This is debatable amongst senior leaders, but I continue to hold the conviction that my success as an educator finds its roots in my triumphs and my failures in my own classroom. My ability to nurture, tame, challenge and understand. My ability to ensure that every student, with his or her unique cocktail of strengths and foibles, leaves the classroom with a new knowledge and understanding that they didn’t have when they walked in. It’s a big ask, but, I believe, a fair and reasonable one, and constitutes the bread and butter of why we get up in the mornings.
Differentiation. The word still has overtones for me of the PGCE year, when the components needed to make oneself a competent teacher were daunting, frequently confusing, and occasionally appeared unattainable. Differentiation. It’s a pretty cumbersome and inelegant word, isn’t it? And I don’t blame Ofsted for changing their terminology. ‘Meeting the needs of individuals’. Yes, this is closer.
But, at the time, and in the years that followed, I struggled to get to grips with differentiation. Along with the elusive quest for ‘pace’ (those of you who trained after the demise of fiddly OHTs don’t know you’re born!) and the years it took to understand the difference between an objective and an outcome (confession: I still have foggy moments). There seemed to be a clear line between experienced and competent teachers and us rookies, who were sort of making it up as we went along, occasionally getting it right, and more often, falling on our fresh faces, frequently bemused as to how we managed to fail so catastrophically.
Now moving into my 18th year of teaching, it occurs to me with increasing frequency that we tend to overcomplicate; over-think and over-intellectualise the key components of quality teaching. I doubt it was deliberate, but there was a real sense in the early years that one day – ONE DAY – we would have earned enough stripes to join the elite of Those Who Know What They’re Doing.
I see trainees and NQTs look similarly intimidated by words like differentiation. A brief Google search reveals dozens of different components to it. Is ‘by outcome’ still as frowned upon as I always imagined it was? For years, I thought the key was colour-coded worksheets. Or worksheets with the fold-up bit at the bottom. To differentiate effectively, for a significant period, seemed to mean to plan three (or more) separate lessons, and I diligently stayed up until three a.m on a fairly regular basis doing so. The ’90s and early 2000s saw a massive emphasis on ‘learning styles’, so, as well as ability, these had to be taken into account in the planning and delivery. Movement and competition to cater to the kinaesthetic boys, colour-coding for the visual learners, a song and some chanting for the auditory learners. Stirrers, settlers, all four skills covered every lesson in the French and German classroom, props and sound effects, dancing, mime, folding and glue, whizzing Powerpoint presentations, oh, and the blissful phase of 100% target language in the classroom.
I don’t mean to sound as cynical (and as exhausting!) as I do. As a 20-something on a mission, I loved the performance and the excitement of it all. I can still be found inducing stroppy Year 9s to perform Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in French once a year. Through the years, I built up an array of strategies which really did motivate most of my students for most of the time. I was proud to make languages for all enjoyable, stimulating and engaging.
More recently, there has been, in a moment of enlightenment from Ofsted, a shifting of focus from the teacher-as-performer to the student as learner. And I genuinely think this has been a sensible and wise move. With this has come an acceptance of quieter study-periods, time to internalise the learning, time to explore the knowledge, question and challenge. As a now 40-something, the liberation from an apparent need to leap from one desk to the next in a Union Jack hat with a mooing foghorn with which to administer praise is something of a relief. I’ve rediscovered textbooks, brought in translation and dictation (they love it!), we practise exam skills and read aloud. We also indulge in Spaced Learning, walking backwards around the courtyard in the breaks, and hurling paper around in the notorious snowballing activity which resulted in a complete loss of dignity all around… I’m not that old yet.
But for all that it’s busy and complex and, at times, rather manic in my classroom, there is a truism that I keep coming back to in all sorts of elements of my job: sometimes, simple is best. And the ‘simple’ truth is that differentiation is about knowing your students – and knowing yourself – and understanding how the dynamics between you work.
I remember at school, around the age of about eight, noticing that with the absence of just one person, the entire dynamic just ‘felt’ different. Differentiation is all about relationships, and about understanding that every child, every combination of children and teacher with subject, time of day, events outside the classroom is entirely and delightfully unique.
It’s not just about ‘meeting needs’ which somehow implies a deficiency or a lack, but about understanding the insecurities, the sense of humour, the sensitivities, the baggage of every student. This doesn’t mean knowing their life story, but one of the most powerful pieces of advice I had, early on, was to find a ‘hook’ with student. M may struggle to focus in a classroom and keep his hands to himself, but he is absolutely passionate about fishing.
Take that to classroom level, and differentiation is about knowing that K loves a competition and C thrives on ‘playing the teacher’. E is brilliant in terms of accuracy so is a great compliment to G, who will tend to rush their work but has an excellent range of vocabulary. S finds speaking tests a breeze, whereas J can memorise 300+ words entirely unflustered and without notes. Differentiation is about playing to strengths. But it’s not just this – it’s about challenging, cajoling and nurturing students to face challenges and overcome perceived weaknesses…
C is a perfectionist who will freeze rather than write something she thinks may be wrong. When talking about families, always let them ‘imagine’ because F just won’t go there with his real situation. I. has a mother with exceptionally high expectations and will well up at the slightest perception of criticism. A would prefer me to shut up and stop chanting so that she can get on with preparing for the next test. D hates to be put on the spot in public. O will spend the evening before a speaking exam in tears and won’t have had breakfast as she’s too nervous to eat. K made me stand on a table and yell out a particularly tricky piece of vocab because he swore he’d remember it that way (suspect the joke was on me that time).
As with all of our foibles and our eccentricities, to have them understood and acknowledged is half the battle. I frequently find myself shouting, ‘we are all individuals!’ in the manner of The Life of Brian. Because this is the joy, the frustration, the simplicity and the infinite complexity of effectively differentiated teaching – know your students, let them know you know them, build up an armoury of resources and ideas and strategies, ditch what doesn’t work, and celebrate what does. Just as we have since the NQT year, and will until the day we retire (if that ever really happens).