Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Challenge of Challenge

High expectations vs glass ceilings.  Challenge for all vs differentiation and inclusion.  Ensuring all children are challenged in your class presents, in itself, an organisational challenge.  To set or not to set? To ability group or to mixed ability group? To differentiate the activity, the support or the outcome? To give children the choice or to prescribe their activity?  Recently, I've read these two posts, by Nancy and Rachel, which consider issues in differentiation and inclusion.  Both immediately had me thinking about what this looks like in my classroom and the effectiveness (or not!) of some of the things I've tried.

In my relatively short time teaching, I've used a variety of strategies and ideas to organise how children are challenged.  Because none is perfect for every learning opportunity, each lesson I consider which is appropriate for those children, the learning and at that time.  I use some of these strategies more than others but I've seen success with all of them in different circumstances.  Likewise, there have also been lessons when I've clearly done the wrong thing - I like to think that those were learning opportunities for me to reflect and evaluate for my future practice.

Top-Down Planning
In my NQT year, this phrase was used in an Assessment For Learning seminar.  I'd not heard it before but it made so much sense.  Mostly, at uni and on placement, I'd learned that from your learning objective your differentiate up and down for your highest and lowest ability.  The idea of top-down planning is that you consider the next learning objective for your highest ability children; that becomes your lesson objective for the class.  In your planning, you describe and prepare any inputs or resources to enable all the children to achieve this objective.  That way, your high ability children are truly challenged, rather than just kept busy, and the expectations for your lower ability children are raised.

Choice Trays
A while back I purchased these trays, mainly as a way of assessing children's opinions on their understanding in lessons.  Pupils place their book in the green/yellow/red tray according to how they found the lesson and I mark the red and yellow books first so that I can give them more time.  After a few weeks, I found another use for them; to give children a choice about the activity which they complete.  I started placing activities in the coloured trays according to their level of challenge.  Children could then choose which activity they completed.  As a school, we have a big focus on giving children choices in their learning so these trays help me to explain the choices to the children.  They also mean children can make choices without their peers interfering.  I've found children are generally very good at deciding which tray to take from; this is probably down to the work we have done on Growth Mindset this year.  They are very aware that it is free-flowing so if they are finding something too difficult or easy they know they can switch activity without asking or request help.  Obviously, on touring the classroom each lesson and supporting children at all tables I can guide pupils and suggest activities for them if they have made a lazy choice.  Normally, children know when they have made an overly-enthusiastic choice and they are in the habit of rectifying this quickly.  

Mixed Ability Groups
Early on in my teaching career, I did what I had seen in many schools - children ability grouped for reading, writing and maths.  The groups stayed as they were between assessments and there were celebrations when children were moved "up" and uproar when children were moved "down".  Having read the research and taught for a year, I abandoned ability groups for most subjects.  I did however, continue to use fluid ability groups in maths.  They were fluid in that they changed each week, sometimes during the week and even during lessons.  There was no "top" and "bottom" group, simply children working together at similar steps.  Sometimes the groups stayed for one lesson; sometimes they stayed for a week however it was rarely longer.  As I marked books, I piled them up according to children's next steps and those became  the new groups.  Nowadays, I have no ability groups. Children sit in mixed-ability groups with an appropriate partner sat next to them. They discuss and work together in all subjects as well as completing work independently. Children choose the task they complete and are often working on an easier or harder task than their neighbour. This has removed all glass ceilings from my lessons and allowed children to smash my expectations of them.

Let's Chat About Stamper

I've blogged about this before here, but this is something I use regularly to organise mini-inputs for children when I'm marking their books.  When looking through their work from previous lessons, I can see where certain pupils or groups have struggled with concepts.  Generally, I decide on only one or two areas to "chat about" and stamp the appropriate books.  At a planned moment in one of the following lessons I will call children to the carpet.  The stamper means they know which input they come to while also acting as proof of this (for the powers that be!).  Sometimes I encourage children to explain near the stamper what they have learned as a result of that mini-input.  This is a way of ensuring each child is challenged at the point of their current learning.  

I don't like must/should/could and all/most/some.  Although I can see some good theory behind their use, I've never liked the language or how prescriptive they are.  However, in reading the tour of Ian's classroom last year, I spotted his use of other words to have a similar effect.  In our year group, we adopted Good/Amazing/Awesome along with teaching the Growth Mindset as a way of challenging children to aim high.  For some activities, the success criteria is split up into good/amazing/awesome so children can see what they need to include and what they could include to make their work better.  For the high ability children, this probably has little impact on the quality of their work but for the lower ability children, this has removed the glass from that ceiling.  Because of top-down planning they all could achieve "awesome" and many aim for that.  If they were presented only with the "good" criteria, it's likely that is all they would achieve.  This enables self, peer and teacher assessment to be more criteria focused and we encourage children to use the phrase, "This work is good/amazing/awesome because...".    I've even got it on a stamper! 

Like I said before, these are simply tools which I pick and choose according to the learning.  Sometimes I use all of them; sometimes I decide to do something completely different.  As I move forward this year, in which I have the widest gap I've experienced between my highest and lowest ability children, I'm sure I will re-evaluate these and other similar strategies regularly!

To read more about how mixed groups can work in a primary classroom, click here