The less time spent making lots of worksheets and single use resources, the more time can be spent on planning, assessment and feedback. I also realised that tidying my office at home that I’m the proud owner of an extensive collection of sticky notes: index markers, A5, square, plastic markers, different colours, different shapes. These are all ideas for the humble post-it note that I’ve collected over the years from other excellent teachers. Feel free to suggest more and I’ll add them and give credit.
Glossary – Students write subject terms and definitions they forget/struggle with on the post it and put it inside their book as a quick reference.
Punctuation checklist – Students write a punctuation check list on the post it and tick off each punctuation mark they’ve used correctly to ensure they have full variety.
Retention – At the end of each logical section, ask weaker readers to write the main idea as a topic sentence and stick it at the side of the section to refer back to.
Vocabulary – Students write synonyms on a post it and read their sentence back with each word in the ‘improved word’ spot before selecting one. Useful for discussing connotations and encouraging the appropriate vocabulary choice, not just any fancy sounding word from a thesaurus.
‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’
This quotation tends to lend itself to the idea that curriculum, assessment and differentiation should lead us to expect, and accept, different things for different students due to an understanding of individual differences. And there’s a place for that – if every student left school at the same point, somebody’s been failed somewhere along the line. All students have different skills, attributes and talents and it’s reasonable to expect schools to nurture students in a way that enables each student to achieve.
The problem is that this idea can be over-simplified to the ideas in this cartoon.
In practice what can happen is that aspirations are capped because the decision is made ‘you won’t be very good at climbing a tree, so we’ll not introduce you to a tree at all‘. Or because certain students don’t succeed very well in extended writing, or because they’re bottom set, or kinaesthetic learners, we’ll remove the extended writing or highly scaffold it in the name of fairness. As long as all learners feel they’ve achieved then that’s all that matters, whether the achievement is real or not.
“Inspectors reported concerns about Key Stage 3 in one in five of the routine inspections analysed, particularly in relation to the slow progress made in English and mathematics and the lack of challenge for the most able pupils.” (Ofsted, KS3 ‘The Wasted Years’, 2015)
When I trained, the common approach to differentiation was to teach to the middle, stretch the top and support the bottom. The (anecdotal) result? Lots of time-consuming creation of single-use resources, extension tasks that lack rigour or provide ‘more of the same’ or support pathways that remove the complex thinking – and that’s before you have to cater for the range of learning styles in your class! As a trainee teacher in an era when teachers were told ‘Ofsted want progress every 10/15/20 minutes’, it felt like there was a perverse incentive to make the visible learning as easy as possible to show.There were weeks where I’d spend hours making different worksheets for different tables, parallel tasks and card sorts that I’d tell myself I’d use again (but inevitably wouldn’t).
Then I was given the piece of advice that changed my approach to differentiation (and workload): a resource should never take you longer to make than the students to use.
When looking at examiners’ reports at KS5, there’s been a welcome move in recent years warning staff not to send students into exams with pre-prepared essay frames, writing templates and other formulaic crutches designed to get students through exams with the minimum of independent thought. Aside from my personal feelings about endless writing frames, they send the message to students that ‘you can’t do it on your own’. Students can become reliant on them and then panic and go into learned helplessness when you suggest that they write an essay independently – worse when it’s accompanied with cries of ‘but Mr/Mrs so-and-so gives us starters!‘.
At KS5 this is well overdue but with shifts in GCSE exams to new specifications, I’m inclined to say that this is a very welcome shift away from teachers dragging students through with check-lists and crib sheets, and towards a curriculum that values students’ independent application of knowledge. On #EngChatUK there was a lot of pre-specification worries, which seem (largely) to have worked themselves out. (Whilst planning this blog I found a new post by Andy Warner on the new GCSEs which is worth a read here)
The relevance to Key Stage 3 is to work backwards from KS5. If we’re going to ensure that KS3 is challenging, engaging and unapologetically academic, then there needs to be time set aside for promoting the value of scholarship and high-level thinking. In KS3: The Wasted Years, Ofsted mention that it is the ‘most able whose progress was particularly affected when secondary schools did not build on prior learning.’
Using driving questions to structure and support learning ensures that all students make rapid and sustained progress.