly worded written ones?  It's something of interest that I'll be looking at.

Create that culture that we will improve it

Changing students written work can be a very private and safe process.  A student makes an error or misconception and you can provide feedback in their books.  If a student doesn't use language of a high standard as you might want, you can make a note of it or write down some suggestions.  In a book these are read by the student without the focus of peers and other observers.

Apply the same process in an open class discussion and all of a sudden pressure, unease and anxiety may overcome a student.  The fear of being openly critiqued on the quality of their spoken answer can be a daunting one for many.  It's therefore important that you build the culture of your group that highlights that this public dissection is not an attack on them but is instead a process to help improve the quality of their communication.  Highlight why you're doing it and the benefits of doing it.  Choose confident individuals to begin using the process.  Build it up using a random selection process for getting answers.  Model the improvement.  Explain why suggested changes will create a better and more academic answer.  Involve the class and make it as supportive, and challenging, as possible.  Ensure that the class realise that with support, the intial answer has been developed into something much better.  Culture takes time to build but once it is there, challenge the quality of answers continuously.

Have the confidence to actually improve it

From a teachers perspective, it can be a daunting task actually developing students answers.  There is the worry that suggestions you pose may be taken as a blow to their self-esteem.  The challenge of trying to improve an answer from a student who displays little interest or effort.  The worry of how peers may react.  The confidence to actually challenge and set high expectations.  It can be daunting but we need to remember that we don't do it to display our power or ridicule.  Instead we do it to help students develop their ability to communicate in a high quality way.

Focus on how they say it, not just what they say

Being subject specialists it is easy to be drawn to the content element of an answer.  Are they talking about the correct definition when we ask them?  Is that a strong enough example to support their thinking?  Have they pulled out a relevant quotation or piece of evidence?  As well as doing that, focus on how they say it, exactly as we would in a written version.  Have they got a powerful opening to their argument?  Have they used quality connectives that pull together parts of a statement?  Do they use an unnecessary amount of redundant words that we can ask them to remove?  Highlight what they have said.  Point out areas of improvement.  Get peer support of alternative words.  Question them about how they should make improvements.

Use questioning techniques

If a student is unaware of how to construct a good verbal answer then they aren't going to produce one repeatedly.  Speaking at a high level requires time, practice, guidance and thought,  Techniques as simple as wait time allow individuals to construct better answers before they share them.  Using ABC questioning allows you to build an answer as a class.  Modelling what a good answer looks like provides examples of excellence.  Snowballing allows students to build up the quality of their answer with a group of peers.  If high quality verbal answers are going to be the norm, then scaffolding the process is going to be required.

Now this post may be making a bigger deal out of student answers than needs to be?  It may actually resonate with a lot of people and be something more common that first thought.  The idea though that settling for poorly constructed answers does bother me in my own practice.  If I want individuals to communicate in an academic way, whether in written or verbal format, I need to ensure that I help them achieve that.

Further reading:
Questioning my questioning
Asking better questions

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can I be that little bit better at......wrestling with the intervention lesson monster?

As the nights drew in over the winter term, a number of lights came on in classrooms after the school day had finished.  Across the country in numerous secondary schools, teachers began to run Year 11 'intervention' sessions in the build up to final exams.  Many of these included revision lessons, coursework catch up sessions, additional reteach sessions or specific intervention groups.  The vast majority of them are invaluable additions to the schools curriculum and offer opportunities for various students who need that extra support.  In fact some of these are vital in helping a specific few leave school with an education that will set them up for life.  Teachers work tirelessly with individuals and some may say that massive gains are made.  There are however some worries that have begun to crop up.

I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to network and even work with numerous teachers and departments across the country.  One thing that has come up quite often of late is the following scenario.

A teacher plans a very well designed lesson which asks students to learn new content and then add this new knowledge to a piece of coursework/extended writing.  The task is set and students begin to get down to work.  As the teacher moves around the class, she notices that a few of the individuals have completed very little work.  As is expected, the teacher challenges this position and is met by the answer:

"It's OK Miss, I'll do it in catch up class after school on Thursday"

On the face of this there are two main problems.  The first is obvious in the fact that a student is producing minimal work within a lesson.  That can be common within the classroom and can be easily responded to.  The second is the fact that a student is choosing to do minimal work in timetabled lessons, simply to do this work in additional support sessions.  Is this right?  Has the balance of what timetabled lessons are for suddenly shifted?

The point I am therefore pondering (and am yet undecided upon) is whether intervention and catch up sessions have become a problem?  Are the provisions, all with the right intentions, actually causing some students to do less work in class and rely more heavily on time outside the lesson?  Is a culture cropping up that were not aware of?

Are we replacing what helps with other stuff?

Revision sessions and support groups for specific students are an extremely helpful option.  But have other 'catch up' sessions crept into this category?  Are sessions now being put on and teachers time being used to help those who have chosen not to do the work previously in lessons?  And if so, is this rewarding them?

The safety net

Does the fact that schools run sessions after school give students that additional safety net?  Does the presence of them give the message to students that even if you produce minimal work in lessons then there is still time for you to catch up later on?  My biggest worry is that it might.  If students believe that there is an additional opportunity that they can take, then will they choose at times to take their foot off of the gas?

The decision maker

I chatted to a well grounded student today and posed this exact question about additional catch up sessions.  They came up with a number of reasons in a balanced way justifying their place, and even their removal, from school.  One of the biggest things he said was that the presence of them might be giving students who"can't be bothered" a reason to choose not to do any work.  The knowledge that they could catch up at a later date might allow them to pick and choose when they wanted to do anything in actual lesson time.  

The school within a school

With the creation of additional sessions after school, are we inadvertently creating two schools.  With the school day ending does another one begin?

Are the pressures of teaching being passed onto students?

With the increased levels of accountability and pressure for results, do teachers feel that they are required to run these sessions to fulfill target grades?  Is this additional pressure being passed onto students and in turn increasing their stress levels?

The enjoyment of learning

With this in mind, is the expectation and requirement of students to attend these sessions actually removing the love of learning?  Is the memory of staying most nights after school for most of Year 11 a memory that we want students to leave with?

A change in balance

Are additional sessions shifting the responsibility for students grades from the student and onto the teacher?  Does it feel like we have to work harder to get students through their GCSE's?

Teachers workload and stress levels

The additional laying out of these types of sessions will ultimately lead to an increased workload.  With workload itself being a national talking point, are we laying more pressure on teachers to not only teach their timetabled lessons, but to also teach additional lessons outside of curriculum time?

Is it actually counterproductive?

And this is my final thought I'm wrestling with.  Because we want the best for our students, and we want to ensure we have the best results possible for our own professional progress, do we feel that we should be doing these sessions?  Is that part of the problem though?  If they weren't rolled out in schools would students work harder?  And that was a point made by a student.  If they weren't there they'd have to work more in class.  They knew that they would have to knuckle down, learn what was there to be learnt, complete work to the best of their ability and shift the responsibility back to themselves.  Because they weren't on offer, they would have to ensure they used curriculum time really well.  Without the safety net they felt it would push them to work more in class.  So can we be that little bit better at using catch up classes?  Maybe so, and here's a few ideas how.

1. Ensuring catch up sessions aren't just an opportunity to recover what was taught in lessons

Because this may convey the message that if they don't listen first time in class, they can listen to it again in our time after school.

2. Stretch, challenge and enrichment

Instead of catch up classes, can sessions after school actually go beyond the syllabus?  Can we network with local Universities to run master classes to inspire the next graduates?  Can we link with specialist providers in our field to show how our subjects are used in industry?  Can we bring in experts to share their knowledge and push learning beyond its existing level?

3. Setting a criteria for these sessions

There are students who genuinely need this additional support and I don't know any teachers who would want to not provide this.  But do we ensure that those who need it get it rather than those who can't be bothered getting a second chance?  Could an effort grade or indicator be one option.  Students who we know have tried hard, even if they have picked up misconceptions, could be allowed to attend, with those who simply chose to do nothing being asked not to?

4. Removing the need for them?

Could the way we design lessons, curriculum's and schemes be reviewed?  Could we analyse our teaching and learning?  Asking the question why additional sessions are actually needed could lead to some real improvements to the department.  Why do we not have the time to deliver the course in lessons?  Why isn't the content sticking?  Is the delivery of content and the quality of teaching an area best focused on?  What tweaks could we implement now so that we manage workload and expectations?

And so.....

The truth of the matter is I am still undecided.  I probably will be for a very long time.  It feels as though they have become a part of a schools culture and removing them may be too much of a shock to the system.  And why would you remove them if hardworking students are seeking to improve their grades further?  But then again, would removing them and addressing why we might need them solve the problem itself?  Might that be the change in culture that our teachers and students actually need?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....changing the game?

Change is difficult.  It's been a running theme throughout this blog that there was a stage in my career back in 2009 where I begun to realise that what I was doing in the classroom probably wasn't as effective as it could have been.  Activities were designed before the learning or outcomes were planned.  Questions were machine gunned around the room without any care or consideration.  Feedback did little to benefit anyone but looked good on book trawls.  Differentiation became a logistical observer tick box nightmare and dented our photocopying budget.  The problem is though, as a teacher, it is very easy to fall into a routine without realising you've got there.  I had all the best intentions in the world to become the best I could be, but after a few years habits take shape.  At the 2012 SSAT conference Dylan Wiliam highlighted this issue by saying:

"Currently all teachers slow, and most actually stop, improving after two or three years in the classroom"

His point was that the environment is so challenging when we start teaching that we are forced to improve.  After we sort classroom routines and management strategies our progression begins to plateau and we can sometimes simply coast.  He stresses that it takes ten years of deliberate practice to develop expertise in our job.  This may be the case but ten years of constant refinement and improvement can be a difficult thing to keep on top of with all of the other tasks that make up the complex job of a teacher.

Naturally then we begin to develop habits.  Many of them are effective in the classroom and define who we are a teachers.  Unfortunately, there are habits that could do with refining or tweaking if we are to stay at the top of our game.  The thing is though, habits are tough to break.  To the annoyance of my wife I bite my nails.  It isn't the worst habit in the world but after a bit of reflection (or nagging) I consciously make an effort to reduce it.  In fact when I catch myself doing it I make the decision to stop.  However, after the two years that Wiliam talks about, do we realise the bad habits that we fall into and can we change them?  In his 2014 white paper 'Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide', Wiliam goes on to talk about the difficulty in changing habits:

What isn't required is an overhaul of our teaching.  We don't need to scrap everything we do and reinvent the way we approach lessons.  Not only is that unrealistic, but it is time consuming, incredibly difficult and hard.  Instead we need to be more pragmatic and identify key areas and work on them.  On the back of a number of low medal returns in track cycling, Team GB/British Cycling didn't throw the programme out of the window and start from scratch.  Instead they decided to focus on a few key principles.  One of these being that they needed to know more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.  After the Athens games they went to every World Cup and World Championships and videoed the opposition and built a massive database which they used to their advantage.  It's so simple when you think about it.  So how can this apply to us in teaching?

"Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not.  Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students' learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice."
Professor Robert Coe from Durham University.

If we are going to change the game maybe we need to focus on core components of teaching and understand not just the what of them, but really get to grips with the why and the how.  Why is feedback effective?  How can we improve the way we approach planning?  Why is one particular questioning strategy better than another?  Asking questions like this, reflecting on what we do, and then refining our practice is a lot easier than starting from scratch.  So what have been the game changers in my own practice over the last few years?


Planning lessons is an area that has been widely talked about in education.  In fact I talked about it here.  How much is too much?  How much is too little?  Taxonomies or no taxonomies?  What makes up an outstanding lesson?  If there's one thing that has been highlighted over the years it is that planning is very personal to individual teachers.  One persons approach can be completely different to another and we shouldn't be trying too look for the 'magic formula' of what makes a perfect lesson.  In fact the varying contexts, school settings and students we work with means that a fantastically planned out lesson for one teacher may not work for another.  However, there are some key things that can make planning more effective and more efficient:
  • Plan collaboratively - As Hattie states in Visible Learning, planning is at its most powerful when teachers work together.  Collaborating with others allows ideas to be bounced around, lessons to be critiqued, subject knowledge to be extended and strategies to be shared.  Although finding time may prove an issue, it is definitely worth the effort to do so.
  • Keep it simple - Are we spending our time trying to teach too much and actually over-complicating things in lessons.  Trying to cram in every detail, every fact, followed by a starter, plenary and a wide range of activities can make a 60 minute lesson look very messy.  Try and refine what you teach by identifying the core principles and spend time developing students understanding of them.  What are the two or three things that must be learnt so that students can then access subsequent information.  How can we share that in a way that is accessible for our students?  Focus on this, slow down the time spent on them and remove the messiness.  
  • Learning first, then activities - It can be very easy to think of a new activity to hook students in or grab their attention.  Sometimes in this instance though we focus too much on the activity and not on the learning.  What do you want students to learn?  Will doing this activity help do this or just distract them?  Will it clearly help them acquire the knowledge or skills they need?  Does it take you longer to resource the activity than students spend using it?  If so, maybe rethink what you're doing.  Keep it simple instead.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham's states that memory is the residue of thought.  When designing lessons check how much real thinking is taking place.  Will students spend time really unpicking information, questioning its value and discussing their opinions.  Will they be spending time thinking about applying knowledge to real contexts or challenging problems?  
  • Backward design - What is the end point or goal and plan backwards until you get there.  Such a simple yet powerful approach which ensures you identify the various stages and routes to an outcome.
Biggest impact:
  • SOLO taxonomy - Love it or hate it, SOLO has really allowed me to unpick a topic and its various components before teaching it.  By doing so it has allowed me the ability to identify core knowledge that I need to spend time covering.  Used purely during the planning phase, it helps me pull apart a topic and refine what I will teach.  It helps ensure that I find larger context to fit the new knowledge in so students see where it fits into the bigger picture.  Mapping it out also lets me create a journey or story, which I don't have to stick to, but helps me explain what it is that I am teaching.


Feedback is incredibly complex and the focus of two of my blog posts here and here.  In fact we know that if done well it can have a very high effect on students learning in the classroom.  Unfortunately we also know that if it is done badly it can have detrimental effects.  Feedback has also begun to be applied unreasonably in some schools with increasingly high expectations in marking policies.  It can make an enormous contribution to teacher workload and see little results on what really matters; student learning.  Instead of adding to the complicated world, here are my three game changers for feedback.
  • Feedback should cause thinking - Taken from Dylan Wiliam, if I am going to provide feedback, it had better make students think hard about it.  Throw away comments and the token 'Really good work' are now replaced with a number of strategies such as feedback questions and critique.  Students need to have a change in thought about misconceptions and actively try to correct them if things are going to move forward.  Feedback also needs to help students identify what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to get better.  Making them think is proving to be a great way to make them do that.
  • Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor - If you find yourself spending more time writing feedback than students do acting upon it, I'd rethink what you are doing.  Marking keys, burning questions, proof reading work before submission, critique and DIRT time are all ways in which students work harder than you and actually act upon the feedback you are giving.
  • Feedback should close the gap from where students are and where they should be - Do our comments (or even peer comments) actually move the learning forward?  Do they help get students up to the level that they should be?  Would you understand your comments if you read them?  If there are no real misconceptions can we extend a student?
Biggest impact:
  • Feedback questions - Such a simple strategy but ensures students engage with feedback.  When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the margin where the error took place.  At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number.  The question is a reworded variant of the original question, or simply a prompt question that forces the student to realise what mistake was made, and make them think about what the correct answer is.


Leven and Long (1981) found that we ask around 300-400 questions a day whilst teaching.  That is a lot of opportunities to fully engage with students and assess their understanding (or effect their thinking).  It is therefore wise to reflect on how we approach questioning (as I did here and here).
  • Provide thinking time - With the average gap between asking a question and asking for an answer being less than one second (Walsh and Sattes 2005), is it no surprise that sometimes the depth/quality of students answers isn't as good as it could be.  Providing wait time, or even using a strategy like snowball questions, jigsaw groups or think, pair, share can be very helpful in giving students the time to formulate a high quality answer.
  • Inclusive questioning systems - Using strategies like Doug Lemov's 'Cold call' or the simple 'No Hands up (with hands up)' method ensures that every student in the class is included in the questioning that goes on.  Check whether you keep asking the same people for answers.  If you do, maybe try one of these methods (here).  Once the culture is formed and the environment is safe for students to contribute, the confidence in sharing answers increases (as does the learning).  Hinge questions are also a great way to get a whole class providing an answer.
  • Modelling & constructing exceptional answers - Stepping away from 'I don't know' or poorly constructed answers is very important.  If this happens try modelling answers with students.  Scaffold their responses so they learn how to provide a well constructed answer.  Highlight exceptional answers and explain why.  Write key points from students answers on the board.  Use ABC questioning.  All of these methods help ensure students know what a good answer is and begin to share them themselves.
Biggest impact:
  • 'No hands up (but with hands up) - Using a simple system where students initially refrain from putting their hands up to answer a question.  It has allowed me to create an environment where all students know a question could be posed to them at any point.  More students stay focused and answers have developed in quality over time.  I also allow hands up after a few answers are taken to allow those students who wish to add to the discussion the opportunity to do so.  From experience I would recommend staying away from random name generators or whizzy name selectors.  Although they allow questioning to be truly random, they slow down the lesson and become tiresome after a while.


The various abilities and needs of students in your lessons mean that we need to tailor how we teach each one.  It doesn't mean that differentiation needs to add to workload or contribute to an over-complicated lesson.  Differentiation should also be for the students we are providing it for, not observers or tick box scrutiny.  I spoke a lot about a sensible approach to differentiation here.
  • Differentiation doesn't need to be visible or just for observers - Differentiation is for your students.  It shouldn't be about ticking off a component of a lesson and definitely shouldn't be pointed out purely for the benefit of an observer.  Differentiation is subtle, personal and ingrained in what we do.  It isn't a short term fix but a longer process of planning.
  • Differentiation is teaching (and very responsive) - It's the conversations we have, the bespoke feedback we give, the way we differ questions between groups of students.  Differentiation is very responsive and happens regularly within the classroom without us even noticing.
  • Aim high and support up - Scrap must/should/could outcomes and set high expectations for all.  Use models, examples of excellence and worked examples where possible.  Show students what they should be aiming for (and even surpassing) and help scaffold students up towards that outcome. Using graphic organisers to help map out ideas, or even dropping in a few A-level questions.  As Daniel T. Willingham said, we shouldn't make the tasks easier, instead we should make the thinking easier.
Biggest impact:
  • Modelling and examples of excellence - Simply demonstrating exceptional work either through modelling or using examples (professional work, my own work or student work).  By doing so, students can see the high expectations that we are aiming for.  By modelling the process, individuals can also see the steps/thought process that was taken so that they can develop similar approaches (or not) themselves.  Modelling and using high quality examples has definitely become a prominent feature in my classroom.


Literacy has such an importance in learning.  Establishing how to write effectively and communicate in a coherent manner is something we should all be teaching our students.  With the push for improved literacy in schools, there has become a view that 'literacy' in teaching has become a bolt on.  At it's worst it's become a tick box rather than a core component of our teaching.  I've talked extensively here about how we are all teachers of English and identified a few ways that we can help improve verbal or written communication in our lessons.  As a non-subject specialist, here are a few things that have worked well in my classroom:

  • Demonstrate great writing - Showing students what great writing is has been an important element of my teaching.  Using articles or examples of excellence, students can see first hand what we are aiming for.  As a class we can deconstruct it, analyse it, critique it and discuss what has made that piece of writing great.  We can then begin to model and scaffold how the writer has created their work.  Spending time in lessons to talk through detail and process has allowed students the opportunity to learn from others and endeavor to implement similar ideas themselves.
  • Build up vocabulary - Of the many ways I have found effective in improving students vocabulary it has been encouraging reading around my subject.  Many of my lessons include articles where students naturally pick up subject specific words which are used within context.  We read, we discuss and we take.  We can keep glossaries of new words and even use techniques like @TeacherTweaks vocabulary upgrade to get students to review their writing and improve its academic quality.  Spend time on words as they will benefit students writing in the long run.
  • Build up confidence in structure - Showing students the fundamentals of sentence and paragraph structure is worth focusing on.  I am no English teacher so don't feel confident looking at the technicalities of writing.  What I can do though is use simple scaffolds and strategies to build a foundation with students before allowing them to be creative.  The use of Doug Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters helps students include a better quality of academic writing.  Using Helen Handford's 'Four Part Process' for writing excellent sentence that include definition and meaning have shown my students the fundamentals.  Even initially using an essay structure like I.D.E.A (Identify, Describe, Explain and Apply) helps get the basics right before removing the shackles and encouraging freedom.
Biggest impact:

  • The four part process - A process borrowed from Lee Donaghy (who borrowed it from Helen Handford), it is a fantastic way to structure sentences with students.  It asks individuals to identify the thing being written about, add a verb, define it and then add meaning.  Like any other framework, the end result is a sentence that can be read as a complete entity.  The process isn't finished there but requires students to then go away and refine/redraft it further until as a class we have created an amazing sentence.  Co-planning, modelling and high expectations is key.

Making it stick

Remembering information so that students can use it over the long run is an important factor.  Helping students store information so that they can use it in future learning, discussions, debates, answers and exams has become increasingly more important.  The work of cognitive scientists and psychologist is extremely complex but fascinating.  Although we are still learning more about how the brain works every day, there have been some interesting strategies that could be extremely helpful within education (even if just as a starting point):

  • Using desirable difficulties - Robert Bjork's term 'Desirable Difficulties' refers to a number of strategies including frequent low stakes/high impact testing, spacing out the retrieval of old information over time, and interleaving topics together.   The combination of these ensures that information is retrieved at numerous points throughout the learning process, and more importantly, over time.  Small mini tests that focus on old topics during starter activities, identifying where two topics link and spacing out when we revisit old parts of the curriculum are just some of the simple things we can embed into our curriculum, schemes or lessons.
  • Helping working memory - There is still so much to learn about the brain, its functioning and capacity.  However, the discussions around working memory is one area that even though I am a complete novice in, is still an area I find is helpful to know when designing lessons.  With its limited capacity, do we make lessons to fussy or distract students from what we really want them to understand?  Does making them design a powerpoint about the 'principles of training' make them think more about what clip art/animation/font to use rather than really learning the content?  Do our explanations confuse students or overload their working memory?  Keep things clear, simple and focused has been my biggest lesson learnt.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham talks about memory being the residue of thought.  So how much of my old approach to lessons really got students thinking, and thinking hard?  Check back through your planning.  Instead of copying a definition from a book, could they not answer an exam question which forces them to use the definition in context?
  • Three is the magic number - Although in lower school settings, Nuthal's research of student learning in the classroom brought out a point that really stuck out for me.  In it he found that for a student to really learn, understand and remember a concept, they would need to encounter it on at least three different occasions when being taught it.  I now ensure that I check through my plans and groups of lessons to see if I am asking students to use this information in a variety of ways numerous times.
Biggest impact:
  • Cumulative tests - We use cumulative tests in a variety of ways now.  All of our unit exams and assessments used to be block tests which just focused on what was just taught.  We now include questions from every topic so that students retrieve information from units that were taught 2 months, 6 months or even a year prior.  Although we have yet to see the full impact of this, students are more able to recall topics that would previously have been forgotten.


Data can become one of those time consuming tasks that adds to our ever increasing workload if we are not careful.  For a long time a created spreadsheets and did very little with them.  Data can have great impact on teaching and learning if we use it correctly.  So what have I learnt about data?
  • Are we collecting data just to say we have collected data? - If it's not going to change teaching and learning or help move your students learning forward then don't waste your time.  To often we keep records for 'others' to check.  Follow school guidelines, refine what you do and create a system that helps you make a real impact.
  • Does data improve T&L? - Compare data with your colleagues and department.  Talk about what others are doing in certain topics to get great results.  Borrow ideas from them or co-plan.  Look at what areas your classes have struggled in and evaluate whether the way you taught it was the problem.  Make data be a part of your professional improvement.
Biggest impact:
  • Data to make a difference - Still very much in its early days, we have begun to share data across the department.  Now at meetings we fully scrutinise key areas and talk about what we did, how we taught it, what exactly students got confused with (with exams and tests on the table in front of us to do so) and how we can teach it better next time.  It's about using data to make teaching and learning better, and to help improving us collaboratively.

And so?

I started the 'Can I be that little bit better...?' series as a way to talk openly about my professional development.  Cultures are changing, errors have been made, practice has improved and a lot of thinking has happened on my part.  There is still a long way to go and improvement can always be made.  What I have done though is decided that good teaching is more than just adding strategies to your game.  It's a lot more than that.  It's an understanding of our craft.  Part of this is knowing the fundamentals that underpin effective learning and consciously trying to refine them.  It's then about trying to be a little bit better at using them in the classroom.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......'doing' data

I will be the first to admit that data and I have had a turbulent relationship over the years.  When I talk about data in this instance I am talking about test scores, exam scores and assessments.  I fully understand the importance of tracking where students are in order to identify those who are falling behind, those who are on track and those who are performing above initial expectations (if we even know what that is?).  After assessments or at calendared data collection points over the various terms I will happily input information to help build up a picture of my students.  I create my own spreadsheets where I can add any additional information in an effort to demonstrate what might be happening over the year.  Here's the problem though.  Once I have input all of this data I rarely do anything productive with it.  Of course I do the obvious stuff and look over it and identify any trends or anomalies that may crop up.  There's the 'Who has hit their targets' check.  There's the 'Who is working above expectation so I can breathe a sigh of relief' check.  There is also the 'Arrrggghhh! What on earth are they doing?!' check which usually results in me crying inside before planning what to do to help this student.  I can use it to talk to students about progress over time and even inform parents of how students are doing.  I do get the feeling though that I have drifted unconsciously into collecting data for the sake of collecting data.  As if it is a way of compiling evidence which I can show line managers without really knowing why.  It kind of feels like I am collecting data for others rather than doing it to either a) improve students learning, or b) improving and aspect of my teaching.  In fact I get the overwhelming feeling at times (and it's my own fault) that I am simply 'doing' data rather than 'using' data for any real or significant purpose.  And within a department context as well, are we using data collectively to bring about meaningful change?  Who knows?  It's got to that time when it's time to change how I tackle the data beast.

So what have we been doing?

The last few years (within our department) have seen us begin to approach data with more of a purpose.  Initially we would input assessments and on a very large spreadsheet we could do the basics.  This would include things like:
  • Picking out those students who have done well
  • Who is on track?
  • Who is performing below expected standard?
  • Who would benefit for intervention?
  • Who is on the C/D borderline?
  • Who do I need to contact home about?
  • What topic areas did students perform badly in which I need to revisit?
The list looks a bit negative and reactive, dealing with what's happened.  There are a number of other things as well but the primary focus on this was to pretty much highlight those not performing as they should and doing something about it.  It could help drive conversations with line managers or within a department about the current state of play.  It usually resulted in some interventions and occasionally ended in a few kick up the bums (for staff and students).  However, I feel that none of this significantly changes the thing that really matters; the teaching and learning.  Remember that this is just my own opinion but here's why.

Are we asking questions?

One of the most common sense things I've heard about data came from our Deputy Head in a meeting last year.  In a conversation about how to create change from what we've collected he said that "Data provides a great opportunity to ask questions about what is going on".  Now I've heard a lot of thoughts around data but this one sits firmly at the front of my mind.  Data can show us a lot of things but asking questions from what we see is a more powerful strategy in my personal opinion.  Why is student x not performing as well as they have in term one and two?  Is there a link between under performance and the seating plan in the class.  How can group x make as much improvement as group y?  Data doesn't always show you the full picture.  In fact it shows you very little compared to the enormous amount of factors that takes place in classrooms and lessons over the whole year/key stage.  But it's contribution can be very powerful if we use it to spot things and ask questions.

Are we just talking about data?

I've spent many a meeting simply talking about data.  With my latest set of results and a spreadsheet sat in front of me I can revel in high grades and cower with poor ones.  We can compare and discuss how classes have been performing.  We can find averages and mention the overused phrases like 'Above national average', '3 levels of progress' and 'Ofsted would grill us with these results'.  The thought from me though is what is this achieving?  Yes we are talking about data but is that actually bringing about change?  Yes it may give me a wake up call that my class is behind everyone else's but do I know how to rectify that?  Yes I can put students forward for intervention but are we missing the point as to why they need it in the first place?  Does knowing that a certain class has 12% higher A*- C help other teachers or simply demoralise them?  Are we just talking about data to simply say we've talked about data?

Does data make us say things we're not quite sure of?

There are those times when the data in front of us doesn't read so well.  At that moment of time (especially when sharing it with others) we may start saying things like "Well what do you expect with those kids?" or "They are bottom set" or "Well I must just be a terrible teacher!".  The flip side to this is when results go very well and we revel in the glory.  Sweeping statements like this don't actually help in the bigger scheme of things and actually masks over the details.  I've done it many a time and have also seen colleagues beat themselves up because of how their classes have performed.  For me, comments like those above help us deal with the disappointment we feel inside when things haven't quite gone as expected.  But saying these things doesn't unpick areas we can work on.  It generalises things without focusing on the detail.  It becomes a factor or a reason which unless we look at it more closely, we might not be quite sure it really is the case.

Does someone else do the analysis for us?

Workload is an issue and I know that delegation can make it easier.  I do wonder if having someone else analysing our data helps us understand the bigger picture ourselves.  Although it can be time consuming, understanding your own class performance helps in some small way identify steps to move forward.

Do we follow up the data?

I'm sure we all do but I'll just make the point anyway.  If students perform poorly on a topic area, do we find time afterwards to close the gap between what they know and what they should know?  If we pick a poorly answered topic area to reteach with the class afterwards, what about those who actually performed well in it?  Do we do a blanket coverage for everyone or can we make it bespoke so people work on areas that they need to?

Is data dominating our time unnecessarily?

I hope not but it can easily do so.  If the time it takes outweighs the benefits or impact it brings, does the system need to change? 

Are we finding time to collaboratively look at data?

Sometimes data can feel like an isolated task.  I mark the assessments.  I create the spreadsheet.  I analyse the results.  I react to the results.  I then plan what to do with the results.  I then do something about the results.  I then also have a meeting to discuss results with a line manager where I talk about my results.  The isolation can sometimes make us work on problems and find solutions which probably aren't better than the initial idea in the first place.  Take this as an example.  A class does poorly on a particular component of a test and as a result we spend the next lesson reteaching it.  But what if we teach it similarly to the way we did the first time?  That was the way I taught it when students clearly didn't understand it so will they get it again this time?  Has there been a change in the way I taught it?  If not, I shouldn't be surprised if the same misconceptions crop up or students still don't get it.  As they say, practice doesn't make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Using colleagues during the data analysis can be an enormously important approach and a great time for learning off of each other.

Is data improving teaching and learning?

And this is the main question on my mind?  If we are simply 'doing' data then I'm not sure we are.  If we just talk about it without bringing meaningful change then we certainly aren't.  If we look at data and pick weaknesses, but then still teach the same way, then once again I don't think we are.  If we try and hide our data or make generalisations because results aren't great then we aren't.  Is data improving our teaching?  Is data improving the learning in the classroom?  After a meeting with Pete Pease, our Director of Learning for Maths and Science, I'm hoping that it begins to do so.  Data can still be about trends and anomalies, but in a more powerful approach shouldn't it also be about developing us as teachers and improving the learning that goes on in classrooms.

How? - Data with a purpose

During that meeting I found that we've taken great leaps in the way that we are tackling data in our department.  It seems that although not full proof (and the model I will propose isn't full proof either), what we have put in place has created a great foundation.

When marking exams or tests we note common misconceptions or identify students who have performed differently then expected.  This simply takes the form of a blank sheet of paper and a few scribbles as we go.  Building a picture as we go can be vital later on.

After each theory assessment or exam we then create a spreadsheet which breaks down the exam into its smaller components.  These components are colour co-ordinated for cross reference and tracking.  For each component we enter the mark that each individual student got.  It takes very little extra time.  Although this is nothing new and not rocket science, it allows us to do a number of effective things.  Firstly we can get a better overview of each topic area.  How have the students performed in general?  Did they score well or is this an area we need to look more closely at?  Were there any strong areas?  Is there a trend in results compared to question types (multiple choice, short answer or long answer)?  Was it a technical aspect that was answered well/not well?  Was it the written communication that was effective/ineffective.  The spreadsheets allow us to quickly get a better understanding of where we are.

Secondly, the data allows us to look at students performance over time in each topic area.  Our unit tests, for example, used to be block tests which just focused on what had been taught.  This is no longer the case and we now include questions from every taught topic in every exam.  Ultimately our final unit test will have questions from the full course.  With this colour co-ordinated on our spreadsheet we can quickly see if the topic of  'somatotypes' for student A is still a weak area or has it got better?  Is student B forgetting information over time?  Is it the same areas that are still causing us the most problems?  This allows us to keep our finger on the pulse and respond when needed.

We are also very focused on follow up and after every test and data analysis, we run two closing the gap lessons.  In the past we may have picked a poorly answered topic area and taught this to all students once again.  But what if some students did very well in this and it becomes a waste of time?  Instead we share the test information with individual students and they use this to pick weak topic areas to focus on.  They revisit the targeted area, analyse their response, check mark schemes/lesson notes/text books/resources and attempt to answer the question again with a better outcome.  Some students simply read the question again and instantly know what the answer should have been.  This approach makes it bespoke for all students and allows us the opportunity to go round and work with students on a 1:1 basis or in small groups.  Two lessons of work and hopefully this topic isn't a weakness in our next unit test.

So what's different then?  How can data improve T&L?

Pete's message was very clear.  Although we have a solid foundation and things are better than they previously were, can we raise our game and use this data to improve teaching and learning?  The power of in depth analysis and collaboration within your department team can be a powerful tool and one which can occasionally be underused.  Finding time in meetings to step away from 'doing' data should be high up on the priority list.

Transparency and a supportive culture

The first area for improvement is transparency within the department and one of a supportive culture.  Sharing everyone's data with one another may seem a scary prospect and may cause anxiety if an individuals class has underperformed.  Even more so during a department meeting.  Why would we want others to see this?  It can feel like we are opening ourselves up and bringing our reputation as a teacher into question.  But it doesn't have to be like that.  The ethos should be about using each others experience to help move the department as a whole together.  It's a difficult culture to develop but learning off of each other through discussion and observations is a powerful driver of change in teachers habits.  Sharing a departments data with its own teachers allows us to sit down with each other and perform a detailed analysis.  We can look across classes at different groups of learners.  We can highlight topics that have been answered well across the different groups.  We can see what question types have been answered better in different classes.  All of these things, with each other, sat around a table, allows us to then ask the question 'why?'.

Bringing out the detail

With asking why we normally have a multitude of reasons being given.  Sometimes if a topic has gone well and results highlight this we can say things like 'they were a bright class'.  If the results are poor we can say 'no matter what I said they didn't get it'.  These things might well be the case but it doesn't give us much to work with.  It isn't specific enough.  Instead it's worth looking at the overall spreadsheet and identifying areas that weren't answered well.  Picking out topics (only two or three at a time) we can then bring out the students exams, tests and assessment papers for detailed analysis.  What did students write on question two in all of our classes?  Can we see what their thought process or thinking was?  What specifically was it that they got wrong, missed or interpreted incorrectly?  Is it a trend across all classes which may be down to our scheme of work or materials?  If not, is it down to individual classes or specific groups.  It is an interesting task and by unpicking student answers for poorly answered questions we get to the core of the problems.  I could hazard a guess and say 'well it's because they don't use technical terminology' but how do I know unless as a group of teachers we look through the papers in detail to see if it actually was?

A driver of change

Once we have looked at the papers and worked out what went wrong in these questions/topics, we can then begin to bring about change.  Usually I would then go back and reteach that piece of information so students got exposed to it again.  What if the way I taught it was the problem?  What if my explanation was the issue?  What if my examples confused students?  Through collaborative analysis we can look at classes who did perform well on a topic and ask the teacher to share how they taught it.  What did they say?  How did they model it?  What resources did they share?  We rarely find the time to visit other classrooms so this is a perfect, and very beneficial, time to develop each others practice.

Making the change to the learning that takes place should then be the key.  Knowing what my class needs to work on, and knowing how other teachers have successfully taught it, we can then spend time working together to improve students understanding.  This is where planning with colleagues comes into its element.  Challenge each other, learn from experience, seek advice and reflect.  If it doesn't work when we reteach or recover the topic again we can easily come back and unpick it again.  Has data ever allowed this to happen in your department?  I know it can easily be missed.

Doing data?

We shouldn't simply be 'doing' data.  The value of what we collect and collate can actually be a powerful driver of change and if used wisely and in a manageable way, can actually ensure (in a collaborative way) that we improve and increase the learning in our classrooms.  It doesn't have to be more time consuming either.  We mark the papers so we simply input the finite grades.  We look at our results so it's now about looking at this as a department.  We have the papers so it's easy to bring them out to scrutinise specific answers from your class.  We always try to correct the mistakes of our learners but now it's about learning off of each other and making that change to our practice.  It's about a culture within a department and one which could contribute positively as we move forward.  It's about using data rather than doing data.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding why I might be getting differentiation wrong

There are a few things in education that either scare me or confuse me.  One such thing is the term differentiation.  When I trained as a teacher we discussed the fact that students vary in ability in lessons.  This is common sense and something anyone would be able to tell you.  If I remember back to my own school days, every lesson I was in put me in a different academic standing.  Some lessons I flew in, some I struggled and some I just plodded along.  It's obvious then that students in lessons may require additional support, help or challenge.  Now this thought sits very comfortably with me.  But this sounds so simple.  Why then does the term 'differentiation' wake me up in the middle of the night with screams of terror?

A few years into my teaching something changed.  All of a sudden (and I'm not sure where it came from) people were talking about the fact that we need to be planning detailed lessons that highlighted and catered for every single student in the classroom.  The word flew in like a whirlwind and numerous strategies and ideas were left in its path.  Suggestions of designing a lesson numerous different ways, creating thirty different worksheets for thirty different students, changing the outcomes for the different abilities in your lesson, utilise students learning styles, that it should be clearly visible to an observer how I was differentiating for every student.....  It all got a bit overwhelming and if I'm totally honest, a little bit far fetched.  Luckily for me our school stayed pretty grounded and kept things in perspective.  But the worry of whether I was doing it right still lingered.
The differentiated worksheet

The reason that this particular face of differentiation bothers me is that it seems very unrealistic on teachers.  I am fully aware that the students in my classroom are very unique and learn in very different ways.  Experience tells me this.  I understand that some prefer different approaches and various forms of interactions.  I understand that students differ in the type of instruction they need.  They're not battery hens where a one size fits all system works.  But what for me felt like hysteria around differentiation a few years back gave me the feeling that what was expected wasn't for the students, but for other groups of people.  It felt like there was an expectation that every lesson had to be uniquely tailored to all students.  Now that takes time.  And I tried it for a while.  Believe me I did.  I spent hours on each lesson thinking how I could ensure every student was catered for.  But ultimately it became an impossible task and I felt fraudulent when I eventually only did this level of planning for things like observations.  So how could I manage this effectively and be realistic, and a bit more effective, in helping cater for students in my lessons?

As part of my renewed focus on my practice over the past few years I started to think of ways that I could scrap this view of differentiation, and simply look at ways that I could instead provide challenge for all.  In fact I'm not even sure what I'm talking about is differentiation anymore.  With it I began focusing on approach that would ultimately work for me and my students.  So what lessons have I learnt?

Differentiation isn't a short term fix
For me differentiation felt like a series of short term solutions.  'How could I adapt this part of teaching for this part of this lesson for this student on this day' became stuck in my head.  What I've learnt is that differentiation isn't about that at all.  It's not about one off strategies and doing things in isolation.  These can help but for me it's much better than that.  Differentiation is all of those tiny subtle things we do on a day to day basis.  The things we do naturally with the various students in response to their needs.  The hundreds of conversations, questions, discussions and pieces of advice.  These small moments that happen consistently on a daily basis makes a much bigger deal in the long run.

Sometimes you may not even know you're doing it
There are times in our profession, especially in observations, when we feel we have to make every action in our classroom visible.  But sometimes differentiation will happen and you may not even notice you've done it.  I worry that we expect differentiation to be the adapted worksheet or different task.  Something we know we've done and can point to in lessons.  Something we can physically hold on to and say 'here it is!'.  Or worse, something we go out of our way to make visible for others to observe it.  But differentiation may simply be the bespoke feedback you've given or the way you've demonstrated something differently to a student.  It's the way we respond to students needs.  It's helping students move forward.  As I've just said, it's the tiny conversations we have.  Those small things happen every single lesson and we may not even notice or recognise it.  That for me is differentiation.

Differentiation should be simple
Over complicating differentiation has been my downfall in the past.  It shouldn't take hours of my planning time but instead be part and parcel of what I do.  I don't need over complicated resources, activities or tasks.  Making things more efficient and manageable is a much better way to go.

More work isn't differentiation - is it?
There were times when all I did was provide more work for those who were flying which meant less work for those who weren't.  Is this differentiation though or is it just simply setting more tasks.  I'm not sure I know the answer.  I guess that if we do provide more work, it should firstly be something that extends students rather than being much of the same.  Secondly we need to make sure that there is a culture that everyone is expected to have the same output otherwise some students may produce two or three times the amount than others.

30 different worksheets for 30 different students isn't realistic
Yes every single student in your class is different but spending hours creating unique and bespoke resources can be very time consuming.  If it will help, if it will challenge, if it will support and if it will be used again then go ahead and make it.  If you feel that simply planning your explanations, your questioning, your feedback or demonstrations would be a better and more effective part of a lesson, maybe the worksheets can wait.

Don't make the task easier, making the thinking easier
Adapted from Daniel T. Willingham, this little nugget of advice has really stuck with me.  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.

Differentiation is about knowing your students
I can't think of many things more important to help you teach your students.

Focusing too much on a group
I found myself guilty of focusing on specific groups of students that I actually took my eyes of those that remained.  Pinpointing under achievers or stretching the more able is important, but what I did when doing this was forget about those not in these groups.

And finally, differentiation is responsive
If you have a firm grasp on your group and you use various forms of evidence, assessment or data, you can plan differentiation into your lessons effectively.  Equally, if you know your students and know the difficult parts of the topics you teach, you could probably plan and adapt your delivery differently at these 'sticking points'.  Being prepared and planning differentiation is important.  However, I fell in love with the term coined by Andy Tharby; Differentiation the responsive way.  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.  We never know what will happen in lessons.  We work with students so why would we.  Having experience, skill and expertise in our teaching means we can respond to differentiating when it jumps out on us unexpectedly.

So my approach to differentiation has changed and I hope for the better.  Instead of trying to plan numerous resources and creating an extensive range of activities, my focus is to respond to students needs in the lesson.  Planning to pinpoint sticking points, looking at tailoring questions, giving personalised feedback and helping support every student to achieve the same high aspirational goal is the key.  So how am I doing it?

1. Data, assessment and information that I'll actually use
Data is important but too often we can focus on the wrong things.  Regular marking, questioning students, homework scores, test result, quality of book work.....are all things that help me build up a picture of how my students are doing.  Years ago I would mark books because I had to.  Now I take books to help me see who needs help, who needs to be stretched and who needs a rocket firmly placed.  Paying attention to these details helps you understand the individuals and allows you to have those all important conversations.

2. Seating plans
Now I have tried a million different seating plans in my lessons.  For a while the consensus for some was to have more able and less able sat together.  The idea was to have direct support there when the lower ability student needed it.  It allowed students to feel confident that the person next to them could help them and in return, the more able student would reinforce their understanding by explaining it to their peer.  At the end of Year 11 I regularly get students to evaluate my teaching so I can tweak in preparation for my next group.  Out of all of the things, this type of seating plan took the biggest hit.  The higher ability students in the class highlighted their dislike for such a plan.  They felt that when they wanted to extend themselves they had to come back to help those who were struggling.  They also felt that discussions were limited and never grew with much depth.  The less able enjoyed the support but benefited more from my intervention.  Over the last few years I now group students based on their results.  After unit tests or exams, the groups are reworked.  Those that consistently achieve around the A*-A grades work together.  Those around the B grade sit together.  And this goes on.  And it changes every unit.  Now is it working?  Well if I had to group students without any sort of data but purely on knowing my students they would be roughly the same groups.  It means that I can go to every group and pose a slightly different question or challenge their thinking.  On one table I may pose a question that gets them to reinforce a key piece of information.  On another table I may ask students to think about the impact this topic has had on another.  It isn't full proof but it allows me to provide 6 or 7 differentiated pieces of instruction, questions or feedback very quickly.

3. Oh no, not SOLO - The Marmite of eductaion
Love it or hate it but using SOLO taxonomy to plan my lessons allows me to think through the different stages or a topic.  It really helps me break down the components and begin to formulate a plan of delivery.  This allows me to identify possible sticking points and create simple contingencies or interventions.  The system also allows students to have different entry points.  I can work with some students developing the important content knowledge that they need whilst helping others tie this topic into other areas we have covered.  The taxonomy also allows students to go back a level as well.  I worry some feel that we need to get to the top to EA as quick as we can where as we can actually spend a good lesson or two developing students uni/multi-structural knowledge go back and forth until it is secure.  For me it's a real help.

4. Conversations
More than anything I now try to spend time chatting to my students.  Lesson time doesn't allow me to have numerous 1:1 chats, primarily because I have to get through the teaching.  One thing I have done is design a rota where I aim to chat to 4 or 5 specific students every lesson.  Over the course of a few lessons I have had a conversation with every member of the class about their progress, where they are at, what needs to be improved and where need to go to move them forward.  The conversation is bespoke, it's unique and it's tailored to that student.  By using a rota as a guide combined with the general hustle and bustle of getting around your class, I now try to ensure I have real conversations with students about their learning.  Some are longer than others, some are more direct than others, but ultimately they happen and they happen regularly.

5. Bespoke feedback
Feedback, in my own personal opinion, has to be one of the best methods of differentiation.  What I say to one student will be different from what I say to another.  The tailoring of this feedback can prompt a student to become unstuck or stretch their thinking beyond the curriculum.  Each student is individual no matter how similar their grades may suggest.  What you say can be hugely important and is such a vital part of our craft.  Marking falls under this category as well.  It may be slightly more time consuming than generic comment stickers or stamps, but I aim to give every student at least two feedback questions when I mark.  Yes two students may have a similar grade or mark, but they have probably had a different experience doing that work.  Knowing my students allows me to provide personal feedback that works for that individual.  Feedback in my eyes in key.

6. Questioning
There's a real craft in using questioning to support, stretch and challenge.  Planning questions for key parts of the lesson is advisable but the art of being responsive and posing them in real time is a real skill.  There are those students whose bewildered faces suddenly become enlightened when a rephrased question you pose gets them unstuck.  There are those able students who think they've done it, only for you to spin their head with a higher level question.  Having such questions at the ready may come over time with increased confidence in your subject and increased experience.  But, along with the bespoke feedback you give, what can be more effective and more efficient in terms of differentiation?  In my eyes, not much.

7. Examples of excellence
No book has inspired me more than Ron Berger's 'An Ethic of excellence'.  The book shares numerous stories of how Ron gets students from a young age to create work well beyond their years.  It is a masterpiece and a must read.  Throughout the book Ron explains how he uses 'examples of excellence' with his students to demonstrate the high quality of work they need to produce.  He doesn't expect lower ability students to create any less work than a more able.  In fact he aims students to produce professional pieces of work such as architect designs and town radon reports.  The choice of excellent examples is a fundamental building block in the process.  By sharing outstanding or high quality work with students, you can inspire them to achieve work beyond what they probably believed.  The examples help students understand where work could lead to and the dissection and unpicking of it helps to make the steps to greatness concrete.  Collecting examples from industry, media articles and from students is easy to do and can be brought out when units or schemes are taught again in the future.

8. Modelling
Modelling is not a new idea but one that is used so regularly in the classroom.  And is it differentiation?  If we go by any technical definition it might not be.  In my classroom though, modelling is an essential component.  Over the years I have begun to use students work as it happens.  Sharing students work with their peers can be very helpful.  Like with examples of excellence, models happen there and then.  They can incorporate greatness, errors, and process of thinking.  They help students who are struggling see the next steps.  By working as a class to refine a sentence it can help the more able progress their work further.  If we use models in the right way, they become an important method and can provide so much in terms of moving everyone forward.

9. I scaffold and structure
As Daniel T. Willingham talked about, I shouldn't be making the task easier.  Instead I should support the thinking that is needed to get there.  And I totally agree with this.  Within my lessons students are expected to produce excellent pieces of work.  Some will get their by themselves.  Others will need varying levels of support.  What none of them needs is for me to make tasks easier and expect lower standards.  Using a variety of scaffolds is very helpful.  Using ideas like the four part process for writing excellent sentences is one great tool that pops up again and again in my class.  For some students it becomes the guide that they really need.  For others it is just a simple reminder of what to include.  For others it is irrelevant as they write with confidence, style and elegance.  Ideas like Dough Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters has also been a great way to develop, support and extend.  Simply providing three words of differing academic difficulty (although all of them are still quite high) forces students to think and adapt the subsequent sentence they craft.  Designing and displaying these starters is quick and effective.  The important thing is that these types of scaffolds become redundant the more skillful the students become.  And that's what I feel scaffolding and using structures (like PEED, IDEA and so on) should do.  Help when it's needed but then disappear when ready.

10. Graphic organisers
I rarely produce a worksheet for lessons anymore simply because of the balance between the time it took to produce it, compared to the time the student actually used it.  Instead I have a bank of graphic organisers which I can tweak and tailor when needed.  The beauty of these resources (such as double bubble maps, compare and contrast maps) is that they can help students keep track of the information before working with it.  The less able in the class can use them to record key points and then manipulate them.  The more able can use them to find more detailed connections and relationships.  The organisers are excellent and can be used flexibly from one lesson to the next.  Adding prompt questions or even high level statements can support or stretch abilities.  They can also help scaffold and structure work.  A complex essay can be quickly mapped out before becoming a plan for the subsequent drafts.  Graphic organsiers in my classroom have made things a lot clearer for students and have a place for all ability levels.

11. A level beyond the curriculum
I've thought a lot that we shouldn't simply be restricted by the curriculum we follow.  Yes students must know, cover and learn information that may come up in exams, but we can go beyond to really enlighten them.  I've been dropping a few AS level PE exam questions into lessons.  I use them for two reasons. Firstly, when something becomes difficult, showing them something at a more advanced level demonstrates the bigger picture and has helped students understand the topic better.  Doesn't sound right does it?  Secondly, they provide a great challenge when students have finished work and shows them that a topic isn't finished.  There is always something more to learn.

12. Expect excellence
And finally, I set the expectation that every student can produce great work.  I know that links into the Growth Mindset ethos, and some might argue that not every student is capable of producing great work, but I do set the aim that we all can achieve a high standard of work.  And I demonstrate how.  Redrafting work shows that things do get better when we act upon feedback.  Using techniques like the literacy upgrade shows that by improving the vocabulary we use in answers or essays, or work becomes more academic.  By spending time with a peer/group/class removing redundant words I show that we don't all need to waffle and in fact we can become much clearer in our writing.  Demonstrating these small things makes a big difference and changes habits.

And so?
And that final point is the big deal for me.  It's the small things that make a big difference over time.  Like Sir Dave Brailsford's Marginal gains, the aggregation of all of these little strategies improves the outcome over time.  Are some of these things differentiation by definition?  Most probably not.  But I have learnt that I can't make lessons 1:1 or bespoke to every student every lesson.  That takes too much time and is unrealistic.  Instead I can put in manageable strategies and spend time doing the things that matter.  In my eyes, if you asked me outright, I'd say effective differentiation (for me) is talking, questioning, challenging, marking and responding.  I call it teaching.  So can I be that little bit better at differentiation?  I probably can, and probably a million times better.  But I am not super human.