Effective learning cannot be left to chance. Each of our children is an individual, on their own unique learning journey. There is no doubt about the fact that they will all reach their destination, but the children learn that we all work at a slightly different pace. Of course, we cannot simply wait for each child to reach the next ‘station’ in their own time, likewise we cannot expect one ‘carriage’ to take them all there. A one size fits all approach to teaching will not ensure that every individual child fulfills his or her own potential.
I am very much enjoying being ‘back in the classroom’ (unfortunately only on a Monday afternoon!), teaching phonics to Year 1. It has made me reflect of the elements of teaching that may not be clear to those outside teaching, and made me wonder whether we can burst the bubble around how a school such as ours achieves such excellent progress for our pupils and how we ensure that they all achieve their potential whilst at the same time developing their self-confidence as a learner.
For effective learning to take place we need effective teachers – a tough interview and selection procedure for staff is the first hurdle! A highly skilled and effective teacher is one who observes, adapts, listens, reflects and responds to the individual’s needs to ensure appropriate challenge for all. They adapt their teaching style, the tasks set for the children and the expected outcomes, even within a single lesson, to ensure that the lesson meets the needs of the children.
Staff plan in detail to ensure that the lesson delivery will capture the children’s interests, help them to grasp new concepts, and will give them the opportunity to be active participants in the learning. Children’s individual needs are noted on their plans, including those with Learning Plans, or those who are on our Gifted, Able and Talented lists. Planning will be annotated after a lesson to indicate individual pupils’ strengths and weaknesses to enable the teacher to adapt the next lesson to meet their needs.
As a school we insist that differentiating for different children’s needs must not simply mean setting a greater number of questions, or MOTS (more of the same). Effective learning will take place when the task set for a child is set with appropriate challenge to begin with. More able pupils are set tasks which include HOTS (higher order thinking skills), in order that they will be able to apply the skills being taught to the whole group in a different way. Differentiation is not simply setting more questions for the more able learner but adjusting the level of challenge, and the breadth of skills required, in order that each child continues their own learning journey that lesson.
It is vital that ‘ability groups’, where they exist, are not fixed. Children will make leaps in their learning at one time and their progress in a particular area may slow at another, as likely they are working on developing another area of their learning or development at that particular time. Differentiation begins the moment a teacher stands at the front of their class to begin the whole-class teaching element of a lesson. Teachers use this session to establish each individual’s understanding before setting them off on their tasks. It is never the case that because a teacher has planned that a child will tackle the most challenging work the child will definitely be given that planned task – the teacher will assess from the taught element of the lesson whether the planned work is appropriate to a child’s needs.
Our teachers also differentiate effectively in their lessons through the use of concrete resources to help children access work; the effective deployment of a teaching assistant or teacher to support, guide or extend; providing scaffolding resources such as word banks, writing frames, sentence starters or number lines; or utilising group, paired or independent learning. Teachers will rotate their time, and that of their teaching assistant, ensuring that they spend equal time with children of all abilities. Our most able children require adult direction and careful questioning to ensure they are appropriately challenged just as much as other children need adult support with their learning.
I know that rarely will any teacher tell you that their lesson was perfect for every child and I believe that is a very good thing. It means they are reflective, critical of their own practice, willing to learn, keen to improve, open to change and, above all, that the children are keeping them on their toes!