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Differentiation, Inclusion and Classroom Culture (or #TLT17 part 3)

February 19, 2018

This is a standalone blog but it also links up with parts 1 and 2 of my TLT17 session. Part 1 looked at Myths and Non-negotiables. Part 2 looked at Planning for Inclusion, Differentiation and Challenge. This short, third part looks at classroom culture and how the most responsive teachers are also the best at differentiation.

Once you have planned the lesson, taking into account possible pupil misconceptions as well as what part of the task some may struggle with, the lesson (or series of lessons) is delivered. What next? Well, it depends (of course).

A large part of the teacher’s craft is how successfully they respond to pupil need during lessons. This is described perfectly in this blog by @atharby and these improvised responses are underpinned by the teacher’s knowledge of the students.

Dylan Wiliam tweeted this fairly recently (well, OK, 2013):


This tweet really got me thinking about the difference between the teachers that are the best “formative assessers”, the teachers that are the most responsive and the teachers at who are the best at differentiation.

I don’t think there is a difference. I think real time differentiation and repsonsive teaching is exactly the same thing.

So the question is, how can we build a classroom culture where we can truly know our students and where we can respond to the needs of each learner?

  • You have got to know your students. This is such an important point which nobody would disagree with. Some prior data is very important. The best way to describe building up the knowledge of your pupils is to think about having a schema in your brain for each of the pupils you teach. This schema is made up of every interaction you have had with the pupil. Every question, every answer, every conversation. It will be made up of every single piece of work you have looked at, whether assessed with half a page of feedback given (!!) or simply read as part of whole class feedback. Or simply read as you circulate around the room.

To be honest I have always taken building up this knowledge for granted because I have taught my classes for at least 5 hours a fortnight since the start of my teaching career. For subjects that see more classes and for fewer hours, this does represent a challenge. I know some teachers that use class photos from SIMS as they mark pupil work so they can associate the work with the name as wall as the photo (thus building up the internal schema of the pupil). Our ICT department have individual pupil folders for homework and on the front of each folder is a photo of the pupil. Markbooks can come in handy as long as they contain some key assessment data. It is important to remember that the most effective testing will be when we don’t collect scores in off pupils and so keep the stakes of testing as low as possible.

  • Classroom routines and norms must be truly inclusive. You cannot be a responsive teacher (or a great differentiator -same thing) unless you run a truly inclusive classroom.

Hands up questioning should never be a regular feature. It allows pupils to opt out of thinking. And if they opt out of thinking then you can’t get, or give feedback on their thinking. Cold call is preferable every single time. It is also a great way to differentiate as you can ask a variety of pupils a question and give each a question just outside their comfort zone.

However, there must be a number of questions that are answered by every pupil in the class. Feedback of everyone’s responses must be sought by the teacher (@Doug_Lemov calls this “show me”. This could be achieved by using whiteboards. Probably the best way is through designing multiple choice “hinge questions” that tell you which pupils are right but also which pupils are wrong- and why!! This blog by @HFletcherWood clarifies what good hinge questions look like. Craig Barton (@mrbartonmaths) calls them diagnostic questions and they feature in his brilliant book.

Here is an example of a good hinge question:


If pupils answer A) then I can assume they are getting molecules and atoms confused.

If pupils answer B) then I can assume they are looking at the fact there are 3 different elements rather than correctly answering that (C) there are 24 atoms in glucose. If they go for D) it may be worth exploring, perhaps away from their peers exactly what they think the answer is (and why).

BUT, it is what happens next which is key. It is all very well thinking that 75% of pupils get a hinge question right so we can move on. What about the 25% that got it wrong? There are a multitude of things that can be done but the mistake/misconception must be put right. Pupils giving wrong answers to the hinge question allows you to be truly responsive. Read Harry’s post or Craig’s book for detail on what that response could look like. In the above example, pupils that opted for C) could design a question where A) and then B) would be the right answer whilst the teacher circulates around those that got it wrong.

Put simply, 75% of pupils getting a hinge question right is evidence that the concept doesn’t need wider reteaching. However it does mean the 25% need further input. And it is likley that the feedback is needed right now.

This simple model of feedback only works if you regularly get meaningful feedback from the whole class:


Feedback from hinge questions can be done via whiteboards, a show of fingers, rock/paper/scissors, Kahoot (not a fan) or hands up as you go through each option. I have started to experiment with Plickers to collect hinge question data. One pupil in my Year 11 class says she much prefers this as she was embarrassed to raise her hand in case she was revealing that she had a wrong answer (despite me feeling that I had achieved what @Doug_Lemov calls a culture of error in my classroom).

  • No dumbing down. It is tempting sometimes to use everyday language rather than the language of the subject, particularly when teaching some of our lower attaining students. The problem here is that the very pupils that lack this subject knowledge and vocabulary will be further disadvantaged by this. The outcome can only be incomplete schema with gaps that will make further learning even more difficult. On occasions, a teacher may think that I am going to miss out topic x because it is going to be beyond “these kids”. On occasions there is justification to miss certain topics out. It can buy more curriculum time for topics that may be more important to master for future learning. However, a teacher should see it as a challenge worth accepting to nail even the most difficult concepts with lower attainers. With great planning (perhaps tapping into departmental expertise) and responsive teaching (based on feedback from every student), why not?
  • Use desirable difficulties to build storage and retrieval strength. There may be a temptation to not use desirable difficulties (spacing, retrieval, interleaving) with lower attaining students as very often the prevailing thought can be that they are struggling enough anyway so why add in more difficulties? Again, this is myopic. I would argue that lower attaining students need to utilise desirable difficulties even more than higher attaining students. Perhaps one reason why some students struggle is because they have a more limited working memory than others. If this is the case then there is even more need to commit some key concepts to long term memory. This will make future learning easier (and reinforces the importance of dual coding in the teaching phase). It is possible that some pupils are lower attainers because their memory’s retrieval strength decreases quicker. Again, all the more reason for space retrieval. However, some additional cues could be made available if retrieval strength has dropped too much. (For more on storage and retrieval strength read this blog by @EdScientists or this by me).

A spacing task might look like this (given as spacing homeworks to my Year 10 class last year):


can be quickly tweaked to this:

eutrophi add

The difference is minimal. It doesn’t do the retrieval for them. But it might just be enough in terms of cues to help them retrieve.

In short, it is all very well saying that you respond to the needs of your students. But do you have a classroom culture where your classroom routines are truly inclusive? Do they allow you to get feedback from all your students? Do you know your students and what represents excellence for each of them?

Responsive teaching is what formative assessment should have been called. It is also what in class differentiation should be called.

Constructive comments, as always, are welcomed below.


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  1. I always return to this blog whenever I want to enjoy my teaching

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