Differentiation Part One: The Power of Talking Confidently

Differentiation is hard.


It has proven to be the most stubborn and demanding issue I have tackled in my teaching career. I didn’t intend for my quest to fully differentiate a scheme of work to become an epic journey that Ulysses would be proud of, but it has.

Some would say that differentiation is easy. In fact, after deciding to concentrate on differentiation this year I attended a twilight session about differentiation and we were told that the keys to making it work were chunking, colour and images. I produced the following resource at the session:

Hastings 1 (diff)

There is nothing wrong with the resource in itself, but it did not get to the heart of the issue. The question I was still asking myself was ‘What I am differentiating for?’ This chunked and colourful sheet was helping students to access instructions and simplifying the content so that they could find a route into the topic, and although this is an important aspect of teaching, it did not lead to better outcomes. I was differentiating access and not for progress in History. I was still expecting students to somehow achieve the ‘next step’ on their own. Realising this set me off on the right path and enabled me to begin thinking about I could differentiate to help students truly progress in my classroom. To do this I needed to focus on writing in particular and how it was structured.

I don’t think that I am anywhere near a complete understanding, I do ,however, have three observations to share and offer for debate:

1. There is a social and emotional element to achievement in literacy that needs addressing before anything else. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that this is best achieved by addressing oracy first.

2. Any progress in writing has to develop the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what.’ In other words, we need to teach students how writing works and not just what to write if they are to make real progress. Functional Grammar can help with this.

3. Differentiation and progression in writing has to be linked to the specific demands of writing within the subject. literacy on its own will not, for example, make students into better historians. That only happens if we start to unpick what writing looks like within our subject areas.

I will address each of these points in a separated blog post over the coming weeks. Firstly, I would like to address confident talk, why it is so important and the impact it has made on my classroom.

I have advocated talking as a vital way of preparing for writing for a while now (see this post on the TOWER model), but I wanted to do something more with it.

There is a need, I think, to boost the confidence of students with weak literacy and to demonstrate to them that they can be confident communicators. My hypothesis is that, in the first instance, confident talk would be easier to achieve than confident writing and that achievement in one area would lead to success in others. in other words, allowing students the chance to succeed in oracy would provide them with the confidence to tackle and eventually succeed in literacy.

I returned to my trusty and now battered copy of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. In the introduction he says:

I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.

If I could show students that they could become expert talkers then it would be easier to convince them that they could also become expert writers.

I was lucky to discover that Neil Mercer and his team at Cambridge University have been working on an Oracy Assessment Toolkit. This provides clear advice on how to help students peer and self assess their talk and makes a range of excellent resources free on their website. Although they outline several types of talk, I decided to focus, for now, on presentation talk. I set about adapting their framework so that I could use it to model and assess expert presentation skills in the classroom.

For a first run, I chose a Year 7 group that has a number of students with weak literacy. I introduced the idea of expert presenters to them by showing a clip of Hans Rosling giving a superb TED talk about washing machines:

As a class we then unpicked what made it such a skilful presentation. Having set the standard, I then set up an activity that would allow the whole class to demonstrate their skills as communicators. Armed with their criteria checklists and information, they began to create presentations about the Black Death. At this point, the activity was limited to discussing a single source for two minutes and I made sure that the focus was on communication as well as the quality of the historical understanding.

You can download the double-sided sheet here (Oracy Peer Assessment Grid Black Death) and the differentiated sheet here (Oracy Peer Assessment Grid DIFF Black Death).

As students were preparing, I moved around the room and offered advice and corrections on the History elements, checking that their analysis and claims were sound. I left the critique of the presentation elements to the rest of the class. When students were rehearsed, we held a public critique, with students giving each other constructive advice on how to improve the quality of their presentations. Students then went away and redrafted and polished their performance before they attempted it for a second time.

Allowing time to rehearse was essential so that all students have the opportunity to commit most of what they want to say to memory. I think that most of the advice on Teacher Talk given by Martin Robinson on his ‘Surreal Anarchy’ blog is just as applicable to students delivering their presentations. The aim is to make it sound and feel professional – giving students the chance to experience quality communication.

The results were better than I had hoped for. Given how unfamiliar speaking in front of the class was for some of these students, I was very encouraged by the quality that presentations, with students creating or bringing in props, using analogy (my favourite was ‘the Black Death was like sinister eagle, ready to swoop down from the sky’) and confidently giving opinions. I repeated the activity with my other Year 7 groups and tried the same technique with Year 9 when they were completing a piece of work about typicality. A similar pattern emerged, with students who had issues with their literacy showing greater levels of engagement, attention to detail and confidence.

The focus on excellence was, as Berger says, transformational. showing students that they can stand toe-to-toe with experts gives them a confidence and self-worth that become infectious.

This were the first attempts at something that will need to be used regularly and part of a sustained programme. However, I was more convinced than ever that a focus of excellence and he power of talking were key to unlocking the potential of students. The next step, of course, was how to transfer this into written work.


Differentiation Part Two: How To Improve Writing With A Little ‘Know How…’

Assessing Mastery: Going SOLO

bruce lee brandon leee 1966
Bruce and Brandon Lee 1966

I remember watching ‘The Way of the Dragon‘, starring Bruce Lee, when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by his natural ability, the perfection of moves and his sophisticated technique. It took me many years to really understand that anyone could become very good, if not exceptional, at any given skill. The essence of this post is not to share my own thinking around the power of purposeful practice or mastery as a concept, though I might look at those later, but to share my own broader view of assessing how one gets closer to mastery. Continue reading Assessing Mastery: Going SOLO

Being Brave with AfL: the Art of Public Critique

Inspired by Usain Bolt article in Big Issue #966

‘Critique in most classroom settings has a singular audience and a limited impact: whether from a teacher or peer, it is for the edification of the author; the goal is to improve that particular piece. The formal critique in my classroom has a broader goal. I use whole-class critique sessions as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group’ (Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence)

When I first read Ron Berger’s work on critique I was blown away: he was able to get students giving detailed and almost professional feedback to others so that work was substantially improved as a result. To me, this seemed like an ideal that was practically out of reach. Like the vast majority of teachers I have used AfL strategies that ask students to comment on the effectiveness of work and, I suspect, for most of us the results were disappointing. Comments were too general and therefore difficult to act upon. Even with modelling and practice, the quality was still a way off where I wanted it to be. Take a look at these videos by the man himself explaining its purpose and power:

Critiquing has changed my attitudes and transformed the quality of work in my classroom. Of course, there are other factors that have helped with this (for example, project based learning, SOLO taxonomy and Big Questions), but critiquing deserves the spotlight as a strategy that can have a profound impact on learning. It is high risk and takes time to master, but I have been so impressed with the results. Asking students to put their work up for public scrutiny is a bold move, asking them to listen patiently as others coolly dissect their work is difficult for some. It is difficult for teachers too, relying on a whole class to come to with quality comments with just a few prompts from you. However, it does work if approached in the right manner.

So, here are my ‘Top Five Tips’ for successful critiquing:

1. Establish the right culture
You need to get across the message early on that a piece of work is not an end in itself, but a stage in a longer process. Quality takes time and students need to get away from a checklist driven mentality and move to one of continual improvement. This will probably be a struggle at first, as students used to the former. Also, you have to ween them off their grade/level dependency (it only makes their checklist addiction stronger). I agree with Berger when he tells students there are only two grades in his class: ‘A’ and not done.

I have launched this concept in two ways. Firstly, I have quotes on my windows that read:

“What could you possibly achieve of quality in a single draft?”
“Would you ever put on a play without rehearsals?”
“Would you ever play a gig without practicing first?”

The purpose of these quotes (straight from Berger) was to establish, in terms relevant to them, why drafting is needed. I then moved into the more abstract and asked students to consider an article from the Big Issue about what made Usain Bolt great (Issue #966). From this they pulled out their favourite quotes (see image above) and we made a display. I did this same activity with all groups from Year 7 to Year 13 so that the message was absolutely clear.

2. Go Over the Rules… Every Single Time
From the Work at High Tech High, via Darren Mead, I got the following rules:

– Hard on content, soft on people
– Step up, step back
– Be kind, helpful and specific

(Click on the rules for Darren Mead’s excellent dissection of how they work).

These have been crucial in making critique work. By making the whole AfL experience public, it is easier to spot weaker comments and ask students to clarify or provide specific examples. Also, the idea that everyone should be involved has been crucial. In most instances, the process has been contagious and students have responded well. The last rule sums up everything else and gets to the heart of why the process is so powerful. Practice has shown me though that rules need to be established before every critique. Year 9 will soon be doing their fourth of the year and I will go over the rules carefully; it reinforces the expectations and shows them that it is a serious business.

3. Aim for perfection and insist on quality
The first few times that I used critique I treated it too lightly. I wanted to establish the concept of it with students and so allowed them to get away with comments that were not that in depth. This was completely wrong. Critique works best when it works towards quality. It has to be the goal of every session, even if it seems hard or harsh. You might need several sessions of critique to get the desired product, but it should always be there as your aim. This is why I gave Year 13 an article aimed at Cambridge students, written by a leading academic, as an example of what I was looking for. That is the level I want them to reach and their critique of each others work was centred around making this a reality.

4. Critique a Variety of Media
With some groups I made the mistake of critiquing two pieces of written work with them early on. In their minds the process became synonymous with that media, rather than as Berger says ‘a habit that suffuses the classroom.’ Therefore, I have tried to ensure that we look at least two different media early on so that they understand that the process of critique is about attitude and not just about writing. Below are the first two drafts of an Audioboo completed by a mixed ability Year 9 group in order to answer to the question ‘Why did Wilf go to war?’:

why did Wilf go to war? (mp3)

After the first recording we critiqued the work and the students talked about the need to offer specific information to back up points and they also wanted to have better explanations. There was a lot of discussion about what specific information was relevant. The second draft is below:

why did Wilf go to war 2 (mp3)

There are two obvious differences between the two drafts. The first is length; the second attempt is almost two minutes longer and therefore includes much more detail. However, the most impressive thing is the amount of students who joined in the second time around. Many more wanted to add some details or an explanation and it became (almost) a whole class piece. Next lesson we will go back to this and critique again to make further improvements.
Audioboo and critique of exhibition pieces have stopped critique from becoming stale and allowed my groups to grasp its true purpose: helping them to achieve quality.

5. Only critique work when it is ready
At first, I tried to critique a whole class at the same time. It was hard to keep the pace going and also it was too long. This approach worked fine for sixth form where numbers were smaller and patience longer; in fact, when Year 13 critiqued their opening paragraph to an essay it was incredibly beneficial as we could identify several key features of a good answer and share excellent examples of knowledge to back up points. Looking back though, the reason it was so successful is that everyone had a paragraph that they were ready to share. Critiques where lots of students need to share work often fail because of variation in the amount of work they have achieved. Therefore, I have been working hard to find ways to minimise this.

Lower down the school I have tried several things to ensure that critiquing is more fluid and focused. With Year 9 I trialled critiquing someone’s work at the end of each lesson. This has created a really healthy attitude among the group, although we quickly extended it to cover two people (less scary and more opportunity to develop key principles of what we are studying). With Year 8 I have critiqued segments of a whole: We ask different people to present one part of the work and then stitch the bits together to make a whole. Then, we can critique the whole product. This gives us a range of opinions and answers, but also allows us to focus on the principles of an effective piece (the Audioboo recordings above are a good example of this).

Sometimes you need to see all the work. Post-its are great for allowing everyone to contribute, but it still needs for you to bring back the discussion to a central place and establish the key features. After a Post-it activity, questions like ‘What features did you see a lot?’ and ‘What advice were you writing often?’ are good to get the discussion going.

To recap, if you want a whole class to successfully critique the work of other students it is a good idea to…
1. Establish the right culture
2. Go over the rules… every single time
3. Aim for perfection and insist on quality
4. Critique a variety of media
5. Only critique work when it is ready

If you need further proof, I used critique in a lesson observed by an HMI. I said six words in the 30 minutes they were there: “Get yourself ready for a gallery critique.” They were very impressed.

Who’s down with CPD? Creative ideas from the TEEP Trainers Conference July 2010

CPD can be horrendous, both for the audience and the person at the front. Some teachers seem determined to totally resent it, probably due to bad experiences in the past, but schools must still provide five days of stimulating training a year. This is where the problems begin: what professional development to you offer and how do you engage most of your audience?

Fitting the pieces together

The TEEP (Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme)Trainers Conference in York set out to explore some possible solutions to this issue and outline several models that provided creative solutions to CPD. Below I have outlined five approaches that came from the day. I am not in favour of any particular model, but wanted to start a debate on alternative ways to look at teacher training (look forward to reading your comments).

MODEL 1 – Lead Practitioner (SSAT)

TEEP needed to expand and so it has just been taken on by the SSAT (Specialist Schools & Academies Trust). They opened the conference with an intriguing and exciting proposal: aligning TEEP with the Lead Practitioner Accreditation. This is an online self-assessment tool that allows teachers to move through four stages of development, leading them from good individual practice through to being able to lead others in their development. As each of the criteria are meant, the teacher ticks the box and uploads evidence to support the statement. The accreditation comes after the fourth stage, where the portfolio that has been created is externally assessed and feedback given. The process demands real CPD, with teachers having to back to the  tool at regular intervals, moving through the stages and finding evidence. The reward for a quality portfolio is Lead Practitioner status (not automatically given) and membership to a network of other people in the same position (see website for details).

Schools have used this approach to their advantage. Take Lodge Park Technology College, who have created a CPD package that contains Lead Practitioner Accreditation. Staff who achieve the award go on to lead learning and teaching in their faculty, or take on whole school projects – their recruitment page makes interesting reading. At All Hallows Catholic Collegethey have used TEEP and Lead Practitioner status extensively and senior leaders say that it has improved the CVA and the number of good/outstanding lessons. The result has been that the school has shifted from ‘special measures’ in 2006 to a much healthier position now – see the Ofsted reports for details. Both schools have seen massive benefits to introducing a more sustained model of CPD and reaped the benefits in terms of outcomes.

MODEL 2 – Taster and Twilight (Hartlepool)

People can quite cunning and two teachers form Manor Collegeshowed just how much with their approach to lure teachers into CPD. They set themselves an ambitious aim: to create meaningful CPD, but also to engage people with the process. Firstly, they created an exciting and rigorous PD day that served as a taster for the CPD that was to follow. It involved activities about group work and staff creating presentations about the key ideas behind their programme (in this case TEEP). At the end of the day, all staff were given the opportunity to take on a TEEP Level 1 qualification to further explore the strands raised on the taster day, to be delivered in five twilight sessions of two hours each (a fairly big commitment).

There was no shortage of takers and group started to run. The trainers made sure that the twilights were a real ‘experience’ hitting the participants visually and emotionally, making it fun as well as intellectually demanding; they even drafted in a  small army of students to evaluate some of the work the group created. The whole process created a buzz around school, as did the quality of the teaching now coming from this pioneer group. The result was a clamour from other staff demanding twilight training and to be part of this approach. The key to its success are engaging staff and making want this training, both through the taster day and twilight sessions, and providing a qualification at the end (something to aim at over a substantial amount of time). There is a wealth of research to back up why these kind of projects have such impact, but probably the most accessible is Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’.

MODEL 3 – 2+1+2 = More than 5

It is hard enough to entertain people on a PD Day, but what if your ambitions stretch a little further. One trainer, Cath, was given the task of engaging a whole school staff in teaching and learning over the course of five PD Days. She decided to use TEEP level 1 as a framework, but adapted aspects of it to fit the context of the school. She took the first two days back-to-back in early July 2009 and used them to enthuse the staff in the process of creative teaching and learning. The days were high on engagement and group work, but ended with a lesson planning challenge that left people with something to try out in their lessons after the course ended. They were encouraged to collect artefacts that illustrated their experiments in the classroom.

Three months and a few gentle reminders later, the staff were back for Day 3. Experiences were shared and more flesh was put on the bones of what an engaging and creative classroom might look like in that school. They discussed PEEL procedures and thinking skills as a way to increase challenge and set themselves a challenge before Day 4.

After another gap, the group convened for Day 4 and 5 and shared experiences before analysing lessons plans created by teachers from other schools. This provided a distance so that constructive criticism could take place and this could be related to good practice within the room. The final sessions focused on the wider actions of teachers and learners and how this affects the classroom. Like all good units, the course ended with a creative task.

The advantages of this approach were, according to Cath, how it encouraged greater creativity and built in specific points of reflection and also how it created more group identity with everyone wanting to find out about the ideas of others. This is a key point, how many schools actually build reflection into their PD programme? After a successful day on a ‘school priority’ how to schools organise feedback and evaluation? Having a coherent course that runs over all PD Days in a year means that you can achieve this. There is the possibility that some of the key threads might get a little disjointed with this method, but it has to be better for the teacher than trying to make sense five separate days. The whole approach is about making sense of things: shared courses, shared language for learning, shared responsibility. Even though the course lasted 5 Days, the learning and impact happened in between as well and made the programme more than the sum of its parts.

MODEL 4 – Viral CPD (Hull)

Hull was one of the first authorities to grasp the power of having a single training programme to offer all teachers that come to work in the city. They have offered a coherent programme to all staff that is engaging and carries a qualification (TEEP Level 1). This is accepted by all schools and all teachers know that it is on offer. This means they can offer greater incentives when trying to recruit; and the same package is offered to all (GTPs, teachers in Secondary, Diploma tutors, etc).

The package offered is absolutely voluntary, but has attracted a wide acceptance because it has gone viral. Word of mouth and positive lesson observations have attracted the attention of senior leaders and other teachers. Where individuals have expressed an interest they have been placed in groups with people from other schools and begun to collaborate. What is even more impressive is that many of the training days take place in school holidays, but the perceived impact of good quality training has attracted the numbers anyway. There are mild incentives (overnight stays, meals, etc), but the improvement of practice seems to be the top motivator, that and the additional reward of points towards a masters.

Where senior leaders have taken on the challenge, the training programme has moved to a whole school model, similar to the one outlined above. For those schools with an Ofsted rating satisfactory or lower there is additional support.

MODEL 5 – Saturday Morning Fever (Sunderland)

This was similar to some of the ideas outlined above: a series of seven morning sessions for three hours each. The end result was a qualification in teaching and learning. It was offered to a number of schools in close proximity and was absolutely voluntary. It raised standards and creativity, just as in the 2+1+2 model and allowed for practical application between sessions. As noted above, it was amazing to see just how many people were willing to adopt this approach, willing to give up Saturday mornings to further their understanding of teaching and learning and be recognised for it. The aim benefit of this model was the amount of fun that generated – all attendees had chosen to be there and the weekend time slot brought a weekend atmosphere.


CPD seems to have more impact when people buy into it. If we can’t run it on a voluntary basis, then we need to make it coherent and long lasting. Senior Leaders need a long-term vision of where they want to go and plan a holistic course that will get them there. The idea of a qualification attracts some, but the prime motivator seems to be ‘getting better’ at teaching and moving on. If staff are given a reason to do something and a clear path through all the evidence suggests that they will give up time to achieve a goal. Above all though, the message comes through that CPD needs to be high quality and engaging – you have to admire schools like Lodge Park who have taken this into their own hands and ensured that this year’s CPD creates the Practitioners to deliver it for the following 12 months. Some serious (re)thinking needs to be done.

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