#3 Challenge – Everyone enjoys one, everyone needs one

So I’ve knocked off differentiation, now I’ll have a go at ‘challenge’ (or ‘stretch’ or ‘stretch and challenge’)

We all like to complete a challenge. That marathon run to raise money for a charity, trips to escape rooms, that little book of sodukus, or Candy Crush (self confession). Kids love challenges too. Repeating levels on a computer game, with such resilience to keep going again and again in the face of failure. We could do with some of that willingness with computer game challenges to translate to the classroom. In all these we try, we fail, we go again, we learn and finally we win. There is no greater sense of achievement than conquering a challenge.

A big no no is the practice of different learning objectives for different students (‘some/most/all’, etc), and different tasks for different groups of students. Same task with support for some to reach it I have already covered in my post on ‘differentiation’. Apologies for repeating myself but I do find it hard to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by many a student, “why can’t I do the purple/green/expert/(insert school practice) task?”, or for this practice to sit well with my conscience. I really don’t see how ‘growth mindset’ and ‘differentiated tasks’ fit in the same sentence.

Let me explain how this practice of grouped learning objectives and grouped tasks works itself out in the classroom.

So typically there’s a task up on the board. Call it the ‘core task’, the ‘green task’ or henous of henouses the ‘Grade 3’ task (who wants to do a task that has no academic currency?). As mentioned in my post on differentiation this caps both learning and in the process attainment. So back to the lesson. Along with the ‘core task’ (‘all’), there is a challenge/stretch task or question to be completed (usually) after the core task. The more able students get through the core task quickly and love the fact they have been given a special task by the teacher to complete and are overtly being praised for being bright (and often for working hard, I get that). Then you have the middle ability children. They are annoyed they aren’t allowed to do the same work as the bright students, they fancy having a go at a challenge too. They are highly motivated to work harder and to try harder work, but they’ve also realised their fate is now set in stone. The less able suffer the most. They get it, they’re the ‘dumb’ ones. They know they’ll never be allowed a challenge, even though they too quite fancy the sound of one. Now eternally doomed to word matches, gap fillers and easy worksheets. And the result of all this? We are actively (if not intentionally) widening the achievement gap between our students.

Students ARE keen on completing difficult work. They feel privileged to be thought of as good enough, clever enough to be chosen for this work. But we can’t give up on academic rigour for the less able. All material should be challenging and made accessible for all through clear prior instruction, modelling of answers/solutions and then ‘live support’ for those who need it.

These thoughts are based on the work of Mary Myatt, from her book The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence.

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About me

Hi there 🙂

I’m a geography teacher teaching in Birmingham. I qualified as a PE Teacher from St Luke’s College, Exeter University and studied Geography as a second subject. I taught both subjects in a school in Cambridge, before heading out to Uganda, East Africa. I spent 4 years there setting up a school, starting with Yr8 (Yr7 is their last year of Primary) and adding a year group each year. I was the school’s first headteacher at the age of 26 and I trained my deputy up to take over from me.

Then back to the UK and I became head of Geography at a private school in Worcester. I then worked at a college for the blind before splitting my time as a supply teacher and as a Reserve Soldier in the British Army, on an Additional Duties Contract. It meant I could spend extended periods of time completing Army training and going on exercise. Due to a medical condition I was unable to deploy and so left the Army and started teaching again full time in Birmingham.

I grew up in Herefordshire and have an amazing daughter who is in Yr9 and am married to a lovely and beautiful lady from Bulgaria 🙂 I am an evangelical Christian and a convert to what I can only describe as the ‘new traditionalist’ education movement.

I hope this helps you to get to know me a little.

Remember, the most powerful force in the world is Love 🙂

#2 Differentiation – Steps & Ramps

Gosh, well this one’s going to get me in trouble. And I’ve only just started blogging!

So here goes.

So I used to live in Uganda. A lot of things take time to filter all the way to Africa but the idea of wheelchair access to buildings did. So ramps were built out of wood that go over steps and so provide a straight ramp for wheelchairs to be able to access a building (same building, remember that). And this is my basic premise – access to the same building but the building of a ‘ramp’ for some.

I personally do not believe in differentiation by task. I remember back in the day when the debate was between differentiation by task and differentiation by outcome. I believe differentiation by task caps students’ achievement and so their attainment, and I have still not come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by many a student, “why can’t I do the purple/green/expert/(insert school practice) task?”, or for this practice to sit well with my conscience. I really don’t see how ‘growth mindset’ and ‘differentiated tasks’ fit in the same sentence. It’s a bit like ‘democracy’ and ‘three line whip’. I digress.

I also belief all students should be entitled to the same curriculum and it’s indicative content. This is a line of thought I am still developing. May be I’ll write more on curriculum in the future.

So back to my wooden ramp. I have come to the conclusion that ‘support’ to complete the same task is the way forward. In my ideal world I would do away with the word differentiation. Instead ALL tasks (the same tasks) would have support ONLY for those that need it. I am guilty as I suspect many others are of putting the support (sentence starters, key terms to include, etc) up on the Powepoint of the task for all to see. My bad.

May be a better way forward is ‘live support’. Some pre-planning of common misconceptions is wise practice, but I am referring more to live conversations with those who have not grasped the concept we are learning about or who are genuinely struggling. This requires little upfront investment by the teacher, except excellent subject knowledge and knowledge of common misconceptions of the topic being learnt. To be flexible enough and to have the skill to build that ramp live in the lesson so all students can access the same building.

I think I’ve survived and probably still have a teaching career intact 🙂

These thoughts are based on the work of Mary Myatt, from her book The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence.

#1 CPD – Through gritted teeth

I really don’t think I have ever enjoyed an INSET day. Often the victim of generic, whole school “training” which is just an elaborate “I’m assistant head in charge of this area, so here’s all the work you need to do for me”. I’m sure people are well meaning, but wasting my time does not make you my favourite bunny.

And so “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers” came in to my life unannounced. Someone had suggested to me ‘Michaela Marking’ as they knew whole class feedback was where my thoughts at the time were heading. Any excuse I can find to buy a book is open license to me, much to the bane of my wife. So I bought the book and “BOOM!” – that was me ruined to ever teach ‘progressively/ divergently/ constructively’ again. The good news is this set a series of events in motion that has led me to begin in September at what has been dubbed “Michaela in the Midlands”. Finally I get to do what I believe in and have found my tribe.

So, CPD.

Definitely not generic, whole staff rubbish as I have mentioned previously. And while at it, my pet peave, ‘Teacher Tips’. Friday morning, during staff briefing, after notices. That 5 minutes that no-one is paying attention to and is thinking, “can I just get to my form room before the bell goes?”. And it’s usually the current champion of the “hero teachers arms race” chomping at the bit. My personal opinion…if it’s that good we should all be doing it, so roll it out whole school. No more “I’m ace, and you’re not”, normally by teachers who don’t have kids.

Solutions

  1. Weekly department meetings to co-plan curriculum, lesson content and method of delivery/instruction. In this crazy world where teaching as a non-specialist in a subject (when/where did we let that creep up from?) no longer causes anyone to bat an eyelid, this becomes paramount. This needs to be in directed time, not extra time. One school I know of worked their time so that they could send their kids home at 1.45pm on a Friday and give Friday afternoons over to department planning.
  2. Weekly seminars – pre-reading on the stuff that really works. Teach Like a Champion is a good place to start. And if you’ve got a keenie reader of education blogs like me then I’m sure that person can suggest a few good reads. Let people read and discuss, not be talked to for an hour about how they are not logging behaviour correctly, etc etc.
  3. Induction- pre-reading, I love more homework. I am Monica. 🙂
  4. INSET days – Back where we started. Time for subject teams to meet AND TO TALK ABOUT CURRICULUM, LESSONS & FEEDBACK only. Plus time for prepping resources, photocopying etc.

So I’m not sure what happens with the whole copyright thing. This is my first blog and it’s my reflections on the wonderful book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers edited by Katharine Birbalsingh. Buy it, read it, do it. 🙂